Dangerous Diversion

Merrill Lynch Logo
Photo via Reuters

Exodus 32:1-14

When Moses didn’t come down from the mountain right away, the people went to Aaron, saying, “Make some gods for us, something we can put on a flag-pole. Moses brought us out of Egypt, but now he’s disappeared.”

Aaron said, “Rob your own family members of all their money, and give it to me.” So they did. They brought it all to Aaron, and with it he designed a logo. It was a fancy calf on a gold background. When they saw it, they all exclaimed, “Here it is: we work for this now. And this logo stands for our freedom.” Aaron set up an altar under the logo and made a proclamation: “Tomorrow there shall be bread and circuses!”

Early the next day, they all brought everything they had and gave it up to the new corporation. And they partied.

Meanwhile, back up on the mountain, God said to Moses, “You’d better get back down there. Those people of yours from Egypt have sold out. They’ve broken their contract with me, and they’ve designed a new logo, given up their freedom to a false god, and credited an imposter for all that I’ve done.” God said, “If this is the way its going to be with these turncoats, get out of my way: I’ll nuke them right now and we can start over with you.”

But Moses replied, “Why are you so angry? You’re the one who picked these people from Egypt! And if you do what you say, everyone will (rightly) say that you’re a pretty lame-ass God to bring a no-account people out into the wilderness and annihilate them. Chill out! Don’t do it! Remember how you promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that you would do right by their descendents and get them to the promised land.”

So God didn’t nuke them after all.

It’s hard to say whose behavior is worse in this story.

  • Is it Aaron, who sets himself up as the CEO of the world’s first Halliburton?
  • Is it the people, who willingly sacrifice their freedom and prosperity for a false sense of national security?
  • Is it God, who – let’s say it – really ought to know better?

As great as freedom sounds, the reality is it’s not so easy. Not even for God.

It’s much easier for Aaron to replicate the familiar oppressive religious-economic-political system where manipulating a logo and charging a lot of money (or collecting everyone’s earrings) gives the appearance of knowing what you’re doing.

  • It’s much easier to tell people what they want to hear than to ask them to live with uncertainty.
  • It’s much easier to give people a prefabricated symbol than to help them forge their own identity.
  • It’s much easier to pacify people’s desires with bread and circuses than to engage their creativity to form a meaningful community.

The story of the people’s complicity in the disaster is a parable of the last 10 years of American life. And the depiction of a God tempted to take the easy way of oblivion rather than the hard way of engagement is the temptation of those in power. Indeed, Moses speaks for all of us who are disgusted by those who insist that God must be nothing more than a child-despot with a finger on the red button.

There comes a moment of truth in every freedom story – whether it’s in the Old Testament desert, in the modern United States, or in an individual life – when the uncharted territory of real freedom appears so dark and terrible that any excuse to turn away, to recast God into our preferred image, to pretend life can be orderly and secure regardless of the cost, becomes alluring.

Mortal or immortal, it’s in that moment that we stand on the razor’s edge between new life and utter annihilation.