Exodus 32:1-14 Common English Bible (CEB)
32 The people saw that Moses was taking a long time to come down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come on! Make us gods who can lead us. As for this man Moses who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t have a clue what has happened to him.”
2 Aaron said to them, “All right, take out the gold rings from the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took out the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 He collected them and tied them up in a cloth. Then he made a metal image of a bull calf, and the people declared, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf. Then Aaron announced, “Tomorrow will be a festival to the Lord!” 6 They got up early the next day and offered up entirely burned offerings and brought well-being sacrifices. The people sat down to eat and drink and then got up to celebrate.
7 The Lord spoke to Moses: “Hurry up and go down! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, are ruining everything! 8 They’ve already abandoned the path that I commanded. They have made a metal bull calf for themselves. They’ve bowed down to it and offered sacrifices to it and declared, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” 9 The Lord said to Moses, “I’ve been watching these people, and I’ve seen how stubborn they are. 10 Now leave me alone! Let my fury burn and devour them. Then I’ll make a great nation out of you.”
11 But Moses pleaded with the Lord his God, “Lord, why does your fury burn against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and amazing force? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘He had an evil plan to take the people out and kill them in the mountains and so wipe them off the earth’? Calm down your fierce anger. Change your mind about doing terrible things to your own people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, whom you yourself promised, ‘I’ll make your descendants as many as the stars in the sky. And I’ve promised to give your descendants this whole land to possess for all time.’” 14 Then the Lord changed his mind about the terrible things he said he would do to his people.
Many of us are visual people. We need to see it to believe it. Moses may have seen the burning bush, but the rest of the people only saw Yahweh through the eyes of Moses. Now, Moses seemed to have disappeared. He had gone up the mountain to talk with God once again, but hadn’t returned, so the people became afraid. They needed something to reassure them that God was with them on this journey from slavery to a new life in the Promised Land. Yes, they had experienced God’s provisions, but how long would they last without some sense of guidance. What they needed, or so they thought, was a visual image of Yahweh. They needed tangible proof that God was with them. So, they asked Aaron, the brother of Moses, to create an image of Yahweh. Aaron, seemingly without giving any thought to the matter, agreed. Aaron instructed the men of the community to gather gold rings from their wives, sons, and daughters. He told them to bring these items to him, so he could create an image that would serve to reassure the people that the LORD was with them. He created a golden bull calf from the gold he collected, set up an altar on which he sets the image, and then tells the people—here is the Lord who led you out of Egypt. Yes, this golden calf is Yahweh, or so Aaron wanted to believe.
In terms of the lectionary, it is important to remember that in the prior reading, for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, we find the Ten Commandments. The second commandment is rather specific about matters such as the one being described in this passage.
Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth.5 Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. 6 But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6).
Part of the covenant agreement is that the people will not create an image of God. Nothing one sees on earth, under the earth, or above the earth, should be utilized to picture God. Aaron should have known this. After all, he was the brother of Moses and his divinely appointed spokesperson. He was the priest of Israel, the one who was supposed to lead the community in worship. Yes, Aaron should not have been complicit in this activity, and yet he seems ready and willing to do so. In fact, he knew exactly what to do in this matter.
It is important that we remember that the thread that joins the semi-continuous readings for this season of Pentecost is this covenant relationship, which God initiated with Abraham and Sarah and continues to renew as time passes. God initiates the covenant and is faithful to the covenant, but the expectation is that the people will reciprocate and remain faithful to the covenant relationship. One of the ways in which this reciprocity is demonstrated is through following rules like the Ten Commandments. We’ve already explored these commandments in the previous reflection, and in that reflection, we discovered that the commandments are an expression of the call to love God and love neighbor. You might say that the cohesion of this covenant community is rooted in living out the call to love God and love one’s neighbor. The ten rules simply help us better understand what this means.
In this story, Yahweh, whom we’ve already been told is a jealous God, sees what has happened, and tells Moses to go down to Moses’ people, whom Moses led out of Egypt. God tells Moses that the people have offered sacrifices to this image they are calling their god. The Lord said to Moses, “I’ve been watching these people, and I’ve seen how stubborn they are.” That is an ongoing critique of the covenant people of God. It is likely a useful critique of the Christian community down through ages. We too have created images and bowed down to them, offering sacrifices. We have caused God a lot of grief, and so if we apply human emotions God, it’s no wonder God would burn with anger and want to destroy God’s people and start over.
As often happens in scripture, a human intermediary steps in and cools God’s anger. Abraham did it with regard to Sodom and Gomorrah, but it took the presence of his nephew Lot and his family in Sodom to stay God’s hand. But, you know how that ended. The inhospitable treatment meted out to strangers led to the demise of those cities. The situation is different here, but God needs to cool down, and Moses serves that purpose. Moses talks God down from the precipice and buys time for Israel. Moses reminds God of the covenant, of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This people might be stubborn, but God has promised to bless the nations through this covenant people. So, God changed God’s mind. Yes, God’s mind can be changed. That’s an intriguing point, isn’t it?
Now as to the divine anger expressed here, I’m not sure I completely agree with the portrayal, at least not in terms of my own vision of God. Yes, we’re told that God is jealous, but does God really need to be talked down from destroying the people by Moses? Is Moses more ethical than Yahweh? Besides, if we affirm the principle that God is love, and that God’s steadfast love endures forever, can God lash out, even against the most stubborn of peoples?
I’ll leave that question hanging, so we can return to the issue of the image. The covenant stipulation is that no image should be made of God. We may like a tangible god, but this is not the God who has made a covenant with Israel and led them out of Egypt. Neither is that bearded old man we so often see in pictures. But perhaps more important is the material out of which the calf is formed. It is made of gold, that precious metal that we seem so intent upon accumulating. I am a Star Trek fan, and one of the species that appears regularly is the Ferengi, whose whole culture is based on acquisition. Their set of commandments are the “Rules of Acquisition.” Gordon Gecko, in the movie Wall Street, famously declared “greed is good.” So it goes. The gold itself becomes the idol, that altar at which we bow in worship. Here is our god, who we acclaim as our redeemer, our liberator. Gold is bright and malleable. Yes, gold can be manipulated. So can golden idols. As Miguel de la Torre writes: “The stiff-necked people who choose mammon over God risk being consumed by their own greed” [PreachingGod’s Transforming Justice, p. 431]
As we live in tumultuous times, when we feel lost and alone and false prophets appeal to anger, greed, self-preservation, may we resist that voice that suggests we need to create gods to lead us, gods of our own making. Yes, may we say no to the gods created in our own image or in the image of anything else God has created. Instead, may we turn back to the God of Love who leads us out of slavery into the promised land of grace. May we remain faithful to the covenant God makes with us in Christ, so that we might be a blessing to the nations.
Picture Attribution: The Golden Calf from The Nuremberg Chronicle, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54273 [retrieved October 9, 2017]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nuremberg_chronicles_-_Golden_calf.png.