The story of the golden calf is one that as Christians we all know well. If you grew up in church going to Sunday school every week then at some point you undoubtedly came across this story, probably not long after hearing about the Israelites nail-biting escape from the clutches of the wicked Egyptian Pharaoh and Moses receiving the 10 commandments. Even if you didn’t go to Sunday school, you’ve probably heard the story and I imagine that most of us were taught a similar lesson from it.
Don’t make idols.
The Israelites decided that actually they’d rather worship a different God, one in the form of the golden calf and who clearly made less demands on them in terms of the way they should live, hence the eating, drinking and revelry of 32:6. The ESV translation says that the people “rose up to play,” which is basically a polite way of saying they had an orgy and a bit of a disco. As this clearly made God very angry, we too shouldn’t have idols, whatever they might be; money, relationships, career etc and so we should rid our lives of them. When we think of the story of the golden calf, I imagine that lesson or a similar one comes immediately to mind.
But after looking at the golden calf incident in a bit more detail, I realised that the truth about the golden calf is something much more subtle. We tend to make the assumption that the Israelites suddenly decided to follow another God, but on closer inspection, the truth is far more terrifying.
The Israelites think they’re worshipping Yahweh.
Look at verses 1 and 4:
1 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods[a] who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”
4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods,[b] O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
Notice the footnotes in both verses? What light does the footnote shed on these verses?
The footnote shows that another possible translation of these verses could use “god” in the singular. It also crops up in v8 as noted. Either translation could be correct so how can we know which is preferable? I think verse 5 helps us:
5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.”
After Aaron had taken the people’s jewellery and fashioned it into a golden calf, the first thing he says is “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.” The capitalised word “LORD” is used in the Old Testament anytime the word Yahweh is translated. So when Aaron and the people make the golden calf and start worshipping it, they think they’re worshipping Yahweh. This makes me think that the singular of “god” is preferable in 32:1, 4 & 8. They want Aaron to make them a representation of Yahweh. He’s the one who brought them out of Egypt (v4) and he’s the one they’re holding the festival for.
This flips our traditional understanding of the golden calf story. Rather than the people deliberately turning away from Yahweh to worship a different god, they still think they’re worshipping Yahweh. And that is infinitely more terrifying than the idea that this story is simply about having other gods.
Maybe you’re not following why I think this is such a terrifying concept so let me try and explain. Back in Exodus 19-20, Yahweh had revealed himself to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, in thunder, lightning, smoke and fire but particularly in the giving of the 10 commandments. The commandments showed what Yahweh was like and how he wanted the people to live. But yet, only 12 chapters later, having not even left the mountain, we have the Israelites thinking they’re worshipping Yahweh yet they’re doing it in a way that clearly contradicts what he has revealed about himself. Commandment 6 says do not commit adultery, but yet their festival involved all kinds of sexual immorality. It’s like the Israelites had seen what Yahweh was like and yet said “actually we think you’re actually more like this calf and that sexual immorality is OK.” They say they’re worshipping Yahweh but yet they’re picking and choosing which bits they like and discarding the bits they don’t.
And we see this in society all the time. Society says murder and stealing are wrong, but sexual immorality is fine. And it’s not just society that does this. It’s Christians too. Take this example from an article in Youthwork Magazine on sexual purity. It’s a quote from a girl at a christian festival about her views on sex before marriage:
“The Jesus I know wouldn’t expect me to wait until I got married until I had sex: he doesn’t make demands of me like that. He accepts me as I am and wants me to be happy.”
The problem is, the Jesus she says she knows isn’t the Jesus revealed to us in the Bible, because the Jesus of the Bible clearly affirms the marriage relationship as laid out in Genesis and that sex is exclusively for within that marriage. Jesus does want you to be happy but never does he say that happiness comes from deliberately choosing to reject God’s commands and sinning. I also think that the idea that Jesus accepts us as we are is one we need to be careful about. I understand the sentiment of the phrase and I largely agree with it. But I would suggest it needs a minor change and would rather be in favour of saying that “He accepts me in spite of who I am.” Jesus doesn’t accept my sin and say that’s OK, carry on. He accepts me in spite of my sin and say go and sin no more.
Can you see how this is a modern example of the incident with the golden calf? Yahweh clearly revealed himself to the Israelites at Mt Sinai but when they came to worship him, they actually ignored what He had revealed about himself and just acted how they wanted. However, in the midst of doing all that, they still thought they were worshipping Yahweh. In the case of the girl, Jesus had clearly revealed himself through the Bible but yet when it came to living for him, she just acted how she wanted. It’s clear from her comments though that she still thinks she’s worshipping Jesus. In both cases, the people thought they were worshipping God but yet were actually not worshipping him at all, simply a god they had made in an image that was preferable to them.
The reason this is so terrifying is that they thought they were OK. It wasn’t like they’d turned their back on God and chosen to follow another religion or anything. That’s why it’s so scary. They’re living very clearly against God but yet they’re completely unaware of it. Their god is nothing more than a golden calf, and not really God himself.
Paul helpfully writes about this very situation in 1 Corinthians 10:6-12:
6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel. 11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!
Verses 11 and 12 help us to understand what we should take from the golden calf incident. It’s a warning for us. Verse 12 is almost chilling “if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” The Israelites thought that they were standing firm but they fell. That girl thought she was standing firm but yet the Jesus she followed wasn’t really Jesus at all.
What about us? Are we worshipping the God who has revealed himself to us, or are we worshipping a golden calf made in our own image?