The Golden Calf: A Sermon on Exodus 32:1-14

Preached at United Reformed Church of Clifton, Sunday, October 11, 2020. To watch the sermon follow this link:

When I first read our scripture lesson this morning I was immediately reminded of the Wall Street Bull in NYC.  So I did some research to find out more.

The creator of the sculpture is Arturo Di Modica, an Italian-American sculptor, born in Sicily who moved to New York in the 1970s to continue his successful career.  After the stock market crash in 1987, Di Modica paid $360,000 of his own money in order to build the bull with the hope it would inspire people to carry on through hard times.

On December 15, 1989, in the middle of the night, Di Modica drove the bull into Manhattan on the back of a flatbed truck and illegally (guerilla-art style) placed the sculpture outside the New York Stock Exchange. He put it next to the Christmas tree as a Christmas gift to the people of New York.   

However, members of the Stock Exchange did not take kindly to his gift. They called the police and, later that same day, the bull was taken away to an impound lot. However, it was so popular with New Yorkers that within 6 days it was reinstalled at its current location in Bowling Green Park.

For most people the bull is a symbol of power, virility and economic success.  It also seems to carry some sexual overtones, for tourists rub its testicles daily keeping them brightly polished.  For them it seems to be a token of good luck and prosperity.  It’s fair to say that this bull is an idol to our American god, money and power.

The same thing that makes the bull a potent symbol for us, is also what made it a symbol for ancient peoples.  In Egypt that god, Apis, was represented by a bull.  In Canaan and throughout the Middle East, the bull was a symbol for the god, Baal.  Both of these gods were at the center of a fertility cult.  It was thought that they guaranteed fertile fields, fertile herds and even fertile families.

You see the gods of the ancient world were gods you could manipulate to get what you wanted.  Just offer them the right sacrifices and you could have a bumper crop or a large family (or so they thought). 

But the God of Israel was not someone to be used, but someone to be known.  He longed to create a chosen people for himself that would honor him by living a moral and ethical life.  Through Israel God wanted to bless and redeem the whole world. (Remember that is the promise that he gave to Abraham.)  Theirs was a servant vocation not a selfish pursuit of personal success.  By making a golden calf, the Israelites were rejecting God’s vocation for their nation. 

So with that as background let’s take a closer look at our Scripture lesson this morning.  As we do so I want you to see three things.

  1. Why the people wanted to make an idol.
  2. How God responded to the people.
  3. How Moses convinced God to not destroy His people.

Why the People Sought to Make an Idol.

So the first thing we want to ask is why did the people want to make an idol?  And the answer in one word is “fear.”

You need to realize how important Moses was to the Israelites.  It was through Moses that God redeemed Israel. God used Moses to split the Red Sea and give the people manna.  Moses led the people to Mt. Sinai and where they heard God speak the 10 commandments from the mountain.  Moses was the intermediary between God and Israel.  Anathea Portier Young, Associate Professor of OT at Duke Divinity School notes.

The people of Israel only had access to God through Moses.  Moses became their living link to the hidden presence that eluded their senses. (Working Preacher, October 15, 2017)

So when Moses is gone for 40 days, they feel like they have lost their connection to God and they are at a loss about what to do.  This is the first time in the nation’s short history that Moses is separated from the people so their apprehension is understandable.  And out of their fear, they try to find another way to connect with God, by making an idol just like the one’s they had seen in Egypt. Their reasoning is, “If the Egyptians can be in touch with the divine through an idol, then so can we.”

Perhaps a contemporary illustration may make this clearer. This past week, President Trump was hospitalized with the corona virus.  Regardless of what you think of our president, his hospitalization left us worrying about what the future might hold.  Now imagine that he was gone for forty days, and that there was no Fox News or CNN to give us minute by minute updates on his condition, how might the country’s fear and uncertainty have been amplified?

That’s how it was with the Israelites but even more so. However, their fear was much greater than ours and it gave way to anger and demands.  In verse 1 we read

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.

Now I want you to notice several things about this verse.  First, they are dismissive of Moses. They say, “this Moses … we do not know has become of him.”  Moses has become yesterday’s news and they think it is time to move on. 

Second, they don’t give God credit for their redemption but give it to Moses instead.  They say that is Moses who brought them out of Egypt, not God. It is interesting to me that they both dismiss Moses as a has been, and give him credit for rescuing them.  This is indicative that they’ve put their faith in the wrong place.  Perhaps if they had given God the credit, they would not have been so anxious about Moses’ absence and could have trusted God to continue to lead them.

