The Golden Calf

I have been thinking about this a lot over the past few months, and I may turn it into a “mini-series” or something, but I want to write a little bit about the Israelites and the golden calf. If I get really ambiguous, I may even devote the next couple of weeks strictly to the Pentateuch and lessons to be gained from it. They are numerous, and they apply in countless ways, and have just as much meaning as they did thousands of years ago. There is even TONS of writing to be done on worship, strictly from the Hebrew sacrificial system. And since I am now a scholar *ahem* in these topics, I feel like writing about some of them.

First of all, I’d like to clarify with you what exactly happened at the golden calf incident at the foot of Mount Sinai. Most of us grow up reading the text for face-value only, and completely miss important things like the cultural and historical background of any given text. This happens especially with the golden calf passage. We read it, and automatically assume that Israel has turned their back on God and gone to worship this idol that they made, and we ask questions like, “how could they turn their back on God, who just delivered them from Egypt?” and “What are thinking worshiping a god they made themselves?”
In actuality, the Hebrews had not turned their back on God at all. They didn’t get bored waiting for Moses to return, and decide to just make a god for the fun of it. In that time period, it was very common for a god to be portrayed as riding on a cow. So, most idols that you saw in those days would be of the god itseld riding on top of a calf. What the Israelites didn’t do was make a new god. What they did do was take Yahweh and make him into an idol, no different than any other god being worshiped at that time.
You have to understand that up until this point, nothing like Yahweh had even been even conceived of by the people of the earth. All they understood was that gods were idols, who protected certain villages or people groups, and had a ‘range’ to their power, meaning if you got too far away from the idol, the god’s powers were diminished and he was unable to do as much to you as when you were right next to him. Basically, gods in this time were nothing short of super-humans. Sure, the might have believed them to have special powers, but everything about their gods was still limited to human capacity of thought.
The Israelites making an idol was their way of putting Yahweh into a very unoriginal, very ordinary box that everyone else had put their Gods into. But nothing about Yahweh was original. In fact, many of the Levitical laws (which appear from Exodus- Deuteronomy) are written specifically to set this nation of Jews apart as Yahweh’s chosen nation, and to display to the people of the world that this Yahweh was much more powerful (not to mention he actually exists) than their false gods. The sin of the Israelites was limiting Yahweh to ride on top of this golden calf they had forged, and not understanding that the God they were serving was so very much more than they understood him to be. I’m not really sure that Israel ever really got over themselves when it comes to understanding Yahweh. First of all, the sheer thought that we could understand Yahweh is in itself a bad place to be. But to make Yahweh into who they wanted him to be, instead of the other way around, was a common theme throughout the scriptures.

I think we are very much in danger (if in fact we are not already doing it) of making a golden calf for God today. No, we’re not melting down any jewelry. But everything about the way we “worship” today is looking more and more like a golden idol of bovine nature. We want to make church as comfortable as possible, even though there should really be nothing comfortable about being in the presence of the almighty God. We want to make it as ‘seeker-sensitive’ as possible, and we want to especially make sure not to offend anyone with the things we say, so that we make sure as many people as possible come to our church; it seems to make little difference whether or not we make them constantly examine their life and look for their faults, just as long as they come to church.
The whole emerging church movement can be classified as one which is golden calf-building. Now, understand that I think there is a TON of good things that can come from the movement, and I am planning on starting an alternative worship service next semester on Sunday nights. But taken the wrong way, the whole movement is about making God close and personal, and making him our own personal “idol” without having to share him or understand that he is the God of the Chruch, and not just my little toy statue.
As a religion student, this is usually hard to do: but I believe it is imperative that we recognize that God is incredible, and amazingly beyond the ability of our human mind to conceive Him. Yes, he has given us himself through his Word, and also through his Spirit, and he gave us access to him through his Son, but he is still uncomprehensible by us as humans. In our worship, we have to understand that God cannot be put in a box. God cannot be put on top of a golden calf. The next few times you’re in a worship service, think about the number of ways we have turned church into a golden calf. Try very hard to be objective–a lot of the things we do without ever thinking may be some of the most harmful ones. I don’t know exactly what this means. It will vary from person to person, church to church, and culture to culture. But take the time to examine your own life and that of your church.

Is your jewelry starting to melt?