After Church – On Golden Calves (Part 1)


Perhaps we take sin a little too lightly?

That seems to be the case whenever you’re up for a read-through of the Old Testament. Currently I’m working my way through Exodus, and it’s a fascinating book. Part history, part law-giving, part ethical, it all coalesces into a long treatise on, for example, what NOT to do when God leads you out of turmoil and slavery. Let’s take a look at one of the more well-known events depicted here: the Golden Calf. Exodus 32 is chock full of information, so let’s get down to it.

Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled about Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” Now when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” So the next day they rose early and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.

We think that we’re immune to this sort of impulse, but it happens all the time. Take your eye off the ball and you’ll easily find yourself in the same circumstance; it’s just that “idol worship” in the literal sense of the terms does not occur in modern culture. Our idols take far more illusory and sinister forms that never appear as evil but develop into it. In the same way, peoples of antiquity used idols to represent the gods/God that they worshiped; none of the people below knew or had a question that what their form of worship displeased God in advance, for that was how everyone did it in Egypt. It’s rather obvious, however, that the Ten Commandments given beforehand weren’t in their mode of thought. Imagine yourself in that context, and we’d act no differently. It just looks obvious to us now. The response from God, then, comes as an obvious conclusion:

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselvesThey have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. 10 Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.”

God hate sin and sinful behavior; they don’t follow His commandments on a whim, so what other response does God give? He already destroyed the world with a flood, but He promised He would never do it again. Still, He didn’t promise that He would not wipe out an entire nation simply for disobedience – right? The false identification of God with an idol IMMEDIATELY breaks the second commandment, which does not bode well for their future success. He tells Moses to go away so He can do His job – namely, enacting judgment. Then Moses pleads with God (much like Abraham, I suspect):

11 Then Moses entreated the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” 14 So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.

So God changes His mind (or, at least, allows Moses to express God’s desire for mercy and love rather than sacrifice, but let’s not get off-topic here). However, you’ll find that there’s a swift change in tone once Moses – who, let’s face it, talks to God as if He were a man in a time when people just didn’t do that sort of thing – sees what has happened: a violation of the commandment. At first, he’s a bit confused as to what is happening, but he’s got the Law of God in his hand (two copies, one for God and one for Israel in contract law of the time):

15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets which were written on both sides; they were written on one side and the other. 16 The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing engraved on the tablets. 17 Now when Joshua heard the sound of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a sound of war in the camp.” 18 But he said,

“It is not the sound of the cry of triumph,
Nor is it the sound of the cry of defeat;
But the sound of singing I hear.”

So you’d assume Moses would respond in the same kind and gentle way to Israel’s idolatry that he did when talking to God. Interestingly, NO, NOT AT ALL! Moses get rather angry:

19 It came about, as soon as Moses came near the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing; and Moses’ anger burned, and he threw the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf which they had made and burned it with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it over the surface of the water and made the sons of Israel drink it.

Is it a common response to burn the idol, then throw it into water and make people drink it? I’m sure there’s some kind of punishment inherent in eating gold rather than selling it for its worth. Still, that’s not even the beginning. Moses blames his brother, Aaron, for the problems. Hey, he was the temporary leader for the Israelites; could he not just hold off on the whole “building a golden calf” idea for a few minutes? One can imagine Aaron’s plight of pleasing a grumbling populace – it’s not like the Levites had strength in numbers, just religious authority. For whatever reason, Aaron went along with it and blamed it on the Israelites.

21 Then Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you, that you have brought such great sin upon them?”22 Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn; you know the people yourself, that they are prone to evil. 23 Forthey said to me, ‘Make a god for us who will go before us; for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 24 I said to them, ‘Whoever has any gold, let them tear it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”

Unfortunately, that’s just our way of thinking; we all run on accusations, from blaming others to blaming ourselves for things we didn’t even do. The idols in our lifes make this so, whether to guard our current way of life, self-preservation, or whatever. But we are taught not to besmirch God’s namesake; nearly anything on earth becomes an idol in someone’s life, and by creating said idols we break the second commandment over and over again. It is up to us to break the cycle. If we obey God, then we break that cycle; if we make Him first and we don’t try to rearrange Christianity according to our inherent cultural assumptions or social mores, then we can break the cycle for both ourselves and other.

The power of idolatry is that it compels us with the straightforward, easy-to-see, and tangible results laid before us. If I make my feelings most important, it’s easy to know what is good/bad because…well, I know my own feelings. Not so much with God; sometimes, the answers are clear, and sometimes they are mysterious. God does not give you what you want but what you need. God demands patience, and most of all, faith. But following my emotions does not require much of either – hence, why it’s so easy to make Christianity into one thing or another that I personally feel is the focus. You can see this in the shift to where God’s all love and no wrath in our modern minds (which I can easily refute with anything from the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible – then again, who reads those silly stories? Sarcasm through text!).

My opinion just isn’t important; this is why most Protestant denominations see Scripture as an external, objective standard, and Catholicism sets up a central govering body to determine doctrine; otherwise, we will all make our own personal God that fits to our own whims. That is exactly what I see in the modern era, and it’s a perilous road to walk. I’m not much interested in forty years of wandering, are you? We establish more and more idols; the cycle continues. Next week we’ll continue our little exegesis.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.