Text: Exodus 32:1-14
After various and sundry plagues, ranging from gross to scary to truly terrifying, Pharaoh finally relented, and while it took the parting of the Red Sea to get over a last minute hurdle, the Israelites made it to freedom.
And the people celebrated. Let by Moses’ sister Miriam, they sing and dance and celebrate the freedom God has given them. But the celebration is short-lived. The wilderness was a difficult place, and the people actually started wishing they were back in Egypt, under their old masters, where at least they could count on food to eat. But in their hunger God sends clear water from the rock and manna from heaven to eat.
Finally the Israelites reached Mt. Sinai. The people consecrated themselves to the Lord; Moses went up on the mountain, wrapped in smoke, and God gave him the Ten Commandments. The most important commandments prohibited the worship of other gods and the making of idols of any kind. The people agreed to live by these commands three different times.
And then, Moses goes up on the mountain again, where God will give him the commandments on tablets of stone. Moses takes Joshua, his assistant, with him. Aaron, Moses’ brother, is left in charge. And it takes a while. There are laws and rules and regulations, and there are detailed plans for building the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant. It seems like it takes forever.
The people become restless. Moses tells everyone that he is going up on the mountain to take care of some legal stuff with God and he will be back. Don’t wait up. But after 40 days and 40 nights, they start to wonder if Moses is ever coming back.
The people decide to take matters into their own hands. They go to Aaron and say, “We don’t know what has become of Moses. Make gods for us to go before us on our journey.” It is more of a demand than it is a polite request.
This sounds shocking because they had just promised three times to follow God’s commandments, and now they were asking Aaron to help them in breaking the first two – to worship another god and to make an idol.
Aaron is in a tough spot. He wants to calm the crowd, to placate the people. So Aaron goes along with their demands. He asks them to take off their gold rings and bring them to him.
The question that may come to mind for you is, "Where did these people who had been slaves in Egypt get a bunch of gold rings?" Doesn’t that sound suspicious?
The answer is that the plagues in Egypt had been so bad that the Egyptians had given rings to the Israelites as an incentive to leave quickly. God had told the Israelites to ask the Egyptians for gold, and when they did, the Egyptians gave them golden articles, kind of as a payoff to get the Israelites out of Egypt ASAP.
Even as the people were turning in their gold rings to make an object of worship, God was giving Moses instructions on the mountain that he was to take an offering from the people, and gold received was to be used for building the tabernacle. Rather than a building for God, the rings were being used to break God’s law.
Aaron melts down the gold and casts an image of a calf. “These are your gods, O Israel,” he says. The word Elohim, a word for God, is a word that can be plural or singular, so it’s not exactly clear if Aaron is saying this is your god, or these are your gods. And there is only one calf, so “gods” sounds a little odd. But Aaron adds, “Tomorrow will be a festival to the Lord.”
While Aaron had given in to the people’s demand for an object of worship, he was steering them back toward the Lord. They had made a golden calf, but the festival would be to Yahweh, the God of Israel.
So what we have here may not be so much an image of a false god, but a false image of the true god. Although in the end I’m not sure if there is much of a difference.
At any rate, the next day there is a festival. The people bring sacrifices, they have your basic Sunday morning service, but then everything comes apart and it descends into revelry, which basically means immoral behavior.
God sees all of this and God is not happy. He tells Moses to go down the mountain at once, saying “Your people are acting perversely.” Before, it had always been my people, but now God says to Moses, they are your people. They are your problem. And indeed, God proposes to wipe them out and to give Moses the promise he first gave to Abraham. He says, “Leave me alone so that my wrath might consume them, but of you I will make a great nation.”
Moses might have been tempted to take God up on the offer. He wasn’t so happy with the people either. But he nevertheless intercedes on behalf of the people. He tells God, “These are your people that you brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” He says, “You don’t want the Egyptians saying that you brought the Israelites out of Egypt just so you could wipe them out in the wilderness.” And finally, he reminds God of the promise he had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the end, Moses talks God out of it and God decides against the disaster he had planned to bring on his people.
Now, you can say what you want about God planning to wipe out the people - and you can say what you want about Moses talking God into changing his mind. It really is an amazing exchange. But there is no question that this is not a neutral, impartial, detached god. This is a very passionate and involved God.
So Moses goes back down the mountain, he sees all that is going on, he is furious with the people and smashes the tablets of the law in a scene that helped make Charlton Heston famous. (For you students, that’s an old movie actor).
There are a number of ideas and questions we might explore here. First, I want to think about the role of Aaron. He wants to indulge the people’s request – or demand, perhaps – and at the same time he wants to be faithful to Yahweh. So he makes the golden calf, breaking the first two commandments, but at the same time says that this will be a festival to the Lord, to Yahweh. The God of Israel.
Well, you really can’t have it both ways. That was kind of the point of the first two commandments. If you are a true worshiper, you need to be all in. Aaron opts for a half-calf faith, if you will, but was required was 100% de-calf.
Some of you can attest to the difficulty of going completely de-calf, but I’m not just talking about coffee. Because there are any number of things that can demand our allegiance, that we have a hard time letting go of. There are any number of things that we can get confused with the real thing, with the true god.
It is interesting that at least in Aaron’s eyes, the golden calf was not so much a false god but a false representation of the true god. And in that regard, the golden calf wasn’t the only false representation of God.
What about Moses and the way people looked to him? For the Israelites, Moses apparently functioned somewhat like the golden calf. Without Moses, they were lost. They confused Moses with God. Now to be fair, there were times when Moses spoke and God answered in thunder, so of course there was an awe about him. But if the calf was a false material image of the true God, then for some Moses functioned as a false human image of God.
It is possible for us today to put our faith and hope in things and people and institutions and movements and ideologies – even good things, even wonderful people - that should be reserved only for God.
The other things that struck me as I read this familiar story once again was this whole matter of waiting. Moses is gone up on the mountain and it just takes forever. It is hard to wait.
The thing is, these were a traumatized people. They had lived as slaves for generations, and now they had made an epic flight to freedom. But even free from pharaoh, the future is unclear. The people looked to Moses for leadership, for stability and comfort and a word from God. But Moses is nowhere to be found, and the people start to worry. They start to wonder. After a while they get a little panicky.
We know a bit about waiting. Do you remember back in March – when it seemed like life might be on hold for a few weeks – when we might not get to normal for a couple of months, until sometime after Easter? Do you remember that?
Nothing is the same and we are all waiting. And it gets hard. In our devotion on Thursday night, we looked at the verse in Galatians that says “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right.” Well, that is hard. This is a very wearying time. For most of us, this has got to be the most wearying year we can remember. There is a reason that mental health professionals are keeping extra busy right now. And so I am a little more sympathetic with those Israelites who did not handle that time very well.
The people got one another worked up and demanded gods to go before them. They were anxious. They were worried. But what if they had instead encouraged one another and supported one another and helped one another through a vulnerable time?
And then what about us? We have that same choice and that same opportunity, through this vulnerable time. We can care and encourage and support one another and trust in the God who will not let us go, even in those wearying times.
“Let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we shall reap at harvest time.” Thanks be to God. Amen.