In my readings for Through the Bible 2011 this week, I came across one of the most memorable stories in the Old Testament: Aaron and the Golden Calf. Every time I read this story, I am dumbfounded by what is happening.
Here is Moses, the God-ordained leader of the people, meeting with God on the mountain to receive God’s direct guidance for the people of Israel. I will admit that he is gone for a long time: “40 days and forty nights” (Exodus 24:18). Still, he is on the mountain speaking with God on behalf of the people, and a visible cloud has descended upon the mountain in full sight of the people (24:16-17). Even before this trip up the mountain by Moses, the people had seen the power and glory of God revealed in thunder, lightning, thick clouds, billowing smoke, and loud trumpet blasts (19:16-19). It was such an overwhelming revelation to the people that we are told, “everyone in the camp trembled” (19:16). If anything, it was an experience to remember.
However, Moses has now gone up the mountain and, from the perspective of the people, it is confusing. They say to Aaron, “As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him” (32:1). Perhaps they thought he had died in the presence of God. Whatever the case, they felt the need to move on. So, with Aaron’s help, they gather their gold in order to make gods for themselves. Perhaps, they thought that if Moses was gone then his God, Yahweh, had also left them. It was time to move on and make their own way. And boy, do they ever move on.
So, even though they had seen the wonders of God’s glory, the make their own gods. They craft a golden calf, build an altar in front of it, and then feast and “indulge in revelry” all around it (32:2-6). Things start to get fun and crazy because, well, that’s what happens when you make your own god.
Every human being is tempted to create their own god. We may not literally bow down to a god every week, but we do worship our own created gods: finances, power, influence, sex, relationships, and more. We love to do this because when we create our own gods we are free to control our own destiny. Our personal gods reflect our own greatest desires. We set those desires up as gods and then we pursue them with a sense of legitimacy.
It is interesting to consider that when God called Moses to deliver His people, Moses didn’t really want to go at first. And when God called the Israelites into freedom from Egypt, they weren’t actually all that keen on going. What happens when the Living God enters into your life, however, is powerful. It’s hard to argue with God. When you realize that you are not God and that you do not control your own destiny, it is frightening and unnerving at first. You realize that you are the servant and God is the Master.
When the Living God comes into our lives, He will not stand having other created gods taking His place. Why? Because it is a mockery of who He is but also of what it means to be a human being. We are neglecting Him, but also defiling our own lives with self-directed desires that cannot truly satisfy. When we follow after God, as the Israelites had in their journey out of Egypt, and then we turn toward created gods, we are adding injury to insult for the Living God. He has come with grace but, if we do not let Him take those gods away, He will come with anger.
Once, when talking about a human god of choice, Jesus said: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13).
Looking back at Exodus 32, we see that to be true. When we follow God and then create our own gods, we are looking for trouble.
[For more posts on this topic, read Categories of Idolatry or Four Questions to Discover Your Idols.]