The Golden Calf
1. Seeing that Moses was so long in not coming down from the mountain, the people got together and said to Aaron, "Well, please construct for us gods who will go before us; for, we do not know what has become of this Moses, this one who lead us from the country of Egypt," (verse one).
2. How long had Moses been on the mountain? At the end of chapter twenty-four it says this: "Moses went into a cloud and ascended the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights," (24:18). What was going on on the mountain? As for the flow of the story in Exodus it continues on in chapter twenty-five. On the mountain God was giving Moses various instructions pertaining to how to build the tabernacle and the temple equipment, (chapters twenty-five through thirty-one). Also, God was giving Moses the two tablets of the commandments, (31:18). This is the text written just before today's passage of scripture that we read.
3. So, it was talking about extremely important matters in order for Israel to live with God. But, the Israelites, who were at the bottom of the mountain, couldn't wait for Moses to come back. The Israelites assembled with Aaron and asked, "Please construct for us gods who will go before us." In response to this, Aaron built a molten image of a young bull. Then, the Israelites offered offerings to the altar that was built within the presence [of the idol] and held a festival.
4. Their behavior was clearly against the second commandment from the ten commandments; for, it was commanded that "You shall not build any kind of image," (20:4). The first thing the people who had been given the ten commandments did was to break its commands. Even though they had been given the commands and even though they promised to keep them (24:3), they did not keep them at all. This is not something that only they would do either. The way they are hits close to home for us as well. However, we should not think that their problem was just that "they broke their promise with God." The root of their problem as revealed in their behavior lies in a very deep place.
The People Demanded [Other] Gods To Go Before Them
5. To begin with, what was the reason that they had even gone against God's commandment and demanded the construction of "gods to go before them?" This is what they said when they made their request, "For, we do not know what has become of this Moses, this one who lead us from the country of Egypt." This was their reason.
6. In this passage, Moses is expressed as "this one who lead us from the country of Egypt." This was not incorrect. But, of course, Moses did not set them free from Egypt and lead them on the wilderness journey by his own power and working. It was not the work of Moses but the work of God. It was but the work of God's grace. The Lord expressed this truth like this, "You saw what I did to the Egyptians and that I carried you on eagle's wings and brought you to myself," (19:4). The Israelites certainly should have seen that God was the one who had used Moses and lead them up out of the land of Egypt. And since it was God who had led them, it would be the same God who would lead them to the promised land. This relationship with God and the people did not originally come into being because there was Moses. It shouldn't change no matter what might become of Moses.
7. But the way it was, the people only seemed to see Moses. This became clear when the figure of Moses was dropped off from their view point. Moses hadn't come back. Perhaps he might never come back. They got shaky over it. So then, by Moses dropping out of the picture, their day to day obedience to God's commandments and the order around them as the people of God came crashing down.
8. The same thing can happen to us. If we only look at the people, then the same thing will happen. If we only see Jesus of Nazareth [as] "a man" and we only look at the "assembly of people" in the church, the same thing will happen.
9. What we truly ought to focus our eyes on is the work of God's grace in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. [We need to be looking at] the work of God's grace as it appears through the assembly of people we call the church, through the very normal people we call Christians. In Christ and in the church, which is the body of Christ, we hear God's word and partake of God's salvation.
10. This matter of obedience to God first really begins to take shape when we put our eyes on the work of God's grace. When church life exists only in relationships with the pastor and other Christians, then when those relationships fall apart, church life falls apart too. When the pastor and specific Christians in our lives are gone from our lives, our church life also is gone. If our obedience to God is established on just our relationships with other people and not as a response to God's work in us, then when those relationships are gone, our obedience to God also goes. Wait a minute, it was never true obedience to God that we had in the first place.
11. When the people of Israel lost sight of Moses, they demanded "other gods to go before them." I don't suppose that's a surprise. We would understand if in losing their leader Moses they might have demanded some other leader. In order to live in obedience to God's word, it would make a lot of sense if they would have sought another person to replace Moses. But no, they demanded "other gods to go before them." Even though they called it "[other gods] to go before them," it was a calf idol. I don't think they really thought the calf idol would go before them [as they traveled in the wilderness]. As for it [moving], they would transport it. They would be the ones on the go carrying it wherever they hoped to go. The people were not required to be obedient by this idol of theirs. In other words, they sought for a religion that required no obedience of them.
