Exodus 32:1-14: Horror and Heat at Sinai
We now embark on an overwhelming, even scary text: Exodus 32:1-14 (which belongs to the larger unit of 32-34). In many ways I wish the Exodus story ended at chapter 31, avoiding the "adultery" that is about to take place. There on Mount Sinai, several chapters ago, Yahweh and Israel committed covenant. Yahweh brought Israel to himself, up out of slavery in Egypt. Yahweh spoke the Ten Words to all Israel, promising to make them a holy nation and a kingdom of priests to mediate his Presence to creation. Israel said, "I do," thus committing to reorganize all of life around the Presence of Yahweh. A covenant was cut/created. Moses is called up the mountain to receive instructions regarding the sanctuary dwelling place that is to be built for Yahweh. Forty days have passed, the instructions are complete, and it now appears to be time for Moses to go down and get the people to work on the tabernacle project. What a great place to end. "They built the tabernacle, Yahweh moved in, and they all lived together happily ever after!"
But you know that the story does not end there, nor are things very happy. Israel had grown extremely weary of waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain. They wanted to go somewhere. They wanted to be led somewhere. Anywhere. So they assembled together and brought their complaint to Aaron. "Rise! Make us gods that will go before us. We don't know what has happened to this man Moses who brought us here."
It's interesting that Israel could not stand this waiting period, and yet it was really their own fault that they were in a waiting position. Following the speaking/hearing of the Ten Commandments they had backed away from Yahweh, telling Moses to approach the mountain while they waited down below. Now, frustrated that they have been left at a distance and somewhat leaderless, they cried out for Aaron to make gods to lead them. My sense is, and I think the text will bear this out, that the people really weren't thinking about trading in Yahweh so much as they were crying out for new and improved leadership. "We're tired of waiting for Moses to lead us. Give us gods (idols, images) to lead us. Moses got us here. We need someone/something to go before us and get us where we want to go."
Aaron knew exactly what to do: he took an earring offering. All the wives, daughters, and sons (yes, sons) gave their gold earrings to Aaron, who promptly used a tool to fashion them into an image of a bull calf. A proclamation was made: "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt." The people responded with overwhelming favor, so Aaron declared, "Tomorrow, a feast to Yahweh!" And what a feast they had! Eating and drinking and much revelry. One commentator suggests that the feast turned into an orgy before it was over. And all this just as Yahweh was finishing up His tabernacle instructions to Moses.
Of all things, why did Aaron make a bull calf and why did this please the people? The bull was a common symbol for deity throughout the cultures of the ancient Near East. It represented the "forces" of fertility and strength. Sometimes the god of fertility and strength was depicted as a bull, other times riding a bull. In Canaanite religion the bull was also associated with the storm god. This is because in the region of Palestine (where the Israelites are heading) fertility depended upon rain. There was no water supply like the Nile in Egypt. Rain was required for fertile ground. Fertile, productive ground was required for fertile, productive livestock. Hence, Baal, the storm god was also the god of fertility and strength (see Baal Worship in the Old Testament). According to ancient art, he rode a bull and carried lightening in his hands.
So, if someone asked you to make some gods, it would be quite natural to make an image of a bull. It is important to realize that Israel and other cultures knew that the images they made were not literally gods. They understood that they had made an image, a symbol. These symbols represented the "divine forces" of life, such as fertility and power. To make gods or idols was to make symbols which represented these powerful forces. As symbols, they further understood that somehow these forces were present in the idols, perhaps in a similar way to our understanding of Christ somehow being present in the Eucharist. Even if we believe that the wine or grape juice only represents Jesus' blood, I imagine you would have an uncomfortable feeling about dumping leftovers down the drain. Once it represents the blood of Christ, it is no longer ordinary, who-cares-what-happens-to-it, grape juice. It is holy.
One more thing about religion in the ancient Near East. Religion served the purpose of providing a way to manipulate these powerful forces that were so necessary for life. Technically speaking, religion was a form of sympathetic magic. That means that the powerful forces were manipulated by the manipulation of the symbols that represented them. A voodoo doll is a great example. The doll is just a doll at one level, but religiously it is a symbol of the person. What one does to the doll theoretically affects the represented person. Pierce the chest and heart of the doll, and the person will have a heart attack and die. One manipulates the person through the manipulation of the symbol.
Another example is sacred prostitution. Temple prostitutes were not just a "temple growth strategy" nor an indication of how sexually perverse a society was, although no doubt desire played a significant role. But the religious purpose of such prostitution was to manipulate the forces/gods of fertility to produce, to have intercourse, to rain, to make the ground fertile and the livestock productive. It really did serve a religious, manipulative purpose (see Baal Worship).
