Commentary from Fr. Smith on the 1st Reading – Closer and More Loving Than Reason Permits

Sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi, artist unknown, Upper Church in the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Assisi, Italy; photo by K505/Shutterstock.

Sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi, Upper Church in the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Assisi, Italy; photo by K505/Shutterstock.

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
Exodus 34:4B-6, 8-9
June 7, 2020

There are some parts of the Bible that seem like “fly over” territory. The requirements for what constitutes clean or how to build an altar are not inherently riveting and we can be forgiven for, at best, skimming over them. Yet we do so at our peril for often there are real jewels within the most seemingly tedious or perfunctory sections. Today’s selection from Exodus is one of them.

It is a story that is there to fill a gap. Let us remember the outline of the book of Exodus. The first part of the book (chapters 1-12) tells the story of the deliverance of the Hebrews. This includes the birth of Moses, the burning bush, and the plagues.

The next section is the journey to Sinai (Chapters 13-19). This begins with crossing the Red Sea and concludes with the gift of the manna and the victory over their enemies.

The final section is at Sinai (Chapters 20-40). This begins with the giving of the 10 commandments and the other laws (Chapters 20-23). The people receive the law with enthusiasm and devotion:

When Moses came to the people and
related all the words and ordinances of the LORD,
they all answered with one voice,
“We will do everything that the LORD has told us.”
(Ex. 24:3)

Moses then wrote down all the words of the LORD and, rising early the next day, he erected at the foot of the mountain an altar and twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel (Ex 24:4).

Upon this altar Moses offered sacrifice on behalf of the people. As we have seen many times sacrifice creates a covenant relationship between God and his people and among the people themselves.

Taking the book of the covenant,
he read it aloud to the people, who answered,
“All that the LORD has said, we will heed and do.”

Then he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying,
“This is the blood of the covenant
which the LORD has made with you
in accordance with all these words of his.”
(Ex. 24:7–8)

The Hebrews accepted the covenant which bound them to God by obeying his commands. The first two of these are:

You shall not have other gods besides me.
You shall not carve idols for yourselves
in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below
or in the waters beneath the earth;
you shall not bow down before them or worship them.
For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God,
inflicting punishment for their fathers’ wickedness
on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation;
but bestowing mercy down to the thousandth generation,
on the children of those who love me and keep my commandments.
(Ex. 20:3–6)

Moses returned to the mountain and discussed liturgy with God.

He is gone for a long time and the people wondering what has happened to him become fearful and want a tangible sense of God among them. Aaron who has been left in charge fashions the Golden calf. Then Moses returns:

As he drew near the camp, he saw the calf and the dancing.
With that, Moses’ wrath flared up, so that he threw the tablets down
and broke them on the base of the mountain.
(Ex. 32:19)

He next rallies the Levites to kill the guiltiest (Ex. 33:28) and then returns to the Lord and begs Him:

If you would only forgive their sin!
If you will not, then strike me out of the book
that you have written
(Ex. 32:32)

God does strike down many of the people but ultimately forgives them. After a ceremony of purification, he is willing to give lead them again. But they will need the law.

As we have seen Moses destroyed the original tablets and they will need to be replaced. This is what we read today. It may seem to be a necessary placeholder; it must be there but is not of much interest. Yet read it slowly and remember the first “edition” of the commandments above.

Today we read:

Thus the LORD passed before him and cried out,
“The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God,
slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity
(Ex. 34:4)

Previously he told us that he was all powerful

I, the LORD, am your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
that place of slavery.
(Ex. 20:2)

But now he is telling us that he is all loving. The words that are used are carefully chosen:

Mercy (raḥûm) derives from the plural of womb. Mercy is womb love. For us it often means that I have power over you but will use it benevolently even if you are guilty. This means we are intimately attached.

Graciousness (Hannun) for the Hebrews indicates that God will give his presence and gifts to us as in the Priestly benediction in Numbers:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace
(Nu. 6:24–26)

Patience: Although they will sin against him, he will temper his response and be “slow to anger.” He will give them many chances.

Love (Hesed) this is faithful covenant love. It creates a relationship and one which God will always keep.

Today’s reading skips over verse 7 but it is important as well:

continuing his kindness for a thousand generations,
and forgiving wickedness and crime and sin;
yet not declaring the guilty guiltless,
but punishing children and grandchildren
to the third and fourth generation
for their fathers’ wickedness!”
(Ex. 34:7)

This sounds like what we read above (Ex. 20:5) but with more passion. Passion is perhaps the best word we have for this relationship which indicates the intensity of God’s love for us

The point of this passage is that God’s interest in the Hebrews is revealed as more intimate and intense after they sinned than before it. He declares his love not just his power in this second giving of the tablets of the law.

He indeed accepts the invitation of Moses to “come along in our company” although Moses himself admits that they are a “stiff necked people” and that he will have to pardon them often. Nonetheless he claims them as his own. (Ex. 34:9)

This is something for all of us to take with us. Our sinfulness does not end our relationship with God but reveals it as closer and more loving than reason would permit. God’s ways are not our ways, (Isaiah 55:8) thanks be to God!