Sunday 9 October 2011

The golden calf

The story of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:1-14) is a strange and ancient story.
The setting is Mount Sinai more than 3000 years ago, at the start of the 40 years that the children of Israel wander as nomads in the desert, after their escape from Egypt and before they arrive in Canaan, the land promised to their ancestor Abraham.

The characters are the Israelite people, Aaron the priest, Moses the prophet who is Aaron’s younger brother – and Yahweh, translated as the Lord. Yahweh, the Israelites were convinced, was the one true God, with whom they had a special relationship.

The story is part of the foundation myth of the Israelites, through which they understood their special relationship with God and its implications for how they should live. But does it have any relevance for us today?

Let me reflect on the characters in the story, before addressing that question.

But before that I must go back a bit to set the story in context.
Three months after Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt they reached Mount Sinai. There Yahweh spoke to Moses and gave him what we know as the Ten Commandments, and a lot of other detailed instructions about how to behave, which Moses relayed to the people. The Israelites confirmed their covenant with Yahweh, saying ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient’.

Moses then climbed the mountain a second time, where Yahweh speaks to him again; this time giving precise instructions for building the portable tabernacle in which Yahweh will dwell with his people, and how Aaron and his offspring are to lead the people in worshipping him. We are told that ‘Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights’.

That's when we come to the story of the Golden Calf in today’s reading.

Turning to the characters, we begin with the Israelites.
Can you empathise with them? I can.

They must have felt very insecure – as refugees surely do today - they had left behind all that was familiar in Egypt, however onerous their slavery had been. And now Moses had left them - perhaps he would never come back? perhaps the messages he brought from Yahweh were an illusion? No doubt they felt a need for the reassurance of something familiar and concrete to focus their hopes for the future on. It is very human to seek something to live for, something to give meaning to life – it is sometimes said that there is a God-shaped hole in every person which must be filled one way or another.

So ‘the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come make gods for us, who shall go before us”’. Aaron went along with them. He took their gold jewellery – their rainy day savings, I suppose – and he made it into a golden calf, just like the familiar idols they had known in Egypt. The people shouted, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt’. And they worshipped the golden calf with sacrifices - and they ran wild in an orgy of feasting.

Oh what faithlessness! The people are breaking the first two of the Ten Commandments they so recently vowed to keep: ‘I am the Lord your God… you shall have no other gods before me’; and ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol’. They are putting something made by human hands, an idol, in place of Yahweh, the God who made all things, to whom they are bound in a covenant.

So what about Aaron?
With Moses away Aaron is the Israelites’ leader. He is a levite, a descendent of Levi, an hereditary priest of Yahweh. Yet he makes the golden calf, an idol, when the people, or some of them, came to demand he do so - because, he later tells Moses, he was frightened of these people.

But I don’t think he joined in the people's idolatry. In fact he seems to have tried to divert the people from it. He declared that ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord’ – that is to Yahweh, not to the idol. Perhaps he believed that he could present the golden calf as a symbol to represent Yahweh, to help the Israelites worship the one true God. But if so, he was terribly wrong – they worshipped the golden calf as an idol - and then they ran amok.

Aaron was surely a weak leader, and he displayed bad judgement.

Then there’s Moses.
Moses is a prophet, someone who converses with Yahweh and articulates Yahweh's wishes to the people.

On the mountain Moses receives the insight to see that the Israelites needed something concrete on which to focus their worship. And he also receives a vision, written on tablets of stone by Yahweh, of what would provide just such a focus without replacing Yahweh by an idol.

Moses also receives the insight that the Israelite people are wilful, inclined to ignore Yahweh’s wishes when it suits them; ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are’. He feared that Yahweh in his wrath would wreak a great vengeance on the Israelites. So he pleads with Yahweh to spare them, reminding Yahweh of his promises to Abraham, Isaac and Israel. ‘And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people’, we are told.

But unlike Yahweh, Moses is entirely unforgiving. After the passage we heard, we are told of his fury when he came down from the mountain and saw what was going on. He broke the tablets of stone on the ground. He took the golden calf, ‘burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it’ – rather like rubbing a puppy’s nose in its own dirt, I suppose. And then he incited the sons of Levi to slaughter 3,000 of the Israelites who had worshipped the idol and were still running amok. There is blood on Moses’ hands, and not for the first time.

And where is Yahweh in all this?
Yahweh worked through Moses to teach the children of Israel, 1st that it is wrong to worship an idol in place of the one true God, and 2nd that the one true God is faithful and will keep his promises.

Moses understood that Yahweh is not like one of the jealous, vengeful gods of popular belief in the ancient Middle East. Yahweh is faithful to his people - Yahweh can be relied on to keep his promises. Yahweh does not go in for collective punishment. But Moses also believed that Yahweh would in the fullness of time individually punish those who disobeyed him; he heard Yahweh say, ‘Nevertheless, when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin’.

Our Christian understanding of the one true God has moved on from the Israelites’ ideas about Yahweh. In particular we have Jesus Christ’s example of loving self-sacrifice, and we have his message that God will forgive our sins if we only repent. Our God is not just faithful, but also merciful. I believe that Moses probably misheard what Yahweh had to say about punishment. God does not punish his people – we bring punishment on ourselves when we fail to repent

So is anything in this strange story relevant for us today? I think so.
First, surely, we must all recognise that we are not so very different from the Israelites – like them, like all human beings, we are all too likely to be ‘stiff-necked’, to put something we create in place of God. Pleasure, possessions, money - country, class, tribe - party, markets, economic systems – how easy it is to make any of these into a golden calf. When we do, we lose touch with the kingdom of God in which all people can flourish - and bad things happen. Isn’t that what the global crash is about? Isn't that what the gathering ecological disaster is about? That is why God forbids idolatry, I think. We must always be on guard against golden calves, focus our worship and attention on God our loving Father, and work to make his kingdom a reality.

Second, I think Christian leaders should reflect on Aaron. Aaron made an idol for the people to worship - perhaps out of fear, perhaps because he thought people needed a concrete image to help them worship the one true God. He was weak, he was wrong. Is it possible that some Christian leaders today allow the dogmas and rituals of their churches to obscure the God that Jesus shows us? They should take care they do not – and that includes me when I lead MP and talk to you from this pulpit!


Rebecca said...

My We use your photo of the transfiguration for our church bulletin. St. Paul UMC, Jacksonville, FL

Joc Sanders said...

I can't give you permission, because I do not own the copyright.
You can find the image at
Other public domain images can be found on Wikimedia, search for