It’s tough to be God, just like it’s tough to be a parent-and God is our heavenly Father. He laid His life on the line for us and rescued us from slavery and death. He saved the Israelites from slavery and death in Egypt. He delivered them, guided them, fed them and gave them water. Despite all He did for them, they were often rebellious, just like we are often rebellious and children are sometimes rebellious. It’s not surprising that God was ready to destroy them.
The longer Moses stayed on the mountain, the more restless the people became. Did they believe that something had happened to Moses? Were they growing tired of his leadership? Without him present to keep reminding them of God’s presence, did doubt begin to overcome them? Was it a struggle with their faith? Had the message not penetrated their hearts? Were they not convinced?
The people were afraid because they thought they had lost their human leader. This exposes what happens when God’s people fall prey to the temptation to confuse human leaders such as parents, bishops, teachers and mentors with God. When that leader disappears, humans can lose sight of God and lose faith in their direction.
Whenever anyone or anything takes the place that God should have in our lives, it is rebellion and sin. The human heart loves anything that can be seen-that which meets and gratifies the senses. We need to remember Moses’ example, especially as it is described in Hebrews 11:27: “By faith…he endured, as seeing Him who is invisible.”
When Moses was experiencing a spiritual peak, the people of God hit rock bottom. Fearful that Moses would not return, and wanting something tangible to follow, they asked for substitute gods that would go before them. Within weeks of experiencing the presence of God at Mount Sinai, they were involved in an orgy of idolatry.
The Israelites were caught up in their own impatience, which led to their folly. Have you ever felt impatient with God? What can you do to make yourself more patient? The idol the Israelites asked for was meant to replace Moses, but they challenged God’s sovereignty as well.
It’s also easy for us to get lost. All we have to do is take our eyes off the Shepherd. Stop going to church. Stop studying God’s Word. Bury ourselves in our jobs. Surround ourselves with people who don’t care about God.
Aaron still had parts of Egypt in him. He did not have a complete conversion from the pagan worship of Egypt to God’s ways. His leadership wasn’t strong enough to stop the rebellion. He encouraged the people to make the golden idol. He tried to justify his actions by saying the idol was a god of Israel.
All of us have experienced something like this in our lives. We’re in a position where people want us to do something that deep down we know isn’t right. The pressure mounts, the demands increase and we reach a place of just wanting to make them happy. We become people pleasers instead of God pleasers.
Aaron got it slightly right and mostly wrong. He knew that it was God, not Moses, who led the people out of Egypt. He proclaimed a festival to God. To give the people something to follow, Aaron made a false image of the true God, which God had forbidden in Exodus 20:1-4.
Our idols are often false things we worship in place of God-things such as money, power, fame, career, self and so on. Idols can be our false images of the true God. They are things that we associate so much with God that we worship them instead of God-the church building, the liturgy, a former minister, the stained glass window behind the altar, a doctrine to which we cling too tightly. This form of idol can be more dangerous to faith than outright idols. No finite image can fully capture the infinite God.
For us as Christians, the Golden Calf has become a Golden Cross. Not just the shiny ones we wear around our necks but the ones that perch atop our churches, adorn our windows and beautify our godly standing in society. We build a substitute leadership on bishops and elders while waiting for Jesus to return. We build a powerful empire lasting a thousand years, and build countless cathedrals. We revel in our own religion so well that we splintered it into a thousand pieces. Our Golden Calf or Cross is wound tightly into the fabric of our religion; in new and better interpretations of our Bibles, in our church leadership which we claim speaks for God, in our local church buildings which witness to our self-absorbed worship habits, in our bland mission statements, in our fund-raising guilt trips, in our evident godliness because we are concerned with social justice, in our insurance policies and our golden parachutes, in our picture-perfect lives and picture-perfect children, etc.
Eventually God forgave Aaron and Israel, but it came at a cost. Even now, when we hear Aaron’s name mentioned, it’s usually about this episode. It’s always a mistake to please people instead of pleasing God. If there’s a situation or scenario that requires us to do one of the other, no matter how difficult it may seem at the time, pleasing God is always the right thing to do. Otherwise, we’ll end up paying a price in the end.
