As strange as it seems, the story of the Golden Calf is one of those Sunday School stories we all know. Whether in the movies or in the lesson, it comes right on the heels of the 10 Commandments. It sticks out for any number of reasons. In my mind, I’ve never seen the attraction of worshiping a cow; golden or otherwise. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a confirmed carnivore. I love steak, hamburger, meatballs, and most anything you can do with a cow. I’ve even eaten tongue. When you’re on a mission trip, to seem polite and gracious, you’ll eat most anything. However, and with no disrespect to my Hindu sisters and brothers who consider cows sacred, I’ve never once pictured a cow as God.
When I was a child in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, I had no idea that the other dominant religious tradition of the day, Baal worship, often worshiped cows. Baal, the great multipurpose storm god of the ancient near east, was often portrayed as a cow. That information would have helped. Not that it would have seemed any less weird but at least it would have made a little more sense as to why they went for the cow statue. Baal the Cow just happened to be next on the “what can we worship” list. And my word, weren’t they an impatient group of worshippers?
Where was Moses? Moses goes up the mountain to meet with the God who led them out of Egypt, saved them from death (repeatedly), fed them, protected them, and has now disappeared for longer than they’ve expected him to be gone. What do you do in such a situation? You freak out! You lose your mind, totally forget everything that’s happened the recent past, ignore common sense, disregard conventional wisdom, decide there’s only one possible explanation for an none other, and decide to act out ignorance against your best interests. That’s what we do and it’s what the Israelites did. If God doesn’t meet our timetable, expectations, plans, desires, and options we proclaim ourselves as free agents and make ourselves Gods.
They are lost, marching in the desert in route to the Promised Land, totally dependent on God for everything. Somehow, they’ve managed to make stops by Jared’s and other jewelry stores on their trip across Sinai. What do I mean by this? Notice what the text says about the gold. Look again at verse 3, “So all the people took out the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron.” How fashion conscious should you be when you’re a refugee in the desert on the run from the Egyptians and in search of a new country? How much gold jewelry do you need and who are you trying to impress with your Bronze Age sense of fashion? The fact they’ve got that much gold on hand and it’s decorative, jewelry even, has always troubled me. It says something about misplaced priorities and taking advantage of the blessings God’s giving to you. Would we know anything at all about putting emphasis on things that don’t matter and squandering God’s resources on matters that matter a hill of beans? I think we do. The Israelites went from “God’s chosen people” being led by Moses to a group of cow worshiping drunks in the blink of an eye. Witnesses to greatest miracles God had ever done; splitting of the Red Sea, the plagues on Pharaoh and Egypt, the gifts of food in the wilderness were forgotten in an instant because Moses’ meeting ran over. They were offended that Moses would leave them. How dare God do this to them (whatever “this” is); despite doing all of “that” for them (in the past)?
As I reread the Golden Calf, I’ve come to see it less as story about idolatry. It’s more a commentary on what happens when we let our priorities and expectations become so unrealistic and narrowly focused, not only do we leave God out of our lives but we ruin relationships with other people. In other words, things have to be the way we’ve decided, there can be no alternatives, this person is acting this way and because of motivations we’ve already decided have to be the case. There are no other factors that might impact this situation, decision, or this person. It has to be as I have determined it. It’s not gone according to my plan. Moses has not arrived. I don’t care that he’s been with God, if that’s really true. Has anyone seen is Facebook status lately? Did he really check-in on the top of Mount Sinai? As a result I’ll do what I have to do. I’m going to make my metaphorical Golden Calf. What’s so frightening about this story is how quick and how often that change in God’s people can occur.
The second half of this passage turns darker and makes me uncomfortable. What do you do about this? I’m asking an open-ended rhetorical question. I don’t know. What does God do about his people, those in whom he has heavily invested, that are now ungrateful, drunk, impatient, cow worshipers? This is not an easy question to answer. Think of everything God’s done to get them to this point. Consider the cost in human lives alone. Does God go all Toby Keith on the chosen people and put a boot up their ass? Should God order up a Predator Drone armed with Hellfire Missiles and wipe every last one of them off the face the Earth?
The short answer is yes. The text is clear; murder is God’s first instinct. When we act like short sighted, self interested, impatient, narcissists God’s initial impulse (as recorded here in Exodus) is to kill us all. I told you it turned darker. To paraphrase John Donne, “death, be not proud” but it will be quick and easy. God says to Moses, “I’ll start from scratch with you”.
Here’s where I imagine Moses feels like General John Kelly trying to keep the President’s Twitter machine under control. Moses says, “God you can’t send that Tweet”.
This is what troubles me: God makes argument for murdering the people he has professed to love and already saved from certain death. “They’ve already abandoned the path that I have commanded. They’ve made a metal bull calf for themselves. They’ve bowed down to it and offered sacrifices to it. I’ve seen how stubborn they are. Now leave me alone! Let my fury burn and devour them.”
Nothing God said is inaccurate or wrong. The Israelites have done all these things. Two points I’ll raise: they’ve not killed anybody and you could have seen this coming a mile away. This should have surprised no one, least of all God. The Israelites had been moaning, murmuring, and complaining since they left Cairo. However, these aren’t reasons to kill everyone you love. He’s simply restating the facts. Yes, God is angry. We’re all angry and disappointed. Since September 6th when we watched the tiny island of Barbuda leveled by Irma or on September 20th when Maria hit Puerto Rico and on October 1st when 58 people died on a Sunday night in Las Vegas; we’ve been angry and disappointed. Tragic and brutal deaths are all too common both here and around the world.
Moses knows that more death isn’t the answer. Scripture says, “Moses pleaded with the Lord his God, ‘Lord, why does your fury burn against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt?’ Calm down your fierce anger. Change your mind about doing terrible things to your own people.”
Calm down your fierce anger and change your mind about doing terrible things to your own people. Moses doesn’t hold his tongue. It’s nice to think about someone who will speak truth to power. Moses is speaking truth the ultimate power. We like to talk about the fear of the Lord. We forget that what that really means is “respect”. Fear doesn’t mean to be afraid of God. If Moses had been “afraid” of God, he would have been an accessory to the murder of innocent people who didn’t deserve to die. Had Moses been unwilling to tell the Emperor that he had no clothes, where would we be today? Let the utter profundity of the passage sink in for a moment: Moses (a man) told God (the God) that God was wrong. God admitted God was wrong. God changed God’s mind. That last verse is the most crucial verse in this entire story, it’s the one you need to remember: “Then the Lord changed his mind about the terrible things he would do to his people.”
If God can be wrong, we can be wrong. If God can learn a lesson and relent so can we. If God can err on the side of life, grace, and inclusion; how about us? What are some of the things we think we’re so invested in, things that we become fighting mad over, that are black and white for us, and matters of which we’re so certain we’ll never change our minds? God changed God’s mind. What would happen if you changed yours? How would the church look different?