By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 15, 2023
Exodus 32:1–14 (ESV)
1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” 6 And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. 7 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. 8 They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ” 9 And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. 10 Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” 11 But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” 14 And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.
Last week we spoke about the lessons from God. I focused this discussion on the relationship of God to the people and what that means to us. We are the image of God that he places in the center of his garden temple. When we see the person sitting next to us, our minds should be directed to the one who fashioned that unique being out of the dust of the earth. I have reflected on this all week. I have reflected on the image of God that each of us bear. I have considered how often I have bore that image in vain, as I have become angry at the behavior another image bearer has done. I became angry and I realized that I have failed to bear the image I poses with proper reverence.
Over the years my faith has evolved. When I was a young adult, I once thought that I had a handle on what the Christian life truly was. I remember we had a bible quiz representative from the Yearly Meeting come visit our Meeting and everyone competed against each other. For those of you that may not know when students enter middle school, they can compete with the other Meetings within our region in Bible Quiz tournaments. I am not sure as to how they are conducted because I grew up in a small meeting where we did not have enough students to form a team, and I have only served in meetings that are also smaller.
But this Quiz representative came to allow us to compete as a local meeting. Adults versus the students, parents against children, siblings against siblings. We had buzzer that lit up when pressed, and I thought we were on Jeopardy. Yes, that was the big game show back home because we only had three channels if we were lucky, and Jeopardy was the only quiz show I knew.
They began reading off the questions and I got in a zone. Round after round we would be tested on our Biblical knowledge. And I excelled. The final round was me against the father of my closest friend from church. We had defeated the clerk of the meeting, we overpowered even the pastor, and now it was me and Jerry facing off. Two quiet and contemplative guys. And I won. I knew scripture. I have read scripture my entire life. As soon as I was able to read, I wanted to know what was in scripture and I completely read the bible before most kids would pick up chapter books.
I knew scripture, but I did not understand. I would go around thinking I knew something, but then I took a trip to Ukraine, and I met people that had a different understanding of scripture than I did. They used the same scriptures and came to completely different conclusions than I did. And suddenly I was faced with a dilemma, who is right? Which of us is wrong? Could it be possible that we are both correct and the only difference is the cultural context?
This is when my faith evolution began. Today we might call this process deconstruction. If I am honest it started before, I went to Ukraine, but that was pulling me away from God, my experience in Ukraine urged me return to God. How can we look at the same scripture and come to different conclusions? I was taught that scripture was the book of answers, and these devout Ukrainian Orthodox Christians were completely fine with not understanding. I thought our faith had to be rational, and they embraced the mystery of God.
I began to see things a bit different and as I explored this aspect of faith, I began to see that scripture often asks more questions than it gives answers. And sometime the answers it seems to give only begin the process of greater discovery.
This is what is going on in Sinai. Israel has spent four hundred years in slavery. They had stories of their fathers, but in their minds, in their spirits, and in their bodies, they were slaves. They longed for freedom, but this was only a dream. In their mind liberty was like heaven to us. It was something we only received in the afterlife. It was out there beyond the veil of life, not a present reality. Then suddenly they were free. A miracle occurred and they walked out of the land of bondage into the wilderness. The problem now is they did not know how to live.
They existed in a place between. They were no longer slaves, but they were also not able to live free. We know places like this. Adolescence is this. College is this. Courtship with our romantic interests is a place between. We are moving toward the goal, but we are not quite there. This is Israel in the wilderness. They thought they were a nation, just like teenage boys think they are men, but they do not know the full reality of what that means. There are lessons that need to be learned.
They gathered at the base of the mountain, and the clouds rolled in. They could hear the rumbles of thunder; they could see flashes of light. There was an eerie yet inviting presence. They were comfortable and panicked at the same moment. And then out of the cloud they hear a voice. This voice gives them ten words, or ten lessons. They are astonished. They accept the invitation to become the people that would follow this voice, but they are also afraid. They send Moses their leader to be their representative because they believe they needed an intermediary lest they die before this powerful being.
Moses tells them that he is going up the mountain, he advises them to not even touch the stones as he makes this journey. He goes away, leaving them alone in the wilderness for forty days. God has just spoke to them from the clouds and the one person they trusted has left them on their own.
