I’ve been reading through the books of the Law in the Old Testament lately, and I’ve had a surprisingly enjoyable time of it; today I’ll share what’s one of the most interesting chapters to me, thus far.
At the start of this chapter, Mount Sinai is surrounded by a spiral of ominous cloud and fire. Moses has been up on the mountain for a long time, receiving instruction from God. But the people don’t know where he has gone and worry that he’s been destroyed.
The root sin behind what happens next is lack of trust in God. It’s easy to miss what’s really going on here – to think that the people of Israel just get impatient. But actually, they’re afraid. They believe that the God who delivered them from Egypt is inscrutable and unknowable. If Moses has been killed on the mountain, then they’re in big trouble and anxiety looms. What happens next?
The people clearly know that Moses’ God is powerful, because of how they were delivered from Egypt. But they don’t really know him. Interestingly, this is what God is actually in the process of doing – giving Moses the commandments that will reveal God’s character and holiness to the people in their everyday lives, through worship and sacrifice. They are afraid of what God can do, but they don’t really fear him.
So what the people choose to do is exchange the unknown, frightening God for a familiar, comfortable god. Remember that all of the living Hebrew people had grown up in Egypt and would have been very familiar with Egyptian gods (and possibly, many engaged in worshiping Egypt’s gods, as well.) When Aaron makes a golden calf, the people would immediately associate it with Apis, the Egyptian bull god who often served as an intermediary between Egypt’s supreme deity and man.
The Israelites are not so much rejecting everything Yahweh has done, or denying His existence. They are rejecting the notion that there is a new and different way to know and encounter God. They don’t trust him and they don’t seem to trust Moses either, so they institute a “backup plan” for connecting with God.
This story of the people casting a golden calf to worship seems funny, but it hits surprisingly close to home. The Hebrews are afraid of the implications of a new God, whose character was largely unknown to them before His miracles in Egypt. So they try to cram their true God Yahweh into a narrative they already understand. They prefer the safety of false gods (and false means of knowing God) to the intimidating reality that they’re about to be introduced to a new way of knowing Him. They don’t like a God who is far more powerful and far more capable than all the deities of Egypt.
This is all only made worse by how excited the people get; they “sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” They are all too eager to indulge themselves and revel once they think they’re gotten away from the frightening God of their forefathers. And adding insult to injury, Aaron denies responsibility for his leading role in this whole debacle: though he built the calf himself, he humorously claims that he threw gold into the fire, and “out came this calf”! God threatens to destroy the Hebrew people, but Moses seemingly persuades God to change his mind.
So what can we learn from this dramatic story?
First, the reality of God, as the Hebrew people saw, is a lot more terrifying than we commonly realize. Faced with a God who makes them uncomfortable and scares them, they retreat to the familiar ways of following gods that have already been discredited by Yahweh. I know from experience that I usually prefer to encounter God in safe, familiar ways, rather than be open to experiencing him in new contexts that might make me uncomfortable.
Second, God wants a close, intimate relationship with us. He doesn’t want us to meet him through some go-between smokescreen. When we settle for our encounter with God being limited to hearing one sermon a week from a pastor, we’re just as bad as the Hebrews who settled for their Egyptian bull idol instead of waiting for God’s instructions on how they would encounter him in a new way. This is even more important for us as Christians to understand, because God is far closer to us than to the people of ancient Israel; if you believe in Jesus, you have the Holy Spirit inside you, and your body, not a tent or building, is now the Temple. As I read through the Law, I come to a greater appreciation of just what a big deal that is.
Third, and most obviously, God wants us to be patient and trust Him. The Hebrews settled for an idol in part because they didn’t trust God and feared that he had either forgotten them or had capricious intent toward them. God was preparing something great and revelatory for them, but in their short-sightedness, they very nearly got themselves destroyed by their impatience. What we can take away is that God has good intentions toward us; he is not trying to screw you over. This is something we rarely believe on purpose, but it bears repeating here since we’re so tempted to believe this absolute oldest of the Enemy’s lies on a daily basis.
As anyone who spends much time in the Old Testament will see, these books are not archaic ramblings about some capricious iron-age deity, but speak to deep truths about the shortcomings of human nature – and more importantly, the God who wants to fix it.