Whenever I think of the story, the story of the golden calf, in the Exodus narrative, my mind inevitably conjures up images of Charlton Heston in the movie The Ten Commandments, which always seems to be showing on at least one channel during Easter. That image of a gray haired and bearded Heston coming down from Mount Sinai to find the people that he has led out of Egypt in a frenzied celebration worshipping their new god the golden calf that it seems they forced Aaron to make. I have always had this image of the people in the absence of Moses’ leadership turning to a false god. I always imagined that Aaron must have felt like the kid in elementary school the teacher left in charge when she had to step out of the classroom. The minute the teacher was gone there was always someone who was going to test the student the teacher left in charge. That one student became two shortly and the chaos always seemed to continue to spread.
Much like the teacher who left the classroom, Moses heads up the mountain leaving Israel in the wilderness and leaves Aaron in charge. I can only imagine the fear that began to overtake Aaron as the days continued to add up while Moses was up on the mountain. I also began to think about the Israelites and the fear that began to grow among them as well. Here they are left with this fellow Aaron, who is Moses brother, but he is not Moses. Aaron has not been the one speaking with God directly and pleading on their behalf. In the past when I have read this story, I have always approached it as though the people got greedy. They wanted to go their own way and so forced Aaron to make this golden god now, however, as we have been engaging this story and how it can inform our approach to dealing with the pandemic, I decided to approach Israel as a scared people searching for their God that they have just recently come to know again and who now it feels like has deserted them. In the murmuring stories and the giving of the ten commandments in our readings over the last few weeks we have seen a God who is reconnecting with his people. Reestablishing relationship with his people through Moses. The people know Moses talks to God and so they begin to take comfort in that relationship and now Moses is gone and they have no way of knowing what is going on and as a result they turn to Aaron, who was left in charge.
The people approach Aaron and demand that he makes a molten image for them to worship. Aaron instructs them to bring all their gold rings because that is all they have left, and he will make the image for them. After making the image, Aaron builds an altar before it and proclaims that there shall be a festival to the Lord or Yahweh. Aaron has made this golden calf, yet they are going to celebrate a feast to the Lord. One of the podcasts I was listening to this week in preparation said that the people of Israel did not make and image of a false God but rather made a false image of God. Over the last several days I have been sitting with that statement, thinking about the false images of God that we seek out today. What are the things that we look to today that we say if only I had that, or if only this happens, my life would be so much better? Maybe it sounds like if only I made more money, or maybe it sounds like if only this person or this person gets elected. What are the things we substitute in our lives today for God? As we think of this story in the context of the pandemic, it may be the comforts of our pre-pandemic lives that we put in place of God. What are those things that are not so much getting in the way of our relationship with God but rather are distorting that relationship?
As we continue reading this story, we hear the exchange between God and Moses after the people have turned from the relationship that God was building with Israel. Up till now the people have always approached Moses when they needed something from God. The stories about the water and the manna and the quails have been about the people needing things and taking those needs to Moses who in turn took them to God and then God provided. God gave them the means to request things through Moses who he used to deliver his people. Now that the people have gone off on their own, God now communicates to Moses that he is going to let his wrath come over the people. Moses again pleads on behalf of the people for God to remember his covenant with Abraham and that these are his chosen people. Moses goes so far as to use what seems like reverse psychology by asking God “what will the Egyptians say about a God that brings his people to harsh conditions only to annihilate them in a wrath of fire?” Moses engages God, reminds God about all his promises to Abraham and to Isaac and to Jacob and God subsequently changes his mind. I have always found these stories in the Bible about God changing his mind interesting. Shouldn’t an omnipotent and all-knowing God already know what is going to happen? Yet if we believe that we are created in God’s image and if we as humans have the ability to change our minds then why wouldn’t God be able to have these changes of heart as well? I think what God is most upset about in today’s story is that over the last few weeks in our readings God has been putting a lot of work into his relationship with Israel. Israel has been putting a lot into as well, as they have endured thirst, hunger, and the dangers of the wilderness to follow God. God is in the middle of giving Moses the Law that is going to guide not only the people Moses is leading now but also the law that is going to guide the future generations of Israel in its relationship with God. While God is working with Moses to build a strong foundation for relationship with the people, they in turn seek another false way of engaging God. As we continue to navigate the troubled waters and the wilderness of this pandemic let us not seek out the child left to monitor the class but rather the teacher who seeks to lead us on a right path and seek also to recognize those false images of God that we make and rather look to those things and persons who help steer us in a right relationship with our Heavenly Father like Moses did for Israel. Amen.
Proper 23 -Exodus Series
The Rev. Drew Brislin