I often marvel at the lack of faith Israel exhibits at this point. They observed ten plagues, they walked across a sea on dry ground, they watched as the greatest army in the world was annihilated in an instant. They saw bread come from heaven, and they heard the voice of God. This all occurs in the span of a couple of months, but then their leader walks away for a few days, well a month, and suddenly they are filled with fear and uncertainty.
“Up, make us gods who shall go before us,” they say to Aaron the priest. “As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
How quickly they turn. They have seen and experienced the most magnificent events a human being could imagine, and now they are ready to turn away. “Make us gods.” They cry out to the man who has dedicated his life and connected his life to the unseen realm.
Through the years, I have listened to several messages using this passage. In nearly all those sermons, they focused on Aaron and his supposed failures. This has always struck me as odd. If Aaron had committed some infraction at this point, there should have been consequences. If we are to read deeper into the history of Israel, Aaron’s sons were killed by God because they introduced strange fire into the tabernacle. If strange fire could bring death, one would think the construction of a golden calf or bull would have been worse. I sat with this for a while, years to be honest. We like to blame Aaron, we like to point to Aaron as being weak, we like to think if Moses would have left them with a stronger leader none of this would have happened.
Moses is up on the mountain while Aaron is down among the multitude. A multitude of thousands of angry and scared people. Have you ever been in a place like that? Have you ever been one among many? It is difficult to stand alone when everyone around you seems to oppose everything you think is important. We can say Aaron is weak all we want, but we need to remember Aaron was human.
Aaron looks at this multitude of people. They are in a panic, afraid that they have been left in this wilderness alone. Aaron tells them to take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and daughters, and bring them to him. Just a quick side note, the Israelite sons are on the list of having earrings, just in case one of your children wants one and you find it to be taboo. They gather the gold and bring it to Aaron. Aaron takes this gold and fashions it with a graving tool and makes a gold calf.
We might wonder why Aaron decided to make a calf or a bull, and rightfully so. Images are important. The tribes of Israel were not a people that formed in isolation. They lived among other cultures, and other religions. All these various ideas have been part of their life to this point. The cultures in the ancient lands were connected through trade and when people engage in trade, they often share stories. We also know that Abraham came from one of the first great civilizations, Ur.
Much of what we read in the Old Testament is not unique to Israel. Many of the ideas and concepts are present in most of the ancient texts within the region. One of those stories from the land of Ur, is about a God named El. El was the father of the gods. El created the world but after he created the world he divided the nations among his seventy children, and then El went off and was basically never heard from again. And among the people of Ur and most of the land of Canaan they devoted their worship to the son of El name Baal. Each son of El was given a nation and as these nations warred against each other their national deity gained prominence.
I mention this because El simply means God. Words like Elohim are connected to this word. Beth-el where Jacob saw the stairway to heaven means house of God. El in Ur was the most high god that did not interact with humanity, but in the Hebrew scripture we are given a slightly different story. We are told in the Hebrew scripture that God created the heavens and the earth. That God placed humanity in a garden temple, and that humanity desired knowledge so they ate of the tree God told them to avoid. Because of this they were banished from the Garden. After the failure in the Garden, we are told that the daughters of men found favor with the sons of god and they had children with one another, and because of this God became angry. This prompted God to find the only righteous man on the face of the earth and he encouraged this man to build a boat, because God was about to flood the entire earth. After the flood the children of humanity again grew and expanded, and they desired to make a name for themselves so they built a tower that would reach the heavens. This tower we know as Babel. And after Babel God divided the nations and confused their languages. And Moses tells us in Deuteronomy that God divided the nations among the sons of god, interestingly there were seventy nations.
It is odd that the religion of Ur and that of the Hebrews seems to resemble each other to this point. The difference is that people of the nations like those of Canaan only had access to Baal a son of El, where Israel worshiped the God of creation, the God that divided the nations and kept them as an inheritance.
El the distant unknown God among the nations, is the God of Israel, and his name is I Am, or Yahweh. Aaron knows this story. It was something that had been passed on to him from the teachings of his father. But Aaron also knows that his countrymen are also aware of the countless other stories that they have encountered over the generations. El is and is not their God, because El is also part of other religious traditions. And in the most common tradition they came across in Canaan, El was represented by a bull. The bull is common in ancient religions. A bull represents strength and fertility, it thunders with anger and can also be gentle enough to pet.
