In Exodus 32:15, Moses descends from Mount Sinai after spending forty days in God’s presence. In his hands are two “tablets of the testimony” (Exodus 32:15) with the words of God written on the front and back. Verse 16 emphasizes how holy the tablets are: “The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets” (Exodus 32:16).
Moses’ Relationship with God and the People
Moses already knows something terrible has happened; God told him. He has just implored God not to destroy His people for the great sin they have committed in making and worshiping a golden calf instead of the one true God. But nothing compares to seeing this tragedy with his own eyes.
Moses holds in his hands the very words of God, written by the hand of God. He’s just spent weeks in close communion with God, listening to God speak. After all that time in God’s presence, one look at what the people are doing destroys not just Moses’ sense of peace and purpose but the tablets that God Himself made.
When Moses sees the people dancing around the golden calf, he throws the tablets and breaks them (see Exodus 32:19). His anger at the people overcomes his care for the words of God.
Being a Leader by Showing Jesus’ Love
I’ve been thinking about this passage in the context of leadership. Whether leading a family, a classroom, a team at work, or a church, the actions of others can cause us to lose sight of the presence and words of God. Our frustration with the people around us can distract us from holding on to God’s Word.
Parents can attest that listening to the Word of God in church can be a challenge with young children. Managers committed to showing Jesus’ love in the workplace might find some employees challenging to love. Both church workers and lay leaders must navigate a variety of personalities, opinions, and criticisms while guiding their local churches.
We hold God’s Word in our hands every time we open our Bibles. We read, study, meditate, memorize, and pray. We can sometimes prefer a Jesus-and-me faith—it’s simpler. Other people get complicated. Other people can annoy, hurt, and anger us, disturbing the simple peace of a quiet Scripture passage or prayer time. Holding on to the Word of God is challenging when we’re in relationship with people who are difficult to love (and that can be all of us).
God’s Forgiveness of Our Leadership Mistakes
In his anger at the blatant sin and unfaithfulness of the Israelites, Moses throws the words of God on the ground. He then takes action to teach his people a lesson—up to and including violence. God Himself visits a plague on the people for their unfaithfulness.
But that is not the end of the story of Moses and God’s people—not at all! As He does again and again throughout Scripture, God forgives His people and renews His covenant with them. Despite losing his temper over and over with the Israelites, Moses repeatedly pleads their case before God when they fail. He knows that they are “a stiff-necked people” (Exodus 34:9), but he also loves them and wants what’s best for them.
God’s Nature of Forgiveness
This repeated forgiveness is itself part of the Word and nature of God. Even though loving sinful, unfaithful, or just plain annoying people can disturb the simplicity of a Jesus-and-me faith, it is actually the core of the Gospel. In Exodus 32, Moses smashes the words of God in anger and disgust. But in Exodus 34, God commands Moses to carve out two stone tablets, on which God writes those words out again (see Deuteronomy 10:1–4) to give them once again to the people. And at the end of his life, Moses’ concern is not for himself but for the people who gave him so much trouble. Moses says,
Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the LORD may not be as sheep that have no shepherd. (Numbers 27:16–17)
Our life of faith is holding tightly to the Word of God and our relationship with Him, but it is not only that. Rather than hugging the Word of God tightly to our chest, afraid of losing it, we hold it out to share with the people around us. Yes, maybe sometimes we drop it or even break the tablets and stomp away. But God’s Word is not fragile. With God, we can start anew—with Him and with other people. Because of God’s forgiveness, we can forgive all of the stiff-necked people around us and, together, turn again to the God who saves.
Start a Bible study on Exodus to see how God works in your life with R. Reed Lessing in Deliver Us.