|9th May, 1999|
The image of Moses coming down Mt Sinai and finding his Hebrew people worshipping before a golden statue of a bull calf is one that stays in the mind of anyone who has seen the film "THE TEN COMMANDMENTS." Those who read with imagination also can easily picture the anger of Moses as he lifts high the stone tablets on which are the words of the Ten Commandments and smashes them into the ground, terrible symbol of the fact that their sin has already broken the Covenant.
The golden calf was made by Aaron. It consisted of a wooden frame with plates of gold obtained from melting the jewellery worn by the Hebrews. The bull was portrayed with strength and vigor, and it symbolized the principle of fertility. The worship of that symbol was associated traditionally with an obscene orgy. Following sexual activity, requests were made for divine blessing upon crops and herds.
The calf was built because the Israelites became worried when Moses was delayed in coming down from Mt. Sinai. They asked Aaron to make them a god to worship as their deliverer from Egypt. Aaron listened to the people, gathered the gold, and shaped it into the calf. The Israelites worshipped the calf and made sacrifices to it. God was enraged. However, Moses saved the people by pleading with God to allow them to live. Moses was angry with the Israelites when he came down from the mountain and destroyed the idol and punished its makers.
What does all this mean? The Golden calf represents the failure of the Israelites at Mt Sinai. They made an idol because of their impatience with Moses, who had been too long on the mountain with God. Ex 32:1-4 1"When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, "Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him". 2Aaron answered them, "Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me." 3So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt."
It is ludicrous for them to think that a calf was the God who brought them up from Egypt. But the making of calves to worship was common among some nearby people including the Canaanites. Archaeologists, digging in the Canaanite area of Ashkelon, recently unearthed a "golden Calf" that the Canaanites worshipped in their fertility rites, dating back to 50 years prior to Moses leaving Egypt. The Egyptians had conquered this area, and when Moses led Israel out of Egypt, he found at Sinai, some of his own people worshipping one of these golden calves, and joining in the fertility orgy. No wonder in the day of Jesus, the Jews despised these Canaanites as idolaters. To deny the first two commandments was the greatest sin of all.
Moses beseeches God not to v7-14 destroy the nation for their idolatry. The Lord agrees. Moses then descends from the mountain with the tablets of the Law. He sees the idolatrous feast. He is so angry that he smashes the tablets on some rocks. He melts down the golden calf, grinds it into powder, and scatters the powder over some water. He makes the people drink it. v 15-20.
Moses turns on Aaron, whom he left in command before he went up on the mountain. Aaron's reply is one for the books. "21He said to Aaron, "What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?" 22"Do not be angry, my lord," Aaron answered. "You know how prone these people are to evil. 23They said to me, 'Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him.' 24So I told them, 'Whoever has any gold jewellery, take it off.' Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!"
Aaron is caught, and like a child caught out, first blames the others for his failure. Then he fabricates the story of the manufacture of the calf, implying the calf is from God Himself by telling of its miraculous production. Moses doesn't swallow that. Picking up the pieces of the broken stone tablets of the law Moses placed them inside of the Ark of the Covenant. In spite of this failure, the covenant would continue, covered by the mercy seat of God. The story of the Golden Calf made for worship by the Hebrew people while Moses was on Mt Sinai, is one of history's classics. No wonder film makers have loved this story.
1. THE GOLDEN CALF STILL INDICTS US. (EXODUS 32: 1 - 26.
Some scholars think that this story was written in the eighth century BC, four hundred years after the death of Moses, and inserted here so that the authority of Moses was clearly seen. This was to give his authority to the prophets of the day who were reforming eighth century Hebrew religion which was again getting involved with Canaanite fertility cults and idol worship. But recent archaeological discoveries of such bulls and idols of the Canaanite religion show even in the most remote oasis in the time of Moses, that such practises were common. It is quite likely that the Golden Calf event occurred in the historical sequence of the story.
