Summary: False (mostly mental) images of God distort him, and harm us. Recognize how false images might come to us, and replace them with a true image of God from the Bible, especially Christ.
ACCEPT NO SUBSTITUTES—Exodus 20:4-6, 32:1-6
(I began with a children’s sermon: “Can you draw God? Why not? God is more than we can describe!”)
Read Exodus 20:1-6.
Catholics and Lutherans take these as one commandments (splitting #10 to make a total of 10), but most Protestants take them as two: the first is “no other gods,” and the second is “no manmade image of God.”
(Note to preacher: NIV 1984 has the unfortunate translation “idol” not “image,” which sounds more like a different god. NIV 2011 more correctly translates as “image.” If your translation is unclear, you might want to explain.)
It would seem that few of us would be in any danger of breaking this commandment! Do we take some of our kids’ Play Doh, to make an image of God, so we can worship it? Is it wrong to have a cross or picture of Jesus on the wall?
This commandment prohibits substituting any image of God for God himself. When we do that, the image we create distorts his character, and misleads us.
It took less than 40 days for the Israelites to break the commandment against making images of God.
Read Exodus 32:1-6.
Moses has gone up Mount Sinai, to meet with God, and to receive the Ten Commandments, engraved by God himself. He has been gone for 40 days and nights. For the first 7 days, there was smoke and fire on the mountain, but that has ended. The people are getting restless. Moses represented God to them, and Moses is nowhere in sight.
The people have only been away from Egypt for a short time, and they are still inclined to worship multiple gods. They “gather around” Aaron (not in a friendly way, I suppose), and demand, “Come, make us gods who will go before us…”
Aaron panics. He doesn’t yet have a copy of the Ten Commandments, but he remembers very clearly the first words of God from the mountain, “You shall have no other gods before me.” What is he to do? He makes an executive decision: He will try to steer the worship of the people toward the true God.
Remember, Aaron is in panic mode. The people are out of control, and they are demanding that he make gods for them. So he forms a golden calf, and he says, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” Wow! How stupid can you get? Did this hunk of metal bring the ten plagues on the Egyptians, part the sea, destroy the Egyptian armies, supply water from a rock, and send manna daily? Yahweh (or Jehovah) did that!
Aaron hoped that the bull calf would point them toward God himself. Although he said, “These are your gods…,” there was only one bull calf, not more than one. Aaron went on to say, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to Yahweh (or Jehovah),” which was the name God himself had given to Moses. Was Aaron talking about multiple gods, one god, or the one true God?
In the Hebrew language, “el” is the word for god, and “elohim” is the plural. Yet since the true God is the ultimate God, he is almost always called “Elohim” in the Old Testament. (In Hebrew, that is not as strange as in English; it implies the ultimate in god-ness.) I think Aaron was trying to make a bridge between the demand of the people for gods (elohim), and the God who brought them out of Egypt (Elohim). He was hoping that when they worshipped the golden calf, they would think of the one true God, Yahweh, who brought them out of Egypt by his mighty hand.
If Aaron’s intentions were good, his plan was doomed. Maybe he had forgotten the second commandment, “You shall not make a graven image.” Maybe he thought that breaking commandment #2 was better than breaking #1. We don’t know what he was thinking, but his actions were disastrous.
Aaron chose, as an image to represent God, a young bull, probably because a bull represented strength, potency, and life-giving power. You could say those things about God, I suppose, although God’s strength and power are not to be compared with those of a bull.
I suppose Aaron was rather proud of himself, when he presented the bull to the people. He thought the people might get the connection: Yahweh is powerful, and Yahweh gives life. To steer them in the right direction, he said, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to Yahweh.”
Unfortunately, the people made a different connection to the potency of the bull. “So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” (Exodus 32:6) The Hebrew word translated “revelry” is the same word used to describe Isaac romantically caressing his wife Rebekah. I think you get the drift of the kind of party this was.