The incident of the golden calf is one of those iconic stories from the Bible. It lends itself so easily to our all-too-human tendency to bow down to the neon gods we’ve made. From Wall Street to state and national politics, from the runways of the fashion industry to the stages of the entertainment industry, from the lucrative culture of professional sports to the vast consumerist culture which permeates society and the church…it’s not hard at all to see golden calves popping up everywhere!
As the curtain goes up today, the Israelites are still encamped at the base of Mt. Sinai. Moses has been up on the mountain now for 40 days and 40 nights, as Exodus tells us. Not just to fetch the 10 Commandments, but to receive from God all the Law—the commandments and rules and statutes and ordinances and precepts of the whole Law. Together with the blueprints and specifications for the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, and all the other furnishings for the Tabernacle. The order of sacrifices and festivals to be observed by this nation. The whole hierarchy of the priests and Levites, and their attire. In fact, God is dictating to Moses the whole structure for Israel as a holy nation. And this goes on for 40 days and 40 nights.
Now if you’ve ever been a classroom teacher, you know what can happen if you step out of the room for even a couple moments. Moses has left a whole nation of children alone for 40 days and 40 nights. They do find something to occupy their time!
V1, “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, ‘Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’”
They figure Moses is toast! That mountain on fire, quaking, smoking, covered with clouds, and emitting really strange sounds like a trumpet blast…oh yeah, Moses is long gone! And El Shaddai, this God of the mountain is far too big and terrifying to be their mascot. You can’t capture Him on a bumper sticker! Better to have a god more down to size. A tangible, manageable god “to go before us.” That’s what Israel wants.
And Aaron, Moses’ brother (the room monitor left in charge during teacher’s absence)? Faithful Aaron immediately tries to talk the people out of their misguided idea? Wrong! He doesn’t even hesitate. V2, “So Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’” They do. Lots of gold earrings. V4, “And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf.”
Okay, so why a calf? Don’t really know. Perhaps it was an image of the Egyptian bull god, Apis, the spokesman for the chief god, Osiris. If the Israelites were thinking about heading back to Egypt, perhaps they wanted to start making amends! Or, if they intended to go on to Canaan, the bull or bull calf was often used in the cult of the Canaanite god, Baal. But, ultimately, Exodus doesn’t tell us why a calf.
Now, Aaron may not have intended this golden calf to be their god, per se, but only to be a throne, so to speak, for The God. V4, the people shout, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” But Aaron, v5, tries to redeem his golden creation, sanctify it for worshiping God. V5, “He built an altar before it. And Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.’” Notice, “LORD” is spelled with all capitol letters. The people want a new god. Aaron compromises by putting his golden calf into the true God’s service.
But…it’s not what God wanted. This is all about what the people wanted. They wanted worship which served their self-gratification. So Aaron’s compromise with culture simply capitulates to their desire. V6, “And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” And that word “play” means exactly what people who indulge their appetites get into… Once you feed those appetites, they do get less restrained.
Meanwhile, back up on the mountain… And this is what makes this whole episode so delicious! It’s the dialogue between God and Moses. It’s what happens between God and Moses. The people…well, the people are doing what people will do. But Moses…ah, Moses suddenly does the Jesus thing.
V7, “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves.’” I love it! Suddenly God is calling them “your people.” When the kids misbehave they’re no longer “my people,” they’re yours! “Your people…whom you brought out.”
But down in v11, Moses is not going to get pulled into that game! “But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does Your anger burn hot against Your people, whom You brought out of the land of Egypt…’” “Oh no, God, they’re not my people! They’re yours!”
Okay, I know…Moses and God are not trying to pawn the Israelites off on each other. What God is saying is that by their actions, Israel has ceased to be His people. They might still say some of the right words, but they are worshiping their own creation, their own appetites and desires. And what Moses is doing is what Jesus will do. Even though the people sin, big time, that doesn’t necessarily make them NOT God’s people. But it does mean that something else is going to have to save them.
And Moses gets right to it because God declared His intentions. V9, “I have seen this people, and, behold, they are a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.’” God intends to annihilate Israel, wipe them all out, and start over with Moses.
But Moses turns down this golden calf opportunity. “You don’t wanna do that, God!” he says. “It won’t play well in the media!” V12, “‘Why should the Egyptians say, “With evil intent did He bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth”?’”
And then, Moses proves himself a great redeemer. This isn’t just a potential PR disaster. He points God to God’s own promise. V13, “‘Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel [that is, Jacob] Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them, “I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.”’” Moses points God to God’s own promise. He turns God against God. “And the Lord relented from the disaster that He had spoken of bringing on His people.”
Because God has made a promise, He must keep it; which is also true for us today. If God has promised, even if the people have become swine, He must keep His promise. And Moses points to that promise. He doesn’t minimize the people’s actions. He doesn’t try to explain them away or justify them or put some sort of spin on them. Nothing of the kind. Moses points to the promise of Abraham. And it is that promise which spares Israel from destruction…except for those Israelites who do not repent.
V19, “As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets [those famous two stone tablets on which God had written the testimony of that whole mountaintop experience]…he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain.” He’s angry and his anger will bring him consequences, but this is also a sign of a broken covenant with God. “He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it.” A foul, bitter medicine.
But there’s worse to come. In v26, Moses takes a stand at the camp gates and says, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me.” And those who repent, those who recognize their sin, come to Moses’ side. He then orders the people who stand with God to take their swords and go through the camp of Israel, v27, “and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.” V28, they do. “And that day about three thousand men of the people fell.” Finally, v35, “Then the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf, the one that Aaron had made.”
This story really is so grim. Yes, God’s mercy is great; but His judgment is so severe! But like so many of the stories in the Old Testament it does reveal how much greater is the action of Jesus on His cross, where all of God’s judgment and mercy meets. In Israel the people shed their own blood for their own sin…but Jesus becomes that brother and companion and neighbor shedding His blood for us, for us who easily raise up golden calves. The plague of our sin comes upon Jesus. Jesus takes it all for us, and we are left with the promise to which the crucified Jesus points us and God.
As St. Paul writes today, “You who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds [indulging our appetite for golden calves], He has now reconciled in His body of flesh by His death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before Him.” “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
Oh, to have a greater Redeemer in Jesus than Israel had in Moses, great as he was…it is a thing of joy. For we are often little different from Israel when it comes to our love of golden calves, our tendency to create our own gods or no gods at all.
But here, today, one greater than Moses calls us away from such bitter drink to stand with Him and taste a sweeter cup. A high priest greater than Aaron has built His altar, offers His own body, pours out His own blood…for us. “Taste and see.” The Lord has promised, “Taste and live.” It is so good…greater than gold! And once we have tasted His good promise…well, we may go out and find better things to do with all that other bull!