Aaron might have intended a partial obedience-he would give the people what they asked for, and then he would use it to worship God. But by calling it a feast to God, he broke the third commandment. The people’s behavior was not like a picnic. The verb “play” comes from the same root as the name “Isaac,” which refers to laughter, especially in Genesis 21:1-7. Here, it means sexual acts done in the worship of pagan gods. Immorality often accompanies idolatry, even today.
Trying to reconcile idol worship and the worship of God is futile. It can’t be done because God has forbidden idols and graven images. We worship idols today. They are everything from celebrities, star athletes, gold, money or prestige products such as Rolex watches or luxury cars.
The words “corrupted” and “stiff-necked” mean unresponsive and stubborn. God wanted to destroy the people and create a new nation of Moses. Moses appealed to three things:
- God’s responsibility, asserting that these are “your people.”
- God’s reputation (the Egyptians would make false conclusions)
- God’s reliability, citing His solemn oath to Israel’s forefathers.
God couldn’t overlook the insult of the golden calf. Thankfully for the Israelites, Moses knew God’s heart and intervened on behalf of the people. Moses knew God is a god of mercy, forgiveness and grace. When we base our prayers on what God has promised to do, we stand on unshakeable ground.
The stage was set for the defining moment in Moses’ life and career. Should he choose God’s side and become the founder of a new and improved nation, or should he side with the Israelites? Moses asked God to change His mind and not bring disaster on the people. God was angered by the Israelites’ actions, but He responded to their underlying fears without compromising His vision for an alternative society.
The reason for God’s anger was clear to Moses. The people worshipped idols and turned their back on God. Moses made the point that the Israelites were not Moses’ people but God’s people. God led them out of Egypt. Moses did not let God shove His chosen people aside the first time they got into trouble.
God never intended to destroy the Israelites. He was testing Moses to see whether he would learn what it meant to pray for other people. Would Moses stand in the gap, or would he allow God to destroy His people? This was a test for Moses, and he passed it. He prayed. He interceded. That is what we need to be doing as believers. We need to pray for people, and we need to care about people.
God is still looking for intercessors today. Sometimes we will pray for something and we won’t get an answer right away. We think that God is obviously saying no. Maybe God wants us to step up our game. Maybe He wants us to pray a little bit more. Maybe He doesn’t want us to give up so easily.
This passage teaches us two lessons:
- Doing our own thing leads to trouble.
- There are expectations that come with the invitation to be the people of God. God expected the Israelites to remain faithful during the time Moses was receiving the Law, but they weren’t faithful.
God can never be bought, but He can relate to us and He can love us more than we would dream possible. This is the God who was revealed not just in part, in the framework of the thinking of primitive humanity in Old Testament times, but who was revealed in all His full splendor and glory through Jesus Christ.
- Jeremiah, David: The Jeremiah Study Bible, New King James Version (Brentwood, TN: Worthy Publishing; 2013, p. 115-117)
- Dunnam, M.D. & Ogilvie, L.J.: The Preacher’s Commentary Series, Vol. 2: Exodus (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.; 1982; pp. 322-328)
- Stanley, C.F.: The Charles F. Stanley Life Principles Bible, New King James Version (Nashville, TN: Nelson Bibles; 2005)
- Pastor Bob Coy, “Aaron.” Retrieved from Crosswalk@crosswalkmail.com
- Pastor Greg Laurie, “God is Looking for Intercessors.” Retrieved from Crosswalk@crosswalkmail.com
- Os Hillman, “Beware of Mixture.” Retrieved from Christianity.firstname.lastname@example.org
- Bruce T. Martin, “Golden Cross, Bloody Cross.” Retrieved from Sabbatheology@Crossings.org
- Jordan Trumble, “Bible Study, 18 Pentecost, Proper 23(A).” Retrieved from www.episcopaldigitalnetwork.com
- Richard Niell Donovan, “Exegesis for Exodus 32:12-14.” Retrieved from www.lectionary.org.
- Pastor Greg Laurie, “Will You Stand in the Gap?” Retrieved from Crosswalk@crosswalkmail.com
- Amy Erickson, “Commentary of Exodus 32:1-14.” Retrieved from www.workingpreacher.org
- Karla Suomala, “Commentary on Exodus 32:1-14.” Retrieved from www.workingpreacher.org
- Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Exodus 32:7-14.” Retrieved from www.workingpreacher.org