The Golden Calf

Jeroboam Sacrificing to the Golden Calf, Jean-Honore Fragonard 1752

Exodus. 32: 1-14

“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:” Exodus 32:1.

We know that Moses will be on Mount Sinai for forty days. The children of Israel do not. We know that the Ten Commandments are being prepared and that a tabernacle will be constructed out of gold between the wings of two golden cherubim to house the tablets of the law. The children of Israel do not. We know that God has a plan. The children of Israel do not.

Out of frustration and impatience the Israelites ‘jump the gun’ and hound the Priest Aaron to “make Gods for us, who will go before us”. The gold that would have been used to construct the Ark is made instead into a golden calf. The Altar placed before it was instead meant to be placed before the Ark. The worship of Yahweh that was to be performed before the Tabernacle of the Lord is instead usurped by the calf.

It may surprise some of you to discover that the incident of the golden calf is not one of idolatry. The Israelites wanted bulls not to worship them but to form a throne for God. This is exactly the same concept of the Throne of Mercy which is the between the two Cherubim on top of the Ark of the Covenant. The Cherubim form the base of the invisible throne. It is worth remembering that in ancient near eastern religion the Cherubim were often depicted as having the bodies of bulls. It is also clear that the story is partially told to condemn the erecting of the golden bulls or calves at Dan and Bethel by King Jeroboam in Kings 12:28. The words used to dedicate those bulls were identical to the verses found here. This is why the plural is used instead of the singular you would expect for the single calf. Thus underneath the story is a polemic against the older form of worship of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The other polemic at work in the passage is the attempt to make Aaron look bad by later writers distrustful of the hereditary priesthood – but that is no matter.

If the golden calf and the golden cherubim serve the same function and the worship is of the same God: “When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it: and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.’”, then why is the incident so serious? I contend that the sin of the children of Israel is their impatience with God and his Prophet. They cannot even wait forty days for Moses to return. They despair and turn against Moses who has led them out of slavery “This Moses”. They forget the promise and what God has already done for them in the Exodus from Egypt. So while God is preparing for them the way he wishes them to worship they instead rush in and create their own mode of worship. I will refrain from going off on a tangent about the motivation for people to seek new alternative liturgies without having first learned the rhythm and rationale of the authorized liturgies of our church!

By asking for bulls they are really asking for a way to make God come down to be with them. They were trying to force him to be present with them. The assumption being that they did not believe he cared or was paying attention to them. They thought he had abandoned them. He knew very well what they were doing for he was paying very close attention: “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them;”.

The plan backfires, for their lack of patience, lack of trust, and attempt to force Him to appear amongst them kindles God’s wrath. He reacts like a spurned, irate Father, whose first instinct is to turn away from them and then devour them. He reserves for Moses, because of his faithfulness, the original promise of a new nation “and of you I will make a great nation”.

It is here that Moses plays the mediator and reminds God of his faithfulness and the promise he made to Abraham. He questions the purpose of all of the effort to bring the Israelites out of Egypt only to destroy them because of their weakness and ignorance. We may find it difficult to imagine God reacting like this. Yet for anyone who has ever raised children and invested time and energy into friendships and marriages you will recognise this reaction. God speaks to Moses of ‘His’ people who ‘You’ brought out of Egypt as though He had nothing to do with it. It is touching and humbling, that it is a human being who has to remind God of the bigger picture and thus cool his anger, born of hurt and frustration, “I have seen this people, how stiff necked they are”, and have him repent of his plan of destruction.

Many of our decision in life reflect the dilemma of God and Moses on Mount Sinai. The people to whom they have given everything, whom they love, dance at the bottom of the mountain oblivious of the two of them alone on the mountain top seeking a way to free those very same people. Most of you will have loved someone deeply and known you were not loved in return. You will have experienced the anger born of hurt when those for whom you have sacrificed take it for granted and spurn what you have slaved to be able to offer them. ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.”

Yet after the petulance, after the hurt, after the anger – sanity returns and we remember that even if they do not love or regard us, we still love them – even though it hurts. This passage from Exodus also reminds us of that which we so often forget – that it is acceptable, nay, even proper to give God our empathy and thanks for carrying the burden of his love for so long and at such great cost. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,”. John 3:16He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.Phil 2.8

In the Gospel we have a parable by Christ of a King throwing a huge wedding banquet that he wishes those he loves to share in. Instead they refuse the offer as they have other things to do. They are following their own timetable and not that of the king. The king in his anger destroys them and invites everyone in. Yet even after this there is still a note of warning – you must enter into the spirit of the celebration and not just come according to you own standards but rather that of the kingdom. The feast is given at a certain time and in a certain way. To refuse the time or spirit of it is to miss out.

Let us then worship God as he commanded us and approach the Altar with thankfulness of hearts remembering his words “Do this in remembrance of me”. Let us not set our own individual times and places to worship Him but rather when his family meets and how they worship. This patience and humbleness of heart will allow God to reveal himself to us in his own time and way.

Bu those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.Isaiah 40:31

18 Blake Moses Indignant At The Golden Calf
 Tate Gallery