Pleading Your Case to God: Moses as Matlock
By Pastor John J. Pawloski - October 15th, 2023
Exodus 32:1-14 (NRSVue)
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took these from them, formed them in a mold, and cast an image of a calf, and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it, and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being, and the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to revel.
The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, and of you I will make a great nation.”
But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
There is something thoroughly entertaining about a good courtroom drama, especially one where the actual murderer is exposed during the course of a trial. There are plenty of good shows out there of this genre: Perry Mason, Law and Order, The Practice, etc., but one of my favorites is Matlock. Perhaps I like Matlock because he would always “showboat” during the trial, and would always try to paint a picture for the jury of the evidence. That is what I try to do in my trials. But every Matlock case follows the same formula: someone would say or do something that looked to the outside observer as a confession to murder or a plan to commit the crime. Each of Matlock’s clients appeared to be guilty to the jury without hope for vindication. The case would revolve around Matlock finding a clue or coming across a fact that he would find on a hunch, usually right at the end of the trial. His hunches were always right (who would watch the show if his hunches were wrong). And in every case, he would save what looked like the indefensible criminal by showing their innocence.
The story of the making of the Golden Calf by the Israelites has a lot of twists and turns, with an unexpected defense which saves their skin, much the same way as Matlock saves his clients. And like any good court room drama, the story, if well-written, begins with the subtle dropping of clues–so subtle that you could quite easily miss it if you did not pay attention. As the crime of idol worship unfolds, God tells Moses to return at once to save “your people” who Moses “saved from the land of Egypt.” Notice the shift here: God is so angry that God is no longer referring to the Israelites as God’s people. Rather, for an instant, these are Moses’ people who Moses (not God) brought out of the land of Egypt. God has become so angry that he considers disowning God’s chosen people.
In an interesting plot twist, Moses, who was such a poor public speaker that he was given Aaron as his mouthpiece, speaks up at the critical time. Aaron caves like a cheap tent. Aaron is the architect for the new god, the Golden Calf. In what is a Matlock-like clue that probably eludes the grasp of most viewers of this story within a story, we picture in our minds the vivid scene from the movie The Ten Commandments, of the bringing forth of all kinds of opulent gold finery which gets melted down and fashioned into the shape of a golden calf. This scene begs the question of where did starving slave people get golden luxuries? Remember that little detail the morning of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt? Their Egyptian neighbors gave the Hebrews their gold and jewelry as a form of reparations. Now this gold that was used to pay for the sin of their slavery is now used to make a new god out in the desert. What was supposed to be their “endowment” to make a better life has become the object of their own undoing. No wonder God was fuming. Even the God of love is entitled to blow off steam.
But ineloquent Moses, all alone on Mt. Sanai, witnessing God coming unglued and a whisker away from destroying “the chosen people” saves the day. And just like each Matlock episode, the changing of the tide begins with a simple statement. Moses reminds God that it was God that brought the Creator’s people out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Moses reminds God of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Implicitly, Moses declines God’s offer to have a great nation come from his line if it means that the nation of Israel will be blown off the face of the earth. Then, Moses plays armchair psychologist with God, and knowing how weak- minded people twist the narrative, tells God that if he destroys the Israelite nation, the Egyptians will say the Exodus was one big plot to lure the Hebrews out into the desert to destroy them.
What is fascinating about this account is that it reveals the full range of God’s emotions: anger, frustration, vanity (caring what the Egyptians think), and ultimately, reason. God is not passive. God is intimately personal, relational, and cares deeply. Enough to get angry when we turn our backs on God. But what really matters here is God can be reasoned with. We can make our case with God. God listens. God’s will is not inflexible. You may not be Moses (or Matlock for that matter), but God listens to your prayer, complaint, gripe, excuse, or justification. Maybe you have no case, but like Moses, you remind God of the fullness of the majesty of God, and what makes God God is forgiveness and grace, even though we can do nothing to deserve it. We, like the Israelites of old, can rely upon the grace of God even when we have no defense to our actions.