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Can Anything Good Come Out of Bethel?

A sermon on Exodus 32 and Matthew 22:1-14 by Mark Brett

As careful readers of the Gospels will know, there is usually more than one version of a biblical story, and you need to compare the different versions in order to understand what’s being said. The Gospel reading for today, for example, is a story about a banquet, and it has a parallel in Luke 14. Both versions of the parable say that the first round of expected guests don’t turn up, but Matthew makes a point of emphasizing that the second round of guests are both ‘good and bad’, whereas Luke says they include the poor, the blind and the lame. Luke’s second round of guests are marginalized people, whereas Matthew wants to emphasize that the second round include morally bad people. Both are using the parable to question conventional understandings of who is chosen by God, and each Gospel is being subversive in slightly different ways. Both versions agree that it’s not easy to predict the pattern of God’s favour.

These stories from the Gospels will be well known to most Christians, but our reading from the Hebrew Bible may not be so familiar. And the lectionary selection about the golden calf is only the first part of the story. The chapter goes on to give a different version of Moses’ pleading with God, and it even includes an episode where Moses calls on the Levites to take their swords and kill their neighbours indiscriminately. About three thousand people die – quite a few more than the death toll in the World Trade Centre on September 11th. This is a bit surprising since the Levites attack the people after v.14 says that ‘The Lord repented of the disaster he had planned’. The makers of the lectionary decided to spare us the Levitical terrorism, and they probably made a good choice. But let’s not forget it was a choice.

When we read such difficult texts, how do we go about making responsible interpretative choices? The first thing to do, of course, is to make sure we’ve read all the versions of the story that might be relevant. Then we need to consider the implications of the similarities and differences. In the case of the golden calf, there are at least two other biblical stories that need to be considered, and then there’s some historical background that is also relevant.

One text to consider is the parallel in Deuteronomy 9. In this case, the story of the golden calf is told again, except that the sequence of actions is different towards the end. The stories are similar up to the point where Moses smashes the ten commandments, but in Deuteronomy Moses lies on the ground before the Lord and fasts for forty days and forty nights. Then he crushes the calf into powder and throws it on the river. In the case of Exodus 32, there is no fasting for forty days and nights, and when the powdered calf is thrown on the river, the people are made to drink it. Then comes the episode of Levitical terrorism. So the second half of Exodus 32 has the most shocking elements in it; in the first half of Exodus 32, and in Deuteronomy’s version, Moses is remembered more for changing God’s mind than for punishment. The second half of Exodus 32 has Moses introducing his own punishments for the people, having just restrained God from doing the job.

Another important text to consider is 1 Kings 12, where Jeroboam returns from exile in Egypt and creates a new Northern kingdom of Israel, rather than let the northern tribes continue to suffer the oppression that they had experienced under Solomon. It is highly significant to notice that Jeroboam becomes the first king in the North specifically on the instructions of a prophet who tells him (in 1 Kings 11) that Solomon is about to be punished for worshipping false gods and for failing to keep God’s laws. In effect, Jeroboam is a new Moses, leading a new exodus away from an oppressive and idolatrous king. It’s just that the oppressor in this case is Solomon.

Given that Jeroboam is setting up a newly liberated kingdom, he needs to establish religious practices independent of Jerusalem. He sets up golden calves in Bethel and Dan with a pronouncement that is identical to Aaron’s pronouncement in the Exodus story of the gold calf: ‘Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt’. The analogy between Aaron and Jeroboam should make us think: on the one hand, Jeroboam has led a new exodus dutifully following the instructions of Yahweh’s prophet, but on the other hand, he seems to have done something that might earn him death at the hands of sword-wielding Levites.

I have to confess that I am a reluctant historian, but in some cases, it’s just not possible to do without some historical reconstruction. There is a puzzle here about how to understand the three different appearances of the golden calf in Deuteronomy 9, 1 Kings 12 and Exodus 32. And I think that the puzzle cannot be solved without some history.

We know that there were actually calf or bull icons in the religion of the northern kingdom. Archaeologists have demonstrated this. We also know that the high god of Canaan, called El, was symbolized as a bull.1 These historical facts do not automatically make Jeroboam an idolater, since we also know that very early on in Israelite religion El became identified with Yahweh (or the ‘LORD’ as many translations have it). So in Jeroboam’s mind, El and Yahweh may have been simply different names for the same God, the LORD.

