This fall we’ve been following the Israelites on their Exodus journey through the Red Sea and into the wilderness. On this journey they’ve been learning little by little what it means to be God’s people: to be remembered and chosen, to be free, to trust God to meet their daily needs even when the things they need seem hard to come by. They’ve been learning that God is with them in their wandering even when sometimes they wonder if God isn’t.
They’ve also learned, by now, that being God’s people means following some rules. And even if we, as Christians, don’t necessarily love this characterization of a faithful life as one of following rules, I think we can probably get behind the idea that being God’s people means intentionally living in a way that is pleasing to God – even when we mess up sometimes. Last week we met up with the Israelites in the wilderness just as they are about to make this whole “being God’s people” thing official. God says if you’re going to be my people, here are the things I expect from you. And God gives them the Ten Commandments – and then a whole lot of other more detailed case laws as well. And the Israelites listen to them all and they say, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” We’re in.
Today we’re going to get to the messing up part.
After the covenant is sealed, God invites Moses back up the mountain. Moses starts up and once again a dark cloud covers the mountain, and on the seventh day God calls to Moses out of the cloud, and Moses steps in, becomes enveloped by heavy mist. He stays there for 40 days and 40 nights. While he’s up there God is giving him instructions for building the tabernacle, the tent-like mobile Temple where God will officially live in the midst of the Israelites as they wander from camp to camp there in the wilderness – we’ll come back to the tabernacle next week. When God is done, God gives Moses two tablets, inscribed by God’s own finger with the covenant that has just been created.
It’s a pretty holy scene up on that mountain.
But the people are not up on that mountain, and they can’t see or hear what’s going on in that cloud. What they know is that Moses seems to be taking his sweet time coming down. And they start to get antsy. You know that feeling when someone is late and you can’t get in touch with them, and at first you try to kind of go about your day as normal, everything’s probably fine, but as time goes on you get more and more worried that something has happened, and maybe a little angry in case something hasn’t, until you’re going down all sorts of rabbit holes and really working yourself up. I’m pretty sure that’s how the Israelites are feeling here.
But Moses is also more than just a friend or family member who is late, he’s their leader. He’s the one with the direct connection to this God they’re supposed to be following through this otherwise god-forsaken wilderness. And if Moses isn’t coming back, they haven’t just lost him, they’ve lost God too.
And that really puts their future up in the air.
So they decide to take matters into their own hands. They go to Aaron, Moses’ brother and official spokesperson, and they say “Make us gods who can lead us.” They don’t want cloud and fire and mystery and holiness up on some mountain. They want gods they can touch and see and wrap their minds around.
So what do you think Aaron says? I’d like to think that if I were Aaron, my first response would be something along the lines of “Uh, I don’t know, guys, I don’t really think that’s such a good idea.” I mean, this is the person who will eventually become the high priest of Israel. Instead – and I truly do not know what is going on in Aaron’s head at this moment – he says bring me your jewelry. Maybe Aaron is getting antsy, too.
My own opinions aside, this is apparently the kind of leadership the people are hungry for. They bring Aaron their gold jewelry, everything they managed to raid from the Egyptians on the way out, and he throws it into the fire and molds it into the shape of a bull calf. When he’s done, the people look at this hunk of metal that had once been their bracelets and earrings and they bow down and they say, “Here are our gods who brought us out of Egypt!”
How soon we forget what God has done for us. How soon we are ready to worship anything else.
Maybe the surprising thing is that the people need something to worship. Their first inclination when they start to get nervous about their future and God’s role in it isn’t just to throw away the idea of God altogether. It’s to find something else to call God.
You might think that this isn’t the case anymore, in our modern secular society where more and more people every day seem willing to discard the idea of God – but I don’t know. There are lots of other things we can worship, lots of other things we can put our faith in, even without calling it that. Maybe especially without calling it that. And by the way, I don’t just mean that as an indictment of our less religious neighbors, the Nones and the Dones. I mean that for all of us.
In any case, once Aaron gets going, he really gets going. He’s going to ride this wave of the people looking to him for leadership. And so he takes one look at this calf he has created and all the people worshiping it and he says, “ You know what we need? An altar! I’ll make an altar, and we’ll have a festival!” There’s another way to read this, actually, which is that Aaron takes one look at the calf and sees what he has done, and he tries to walk it back. “We’re going to have a festival to the Lord,” he says. To YHWH. This calf is the same god as that God on the mountain, just in a different form. This is all still legit.
Never mind that number 2 commandment: thou shalt not worship idols.
Either way, God is not impressed. God sees what is going on from up on the mountain and God tells Moses he better get down there. “Do you know what YOUR people are doing?” God asks Moses. “I have half a mind to just destroy them and start over and make a great nation out of you.”
Moses, alarmed, says, “Oh, no no, God, don’t be so angry with YOUR people.” And God relents, though we get the sense that God is not yet over it.
