Have you ever found yourself asking to take the punishment that someone else deserved? In yesterday’s Old Testament reading, we saw how the people of Israel broke covenant with God by fashioning gods for themselves; and in today’s lesson (Exodus 32:21-34) we see the ramifications of that sin.
Like yesterday’s passage, there are elements of today’s verses that it’s hard to know what to do with. Moses, for example, summons to his side “whoever is for the Lord.” And when the Levites rally to him, he sends them rampaging through the camp, killing their fellow Israelites. Is this an action that God commanded, or one that Moses took on his own? (In the text, Moses tells the Levites, “This is what the Lord says.” But we never hear God give this instruction.) And if we do see this slaughter as the result of God’s direction, how do we keep those who think they are on the Lord’s side from inflicting violence on those who they perceive to be the Lord’s enemies?
The passage also has elements of comic relief. My favorite moment comes when Moses asks Aaron how he could have sinned so grievously by fashioning a golden idol for the people, and Aaron responds: “They gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” (v. 24). (Honest, Moses! the gold got made into a calf all by itself!)
But the moment that captures my attention today is when Moses pleads with the Lord to obtain mercy for the people. And after acknowledging their fault, he says: “But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (v. 32). What could motivate such a request? Is Moses he trying to protect God’s reputation? Is he foolish? Or — does he have such a deep love for a sinful people that he is willing to “stand in the gap” and accept their punishment if that’s what it takes to bring them back to God? Would we be willing to accept such a dramatic consequence in order to make it possible for others to receive God’s mercy?
In the end, of course, we can’t take the penalty for someone else’s sin. But we know the One who can. We know Jesus, of whom the scripture says:
He was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)
Thankfully, we will never have to ask God to remove our names from the Book of Life so that others can be included. But may we have such deep love for sinful people that we’re willing to point them to the One who did take their punishment; so that they, too, can receive the mercy that enables them truly to live.