Sometimes a Golden Calf is Just a Golden Calf

How the Book of Exodus begins seems strangely contemporary. An ethnic group which had migrated to Egypt became so numerous that some Egyptians worried that should war break out with one of their neighbors these aliens would become a fifth column which could join with their enemies to take over their country. Believing that the immigrants had grown too many and too strong, Egyptian leaders took steps to stop their growth and limit their influence. They were declared slaves and task masters were set over them to oppress them with forced labor. In the face of this treatment the immigrant group grew even stronger and the locals came to fear and loathe them. And that’s just the first 12 verses.

By the time you get to the fifth chapter, after Moses confronts Pharaoh about his ill treatment of the Israelites, the treatment becomes more intense and the people hate Moses, their champion. God voiced a great promise which Moses shared with the people about emancipation and a land of promise. His own people wouldn’t listen to him. That’s when we hear Moses say: “Why did you send me to these people?”

What follows, as you recall, is a series of plagues during which Pharaoh remains obdurate. The story gets confusing because somewhere in those passages, without explanation, Moses gains stature with Pharaoh’s court and the Egyptians become well disposed toward the Israelites. But still Pharaoh wouldn’t let them leave, even to go worship. The last straw was God telling Moses that God would make a distinction between Israel and Egypt by taking the life of every first born Egyptian. We covered that story a couple of weeks ago when we talked about the Passover which resulted in the Egyptians demanding that the Israelites leave.

Once in the desert, things didn’t go well. Several times the people threaten to string Moses up for making them leave Egypt. When they got to Sinai God spoke directly to them – delivering the first recitation of the Ten Commandments. After that the people pleaded with Moses to talk with God on their behalf because they were too fearful to have God speak to them directly.

Respecting to the people’s request, Moses goes to be alone with God. The text of the report of that meeting is littered with the phrases “Do not” and “You must” like pepper on mash potatoes. Then we read the detailed regulations for the Priesthood. It took a long time for Moses to get all this information. By the time we get to the 32nd chapter, which is our focus for today, and Moses still hadn’t come back down from the mountain the anxiety among the people went off the charts. The people started making demands on Moses’ right hand man, Aaron. Almost everyone calls this passage ‘the Golden Calf incident”. It may be time to give it a new name.

So the text begins:

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, … 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.” Somehow the people hadn’t gotten the memo. To the people’s mind it was the man Moses who brought them up out of the land of Egypt. God made it happen – not Moses. It made we wonder whether we get anxious and impatient when nothing seems to be happening, when our connection to God seems to be off line? And then are we guilty of crediting, or blaming another for something that God has done?

Anyway, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; I’m told that the Hebrew text uses the singular ‘god’ in reporting the people’s request of Aaron. Aaron’s response is worthy of our attention: 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.” 3So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. Back in the twelfth chapter, before the Hebrew children left Egypt, we were told that they plundered their neighbors, so they had gold. The gold that Aaron called for were the earrings of the wives, daughters and the sons. Again, the Hebrew text says that the earrings were torn off ears making it clear that the gold wasn’t given up freely.

How much gold do you imagine Aaron was dealing with? Finding that answer gets us into a huge matter of contention. It’s the question of how many Israelites followed Moses out of Egypt into the desert. Exodus 12:37 gives us the answer but according to Jewish scholarship we’ve mistranslated the text. If you accept the NIV interpretation the number of Jewish emigrees is between two and a half and three million. Scholars who have studied the impact of the immigrating Hebrew children on the promised land say that such a number is impossible. Others who have studied Egypt before and after the Exodus agree that that figure is unrealistic. By defining that illusive word Hebrew word to mean the number of foot soldiers that a tribal unit could muster the result is between 30 and 35 thousand Hebrew children. Now that’s still a good size entourage but certainly not counted in the millions. That equates to twenty to twenty-five thousand women, daughters and sons from whose ears gold earrings were torn. Melted down we are talking about the equivalent of ten bars of gold, clearly enough to mold a nice sized golden calf.

4He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; It’s important to remember that the words we next read were not Aaron’s. and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” The image that Aaron crafted was single and therefore it would be imputing to the Israelites a far greater sin than that of which they were guilty, that of worshiping other gods. 5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” 6They 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. Aaron builds an altar to facilitate a festival – not to the Golden Calf, not to other gods, but to the Lord. Some suggests that the golden calf was a reminder of God not a replacement. Others scholars suggest something quite different saying that the golden calf wasn’t made to be an idol, rather it was a pedestal upon which the Lord could be perceived as standing.

Waiting on this passage I came to wonder what god’s we might have standing on the pedestal of our religion?

If we listen to the text where we come out is that, despite what it might have looked like, the partying is a festival to the Lord, those are Aaron’s words; not a worship of other gods or a golden idol. Now that’s a much different picture than we’ve gotten from the sixty year old Cecil B. DeMille movie. But that’s what was going on in the valley. Meantime up on the mountain things are seen quite differently:

7The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they 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!

These verses are problematic. The Lord makes the same mistake as the people. “Your people, whom you brought of the land of Egypt” It’s like one parent avoiding responsibility by telling the other that is was ‘your child’ that broke the rules. Moses didn’t bring Israel up out of the land of Egypt. God knows who brought them out of captivity. Secondly, as we just explored, the people hadn’t sacrificed to the calf or other gods but had a festival to the Lord. What are we to make of this? What we do know is God is angry. Instead of seeing the people turn their anxiety about Moses’ delay into a festival to the Lord God accuses them of being stiff necked and worshiping other gods. God tells Moses to go down and deal with them and leave God alone in God’s anger. The text continues:

9The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now 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 offer may have sounded pretty good, but Moses doesn’t bite. This is quite a change – it’s like God going back on God’s promise to Abram. The Lord tells Moses to leave him alone in his anger. He intends that his hot anger will consume them. But Moses doesn’t leave God alone in God’s anger. Moses does the unthinkable. He challenges God.

11But 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? 12Why 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. 13Remember 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.’“

What audacity. That’s called reciting the salvation history of the people. Typically it is to the people that their salvation history of God’s promise is repeated. But Moses repeats it to God reminding God of the commitments made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And here is the good news:

14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. It’s called intercession and it challenges our idea that God’s intentions are written in stone. It tells us something we might not want to hear about God’s character. Moses doesn’t leave God alone in God’s anger but reminds God of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and by extension these same people. Pretty gutsy if you ask me.

Do you think there are lessons for us in this? If God can misinterpret the intent of a people who have risked their lives and livelihood to follow God’s chosen leader into the wilderness – maybe, just maybe we might misinterpret the actions of others? And what of the work of Moses? Staying in God’s company despite God’s anger and confronting God, challenging God, and reminding God of the heart of God’s own character? I want to change the name of this passage from the “Golden Calf incident” to the “Moses changes God’s mind” incident.

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