Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Last week, we considered the ten commandments, as presented in Exodus 20. This week, we will explore what happens twelve chapters later in Exodus 32. What happened in between? Well, you might remember that at the end of last week’s passage, the people were terrified. They had heard the voice of God echoing from the top of the mountain, which, based on the description in Exodus, seems to have been in the middle of a volcanic eruption and a thunderstorm both happening at the same time. No wonder they were so afraid. They begged Moses to speak with God for them, to not allow God to speak to them directly ever again, because they were afraid that if they heard God’s voice again, they would die. So the people remained encamped at the base of the mountain of God, while Moses climbed up into the midst of the smoke and ash, to communicate with God directly, on behalf of the people. There are a few interludes in the story, where other leaders of the people get to go up and experience God with Moses, but for the most part, it’s just Moses and God up on the mountain of fire. For twelve chapters, God dictates the law to Moses. There are all of the moral and ethical laws that we would expect. But there are also detailed instructions about the tabernacle that the people are supposed to build, about the altar, the lamp stands, and the ark of the covenant. There are also detailed instructions about what the priests are supposed to wear, and about how they are supposed to be ordained.
Moses must have been up there on the mountain for quite some time. The people down on the desert plain begin to worry. And still more time passes, and Moses does not return. Finally, the people give up hope that Moses is ever going to come down off the mountain. Exodus says, “When the people realized that Moses was taking forever in coming down off the mountain, they rallied around Aaron.”
Remember, they have all left the only life they have ever known, the only life even their great-grandparents had ever known: life in Egypt. It may have been a life of slavery, but it was also life in the greatest and most powerful civilization in the world at that time. They may not have been free, but at least they had purpose, and they always had food to eat. They lived in the most magnificent cities in the world.
Now they find themselves out wandering in the wilderness. They may have been able to endure all of these changes as long as Moses was around to lead them. But now, Moses is gone too. He’s been up on that mountain for who knows how long. Something bad must have happened up there. No one could survive up there with the fire and the smoke, and in the very presence of a fearsome and jealous God. With Moses gone, they want security. They go to Aaron, Moses’s younger brother, to ask him to act on their behalf.
This is the point where most of us modern readers become exasperated with the ancient Israelites. If we thought God had let us down, the last thing on our minds would be to go and create some new gods out of gold and worship them. After all, the very first commandment is: you shall have no other gods before me. Just how faithless are these Israelites, anyway?
Remember, though, we have had several thousand years to become accustomed to monotheism. These people had never even heard of the idea there was only one God. We’ve had thousands of years to get used to not worshiping a statue of God. These people knew that every god there was was represented in a statue and worshiped. It may seem strange for us to think that they would have made themselves a god of gold, but for them, it was only natural; it was everything that they knew.
And we may be giving the ancient Israelites more grief than they deserve. The New Revised Standard Version says that the people said to Aaron, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us.” And later, when the calf is built, they say, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” Clearly, it seems like the people have abandoned the God of Israel in favor of the old gods they had always known.
But there’s something odd. Aaron makes a single golden calf. He only makes one idol. But the people say, “These are our gods.” Why would they say “these are our gods” if Aaron has made them only one god? Something strange is going on here.
And here’s the problem. In Hebrew, the most generic word for god is el. It’s the same root as the Arabic word Allah. You’ve heard it before in names like El Shaddai, God of Armies, or El Elyon, God Most High. In Hebrew, the plural form of el is elohim. So if you want to talk about “the gods,” you say elohim. Unfortunately, elohim is also one of the personal names of the God of Israel. If you see the word elohim in a Hebrew text, it’s impossible to tell whether it’s referring to “the gods” or whether it is referring to capital-G God. The NRSV has chosen in this place to translate elohim as gods. But other translators choose a translation that, I think, makes more sense: God. The people don’t ask Aaron to make new gods for them, they simply ask him to make for them a statue of their God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. They don’t break the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me;” they break the second commandment, “You shall make no graven images.”
How can we be sure that this is the better translation? In verse five, after the people have accepted the golden calf that he has made, Aaron tells them, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” Remember last week I told you that any time you see the word the Lord, printed in all capital letters, the Hebrew behind that is actually the personal name of God, YHWH, which in Jewish tradition is never spoken allowed. Why would they have a festival to YHWH if they thought that this golden calf was anything other than a representation of YHWH? They wouldn’t. They have not abandoned the God who led them out of Egypt. They have simply broken God’s rules by trying to worship him in the form of a statue. It’s not that they’ve given up on God, it’s that they incorrectly understand who God is. They’ve gotten too caught up in the ways that their culture understands God.
Now, chances are that none of us have golden calf statues at home that we bow down and pray to. And since we don’t, it’s easy for us to distance ourselves from this story. It’s easy for us to feel self-assured that we would never do anything remotely like what those silly ancient Israelites did. We would never make a golden idol.
But if their sin wasn’t abandoning God, but misunderstanding who God is, then maybe that is something we can relate to. Maybe the sin of those wandering Hebrews isn’t quite as foreign as it seemed at first.
Aren’t there ways that we get confused about who God is, and what God is about? Aren’t there ways that we take the values of our nation and our culture and pretend like they are actually the values of God? Aren’t there times that we create for ourselves an image of God that doesn’t bear much resemblance to who and what God really is?
For example, it’s not uncommon to think that people who make money in the stock market are blessed by God. It’s normal and expected for Christians to save and invest. It’s generally considered a responsible, Christian thing to do. Clergy pension plans are invested in the market, as are other church funds. The bible, though, is pretty clear that usury, the act of collecting interest on money, is completely forbidden. If the bible says that earning interest is forbidden, how do we so easily say these days that earning interest is a responsible and Godly thing.
We also often consider our style of government to be a godly thing. Democracy, the rule of the people is generally accepted by Christians as somewhat God-given. We say that God has endowed all humans with certain inalienable human rights, and those God-given rights are the basis for our social interaction. And yet, the bible seems to suggest that the only acceptable form of government is absolute theocracy. The people can’t be trusted to rule properly. Only God, and God’s specially appointed priests and prophets can rule. The biblical standard for good government looks more like the government of Iran than it looks like the government of the United States.
Now, I’m not saying that we would be better off with a totalitarian government and an economy with no loans or investments. What I am trying to point out is how easily we take practices that are at least religiously ambiguous and we claim them wholeheartedly as the indisputable will of God. Is American democracy a good form of government? Yes, when it’s working properly, considering the alternatives, it seems to be pretty good. Is it a God-given form of government? No, it’s not, even though we often talk as if it is. We seem to find it fairly easy to create God in whatever image we find most expedient. We find it quite easy to mold God into whatever we most want God to be. We may not make God into a golden calf, but we seem pretty good at forming God into a bald eagle, or into a bronze bull like the one on Wall Street.
It’s been a long time since anyone in our culture has tried to worship a golden statue. But in every time and generation, we run the risk of molding our own images of God. We are always at risk of creating idols, of making things God that are not God. Just like the Israelites in the wilderness, we let our fears and our anxieties overtake us, and we end up taking our own ideas and making them our god.
Fortunately, we have a patient and merciful God. We have a God who gives us second chances. We have a God who shakes us up every once in while and reminds us what God is really about. We have a God who keeps turning us, again and again, the direction toward justice and peace. Thanks be to God for having patience with us. Thanks be to God for reminding us who God is. Thanks be to God for giving us the courage to resist those things and those people who try to install themselves in the places where God is meant to be.