The Old Testament demonstrates that Israel had a frequent problem with idolatry. It officially began with the golden calf, although some might argue otherwise. But, whatever the case, we Christians of the 21st century can learn a great deal by studying this inaugural lapse that ended up being repeated over and over again during their history. It turns out that the forces leading to idolatry haven’t changed and God’s attitude and response to it hasn’t either. So, adding to what we learned in earlier blogs from passages in Paul’s writings, we now turn to Moses and Exodus 32-34.
The backdrop for this story of the golden calf is the Hebrews immersion in the religious idolatry of Egypt. The God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob was, for the most part, forgotten by the people until the call of Moses, their dramatic deliverance by “I Am” and the revelations given at Mount Sinai. What is noteworthy is the gods of Egypt (like most idols in the Old Testament) were visible and tangible, associated with nature and human experience whereas “I Am” remained invisible and transcendent; i.e. the Hebrews could never ‘see’ God like they could ‘see’ idols. It was Moses, not God, they experienced directly and, consequently, the deliverance stories and the golden calf incident show how they continually railed against Moses, accused him of leading them astray and insisted he should take them back to Egypt as if he and not “I Am” was responsible for everything. They couldn’t get over the hump that while they could see what He did for them, they could never see Him.
This point is brought home when some of the more vocal people questioned whether Moses would ever return from the mountain. They didn’t know what had become of him, whether he was alive or dead, whether he had abandoned them or had lost interest in the whole matter (Ex.32:1). But whatever they were thinking their attention was not on God to whom Moses went to see but on Moses himself. Since he had seemingly gone missing it was time to carry out plan B, build an idol and head back to Egypt, something that was on their minds anyway.
Now, given Aaron’s proximity to Moses as his ‘mouthpiece’ thinking that a little more resistance to this idea of building an idol seems reasonable. But, it looks as though Aaron fell right into step and even took leadership over its construction. (Ex.32:2) This is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, when idolatry among the people spills over to the leaders themselves and they join in and even encourage it.
From all this we can learn that when our attention is turned away from God’s leadership to God’s leaders, to men and women like ourselves, idolatry is not far behind. While we might abhor the ‘cult of personality’ pervading our culture many of us nevertheless do precisely the same thing, idolizing leaders, ministries and even doctrines. When we ‘see’ only the surface of things, the splashy displays, the huge auditoriums, the large number of people, and self-promoting preachers, our need for sensory stimulation overshadows the fact that the ultimately and eternally Real cannot be seen except by faith. Like the Hebrews, then, not being able to ‘see’ God can lead to worshipping something we can. And by surrounding whatever, or whoever, the object of our devotion is with enough ‘Christian’ religious trappings it becomes easy to hide what is really going on.
© W.G. Ryzek 2013