Summary: FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST SEPTEMBER 16, 2001 Exodus 32:7-14 Title: “Idolatry”
FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST SEPTEMBER 16, 2001
This text is part of the Golden Calf story, a story more complicated that it looks at first blush. To understand it we need to fast forward to the time after Solomon’s death when Jeroboam led the rebellion that resulted in the split up of the Kingdom united under David and Solomon. The northern kingdom, now called Israel, was established over against the southern portion, now called Judah. In order to sever ties with the south- including Jerusalem, the Temple and the cult- and strengthen the new state, Jeroboam had golden calves, or bulls, made and enshrined in the very ancient holy places of Dan and Bethel in the north according to 1Kings 12: 24-33. He thought that would keep people in the north, Israel, from going to the Temple in Jerusalem in the south.
Now Jeroboam actually intended these molten images to represent Yahweh, not the Canaanite god, Baal. Bulls or calves were a common representation of either the god or his throne, the god was thought to stand or sit on the back of the strong animal as on a throne. Jewish religion forbade representing Yahweh by means of idols or icons, and wisely so. It was a short step from “seeing” Yahweh as a golden calf or bull to Yahweh “being” one or, at least, the idol being worshiped. All this was soundly and roundly condemned, especially in the Book of Deuteronomy whose slogan was: one God, one Law, one cult, one people, one Temple. That editor then re-wrote the more ancient desert rebellion story and inserted enough details about a “golden calf” to make it impossible to miss his point. Both Jeroboam now and Aaron then were wrong and both contributed to the destruction of God’s people. There is but one God who is to be worshiped as he has revealed he would like to be and not as humans would prefer. Whether the desert generation was worshiping another deity or worshiping Yahweh by means of an idol this apostasy nullified the covenant and became a model for future generations like Jeroboam’s to avoid.
In verse seven, go down at once to your people: Ex 24: 18 tells us that Moses was gone forty days and forty nights, a long time. During his absence, Aaron, Moses’ brother, up to this point a relative unknown, supervises the construction of an idol and leads a feast with holocausts and peace offerings to it.
In verse eight, Making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it: “Molten” is the past perfect participle, archaic, to be sure, of “melt.” Metal is liquefied by heat and poured into a cast for shaping. It stretches the imagination to suppose that this traveling band of escapees had enough golden jewelry on them and with them and the technology, skills and equipment necessary to actually make a golden calf of any proportions, let alone one which would have an altar before it. Verse four, says that Aaron used a graving tool. In other words he carved or sculpted an idol. Perhaps, this idol was carved from wood or even stone. The writer was not bothered by the questions such “advanced technology” in a desert setting would raise.
This is your God: Actually, the text reads “These are your gods.” While the plural form, Hebrew ‘elohim, can refer to “gods,” it is used to refer to the one God, Yahweh, over two thousand times in the Old Testament. It is clear from what is said that the reference is to Yahweh, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and not to some other deity. It is the form their worship took, the worship of an idol, a molten calf, which offends Yahweh. They are not really, intentionally worshiping another god.
In verse nine, I see how stiff-necked this people is: Despite the prohibition in the first commandment or second in the Hebrew and other Protestant traditions against idols the people have insisted on worshiping Yahweh the way they prefer rather than the way Yahweh has revealed he wants to be worshiped. Remember Moses was absent for so long because God was giving him instruction on building and maintaining his dwelling to accompany them on their journey and how he was to “conduct services” or “preside at the liturgy.”
In verse ten, let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them: Even the Deuteronomic Redactor has inserted details into the story from the time of Jeroboam, the Yahwistic tradition of picturing God in anthropomorphic terms has remained. God is pictured like a human being, talking with Moses and having human emotions. He is saying, in effect, “Do not talk to me anymore. My mind is made up.” What the author wants to convey is that both God and Moses realized the consequences of the people’s behavior. The introduction of idol worship would spell the destruction of the people. There is no point in maintaining a covenant between God and his people if the people are going to ignore so a basic tenet as manner of worship. Disputes over worship, its forms, its functionaries, will tear the fabric of unity apart.