But there is more to this image. When Jacob was near his end, he called his sons to him to give them his blessing. In these various blessings you will find descriptive words used. Reuben was turbulent as water. Judah was a lion, Issachar was a rawboned donkey, Dan was a viper, Naphtali was a deer, and Benjamin was a wolf. We often describe ourselves and our loved ones in terms like this, I do not know if I would want to have my father call me a rawboned donkey, but we use these descriptions as terms of endearment. When it came to the blessing of Joseph many things were said. He was wheat and grapes on a vine. But Joseph received the double inheritance of the first born, so when it came to blessings Jacob blessed both of Joseph’s sons along with Joseph. We later learn that one of these sons was referend to as a bull and the other a unicorn.
We look at the activity going on here, and we often see this as Aaron succumbing to peer pressure. And in a way he is, but the fact that God does not curse Aaron should cause us to pause. God watched as these things were happening and he says to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people.”
Aaron listened to the crowd, and he made an image. And the people took that image and said, “These are your gods, O Israel.” But what does Aaron do? He built an altar before it and made a proclamation, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.”
There is a great deal going on in this one passage. So much that we must slow down and take a deeper look. Aaron made a calf, and he made an altar. It appears that Aaron is leading the people toward unrighteousness, but Aaron is also doing something else. While “They” proclaim that the image is their gods, Aaron does not. This week I watched a video about this scene that contained commentary by a rabbi. This Rabbi spent time focused on the word they. And he connected this word with the words that God spoke to Moses, the people you brought out of Egypt. Notice God said the people Moses brought not the people God brought out of Egypt. There is a division here. This Rabi explained the scene as if there are two groups within the camp, those that follow God and those that do not, he said that along with Israel there were magicians from Egypt that tagged along. This division is highlighted by the words that Aaron speaks right after they proclaimed the bull to be their gods. Aaron does not say that the bull is their god, but he says, “Tomorrow we will have a feast to the Lord.” The word for Lord here is Yahweh, not El.
El is and is not the God of Israel. Those that follow the religions of the world, see El as this far off God that has nothing to do with them, but Israel see their God as being with them. Ur regards this creature as simply god, El, but Israel knows El’s name Yahweh, I Am.
The people come to Aaron, in fear and concern. They are left alone in the wilderness, and they need something to give them hope. Aaron knows what is going on. He tells them to give him the jewelry, and he patiently carves and fashions a bull. While he is doing this work, I imagine he recounts the stories they all knew. He makes clay and tells them of how God created, he explains how God fashioned us in His image as he molds the clay. He speaks about the trials they faced as they lived in Egypt as he hammers out the sheets of gold. And when it is finished, he hangs his head as they take his words out of context.
Aaron made the image. But he was not condemned. He was not condemned because he did not make the image for them to worship. They did that themselves. “I have seen this people,” God says to Moses. A people that says one thing but lives another. A people that listens but hears only what they want to hear. And this struggle follows Israel the rest of their lives, it follows through the generations. And even to us today.
I know what Aaron felt, because I too am in a position where I am one person surrounded by a multitude, as we all are. So often we look at the world and we are afraid. Aaron made a bull, but he did not make an idol. He fashioned a choice. Will you follow the gods of the world, or will you feast with the Lord? So many of our religious traditions are empty images. Things that could be used to bring us closer to God, yet so often we do not want to go there. We so often do not want a loving God; we instead want a God that will judge those we see as enemies. We do not want a God of grace but a god of vengeance. We want, we see, we find people that will speak the words we desire, and we will twist our faith to include them and their teaching as holy. But God has seen this people. We are not listening. We are unwilling to change. We demand that they perform for us and then we judge them for being human. I stood in the place Aaron stood. And I like Aaron often feel inadequate, because I know that I cannot command any of you to believe the words I say. But there is one thing I can do; “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” I can live my life devoted to God. I can live and so can you.
As we go into this period of contemplation, I want us to consider how we have judged Aaron in this passage. And I also want us to consider the people Aaron faced. I also want us to consider our own lives. Have we listened? Have we followed? Or have we taken the name of God in vain? Do our words and our actions resemble one another, or are they disconnected?
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