We are told in Genesis 14 that Abram had already learned this name El from Melchizedek, an indigenous priest in Salem (the old name for Jerusalem). Abram had combined the names El and Yahweh in conversation with Melchizedek in speaking of ‘Yahweh El’ as the creator of heaven and earth (or the LORD God, in many translations). And there’s a story in Genesis 28 in which Jacob names a dreaming place Beth-El, ‘House of El’, also using the indigenous Canaanite name for the high God. Jacob knew that El was thought to be in Canaan, but it was perhaps not so clear to him that Yahweh, the LORD, was already there as well. But after having a revelation in his dream, Jacob says ‘Surely Yahweh is in this place’, he says, ‘and I did not know it’.

Given these stories in Genesis, it should come as no surprise that Jeroboam would set up a golden calf in Bethel – using an icon for El – and then associate this icon with Yahweh and the exodus. The connection between El and Yahweh had been established long ago by Abram and Jacob. But the theologians who produced Deuteronomy actually lived after the time of Jeroboam, and they had the clear view that Yahweh could only be worshipped in one place [12:5], and that place was Jerusalem. Bethel did not count as a legitimate place of worship, nor did any of the other high places in the northern kingdom. And Deuteronomy also has a law against the making of images [5:8].

Therefore, according to Deuteronomy’s logic, Jeroboam had to be an idolater, and the story of the golden calf was used to prove it. Jeroboam had also disrespected the priestly lineage of Levites by having non-Levites serve at his altars, so that was just adding insult to injury. According to the Jerusalem-focussed theology, a dose of Levitical terrorism is just what those northerners would deserve. In short, the story of Moses and the golden calf was edited long after the events it describes, in order to criticize Jeroboam.

If you are thinking that all this Israelite history sounds very complicated, that’s probably because it is. But it’s actually the simplest solution to a complicated problem. Reading these stories as Christians, however, further complicates matters. Because it is not at all clear that Jesus would have approved of Levitical terrorism, and he certainly had reservations about the priestly establishment in Jerusalem.

And that brings us back to the banquet parables. The Levitical establishment are the sort of people you would expect in the first round of guests at the feast: the good and the pure, with no bodily defects. They’re definitely ‘A Reserve’ people. But in the banquet parables, the ‘A Reserve’ don’t turn up. The party turns out to be full of people who are a bit less than good and pure.

It’s not that the radically open invitation can be taken lightly; God’s grace isn’t cheap. In the parable in Matthew 22, one person is thrown out because he didn’t meet the dress code of the party. This isn’t about wearing the right label, but rather, about making an appropriate response to grace. There are actually a lot of warnings in the Gospels about the misuse of grace. But one thing is clear: God’s invitations don’t follow the conventional standards of goodness and purity.

So who are the kind of people who will be there at God’s party? It may well be that some people from Bethel have been invited. And some people from Nazareth, that other notorious town in the north. There might be indigenous people, using a slightly different name for the Creator. (In north-east Arnhem land, for example, indigenous Christians often speak about God using the name ‘Wangarr’, a word also used in reference to ancestral spirit beings who shaped the earth.) And God’s party might well have bouncers, but they won’t be Levitical terrorists.

Yes, of course, we still need to worry about idols like the ‘Baals’ – things made with human hands, or human actions. Deuteronomy 9:4, for example, warns that people do not earn their chosen status before God by virtue of their own righteousness. That’s the whole point of recounting the golden calf episode in that chapter. But as we have seen, Deuteronomy’s theologians were not simply worried about the Baals, or realist works of art; they couldn’t even conceive of legitimate worship outside Jerusalem. Jesus, it seems, had the opposite view. He was not so clear that legitimate worship was taking place inside Jerusalem.

What do these strange and complex stories tell us about our faith today? For one thing, they tell us that great leaders like Aaron, or Jeroboam, or even Moses, made monumental mistakes. But they were still given special leadership roles by God in spite of their shortcomings. They were people with a mixture of good and bad qualities, like the people who turn up in Jesus’ banquet parables. The key question for us is not so much the maintenance of purity, but how we respond to grace. There was, after all, a dress code for the banquet in Jesus parable. Grace is not cheap, and it has some implications. And one of the implications of grace may be that instead of taking swords to the less good and pure, we learn to express the openness of God to the mixed bag of people who are on the journey with us. St Augustine called the church a corpus mixtum, a mixed body. And all I can say is, thank God.


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