God wants obedience. He said that if we love him, we will keep his commandments. Yet, Moses and Elijah both appear to have disobeyed God and were honored for it.
Although God had said that the only place authorized for making sacrifices was at the place where he would “put his name” (Deuteronomy 12:11), Elijah built an altar at the other end of the country. After he put the sacrifice on it and soaked it with water, he asked God to light it for him, and God did, sending fire from heaven to consume it, stones, water, and all. (1 Kings 18:18-40)
Moses came down from Sinai after forty days to find the people worshiping and sacrificing to the golden calf, and God said, “Step aside, Moses. I’m going to destroy these people and start over with you.” Moses refused and appealed to God’s reputation (His name) to convince him not to destroy Israel. “What will the Egyptians think of you?” God honored Moses’ disobedience and spared the nation. (Exodus 32:7-14)
The truth is that neither Moses nor Elijah were actually disobedient. If you have been keeping Torah for long, then you have probably realized that there are times when you must stretch or appear to violate one law in order to keep another. For example, it’s good to work on the Sabbath in order to free a trapped animal or to heal an injured man or feed the hungry. Not only is it not a sin to rescue someone on the Sabbath, but it would be a sin *not* to! Sometimes it takes a great deal of wisdom to weigh the competing priorities. The same thing is going on in both of these stories. There are important elements in both passages that aren’t made explicit in the text but that make all the difference in understanding what was going on.
When Elijah offered a sacrifice on Mount Carmel instead of at the Temple, in Jerusalem, he appeared to be in violation of this commandment. But he didn’t actually make the sacrifice. He only went half-way. He killed the animal and laid it out on the altar, but then he waited for God to finish the job. He stretched the letter of the Law, but he didn’t break it.
On the other hand, there can be no compromise with Baal or his prophets. We are commanded not to tolerate them, especially not in the Promised Land. Israel was supposed to have driven out all of the Canaanites and destroyed all of their shrines so that they would not be tempted to take up their false religion (Exodus 34:10-17). But Israel neither drove them out nor destoyed their holy places, with the end result that the northern Kingdom of Israel was thoroughly infested with idolatry from the very beginning.
Elijah picked a fight with the priests of Baal in the heart of the land they thought of as their own, but which actually belonged to God. He rebuilt one of the abandoned altars of God’s and proved who was the real owner. He understood God’s character well enough to know which rule took precedence in that situation and how far the one could be bent in order to preserve the whole.
When Moses stood in God’s way on Mount Sinai, he understood that God’s destructive power couldn’t really be constrained by a mere man. So why would God say such a thing? By telling him to move when clearly no movement was necessary, God was subtlely teling Moses that he had the authority to intercede on Israel’s behalf. For God to make promises of salvation to Israel and then to destroy them would itself be a violation of Torah, so Moses knew that it wasn’t really what God wanted to do. It was a test of Moses’ faith in God’s promises and of his willingness to sacrifice himself on behalf of the people, and Moses passed both tests.
God gave Moses authority over and responsibility for the people of Israel. He was their judge, teacher, and protector. He was the man whom God used to free them from captivity. When they fought the Amalekites, Moses’ upraised arms enabled their victory. When they complained against God, his intercession saved them from destruction. Moses, by divine appointment and as a type of the Messiah, was a spiritual covering for Israel. When God threatened to destroy them, Moses was duty-bound to intervene even against God himself. His role as Israel’s leader took precedence over any possible role as the progenitor of a new people, and he honored God by putting his own life on the line to save his disobedient, ungrateful people.* “God,” he said, “if you will destroy these people, then destroy me too, because otherwise I will have failed them, you, and myself.” Like Elijah, he had a heart that understood God’s.
I pray that YHWH will bless me with such understanding, with such love, with such a relationship with him, that I will know how to obey him even when obedience seems impossible, how to honor his calling, his people, and his Torah. Baruch HaShem!
*What a great example for all leaders and husbands! Moses put his own life in jeopardy because his love for God and his people demanded it.
When Israel left Egypt, they had nothing of their own. Though they carried (and misused) much wealth, everything they had was theirs solely through the action of God. He rescued them from Egypt and enabled them to plunder the wealth of their former masters on the way out. He destroyed the Egyptian charioteers, provided them with food and water, and even protected their clothing.
Their response to God’s generosity was less than inspiring. They complained and pined for the days of their suffering. They set up an idol at the very foot of God’s mountain while His presence thundered from the peak.
God had every right to destroy them and start over with Moses, yet He relented. He spared the vast majority of Israel and kept His promise to dwell among them.
He could have taken back all the things He had given them and sent them back to Egypt. No one would have blamed Him. But He didn’t do that either. Instead, He promised to remain with them, to guide them to the Promised Land, and to drive out their enemies before them.
These promises didn’t come without some demands. Here are the things that God demanded in return:
Make no covenant with pagans. Destroy their altars and sacred places. Don’t bow down to false gods.
Keep the seventh day Sabbath, the Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the early and latter Feasts of Firstfruits.
In other words, remain faithful and have regular parties in honor of the great things God has done and will do on behalf of his people. What a cruel taskmaster God is! His standards are just too high!
That’s sarcasm, folks.
God’s mercy is infinite. Despite our repeated failings in even the smallest things, He still loves us and wants to do great things for those who love Him in return.
After the incident of the golden calf, the Israelites were acutely aware of their vulnerability and God’s kindness to them. When God gave Moses the order to begin building the wilderness Tabernacle, He also told him to take up a collection for the required materials. The people’s response was overwhelming. Six times in Exodus 35-36, Scripture tells us that everyone whose heart and spirit moved them brought material for the work: precious metals, stones, fabrics, wood, skins, time, and labor.
In fact, they brought so much stuff that the workmen had to ask Moses to stop them.
But wait! The people were only bringing what was on their heart to bring. Why didn’t they let the people bring it all and then find some other worthwhile use for the excess? It could have been given to the poor or used to make the Tabernacle into something even grander than originally planned. What’s wrong with giving more than asked?
In most things, there’s nothing wrong with giving more than asked. If a homeless person asks for a dollar, there’s nothing wrong with buying him a whole meal or giving him a coat. If a friend asks you for a loan, it’s not wrong to give him a gift instead. If God asks for a golden box, there’s nothing wrong with making Him a golden calf too. Right?
These gifts weren’t for a homeless person or a friend asking for a loan. This was the Tabernacle which would be used to worship God in the ways that God prescribed. He is very particular about how He is to be worshipped. The problem with people is that their hearts often prompt them to do things they just shouldn’t do. When they made the calf, they called it YHWH who brought them out of Egypt, but they knew full well that no bovine had rescued them from Egypt. They made the calf as some kind of focal point for their adoration of God, a replacement for Moses and the pillar of fire. Whatever their justification for that infraction might have been, I think we can be certain that they were following their hearts. Those who participated in that idolatry believed that they were doing right.
The heart is a great thing. When it is conformed to God’s will, it can be a great tool for good, but when it isn’t, it can be just as great a tool for evil, all with the best of intentions.
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can understand it?” -Jeremiah 17:9
God understands it. He knows what’s in our hearts, and that is why He gave us rules to constrain it. His Law is no more of a burden than a Keep Out sign at a toxic waste dump. God’s commandments are for our own protection and well-being. Do you want to stay out of spiritual trouble? Then stay within His Law.
There’s nothing wrong with listening to your heart when it leads you in the right direction. A heart that’s pleasing to God can be a beautiful thing, but when it leads you to stray outside of the lines that God has drawn, it can bring unending heartache. How do you know when your heart is leading you astray? Well, there’s this book, you see….