The Golden Calf: A Lesson In Grace And Judgement.
How to Pray for Rebels.
1 The people saw that Moses was shamefully long about coming down from the mountain. So the people assembled against Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who will go ahead of us, because this Moses, the man who brought us up from Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him.” 2 So Aaron said to them, “Tear off the rings of gold on the ears of your wives, sons, and daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So the entire people tore off the rings of gold in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took [the gold] from their hand and shaped it with a tool and made it into the figurine of a calf. They said, “Israel, these are your gods who brought you up from Egypt.” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of it. Aaron proclaimed, “Tomorrow is a festival for Yahweh!” 6 So early next day they offered up burnt offerings and brought fellowship sacrifices. The people settled down eating and drinking, and set about enjoying themselves.
7 Yahweh spoke to Moses: “Get yourself down, because your people have ruined things. 8 They have quickly turned aside from the way I commanded them. They have made themselves the figurine of a calf and bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘Israel, these are your gods who brought you up from Egypt.’ ” 9 Yahweh said to Moses, “I have looked at this people. There: it is a stiff-necked people. 10 So now, let me be, so that my anger may burn against them and I may consume them, and make you into a great nation.” 11 Moses sought to calm Yahweh his God: 12 “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was to bring disaster that he brought them out, to slay them in the mountains and finish them off from upon the face of the ground’? Turn from your angry fury. Relent of bringing disaster on your people. 13 Be mindful of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars in the heavens, and this entire country of which I spoke I will give to your offspring, and they will possess it in perpetuity.’ ” 14 So Yahweh relented of the disaster he said he would do to his people.
[In verses 15–29 Moses goes down the mountain with the tablets, sees the calf and the dancing, smashes the tablets, and destroys the calf. He challenges Aaron about what he has done and challenges people to take God’s side. The clan of Levi respond, and he urges them to kill people who are involved in the calf celebration, which they do.]
You could say I came to the United States to avoid the responsibility of leadership. I was the head of a seminary and got paid more than my colleagues because it was my job to lie awake worrying about its future. Metaphorically speaking, on my desk sat that notice saying “The buck stops here.” When I arrived in my new post to resume being just an ordinary professor, for the first term I would go to my office and look for the stacks of paper to deal with and find there were none; so I would go off to the library. Occasionally I would be aware that the dean or provost had to deal with some problem, and I would think, “That used to be me, and now it isn’t,” and then I would go off to the library again. In England I remember especially clearly one spring when the number of students applying to begin ordination training was low and our seminary was affected by this. The faculty got concerned about the seminary’s future and their own future and their jobs, and one or two came to confront me in my office. Didn’t I realize there was a terrible crisis? Why wasn’t I doing something about it? I didn’t sleep that night. (Everything sorted itself out okay in the end.)
So I sympathize with Aaron. Against the background of that idyllic scene on the top of the mountain, with Moses memorizing the instructions for the sanctuary that the people are to construct so that God can come to dwell among them, at the bottom of the mountain the people are engaged in something close to the opposite, point by point, to what God has in mind. Moses seems to have gotten lost in his wonderful spiritual experience with God; here they are stuck in the wilderness with nothing to do and no idea what is supposed to happen now. They need to take responsibility for themselves. Previously, they had a God who was concerned about them and a leader who mediated that God’s guidance. Now they have neither. So they turn to the leader’s apparent next-in-command and urge him to take action, and Aaron tries to find some action that will satisfy them without compromising their faithfulness too much.
The Hebrew word for “God” and “gods” is the same. Usually there is no ambiguity because the context makes clear which meaning applies, but the built-in ambiguity enables the people and Aaron to have different views of what is going on in this story. The people talk about “gods,” but Aaron makes only one figurine and subsequently proclaims a festival “for Yahweh.” Maybe the people do not see themselves as giving up on Yahweh, the God of Israel. Maybe they see these other “gods” as representatives or subordinates of the real God. Much later in Israel’s history, when other gods are worshiped in the temple, that will likely be the way people see it (remember again that these are the people for whom the story is written and by whom it is read). Certainly Aaron doesn’t see himself as abandoning Yahweh. Yet the people are conveniently putting out of mind the first commandment, about not having other gods over against Yahweh, and Aaron is conveniently putting out of mind the second commandment, about not making a statue or anything to help people in worship, whether it is a statue of Yahweh or of another “god.”
Between them they have put out of mind the most basic requirements of their faith. God has to be incensed. Moses knows God is right. He destroys the tablets inscribed with those commands because the people have destroyed the relationship they embody. He encourages people who are on God’s side to exact terrible punishment of the people involved in the apostasy. But first he confronts God. God’s inclination is simply to abandon the people and start again with Moses, as God had once abandoned the world as a whole and started again with Noah. Moses says, “You can’t do that. What will the Egyptians say? What about the promises you have bound yourself by?” And God relents.
This exchange is another exercise in doing theology by telling a story, like the account of the conflict between Moses and Pharaoh (which thinks its way around the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility). The theological question here is, How is God to respond to the rebelliousness and failure of the people of God? It would be appropriate to abandon the people, but God cannot do that. God faces two conflicting obligations. God is torn between the obligation to cast off and the obligation to be merciful. (When such conflicts happen to us, we can at least comfort ourselves with the fact that it happens to God, too. Being God does not make everything straightforward.)
At the same time, this exchange suggests something significant about prayer. In prayer we are like children begging our parents to do what we want. Sometimes children fail in such attempts, but sometimes they succeed. Significantly, however, Moses is not praying for himself but for the people, and he is praying about God’s own honor. Significantly, he is not praying that the God who is inclined to be merciful should be tough but that the God who is inclined to be tough should be merciful. Is prayer about conforming our will to God’s will? Moses thinks prayer is about conforming God’s will to our will; or rather, Moses knows that God’s will is not always inexorably fixed, that God has to wrestle with conflicting obligations, and that God makes the decision about which obligation has priority only on a 51 to 49 basis. It might be easy to push the figures the other way. When God announces a determination to bless us, there is no way you can get God to have a change of mind about that, as Balaam points out to Balak in Numbers 23. But when God announces a determination to punish, it is always worth a try, as Abraham assumed about Sodom, and as prophets such as Amos and Jeremiah will assume.
( From Exodus To Leviticus for Everyone, John Goldingay )
Reverend Patrick Vossen,