I imagine this one of those times for Moses where you know you have to defend someone in a given situation because it’s your job, but you’re just waiting to be alone to really let them have it. It’s like he’s is fighting for his kid against the teacher who wants to fail him, but on the drive home is going to let that kid know he’s grounded for a month. With God placated for the time being, I imagine Moses gathering steam as he continues on his way down. Finally he gets close enough to see and hear the general drunken raucousness going on, golden calf at the center, and his nostrils flare, and in one swift movement, Moses hurls down the stone tablets representing God’s covenant with the people and they shatter into pieces. Then he takes the calf, grinds it into dust, adds water, and makes the people drink it. (You don’t remember that part of the story from Sunday School, do you?) Then Moses turns to Aaron and says simply, “What have you done?”
“Don’t blame me,” said Aaron, “I just threw some jewelry into the fire and out popped this calf.” (I always liked that line.)
As I said before, it’s human nature to need something to worship. Most of us probably aren’t too worried about being tempted to bow down to a golden calf. Not literally, anyway. But idols aren’t just metal statues. Idols can be anything we worship that aren’t actually God. What do you think are some of our modern-day idols, either personally or culturally?
“Human nature,” said John Calvin, “is a perpetual factory of idols.”
And yet I also think idolatry is a tricky thing. The reason it’s tricky is because maybe we’re not always sure what we’re worshiping and when. If we put a lot of energy into worrying about money, does that mean money is an idol? If we revere a particular leader, are we committing idolatry? At what level does our loyalty to a political party and its ideology veer into idolatry? My guess is that when we do, or like, or revere, these things ourselves, they are simply parts of a faithful and well-prioritized life; but when someone else does them in a way that we don’t like, it’s idolatry.
Things I’ve heard called “idols” include Trump and Obama, America and Wall Street, contemporary worship music and old church hymns, even sometimes the Bible itself, when each literal word is raised above the Holy Spirit and the love that Jesus taught.
The theologian Paul Tillich defined faith as “ultimate concern.” Sure, we need money, but is it getting in the way of living a life pleasing to God? How about really? Sure, it’s OK to achieve success in our careers, but are we making choices in light of our ambition instead of our call? What is our ultimate concern?
In the end – like with most forms of sin – the question probably isn’t “What are other people’s idols?” but “What are mine?” Maybe that second commandment, rather than giving us a box to check off or not check off or just a rule to follow, instead invites us into reflection about what our ultimate values and priorities in life are.
And maybe the even more interesting question to reflect on is why, in fact, we as humans are so drawn to the worship of idols.
If I’m honest, I have some sympathy for those Israelites wandering in the wilderness, because I understand wanting to put my hope and trust in something tangible. It’s hard, sometimes, to trust that God really knows what God is doing, or that God is even really there, when God isn’t someone I can see or have a conversation with. It’s easy, especially perhaps in moments of high anxiety, to wonder if perhaps I’ve made the whole thing up. Never mind that these people have literally just walked through the sea on dry land to freedom following this God of cloud and fire. I like to think that if something like that had happened to me, if God showed up in my life in such a powerful and obvious way, that I would never have doubts again. But the truth is that it doesn’t usually work that way. I look back and I can see that thing God did as the result of so many other factors at play, in retrospect. Or I simply wonder, as the Israelites have already done, where God is now.
In the wilderness of our own lives, we want to believe that someone or something is going to make it all OK, and we, too, want that someone or something to be something we can see, someone whose rallies we can attend, numbers in a stock portfolio, substances that make us feel a certain way – anything that makes that promise tangible to us.
And yet to live as people of faith means to live into the mystery of who God is, this God surrounded by cloud and darkness, this God we can’t see or touch or wrap our minds around, whose very presence with us we sometimes question. This is the God who travels with us through the wilderness, this is the God who leads us to freedom, this is the God who names us as God’s people.
We long for something black and white, we long for something solid and gold, but God invites us into a life and relationship that is dynamic and mysterious and adventurous and hard but also full of love and grace and provision.
The day after the Golden Calf Incident, Moses goes back to have another word with God. The future of God and God’s people is still up in the air. Moses moves once again between his role as leader of the people and his role as intermediary with God, and angry as he is, he pleads with God to forgive them.
God’s forgiveness, in this story, is not an instantaneous thing. You can read it if you want the details of the conversation. I know some of these Hebrew Bible stories can shock us a little bit with a God who gets angry, who doesn’t seem to always forgive as easily as we would like to believe. But I think it’s important to remember that while people’s understanding of God undoubtedly evolved and changed over time, this God of the Hebrew Bible is the same God we meet in Jesus – who also gets mad at the idolatry he sees in the Temple, and at people who make law and not love their ultimate concern. Stories like these remind us that God’s forgiveness isn’t cheap – but it is real. The story (at least this part of it) ends with God telling Moses to make two new tablets. The covenant that was broken is renewed.
And that’s the good news for us, claiming our identity as God’s people today – our God is a God of second chances. Our God renews broken covenants.
And when the people continue their journey into the Promised Land, it will be with this mysterious, powerful, inscrutable, gracious God in their midst.
 The CEB Study Bible, p. 138 OT