However, Moses is gone and they are convinced they need another leader, so they say, “Make us gods who shall go before us.”  It is no longer God’s appointed leader who will go before them but gods and idols of their own making.

And Aaron acquiesces and makes them their idol.  And as it says in verse 6 “They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.”

Now the word for “revel” has sexual connotations.  The ancient religions used imitative “magic” to guarantee fertility.  It was thought that by having sexual relationship with a sacred prostitute you would mimic the god’s mating behavior and they in turn would impregnate your cattle, your fields, or your wife.  So when the Israelites made a pagan idol they immediately began to adopt pagan sexual practices.  For them Baal was a god one could use to guarantee fertility.

There is a lesson here for us.  If you start making gods that you can manipulate and use, you will start manipulating and using the people whom God has made.  If you make money your God, you will use people to feed your bottom line.  If you make sex your God, you will sexualize young girls through fashion and pop culture.  If you make power your God, you will step all over people to accomplish your own purposes.  Only when we worship the true God, will we treat people with the dignity and respect that God intended them to have. This is why God opposes idolatry of any kind.

How God responded

So how did God react to the Israelites apostasy.  The answer is found in vv 7-10.  Basically God does four things. 

First, God disowns the people and disavows any responsibility for them.  In verse 7 God says, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.”  This reminds me of the way we as parents sometimes interact when one of our children misbehave. We may say, “Do you know what your daughter did today?”  The implication is that she isn’t my child and she certainly isn’t our child.  No, she is your child, which means that you are responsible for fixing the problem.  And that’s why does God does here to Moses, he disavows any responsibility for fixing the problem and is even willing to give Moses credit for bringing the people up out of Egypt. He dumps everything in Moses lap.

Second, he tells Moses not to stand in his way as God executes his fierce wrath.  In verse 10 he says, “Now let me alone.”  In other words, “Moses get out of my way! There is nothing you can say or do to change my mind.

Third, God offers to start over with Moses.  Verse 10 says “Let me alone that I may consume them.”  But it ends with these words, “and of you I will make a great nation.”  Just as God started over with Noah, now he offers to start over with Moses.  The promise he once gave to Abraham he will now give to Moses, “I will make you a great nation and in you will all the nations will be blessed.”

That must have been a tempting offer for Moses, but instead of taking God up on his offer he uses it to turn the tables and to convince God not to destroy the chosen people. 

How Moses convinced God to not destroy His people

So how did Moses convince God to change his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people?  Moses does three things.

First, Moses makes God accept the responsibility for God’s people.  God had told Moses, they’re your people. You brought them out of Egypt. They’re your problem.  But Moses gives as good as he gets.  In verse 11 he says, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people (not mine), whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? (Not me.  I didn’t have the power to do that.  Only you had the power to do that.)”

Again this sounds like a squabble between two parents. 

God: “They’re your children.” 
Moses: “No, they’re yours.

God: “Moses, you’ve got to fix it.”
Moses: “No! God, you’ve got to fix it.   Parents don’t give up on their children. And, God, you can’t give up on your children even when they screw up.”

Second, Moses appeals to God’s honor and reputation.  In verse 12, Moses says, Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’?

Basically Moses argues, “What will the neighbors think?  You know, God, you demonstrated your great love for your people and your great power to the Egyptians. Now after all you have put the Egyptians through, what will they think of you if you destroy your people here in the wilderness? God, your honor is bound up with your people’s fate.” 

Finally, and most importantly Moses reminds God of his promises.  In verse 13 Moses says, “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’”

You will remember that we studied this same promise several weeks ago in Genesis 15.  God promised Abraham that he would have descendants as numerous as the stars.  To seal that promise God passed through cut bodies of some sacrificial animals and put his own life on the line to keep these promises.  If God had broken his promise to Abraham, he would have shown to be no better than a politician who promises the world and delivers nothing.  But God is faithful even in the face of our sin. And it is his faithfulness and his promise that is our hope.

The good news, is that even if we screw up royally God is not going to give up on us. He’s not going to throw out his promises.  He’s not going to start from scratch.  He is going to take us with our failures and redeem us in Jesus.  Nothing will be able to separate us from the love God, even our own sins. 

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