While Moses was with the Lord for forty days on Mount Sinai receiving the law, the people of Israel grew restless. They soon looked for a new leader and then a new god.
v1-6. Aaron, functioning as Moses' substitute, is confronted by the people of Israel who want a substitute for both Moses and the Lord. Aaron goes along with the building of an idol, although he doesn't seem to think that his actions are idolatrous. The writer of Exodus certainly views his actions this way (in the terms of Jeroboam's apostasy, 1Ki.12:28). So, the idol is built with the people providing the gold. It is unclear how Aaron makes the golden calf, but probably it is cast and then finished by hand. Why he chooses a calf is unclear. The Egyptian god Apis is represented by a bull, as is the Canaanite god Baal, but we do not quite know whether Aaron thought he was replacing the Lord, or just representing him. Certainly the people proclaim "These are your gods, O Israel." An orgy follows.
v7-14. The scene now moves to the top of the mountain. The Lord burns with fury at Israel's sin and tells Moses he is about to annihilate his chosen people. Moses pleads for mercy on three grounds: First, these are the Lord's people whom he has rescued from Egypt; Second, the Egyptians would see Israel's destruction and it would bring shame on the Lord; Finally, the promise given to Abraham and his descendants must surely stand. In Deuteronomy 9:25 we are told Moses spent forty days interceding for Israel. Clearly, the Lord could immediately act to destroy Israel, but intends to act mercifully in line with his covenant promise. So, the Lord gives Moses the privilege of interceding on the people's behalf.
v15-20. Moses comes back to the camp, along with his assistant Joshua. On hearing the noise of celebration rising from the camp, Moses smashes the two tablets of the covenant in anger. He then sets about the destruction of the cursed image by burning, crushing, and casting the dust upon the waters. Israel must then drink the water.
v21-24. Aaron is now confronted by Moses. He identifies the people's sin, but tries to exonerate himself. He claims the people brought the gold to him of their own accord, and on throwing it in the fire, a golden calf appeared by itself. Our author is comparing Aaron's weakness with the strength and integrity of the true mediator, Moses.
v25-29. The text is quite critical of Aaron. In weakness he has let the people get out of control and has not properly distinguished between the Lord and other deities. Moses now calls for decision and only the Levities come forward to stand with him. They then become the agents of divine judgement. It is interesting that such a critical story, concerning the Aaronic priesthood, is retained in the tradition.
v30-35. Moses again intercedes for the people, even offering his own life for theirs. Although the Lord stays his hand from the people's destruction, they will still have to face a judgement of plague.
The story of the Golden Calf is mentioned by Paul the apostle in his first letter to the Corinthians. 10:7ff, and also by Luke in Acts 7:38ff. For Paul, the story reminds us that the people of Israel possessed wonderful sacraments (baptized in the Reed Sea, communed on manna and water from the rock), yet they turned from the Lord and put their trust in mere idols. Believers can just as easily slip from faith, and we need to remember that the Lord is unlikely to treat us any differently from the way He treated Israel.
In Acts, Luke records the sermon of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. In this sermon Stephen functions within the tradition of the Old Testament prophets. He condemns the sin of Israel (a "stiff-necked" people), and so is treated as the prophets were treated. In classic style Stephen both condemns and intercedes, and in that sense he stands with Moses, the prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus and the apostles. The Israel of Stephen's day was no different to the Israel of Moses' day. "They refused to obey him, but thrust him aside." They "turned to Egypt", worshipping the "works of their own hands." As a result, "God gave them over to worship the host of heaven" (meaning the gods of the nations, who are no gods). God allowed them to face the consequence of their actions. Of course, we would do well to remember that the same fate awaits us, the ingrafted wild olive branch, if we fail to rest on the prophetic word.
The story of the Golden Calf has prompted a variety of interpretations. For the early church, the focus was on the apostasy of the Jewish nation. For the synagogue, it was certainly an embarrassing story. During the classical period, Christian theologians were more concerned with handling the enigma of a God who seemingly changes his mind. They tended to conclude that the Lord was speaking "in human fashion", while Calvin argued that He was just testing Moses. Others were more concerned with the fact that Moses seemed willing to throw away his salvation for the people. Augustine considered the statement "careless", but most agreed that Moses' salvation was not in jeopardy.
In the Victorian to modern era, the tendency has been to draw from the story of the Golden calf a warning concerning the danger of syncretism. The church is always tempted to rest on a visible substitute for God. The cultural/secular dreams (quasi religious needs) of the people can easily become the driving force of the church. A crowd-pleasing pragmatism will quickly move us from deism to paganism. The institution has then produced its own golden calf and undermined faith in the process. Let us, therefore, take care that the mission of our church is driven by God's Word rather than marketing methods.
1. Illustrate Aaron's crowd-pleasing pragmatism in today's church.
2. Pragmatism, of itself, does not necessarily move us from deism to paganism, so what are the associated factors that lead us in this direction?