I suspect that when Aaron said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt," he was not replacing Yahweh with a golden bull calf and giving the calf credit for their freedom. Rather, Aaron was giving the people symbols by which they could manipulate and manage Yahweh, symbols by which they could continue to take advantage of the great power of Yahweh. The golden calf was not a replacement for Yahweh, but for Moses. Moses had not come back, yet he was the one who was to serve as their connection to the power of Yahweh. With Moses gone, the people cried out for gods, for an image or symbol that could hook them up again and tap them into Yahweh's power to go where they wanted to go. With the bull calf in place, they would not have to wait any longer for Moses.
I think this reading is supported by the fact that Aaron proclaimed a "feast to Yahweh" and the people proceeded to celebrate. Aaron built an altar to place before this gold calf, and then conducted a feast to Yahweh. He, in his mind, had not replaced Yahweh with an idol. Rather, he was feasting to Yahweh by means of an idol. Again, the calf had taken the place of Moses (not Yahweh) and was functioning as the connector between Yahweh and the people. And unlike Moses, the people could control this connector, never having to wait on it, and thereby they could better control the divine power of Yahweh. They theoretically had harnessed Yahweh and His power to go before them, to take them wherever they want to go.
The problem with all of this is that Aaron and company have broken commandment number two. "You shall not make any graven images," including images of Yahweh. No, they hadn't worshiped another god, but they had "imaged" Yahweh for the purpose of controlling Yahweh. The result was that they have reduced Yahweh to a manageable symbol, a religious power to serve their own ends. Imagine that. Reducing the I AM, the One Who IS, the One whose Presence makes all the difference in the world, to a power that can be manipulated, managed, and used for "national" ends. That was Aaron and company's great sin! Not the replacement of Yahweh with another deity, but the reduction of Yahweh to a power that could be controlled by an image! Yahweh had been reduced to a vehicle for Israel's ends!
The reduction of Yahweh is a gross and foolish sin. Yahweh simply cannot be reduced, and Israel was about to discover this. But before we move on in the story we need to ask if we are guilty of the reduction of Yahweh. Now I doubt any of you have turned your gold earrings into a calf and had a wild party before it. Yet I do think we have some major confessing and repenting to do at this point, for while we don't construct physical images, we do construct theologies and institutions, all too many of which are golden calf in nature. In other words, we do reduce God, to theologies that take us where we want to go, to institutions that legitimate and preserve a desired lifestyle.
Let me offer some examples. (1) Our country has seen theologies constructed that legitimated slavery. God was reduced to a vehicle to get the slave owners, sellers, shippers, and buyers where they wanted to go. This theology did not portray some other god as God. It fully espoused itself as being a Christian theology, a Yahweh golden calf.
(2) Today we have numerous liberation theologies, typically arising in protest of a dominant theology. In general, the liberation theologies only go as far as "Let my people go." They forget or neglect the purpose part, "That my people might serve Me." Thus, liberation theologians reduce god to an agent that will serve as a power source for their liberation agenda. God is not being served, but used. It is golden calf.
(3) The "prosperity gospel" is an obvious golden calf theology. God is reduced to merely a means of becoming financially wealthy.
(4) In the USA presidential election of 2000, both candidates stated that they would make greater use of faith-based communities as they dealt with social issues. Depending upon how skeptical you are, their goal was either to improve society or keep society sound enough that they can maintain their privileged positions. Either way, they were not supporting the faith-based community out of a responsiveness to the One the community worships. Rather, they were attempting to harness the community and its God for their social and political aims.
Personally, I'm glad both candidates saw that faith-based communities have something of value to offer. What bothers me is to hear Christians speak of the need for faith-based communities in order to preserve society as we know it. The "Christian" call to support churches, especially inner city churches/ministries, so that our society does not crumble is simply golden calf. Support them, YES! But not as a means to keep American society from falling apart. Not as a means to make sure middle class lifestyle is kept intact. Support them in response to the One who cannot be co-opted for the preservation of any society, but is eternally concerned with justice and the needs of the powerless.
This brings me to a grave concern. My sense is that these are dangerous days for many evangelical churches, at least in the U.S. At pastors and spouses retreat a year ago, the big question was what do we churches need to do that will work? What do we need to do to grow, survive, be successful, be a force in Southern California, or in any particular location?
