Exodus 32:1-14, Lectionary 28 A, October 12, 2014
Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
“Now, tell me again, who brought you out of the land of Egypt?” I feel like asking this multiple times during the first lesson. Everyone seems to have a different answer.
The Israelites left Egypt only 18 chapters before in Exodus. They have been wandering in the wilderness for some time, yet they still have ages to go before the next generation enters the Holy Land. Even so, they are restless. They are tired of walking, tired of eating manna, tired of never settling down. The Israelites have lost focus of the big picture.
In Exodus chapter 20, Moses heads up Mount Sinai and receives the ten commandments, which we heard last week. Soon after, he heads down the mountain and shares these laws with the people. He writes them down so they won’t forget, even though they are not yet recorded on stone tablets. Most important of which are the first two commandments. Hear them from the New English Translation:
1 God spoke all these words: 2 "I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 3 "You shall have no other gods before me. 4 "You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them. (Exodus 20:1-5a NET)
From the beginning, even within these commandments, God establishes His role and authority. God proclaims, “I have brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Not Moses. Not anybody else. God brought the Israelites out of Egypt. These people clearly understand who their God is and what authority God has. When they receive the law, they say, “We are willing to do and obey all that the LORD has spoken." (Exodus 24:7b NET) They promise to follow all that the Lord has given them, yet they had no idea how hard obeying these laws would become.
Pretty soon after Moses finished writing down the ten commandments, he went back up the mountain. He simply told the Israelites to wait for him when he continued to receive laws and decrees from God. How long to wait, they didn’t know. An hour, a day, a week, a month?
The Israelites waited patiently for some time, yet after a month had come and gone at the foot of Mount Sinai, they got impatient. “Who is this God of the ten commandments,” they wondered, “and what has he done with Moses?”
Without their faithful leader, they turned to his brother Aaron, saying, “Moses brought us out of the land of Egypt; where is he now? Can’t you do anything for us? At the very least, make an image of God for us!” They were sick of following an invisible God, seemingly walking in circles around a barren wasteland.
It didn’t take much nagging for Aaron to comply. He probably was sick of always standing in his little brother’s shadow. Like the others, he might have felt restless at the base of the mountain.
“Ok,” Aaron said, “You want an image of your God to worship; I’ll make you one! Give me your gold.” He carefully melted and molded all the Israelites’ gold into the only symbol of power that he knew - that of a cow.
Aaron didn’t want a pagan god to envelope this idol. Instead, Aaron hoped that this golden calf could be a place for the God of Israel to dwell. Aaron may not have realized that he was breaking the second commandment.
Seeing this golden calf, the Israelites proclaimed, “This is what brought us out of the land of Egypt!” If they thought that their God was present in this golden cow, then they were terribly mistaken. They didn’t realize how far they had strayed in so little time.
Aaron decided that if they were going to do this, they were going to do it right. He set up an altar and made sacrifices to the Lord, assuming that the Lord was present in that statue. He used the standard language and procedure to offer legitimate sacrifices. The people of Israel were so happy with this that they partied the entire next day. They no longer worried about Moses or what was happening on the mountain. Yet maybe they should have.
Seeing the golden calf and their worship of it, God burned hot with rage. God was ready to end it all right then. Moses calmed God down, yet when he saw what they had done, then it was Moses’ turn to burn hot with rage.
Moses descended the mountain with the two tablets written by God. When Moses saw the golden calf and the Israelites dancing around it, he was furious. In a rage, he threw down the tablets so hard that they broke into pieces. Moses then burned the gold into ash and dissolved it into their water supply. Moses made all the Israelites drink the remains of their cow idol. They would not be able to recover any of that precious gold.
Still furious, Moses had the worst offenders killed. He could not allow such disobedience among his people. Then Moses went back up the mountain and pleaded that the Lord be lenient. The Lord would not do so. Their punishment was not over yet, but they would live for now.
Everything that the Lord said to Moses during those forty days and forty nights is recorded in 8 chapters of Exodus. The Israelites didn’t know it yet, but the Lord described in great detail to Moses what the ark of the covenant would be. The Lord told Moses how to build it, only using the finest wood and the purest gold. It would have cherubim on top, spreading their wings over the seat of the Lord. This item would eventually hold the ten commandments on stone tablets. This ark of the covenant would be a holy place for the Lord to dwell among the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness.
You see, the Lord was ok dwelling in a gold vessel, yet there was a big difference between the golden calf and the ark of the covenant. The golden calf was an idol, plain and simple. The Israelites couldn’t handle worshipping an invisible God, so they created what they thought was an image of God. However, they got it wrong, terribly wrong.
In the second commandment, God essentially says, “I am bigger than anything you can imagine. So, don’t make anything that you think looks like me. You will get it wrong.” (Carolyn Brown) God does not look like a cow. God does not look like an old man. God does not look like anything we know because our God is an invisible God.
Alternately, the ark of the covenant never intended to look like the Lord. The ark is carefully designed and created to be a holy space in which the Lord can - but is not obligated to - dwell. The ark of the covenant is made on the Lord’s terms using the Lord’s specifications.
If only the Israelites had been patient, they would have discovered that the Lord carefully considered their needs and desires. The Lord was willing and able to dwell among them, yet the Lord would only do so in a holy space. Sometimes we also get it wrong. Our idols don’t look like gold calves anymore, yet we still make idols all the time. If we are patient, we might find the Lord among us, not in idols but in the holy places and people in our lives. Amen.