Moses is pictured as a statesman and leader of the people. Aaron is seen as a compromising politician, who by expediency wins popularity with the people. He lacks personal integrity and sways with the crowd. He is not able to face the consequences and tries to lie his way out of trouble. He blames the people, and even the fire, avoiding personal responsibility. Unfortunately, that type of politician is still with us. Like Aaron, we are also tempted to evade personal responsibility for our actions, blaming our circumstances, our environment, our upbringing, the company in which we found ourselves - blaming everything else except ourselves. The Golden Calf still indicts us. This story was used by the Hebrews for centuries to warn their own people against paganism and idolatry. The very thought of the Golden Calf made them examine themselves, their motives, their guilt feelings, and their behaviour. The Golden Calf still indicts us when we cheat God, lie and try to cover up. Here is one of the oldest sins of humanity.
2. THE GOLDEN CALF STILL INSTRUCTS US.
There is a deeper insight here. We too can worship things we make. We look with incredulity at the Hebrews, who, desiring a god, collected gold and made a golden calf which they then worshipped. How stupid! How crass! Yet people about us constantly turn from the living God to unscientific superstition, faith in material possessions, and to worshipping gods they make.
Amazingly in this enlightened age, more people listen to and read superstition than at any time in history. People actually think "what their stars say" will influence their day. When they read their horoscope they are worshipping the gods they made. Other people put their faith in material possessions to save them. They argue for more money, a better job, car, house, and as a nation they want larger armaments and more powerful missiles to save us. They look at humanity's achievements and say, "It is marvellous what they can do these days", and trust the works of mankind's inventive genius to give them abundant life. "Everybody," wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, "soon or late sits down to a banquet of consequences." Today many people realise that material possessions do not satisfy. Whiz-bang technology cannot save. Some become addicted to computers or electronic gadgets, spending all their time and money upon them. Those who bow before their computer screen all the time, worship the gods they make just as clearly as those who bowed before the Golden Calf. They are working hard to collect gold rings to make a Golden Calf just as Aaron did. Anything that claims our time, attention and money before God, is a Golden Calf.
So many people expect salvation from things! Dr James Moffatt translates this verse, "You must no longer worship things you manufacture." What an insight for twentieth century people. The Golden Calf still instructs us. It tells us to repent and worship God in Spirit and in Truth.
When the Roman General Titus, eventually conquered Jerusalem in 70AD., he rushed with glee into the Temple of Herod the Great. He battered the walls of Jerusalem for months without breaking them. Finally, after the death of more than one million people, he entered the city in triumph. Now he could take what he wanted. He took the Menorah, the seven branched candlestick, and the small table of shewbread from the inner court and had slaves carry them in a victory procession back to Rome as the Arch of Titus still records. But he was looking for the gods the Hebrews worshipped. He was expecting to find great statues made of gold. Titus crashed into the Temple's inner court, and with his sword slashed his way into the Holy of Holies to remove the gold God. But the small, inner sanctuary was empty! The Covenant Box was not there. It was only the place where people found forgiveness for their sins.
The Hebrew God was immortal, invisible! Not a God made with hands, but One eternal in the heavens. The Hebrews had learnt the lesson of GoIden Calf. They did not worship gods they manufactured! We must obey those first two commandments: "I am the Lord God. Worship no god but me. Do not make for yourself images. Do not bow down to any idol or worship it, for I am the Lord your God and I tolerate no rivals." 7.
Moses is also seen as the intercessor for the sins of the people and the one who makes atonement for the sins of the people. 30"The next day Moses said to the people, "You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin." 31So Moses went back to the LORD and said, "Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. 32But now, please forgive their sin-but if not, then blot me out of the book you 33The LORD replied to Moses, "Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin." 35And the LORD struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made."
Our modern generation does not regard sin as serious. This story of human sin reminds us that all sin requires forgiveness. That forgiveness can only come if there is atonement made. That atonement can only be made when some One, who is innocent of sin, stands before the face of God and intercedes for the sinners. God is willing to forgive, but there must be repentance for sin on behalf of each person who has sinned. In this case, Moses acted magnificently, but the people showed no sign of repentance. God does not overlook their actions, but calls all persons to be accountable for their sins. So Jesus Christ stands before God, and offers Himself to be the sacrifice for our sin. He intercedes on our behalf. He pleads that God will forgive us. But we are personally accountable, and we must personally seek God's forgiveness.
Rev Dr Gordon Moyes
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