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|"The Golden Calf"
It wasn’t that long ago that the Dow Jones industrial
average was registering in the eleven thousand point range, up from
less than six thousand only a few years earlier. The late
nineties were a joyous bull market ride.
Well, the market has had its ups and downs, and trading is now in the mid ten thousand range.
But if you are a sports fan you’ve seen this same kind of phenomenon happen to your favorite team. It has a mediocre record and then shows significant improvement.
But then, after a while, fortunes change, the improvement disappears, and we are back where we started.
In the story of the Exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt, we see a people who have been in bondage for a very long time. But God calls upon Moses to take the case of the Israelites to Pharaoh, to ask for their release. And God helps out with ten plagues. Finally, Pharaoh relents and lets them go. But then he changes his mind and sends his armies after them. Still, God, working through Moses, has one more heroic escape mechanism.
God gives Moses the power to part the sea to let the Israelites cross it, and then drowns the armies that are trying to follow.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I think there’s a lot to cheer about here. This is your investments striking it rich. This is your favorite team having an undefeated season. This is grounds for what Alan Greenspan calls irrational exuberance. We should be excited!
Unfortunately, somehow, it wears off. It goes away.
Maybe this is normal, human behavior, but listen to what is happening in the opening to the thirty-second chapter of Exodus:
“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, 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.’
Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’”
I cannot read these verses without becoming extremely critical of these people; but I also need to ask myself, would I have behaved like this? Do we in these contemporary times behave like this?
Notice what these folks are reacting to: Moses delayed. We’re talking major impatience. But then, I am guilty of that. Some of the worst decisions of my life were the results of impatience.
But not only do they believe that they have lost Moses, but they also believe that they have lost faith in whatever he stood for. They have lost God. And I need to ask myself, how deep--or shallow--was their faith?
Was it good only as long as they could see and hear Moses? Then was it faith at all?
And apparently what they need to believe in is something they can SEE. “Make gods for us.” I’m sorry, but from the evidence I see here, these people have no faith at all.
So they turn to Aaron. Aaron is second in command. And in the absence of Moses, Aaron is in charge. And what do we get from him? “Take off your gold rings and bring them to me.”
Now, Aaron could have said, “Let’s wait awhile. Moses will be back. He is just gone longer than we had expected.” But no, spineless Aaron IMMEDIATELY tells them what they need to do for him to make gods for them. What a total absence of spiritual leadership. Without Moses, this herd is a lost cause.
Meanwhile, “...all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
Now, notice that they believe in SOMETHING. They WANT to believe in something. They are not claiming that they alone are responsible for their accomplishments. They are not patting themselves on the back proclaiming that they have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. But they have chosen to lavish their worship upon a golden calf.
“When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.”
Now, I’m not sure to what Aaron is referring when he says “the Lord.” Because only a dozen chapters earlier in Exodus, God gave these folks some rules, including “you shall have no other gods before me,” and “you shall not make for yourself an idol.”
And a short time later we read, “all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.”
Perhaps with Moses gone, and the suspicion that he would not be returning, these folks really did believe that the God of Moses was gone also.
“They rose early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.”
And they are having a good time. Moses is gone. Forget about him. And forget about that God that he was claiming; we have our own now.
Well, it’s easy to dump on those folks; but let’s consider our own lives. Have we ever experienced times when God seemed removed from us?
Or have we ever associated God with a person or persons or organizations or events, and then, when something in that context would change, we would find our relationship to God would also change? Have we ever felt frustrated and impatient with God and tempted to throw out all of God’s guidelines, abandoning them for the rules of the secular world?
Surprise! God is not dead nor does God sleep. “The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.”
And it makes one wonder how much longer Moses would have stayed on the mountain if God had not urged him to return. I often think that God does things to test us; pushes us to strengthen us, to enourage us in how to live our lives.
Getting out of Egypt was not easy, but it was a major victory. And how often, after major victories, are we tempted to celebrate and coast, to take it easy? I think God knew that if he made life easy on the Israelites they would just coast. So if they were to be prepared and deserving of the promised land when they arrived there, God needed to keep them on the edge.
And what else does God tell Moses about his followers?
“they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
“Quick to turn aside.”
But I suspect that this is partly because they have not had these commandments long enough. They have not had enough time to learn them, to live with them. They have not experienced either their rewards or their punishments. In a sense they continue to be Egyptian slaves, slaves to doing things the way they had always done them.
Well, God is not happy with the Israelites.
“The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.” One meaning of this is to say that they are stubborn. But underlying that stubbornness may be arrogance.
God may be seeing them as a people who are set in their ways, unteachable, beyond obedience.
The Israelites have VIOLATED God’s commands. They have IGNORED God’s role in their lives. They have REPLACED God with a golden calf. It is exceedingly kind of God to call them “stiff-necked.”
But how often do we suffer from a loss of memory? Frequently in our lives things do not go well. So do we then forget all the GOOD that God has done for us? Does the history of our relationship with God suddenly evaporate? I think Job said it best: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”
Well, God is irritated. And God said to Moses, “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
The Israelites ran out of patience with God, and now God has run out of patience with the Israelites.
Folks, this is SERIOUS! God is prepared to eradicate these people. Forget the covenant! No ifs, ands, or buts. But God will take care of Moses. God appears prepared to shift the promise he made to Abraham to Moses. God is ready to start all over.
It is not mentioned here, but God has done this before. God started all over with the family of Noah after the flood.
Well, Moses has brought these people, disobedient though they may be, a long ways and through much hardship. He’s not quite ready to give them up yet.
“...Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?”
Now, on one level, Moses knows darn good and well why God is upset, and we may wonder why he is asking the question. But look more closely. The question is not that simple. On another level, Moses is asking God, “Why, given all that YOU have gone through, all the miracles YOU performed, all the mighty acts for which YOU were responsible, why are you now going to give up on these people?”
Moses is trying to throw God into a state of contradiction, asking God, “How can you suddenly REVERSE all your actions?”
Moses continues: “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’?
“Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.”
What an odd ploy! Moses is asking, “What will the neighbors say!” But Moses is also asking God, “Do you wish to be perceived as a God who did not love the Israelites when you brought them out of Egypt?” Well, of course not. God DID love the Israelites, or God would not have gone to all that trouble. So Moses is asking for the unbelievable: change your mind.
Now, theologically, this should cause our minds to do mental flip-flops. Is it possible for God to change God’s mind? Or do we believe that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever? Well, biblically, this is not the first time that this has happened.
Abraham managed to get God to change God’s mind in dealing with Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact, God changed God’s mind more than once in that conversation!
Moses extends his argument: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them,
“I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.”
“And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”
God changed God’s mind. Or did he, really? Or was this a test of Moses, to strengthen Moses, to prepare him to deal with the disobedient people he had been called to lead? Because he is going to need all the strength he can muster.
When he returns down the mountain, he will encounter a people who have given up on him and on God.
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