12. That is clear from their actions. They held a "festival to the Lord" before this calf idol. Then they offered up sacrifices to it. Then the text says that "The people sat and drank, they rose up and played." A number of scholars identified the word "played" as having a sexual nuance. Perhaps the activities they carried out in the celebration were promiscuous. In the worship services to the ancient near eastern agricultural gods, such behavior was not rare at all. It was practiced in the name of the Lord even. But it is clear that that was not a response to the work of God's grace. Thus then, when Moses was missing, their obedience to God was also; all because they did not turn their thoughts onto God himself.
God Re-thinking A Curse
13. Well, let's change our subject onto the mountain top. In verses seven and so on, it tells about the exchanges between the Lord and Moses while on the mountain. The Lord said to Moses, "Go down the mountain at once. The people you have led up out of the land of Egypt have fallen to depravity and have so quickly strayed from the path that I have commanded by making a molten image of a young bull, bowing to it, sacrificing to it and crying out, 'O Israel, behold the very gods here who have led you up from the land of Egypt,'" (verses seven and eight). Here we have described in this text the break between the Lord and the Israelites. The Lord no longer calls the Israelites "my people." He calls them, "your people whom you have led up from the land of Egypt," (literal translation).
14. Then God announces judgment against these people for doing that, "I have seen these people, but they are truly a stubborn people. Now do not hold me back. My anger is burning over against them. I will consume them and I will then make a great people out of you," (verses nine and ten).
15. Moses calmed the Lord on this and interceded for the people. He made a hard appeal for them that Israel was God's people. "O Lord, why does your anger burn towards your own people? Aren't they the people whom you lead out of the land of Egypt with your mighty power and strong arms?," (verse eleven). Also, he pled with him saying, "Please stop this burning anger and re-consider the judgment that you will lower down upon your people," (verse twelve). Because of this intercession, "The Lord re-considered the judgment that he announced, which he was going to let fall on his people," (verse fourteen).
16. Even still though, this is strange, isn't it? The Lord said that he would consume the Israelites, leaving only Moses and make a new people from him. But, if that's what he planned to do, why was it necessary for him to command Moses to "Go down the mountain at once?" It doesn't make sense if he made Moses go back to the people to destroy them. To begin with, why was it necessary to announce to Moses that he even intended to destroy the people? Why was it necessary to have Moses go to the Israelites after he told Moses about the judgment? - Even though God was immediately ready to consume away the Israelites!
17. The Lord intentionally displayed his anger and declared his condemnation of Israel. It seems as though he was expecting Moses to intercede for them. But, as I think over this passage, various other passages come to mind. I'd say then that the Lord did the same thing with Isaiah. He did it in Jeremiah. He did it with Ezekiel. The Lord did the same thing with Amos, Hosea, Micah, and others, that is to be brief, with all the people called the prophets. He brought the people's sin into the open, he brought his judgment against the people into the open, and after he gave his message to them, he would send a prophet. In fact, the figure of the Lord that we see here in this passage cuts through the whole Bible.
18. Please give it some thought. The Lord told Moses on the mountain how to build the tabernacle. The Lord said to Moses, "Have them construct a holy place for me. I will dwell among them," (25:8). [He was telling them] that while the Israelites were demanding from Aaron, "Build us gods." In regard to the people of Israel the Lord said, "I have seen these people, but they are truly a stubborn people." I'd say that was certainly so. But still, the Lord wanted to live amidst these such people and he wanted to walk with them. It was not God's perfect will to destroy the people. The will of God was that the people return and live.
19. Finally, we'll finish by reading the words of the prophet Ezekiel. Please listen. "I am alive, says the Lord God. I am not happy when a sinner dies. Rather, I am happy when a sinner turns from his path and lives. Return, turn from your evil paths. O house of Israel, why should you die?," (Ezekiel 33:11).