Yet, that is the wrong question. That is a reduction question, a question calling for a god to be made to go before us that will work. When we are in the Presence of the Holy One, we do not ask what will work. We are too consumed with living responsively to that Presence. It's not about what will work. It's about working out life in response to the Holy One. That we are asking the question causes me to believe that we are no longer with Moses on Sinai in the divine Presence. Rather, we are at a distance with the people, hanging around at the base of the mountain, crying out for some way to manipulate the Presence to take us where we want to go. We are waiting for a golden construct that will work. It's a dangerous place to be. I hope no one takes an earring offering.
Don't misunderstand. I'm not against planning. I'm not against working to be effective. But one of the forces driving that retreat discussion was the fear that our particular denomination will not survive, especially as a primarily white denomination in a multi-ethnic setting like southern California. If we had been living in response to the Presence of the Holy One, I suspect that problem would have already been solved. We would not be simply a white church, but a multi-ethnic church. But now it is a problem, and we are motivated to address the problem, not so much out of love for our neighbor, but out of our desire to survive. So we are asking what will work, what can we do to insure the continued success of our denomination in the midst of a changing world? With those motives, it's a golden calf question.
In 32:7-10 we find Yahweh's initial response to Israel's second commandment sin. Immediately Yahweh ordered Moses to go down to "your people." Yahweh was not willing to own them when they behaved in such a corrupt, spoiling manner, turning aside from the path for covenant life that He had given them. Yahweh declared them to be a "stiff necked people" whom He is ready to utterly destroy. Instead of Israel He would make Moses into a great nation.
Yahweh was angry, extremely angry. Literally Yahweh told Moses to "Leave Me alone! My burning nose shall be upon them! I will exterminate them!" In Hebrew a burning hot nose is a metaphor for intense anger, much as stiff-necked means stubbornness. Yahweh was determined that Israel was going to feel the heat of His nose! He would not permit covenant partner Israel to reduce or manipulate His Being. He would not allow the covenant to be spoiled and compromised. Israel had already defiled the marriage. Yahweh was so incensed that He was ready not just to end the marriage, but to end Israel as well. "Get out of my face, Moses! My nose is hot and Israel is going to burn! They have broken one of the non-negotiables of our covenant."
What was Moses to do? The people had already traded him in for a calf and now Yahweh was telling him to get out of the way so He could destroy his covenant partner. Moses did what any good marriage counselor would do: he tried to "calm the face of Yahweh his God" and buy some time. He used some pretty standard arguments, all the time reminding Yahweh that Israel is "Your people." (1) You've invested too much in Israel to quit now. (2) What about your reputation? What will everyone think if you do this? And (3) What about your promises to Abraham? What about the kids? Then came Moses' biggest time-buying move. He told Yahweh to be sorry for the evil He intended to do to His people. Did you hear that? Moses tells Yahweh to be sorry for getting so angry.
Amazingly, Moses' strategy worked, at least in terms of buying some time. Yahweh changed his mind about the disaster He had planned on doing to Israel. But notice what is missing from Moses' talk with Yahweh. The actual issue was never addressed. Israel's sin was never spoken of. If I were Yahweh, I would be saying, "Why should I be sorry? What have I done? Let's talk about Israel being sorry." But also notice that something else is missing. Forgiveness. Yahweh merely was sorry for intending to destroy Israel. But no wrong had been recognized by Israel or Moses. And no forgiveness had taken place in Yahweh's heart. All Moses had done was place a band-aide over a burning nose. The issues were still there and forgiveness was yet absent.
But what do we expect? Deep anger typically arises from deep hurt. If you discovered your spouse defiled you and your marriage, would or could you forgive them after one brief counseling session? Probably not! You might not be able to forgive at all, ever! And that is where our text ends. We don't know whether the issue will ever be truly dealt with. We don't know whether Yahweh will forgive. All we know is that a grievous wrong has been done to Yahweh by covenant partner Israel and that forgiveness cannot be cheap if it is going to be genuine. A time of heart searching awaits, for both Israel and Yahweh.
I think it would be an injustice to the text and to the heart of Yahweh to jump ahead at this point to the gospel message of forgiveness. That would make forgiveness too cheap, too mechanical, and too artificial. Rather, I think we need to reflect a little on the hot nosed anger of God about being reduced to a means to an end. What I find scariest is that Israel appears to have not even been aware that they were making such a reduction. They were too busy feasting to their reduced Yahweh to realize they had actually strayed from the true Yahweh. And I wonder, what are the ways we have reduced God to a means to an end and don't even realize it because we are too busy celebrating this smaller God that is going to take us where we want to go?
O Lord, open our eyes to our reductive ways. Show us the things in us that cause your nose to burn. And have mercy upon us we pray, for we are indeed a stiff necked people bent on getting where we want to go. Change us, that we might walk tenderly forth in your Presence. Amen.