After the Golden Calf episode, Moses received a word from God for the Levites.
Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.” (Exodus 32:27-29, NIV)
Here is where I run into problems with some contemporary ways of reading the Bible.
I have a problem with the “three buckets” approach that reads of the Levites slaughtering 3,000 Israelites under the command of God and declares that this is not in keeping with the character of Jesus and must therefore be deemed not reflective of God’s character or will.
I have a problem with the historical-critical method that declares that this passage is really just a literary justification for the Levitical priesthood foisted on the people by religious elites in a time of social crisis or upheaval.
I even have a problem with the spiritual approach that teaches me to read in this text a call to cut out from my life everything at odds with worship of God.
I have a problem with all of these because they look at this text and flinch. They don’t start with the affirmation that God could and might and did do such a thing as order the killing of his rebellious and idolatrous people. I’m not sure what the motivation is that causes us to turn away from these parts of the Bible. And let’s be clear, there are lots stories like this one. I don’t know why we flinch, other than fear.
The God of Exodus 32 is dangerous. He is no butler waiting for our permission to enter the room and living only to serve our needs. The God of Exodus 32 is a dealer of life and death. Standing too close to that God is like walking on the edge of a high rooftop on a windy day or standing near the jaws of a wood chipper as it tears apart tree limbs. You can sense the danger in the pit of your stomach just by being there.
The biblical response to this fear is worship. Our response — so often — is to pretend Exodus 32 does not exist.
I understand the impulse to do that, but I don’t understand how we turn to the Bible once we’ve decided it is lying to us about who God is and what God does.