In this weeks session we take a look at a famous incident in the life of Israel – the small matter of the Golden Calf – and explore its significance both then and now. The story is well known, but all is perhaps not as it initially seems…
Read Exodus 32:1-29
Firstly a note on the text itself: In terms of the flow of the historical narrative Chapter 32 actually follows on from the end of Chapter 24. The textual link of Moses ascending Mt Sinai is clear to see. The chapters in between are a later addition to the historical narrative most likely by the deuteronomist redactor.
To recap: recently the covenant has been established and confirmed and the parameters of Israel’s special relationship with Yahweh have been laid out – the instructions for worship and life. They are the jewel in the crown of all creation, Gods treasured possession, and by fulfilling their obligations under the covenant they are assured of this status, their inheritance in the promised land, and the continued presence of God in their midst. So far so good.
In Chapter 32 we pick up the story after Moses has ascended Mount Sinai to meet with God. Moses has been on the mountain for ’40 days and 40 nights’ (a term used to denote a long period not necessarily exactly 40 days and 40 nights). And in his absence things begin to go very badly wrong…
Where it all goes wrong…
For the people of Israel:
A shattering act of disobedience takes place in Moses absence that threatens the very life of this fledgling nation. The Golden Calf is crafted. All that God has done for them so far, all that God has promised them in the future is in jeopardy, and the situation in which the people find themselves is more dangerous than the situation they faced in Egypt.
The people who God has called his ‘special treasure’ whose identity has been established by the arrival of the presence of God in their midst, are in danger of becoming a people with no identity at all, a non-people, a non-nation. Torn apart by the centrifugal forces of their own selfish rebellion, and left in a land that is more empty than can be imagined because it had previously been so full of the presence of Yahweh. Such is the seriousness of the rebellion that takes place.
Moses has been away for a long period of time and the people come to Aaron and threateningly demand that a God or God’s be made. Aaron, in a terrible
moment of weakness responds and does just that – making the golden calf.
Aaron weakness has dragged him into the rebellion of the people and made him complicit in the undermining of Moses. Not only does he cast the calf, but he sets up an altar to it and announces a sacred feast – but more of that later.
Here’s a question. What is really going on here?
As mentioned in the introduction, it’s a well known story, but all may not be quite as it seems…
Of course the simple answer to the question ‘what’s going on here?’ is ‘rebellion’ – but there is a bit more too it than that as we see when we study the details of the passage. And the details are important because it’s in the details that the parallels can be drawn between the experience of the Hebrews and our own experience.
On the surface it might seem as though Israel has turned away from Yahweh and set up an alternative god to Yahweh - the Golden Calf - but a careful reading of the scriptures suggests this is not quite true.
Reflect and Discuss: Before reading on in the notes, why not re-read the text. Moving away from the idea that Israel has simply replaced Yahweh with another god – what else could it be?
To get to the bottom of this we need to remember some history:
Up to this point the Israelite community have attributed their rescue from Egypt and subsequent protection in the wilderness to Yahweh. Specifically they have linked the presence of Yahweh in the midst of his people with the presence of their leader Moses. After-all Moses is the one to whom God reveals himself most fully, and Moses is the one who has led the people out of Egypt. The thinking so far has been that if Moses leaves Israel, so too does the presence of God.
And at this point in the story Moses appears to have left. He’s been up the mountain for an awfully long time. Some of the Hebrews perhaps think he’s left for good, run away from the burden of leading them. Others, perhaps more charitably, presume something terrible has happened, an accident or the like.
Either way it appears to the people that Moses has gone, and with him the presence of Yahweh and his protection. Naturally this causes a problem for the people who have attributed their salvation to the presence of God which in turn is guaranteed by the presence of Moses.
And so the people look for something else, another assurance of God’s presence with them. They effectively transfer the guarantee of the presence of Yahweh from Moses to the Golden calf.
Aaron says in verse 4 “these are your gods who brought you out of Egypt” Implying not that Israel has turned her back on Yahweh, and is crediting another god with her salvation, but instead that the representation of Yahweh in their midst is now to be located in the Golden Calf. Yahweh has just become a bull!
Following this Aaron announces a sacred feast. There’s nothing unusual in this, it was a standard way of honouring a diety – and in this case Aaron says that the festival will be to honour the Lord. The actual word he uses here is ‘Yahweh’ – the feast will honour “Yahweh”. Again this is important because it tells us that the Golden Calf is not a separate or new God, but is instead the new manifestation of the presence of Yahweh.
One old testament commentator describes it like this:
“The Israelites are transferring the centre of authority of faith in Yahweh from Moses and the laws and symbols he announced to a Golden Calf without laws and without any symbols beyond itself.”
Why is this important?
Because Moses is the representative of God who is invisible in mystery. The calf, the new image of Yahweh, compromises the invisibility and mystery of God by its very nature as an image expressly forbidden by God.
The tragedy is that the wonderful, magnificent, mysterious presence of the One who is called ‘I am” is substituted for a mere statue, something that Yahweh has expressly prohibited.
Bringing this closer to home…
The basic premise of this whole series on Exodus has been that the experience of life, faith, and the presence of God made known of the Hebrews parallels our own experience of life, faith, and the presence of God made known. That there is enough shared heritage if you like to usefully draw lessons and encouragements for the present from their experience in the past.
And so what can we draw from this particular episode?
In one sense it’s simple: The Hebrews fear and doubt combined to lead them to a place of unfaithfulness. Fearing that the presence of God had left them, unable to accept and live with the inherent invisibility and mystery of Yahweh, they recast him in their own terms. Terms that they could understand, control, manipulate even. Terms that made sense to them.
We, as those who live under the new covenant are privileged to have a greater revelation of the person and presence of God, most fully in Jesus Christ. And yet, even in this supreme act of accommodation, even in revealing himself in terms we can understand, God remains to us invisible and mysterious.
And that is difficult. We like to understand. We like to define. Living with mystery and the unknown is difficult. And so perhaps we too face the same situation.
It is perhaps helpful to ask ourselves some questions:
In what ways do we recast the invisible and mysterious God in our own terms?
In what ways do we make Christ as we want him to be rather than as he is revealed.
To what degree are we able to live faithfully and confidently with the invisible and mysterious God?
To what degree do we attempt to remove from God the qualities of mystery and invisibility?
In times of difficulty, when the presence of God seems far off, do we create ‘stand ins’ for God?
In the case of the Hebrews the prompt for their mistake was the fear that the presence of God might have left them. In their state of fear and anxiety they acted rashly and rebelliously and created a stand in for the presence of Yahweh.
The tragedy for the Hebrews was in creating the Golden Calf the wonder and glory of God in all of his ‘otherness’ and holy mystery was lost and replaced by something so mundane and simply ordinary
In the small matter of the Golden Calf Israel attempted to guarantee God’s presence with them by a method other than the fulfilling of the terms of the covenant relationship. Their method was one that Yahweh himself had said was unacceptable having already laid down the terms on which his presence with his people would remain. . The Calf was not a god – simply something to ensure that Gods glory would not depart from his people as they hoped that Yahweh would identify with the statue.
The final point to think about this evening is this:
In Christ we are assured of our status as those who live under the new covenant. Through the gift of the Holy-Spirit we are assured of the presence of God with us. The terms of the new covenant and the continued presence of God are clearly rooted in the person and work of Christ and the placing of our trust in him. But like Israel, do we sometimes look to guarantee God’s presence with us in other ways? Do we seek to ensure the presence of God remains through terms other than those God has set for his covenant people? Do we create a ‘Golden Calf' in order to try and find assurance that Gods presence is still with us?