Idols: Exodus 32


imagesSpiritual understanding emerges over time on humanity’s long march in a relationship with God.  Judaism, and to a lesser degree Christianity both understand humanity’s relationship with God to be an evolutionary one, rooted in the events of history.

This historical understanding of God can be contrasted with the understanding of the great Eastern religions, which hold a view of God as cosmic, outside historical time and place. In this view, God is universal and unchanging.

The point here is not the complex theological question of whether God changes or is unchanging. The story keeps moving onwards. God appears to grow within an evolving relationship with humanity. With the evolution of culture our image of God, hopefully, deepens.

Loneliness and fear

The people have become frightened by Moses’ long stay on the mountain. They feel lost and bewildered without Moses and the God who accompanies him. Lost and afraid, deprived of Moses they turn to Aaron, Moses’ brother for comfort and leadership. They ask him to restore their lost sense of God’s presence.

Aaron is the priest. Priests are usually more down-to-earth than prophets. It’s not so much that they confuse the Golden Calf for the unseen God of Moses, but that the Golden Calf represents the Hebrews longing for a God who is accessible and available.  In the Golden Calf, they can see God, and they can touch God. This image is an image of God with them, a God to whom they are able to pour out their concerns, to whom they can express their fears, a God before whom they can dance and celebrate with ecstatic joy.

Exodus:32 seems to be one of those powerful cathartic moments in the history of the relationship between God and the Hebrews – a small section of humanity.

Two startling discoveries

The God of the Torah reacts when things don’t go according to plan. Exodus:32 reveals a God who, when crossed can rise to the heights of rage and threaten to obliterate Israel. This God is a passionate lover, who brooks no infidelity.  In the story of the Golden

In the story of the Golden Calf, we make two startling discoveries. The first is that God can be reasoned with. Secondly, God seems capable of learning from experience and changing his mind. Here lies a deep insight into the psychology of relationship. No real relationship can exist where either party to the relationship lacks the power to make an impact upon the other!

God’s learning?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow commenting on this aspect of the encounter on Mount Sinai says:

The ancient rabbis thought there was a relationship between the Golden Mishkan (the portable Shrine known to us as the Tent of Meeting) and the Golden Calf. The way they understand the relationship was that from watching how the people dance for the calf, God ruefully accepts that the people need a physical focus for their experience of God. So God gives them the Mishkan in place of a calf. In this approach, the story as we have it in the Torah is “out of order” — chronologically reversed. For it is the experience of the calf that convinces God to design a Mishkan. 

Rabbi Waskow ruefully notes the similarity between the golden calf and the golden altar to be placed at the center of the Tent of Meeting; both made of gold, both with horns. He says:

And the people? Dimly from the foot of the mountain, they hear the overtones, a blur: “Plenty of gold? Uh-huh. And — something about horns? — Un-huh. Must be a golden bull-calf!!” So they build it. For God as well as us, the truth is firm: What you sow, that you shall reap. Or to put it in another way: certainly earth is spirit, there needs to be a physical context for the spiritual path. (A “path” is very earthy.)

 Human loneliness

We also live in a time when idols abound. Since the Enlightenment, God has been in retreat from the center stage of the universe. It’s as if God, having set up the mechanism to run itself, packs a bag and goes on vacation, leaving humanity alone to strut with increasing self-importance center stage.

We are now like the Israelites at the foot of Mt Sinai, bereft of a lively sense of being in relationship with God, trying to get on with things the best way we can. Finding substitutes to fill the chasm of our loss we construct and worship our own golden calves in:

  1. The idol of scientific progress.
  2. The idol of materialism and material prosperity.
  3. The celebration of celebrity.

It’s this third idol I want to explore a little. For we have become a culture where we no longer celebrate achievement, i.e. what people do. We celebrate success, popularity, i.e. how people appear. We increasingly live into a reality that is virtual, and not real. A reality of shiny surfaces and ever-shifting perspectives, based on appearance and not substance.

Celebrity culture is always changing. As a result, our culture feeds our uncertainty and exacerbates our feelings of vulnerability. We may be popular one minute and cast down the next. Beneath the surface, our anxiety and stress keep growing. Social media only feeds our underlying anxiety captured in the title of a song- Will you still love me tomorrow?

Idols promise more than they deliver

Like the Golden Calf, our idols increasingly fail to fill the gap created by our loss of tangible relationship with God, and with one another. This causes us to plunge into even deeper despair!

The lessons of discipleship

The parables of Jesus are not morality stories but exhortations to discipleship. Through the juxtaposing of images that are at once familiar and at the same time hyperbolic, Jesus challenges us to move beyond the limits of our idols, the product of only what we are able to imagine for ourselves. The expectations of the Kingdom of God (thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven) break into our safe but lonely experience, forcing us to draw uncomfortable comparisons between what we are prepared to settle for, and what God desires for us.

The God of Moses demanded obedience. Where the God of Moses is passionate and jealous, the God of Jesus is compassionate and extravagant. The God of Jesus calls us into a relationship of discipleship in which we find the courage to live and work for more than we imagine being possible. Only discipleship leads us to the discovery that in the midst of feeling alone and lost, we are already found. As David Ewart in his weekly sermon blog Holy Textures puts it:

There may indeed be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, but the parables are more about the joy to be had on earth from hearing the good news of the extravagant God who risks all to search for each one of us personally, individually – joyfully. Our God isn’t sitting passively off somewhere in heaven waiting for someone to bring news that a sinner has repented today. Our God is actively searching for us.

My question is will we allow ourselves to be found?

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