Today we return to our study of the book of Exodus and one of the most infamous events in the life of the nation of Israel: The Golden Calf. The Golden Calf was Israel’s first act of idolatrous rebellion as a nation. What is so shocking about it is that it took place approximately four months after leaving Egypt. Remember, the Lord had just brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt and had given them the Ten Commandments. The people had affirmed their commitment to God saying, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do” (Ex 24:3). How long did that commitment last? About 40 days (see Ex 24:18). Moses went up with Joshua to the mountain of God to receive the Law for the nation of Israel. They must not have known how long Moses would be on the mountain and assumed he was dead. Fearing that Moses was gone, they panicked and turned away from God and turned to idolatry. Tom Bradford commented on this by saying the response from Israel was like: “Yeah, we know there’s a God, we know He is loving and powerful, we know He has standards of good and evil, right and wrong, but we’re anxious and stressed so we’ll take matters into our own hands, thank you very much.”
They did not know what had become of Moses, so they panicked. In their panic, they ask Aaron to “make us a god who will go before us.” The Israelites were anxious and wanted a god they could see. They had been in Egypt for many years and were accustomed to seeing idols all around them. The Apostle Paul comments on this and says they were idolators (see 1 Cor 10:7). They wanted a god to go before them. They craved an image they could see and hold. They assembled around Aaron and asked him to make a god for them. Aaron took their gold and “fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf” (32:4). There are two ways to consider what Aaron did: 1) Aaron thought Moses was dead and willingly went along with the crowd and 2) Aaron knew Moses was coming back soon and sought to stall. I tend to lean on the first view of Aaron, but either way his behavior in this is reprehensible. Rather than stand up for what is right and preserve the true worship of Yahweh, Aaron sought to preserve himself. It was Aaron who made the golden calf, but it was the people who declared, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” Aaron then made an altar and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” It is hard to determine what is going on with Aaron. Aaron makes the calf and then makes an altar and declares a feast to Yahweh. Aaron joins in with a violation of the Second Commandment (not graven images) while trying to salvage the First Commandment. It is as if Aaron is still trying to claim to worship Yahweh while committing idolatry against Yahweh in this image.
It should go without saying that the Lord was not happy. He told Moses, “Let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.” Why would the Lord tell Moses to leave Him alone? He said this to provoke a response from Moses. In other words, the Lord said, “Here is what I propose to do unless you intervene.” The Lord had every right to destroy the people and Moses would be powerless to stop Him. The Lord, however, wanted to test Moses in this to see what was in his heart. Moses replied on their behalf and became their advocate. He said to the Lord, “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, an all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.” Moses knew the people were stubborn, but he interceded for them for God’s own glory. If God starts over with Moses, what happens to His promise to Abraham? The Lord liked what He heard from Moses and relented of His plan to destroy them. Douglas Stuart commented on God’s change of mind: “this is one of many passages in Scripture that demonstrate God’s responsiveness to the prayer of a righteous person prayed not for selfish reasons but out of a desire to see God’s will accomplished.” There would, however, be discipline.
The Lord relented of His destruction of the people and sent Moses down with the two tablets of the Law. When “Joshua heard the sound of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, ‘There is a sound of war in the camp.’” Moses replied, “It is the sound of singing I hear.” What were the Israelites doing? In verse 6, the people “sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.” There was obviously singing and dancing. Some commentators believe sexual immorality was being committed. Regardless, Moses was not happy. He broke the tablets at the foot of the mountain. He “took the calf which they had made and burned it with fire, and ground it to powder; and scattered it over the surface of the water and made the sons of Israel drink it.” Moses rebuked Aaron for letting them get out of control and called out: “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!” The Levites came to him and they killed three thousand people that day. Moses went back to the Lord and pleaded for God to be merciful.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved” (1 Cor 10:6). These things were real events that happened to Israel that are recorded in Scripture as examples and warning to us to be faithful to our Lord and not put Him to the test through immorality and idolatry. The Israelites were barely out of Egypt and they commit idol worship. They knew there’s a God who is loving and powerful and set the standards of good and evil, but they were anxious and took matters into our own hands. Let us take heed. When we panic, we take our eyes off God and reach for things we can see, touch, and manipulate. We turn from God and seek things we can handle to bring us comfort. What do you seek to bring you comfort? For some it is food. For others it is possessions. Some people find comfort in buying something. It may be money, drugs, alcohol, sex, Facebook likes or Twitter followers. The Israelites panicked, grew impatient, and fell into idolatry. Let us learn from their mistake and ask God to help us be still and know that the Lord is God. Let us cease our striving, to let go and relax and trust that God is in control. Let us demonstrate our trust in Him in our peace, in our hope, and in our love. Let us be His witnesses in a troubled world.