Exodus 32: The Golden Calf Threatens the Covenant

 Exodus 32: 1-6 The People Ask for Gods

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, 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.” 2 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.” 3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.” 6 They 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.

Being the people of God involves learning patience: patience with the LORD and patience with the leaders who mediate between the people and their God. While Moses has been up with the LORD receiving the instructions for the tabernacle where God can dwell among the people, the people and Aaron go against the covenant they have made and cast the golden calf and prepare to worship it. This is a pivotal scene in the relationship between the people and God. The covenant has been broken by the people and the next couple chapters must reconcile the brokenness of relationship between God and the people.

The people heard the prohibition of creating an idol at the head of the decalogue in Exodus 20 and in Exodus 24 they sealed the covenant ritually as the people when the blood of the sacrificed oxen was dashed on them. The people have heard the LORD’s commandments and agreed to them and yet the absence of Moses creates a crisis of faith for them. Whether the cast image of the calf was meant to represent the LORD the God of Israel whose voice they had heard or whether the calf is not clear, it could be read either way. In either case the people have either, with Aaron the high priest’s assistance, abandoned the LORD their God or attempted to make an image for the God who refuses to be limited to any image on the earth or above the earth or under the earth.

One of the threads in this reading is control. The people and Aaron want an image for god, something they can carry and use as a symbol but there is also a limiting function to having a god in the image of a calf or any other form. Yet, fundamentally the LORD refuses to be limited or controlled by an image. Images of the LORD or any other god were not to be made by the Israelites, even the name of the LORD was only spoken in the greatest of care. From chapters 25-31 we have seen how God has worked with Moses to set aside a space where a little bit of heaven can come down to earth and where the LORD would meet with the people. In contrast the people have attempted to create an earthly god to replace the LORD of heaven and earth.

The golden calf is an incredible resonant image. It can become in any age and time the safe gods we choose instead of the LORD the God of Israel that Exodus presents us with. Even in our time the image continues to hold power. It is perhaps the height of irony that the largest amount paid to a living author for a piece of art was to Damien Hirst for ‘the Golden Calf’ a week before the financial collapse of 2008. (Sacks, 2010, p. 259) During the time while the initial draft of this sat these lines were written by me:

Security may be the golden calf we sacrifice to and worship
We dance in the glow of the images of fertility and strength
Following the masses in the shadow of Sinai as they celebrate
That which they can cast and control, tame gods that don’t speak
Metallic beings of the valley rather than the master of the mountain

There will always be the temptation to worship that which we can see or to model the things we worship upon that which we value. As a religious leader there is the temptation to provide that which the crowd desires rather than to be the prophet in the uncomfortable position of standing between a wounded God and a stiff-necked people. Yet, the golden calves of every age tend to lead to our fragmenting into tribes of like-minded worshippers and sometimes to intertribal warfare like we see at the end of this chapter as Moses and the Levites attempt to bring the people back to the LORD and the LORD’s ways.

Exodus 32: 7-14 Moses Between God and the People

7 The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they 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!'” 9 The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now 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.”

11 But 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? 12 Why 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. 13 Remember 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.'” 14 And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Moses stands between the people and the LORD and he is the one unbroken strand in the covenant. For the LORD this is a betrayal that threatens not only the relationship of the people and their God, but a betrayal that threatens to overcome the people with God’s anger. The LORD takes this relationship seriously! There are many things that can be said about the portrayal of the LORD the God of Israel depending on one’s perspective but this God is never the enlightenment’s unmoved mover. The LORD is engaged in the redemption of the people of Israel from slavery and is invested in this people and the people’s actions can wound God emotionally. Yet, the LORD’s tie to Moses also remains strong and the LORD considers starting over with Moses and even presents this offer to Moses, the same offer that Abraham received.

Moses stands between the people and the LORD, that is where the prophet stands. In the coming verses we will see Moses’ anger but in this time before God Moses is the logical one calling to mind not only God’s honor but also God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. Moses calls upon God, even in God’s anger and grief, to honor the promises that have been made. Moses calls God back to the covenant, even though the covenant has been broken in a spectacular way by the people. Prophets stand between God and the people and God listens even when God wants to be left alone. When the LORD desires silence, for the sake of the people the prophet speak so that they might change God’s mind and avert disaster for the people.

Image from Rt. Rev. Richard Gilmour, Bible History Containing the Most Remarkable Events of the Old and New Testaments, with a Compenduim of Church History (1904)

Exodus 32: 15-24 Broken Covenant, Broken Relationships

15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant1 in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. 16 The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. 17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” 18 But he said, “It is not the sound made by victors, or the sound made by losers; it is the sound of revelers that I hear.” 19 As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.

21 Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?” 22 And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. 23 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.’ 24 So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off ‘; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

Moses risked entering the furnace of the LORD’s anger for the people but now his own anger burns hot. Moses knows the danger the people have put themselves into, he knows the consequence of the broken covenant with the LORD. He has seen not only the LORD’s hopes but his own hopes dashed in this sudden act of rebellion. The tablets, the work of God, have been made worthless by the work of the people. A broken dream and a shattered covenant. The object which Moses had waited to bring to the people now lies shattered at the base of the mountain.

The tablets are broken, the calf is destroyed and scattered on the waters for the Israelites to drink in the bitter taste of their betrayal. Yet, it is Aaron who in this moment receives Moses’ first attention. Aaron who will be the high priest of the people, whose role will be to atone for the people has been active in their betrayal. In a manner like Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, Aaron immediately attempts to deflect Moses’ anger onto the people. Yet, Moses and Aaron here are in strong contrast: Moses interceded for the people while Aaron blamed them. In one way this is oversimplified since Aaron is down the mountain with the people and feels pressured by them, yet the role of leaders is to restrain the people from a path that would lead to their destruction. Aaron minimizes his role within the creation of the golden calf (I threw the gold into the fire and out popped the calf). Atonement will need to be made for Aaron before he can make atonement for the people. The only one able to make the needed atonement is Moses.

Exodus 32: 25-35 Sin, Brokenness and Consequences

25 When Moses saw that the people were running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies), 26 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. 27 He said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.'” 28 The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day. 29 Moses said, “Today you have ordained yourselves1 for the service of the LORD, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.”

 30 On the next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” 31 So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if you will only forgive their sin — but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” 33 But the LORD said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; see, my angel shall go in front of you. Nevertheless, when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin.”

35 Then the LORD sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf — the one that Aaron made.

Moses and the sons of Levi violently restore order to the camp. I struggle with the violence unleashed in this scene even though I can appreciate the seriousness of the situation. For Moses this is a struggle of life or death. If order cannot be restored he knows the consequences of the LORD’s wrath continuing to burn and break out against the people. The Levites here are set aside for their future ministry in the service of the LORD. The cost of the earlier celebrations has been high indeed. This is nothing short of intertribal warfare and its conclusion determines the direction of the people of Israel.

In what, to me, is one of the most courageous scenes in the book of Exodus and perhaps in all of scriptures, Moses returns to the LORD and still stands with the people. He dares to ask God to forgive the people, but if God cannot forgive the people then Moses stands with them and asks for his own name to be removed. Moses refuses to give the LORD the option of starting over with him. There is consequence to this sin and brokenness but it is not immediate. God has turned aside from the threat of letting God’s anger consume the people, even though there is the plague which comes at the end of the chapter. There is judgment but not annihilation. The relationship and the promise of the land continue but trust has been broken and the relationship is not the same.

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One Response to Exodus 32: The Golden Calf Threatens the Covenant

  1. Pingback: Exodus 34: Restoring the Covenant | Sign of the Rose

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