Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Calf Exercises

How do you go from “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” to “Up, make us gods who shall go before us” in such an insanely short period?

And yet, I cannot imagine this sort of treachery and double-speak was characteristic only of Israel. “These things happened to them as examples,” Paul tells the Corinthians, “but they were written down for our instruction.”

We’re still reading them today, so maybe we can learn a thing or two.

Turning Aside Quickly

Exodus 32 is one of the nastiest and quickest betrayals in divine record:

“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, ‘Up, make us gods who shall go before us. 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.’ ”

Moses has been up the mountain forty days, that’s all. He’s not dead. Months have not passed. Something is very wrong with Israel, and it was wrong long before Moses went up the mountain to speak with God and to receive the law.

“So Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ ”

“Rings of gold” are not chump change. And yet the people happily turn over great quantities of wealth for the sake of having something visible and tangible to worship, even though they know precisely how such a thing comes into being and that it can have no power of its own. It would seem the truth or falsehood of their religious routine is of no consequence to the vast majority of Israelites so long as there is some sort of religious exercise going on.

And calf exercises will do just fine.

That’s not a problem unique to Israel, is it? People today talk about about things like “spiritual development” as if all “spirits” are equal and all “developments” are by definition positive ones. Whether or not what they profess actually corresponds to reality doesn’t seem to interest them much.

Going With the Flow

“So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ”

Aaron is clearly just going with the flow here, watching his people rewrite Israel’s recent history on the spot. He’s trying to stay out of trouble until Moses returns, and he hasn’t got a clue what comes next. He takes the gold, fashions a calf idol from it, and then … waits to see how Israel reacts. Once he sees the nation is content with its revisionism, he announces the next step.

“When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.’ ”

Perhaps by associating the Lord’s name with his calf idol Aaron is looking to legitimize the calf, or perhaps he is trying to conserve and retain whatever true theology he can. We don’t know. We do know one of these things is not like the other.

“And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.”

Eating and drinking and playing. In the end, this treachery is about having fun. This near-instantaneous betrayal of Jehovah is not primarily either political or religious. It is the equivalent of a Las Vegas experience: bring on the dancing girls!

There is a religious veneer here, to be sure, but it is not the need to worship that motivates the people.

An Offer You Must Refuse

“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden 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!” ’

And the Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.’ ”

Who could refuse this offer? I wouldn’t. And yet Moses is more committed to maintaining God’s relationship with a crowd of rebellious would-be heathens than ensuring things are more propitious for his own progeny or making a name for himself.

“But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?’ ”

Moses is not being unspiritual here in trying to persuade the Lord to continue working with Israel despite their wickedness. He is not minimizing their carnality, or suggesting that their actions don’t deserve stern retribution. Rather, he is thinking about the glory and testimony of God among the nations. That’s his first concern. Perhaps this is why God dealt with him the way one deals with a friend.

“ ‘Why should the Egyptians say, “With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, “I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.” ’ ”

This is stunningly unselfish, and reflects a serious commitment to the things God himself holds dear. Bravo Moses!

The Value of Intercession

“And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.”

These things were written down for us at some point, but the specifics of Moses’ intercession on Israel’s behalf may not have been revealed to the people for years. Perhaps that generation never came to know exactly what might have befallen them. One wonders what sorts of evils intercessory prayer may have prevented in your life and mine.

That brings up the perfectly reasonable question of whether the threat to destroy Israel was really more a test of Moses than an indication of God’s actual purpose toward his people. There is nothing disingenuous about the way God motivates Moses to express what he really feels and give voice to what he cares about: to do anything else would be, in court parlance, “leading the witness”.

God already knows what the appropriate response is to Israel’s sin and he knows exactly what he intends to do. Moses is not correcting or persuading God here. Rather, I think God is revealing Moses’ heart, not just to confirm what God already knew, but to expose it to Moses. Sometimes we don’t know exactly what we believe until we’re forced to say it out loud.

The Work of God / The Writing of God

“Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written. The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.”

The law was not some new system of government Moses was seeking to impose by force of will or personal magnetism. It did not originate with Moses. The tablets were the “work of God”. The writing was the “writing of God”. It expressed the very best that God could do for a sinful, finite people. Obeyed, it would have brought peace and prosperity to the entire nation and made them the envy of the world and a testimony to the ends of the earth. Through earthly imagery it witnessed to the character and work of the coming Messiah. In the light of this, Moses’ emotional reaction to the wickedness of the people seems to me entirely justifiable.

“When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, ‘There is a noise of war in the camp.’ But he said, ‘It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear.’ And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it.”

It is both ironic and appropriate that the people drank their golden calf. Too often we imagine that the wicked things of the world in which we dabble have no lasting effect. Here they are internalized and the consequences become intensely real to those who embrace idolatry.

The Sinning Servant

“And Moses said to Aaron, ‘What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?’ ”

This is a really good question. The servant of God is tasked with communicating truth, not enabling wickedness. Aaron tries the usual evasions:

“And Aaron said, ‘Let not the anger of my lord burn hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, “Make us gods who shall go before us. 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.” So I said to them, “Let any who have gold take it off.” So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.’ ”

What a story. Let’s not imagine for a second that men tasked with representing God are incapable of great acts of deception and cowardice.

Or perhaps church history has made that lesson a little too obvious.

Brother Against Brother

“And when Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to the derision of their enemies), then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, ‘Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me.’ And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. And he said to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God of Israel, “Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.” ’ And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell. And Moses said, ‘Today you have been ordained for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon you this day.’ ”

This is a terrifying spectacle: Israelite against Israelite to the death. But it is God’s remedy for acute wickedness. Not all division among the people of God is intrinsically bad.

Another Offer Refused

“The next day Moses said to the people, ‘You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.’ So Moses returned to the Lord and said, ‘Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin — but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.’ ”

Again, there’s a certain na├»ve nobility in Moses’ request: “Blot me out”. Still, God has a better idea:

“But the Lord said to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.’

Then the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf, the one that Aaron made.”

Here both parties are said to be responsible: the people “made the calf” but it is also called “the one that Aaron made”.

The chapter is a powerful testimony to God’s ability to forgive, to man’s capacity for self-deception and to the necessity of intercession.

It should also be an antidote to any mistaken notion that the people of God, by virtue of their holy calling, are somehow immune from acts of great wickedness.


  1. I will venture a guess here and suggest that you are probably aware of the poor image management the bible is doing with historical accounts and images like that. Such a scenario as described here in today's terms conjures up an image of the president mustering his secret service contingent and knocking off 3000 people because they went to a bar and got drunk instead of attending Sunday services at his church. When my son took bible study courses at the Catholic university he was attending, taught by very thorough Jesuit priests who did not mince words or try to dress up the stories, he and many of his class mates became pretty upset with what is depicted here and did not think very favorably of God. Even though the teachers were very smart and knew exactly that this reaction occurred every semester they were not able to ameliorate the bad feelings leaving the students with a bad taste in their mouth possibly for a lifetime. Naturally this story and theme is exactly what supplies ammunition to the active atheist affording the opportunity to publicly denounce the idea of a benevolent God. How would you propose to answer those young and impressionable people given the times we live in? I got my own ideas but it's your blog.

    1. Brilliant question, Q. Give me a couple of days to work on it, and I'll respond in a post rather than a comment. It's too big a question to be glib about.