When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”
Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.”Exodus 32:1-5
The interesting thing about this situation is not that the Israelites were worshipping foreign gods. In fact, they didn’t believe they were. The word “gods” translates from the hebrew for “Elohim,” which is incidentally, the same word commonly used throughout the Bible to describe God. However, sometimes, it does indicate other spiritual beings. So, is this what the Israelites meant this time? Actually, the writer of Exodus really drives home the point that they meant Yahweh by saying they were dedicating the altar and calf in a festival to the “Lord.” This translates to nothing other than Yahweh.
So, what was God, the true God, Yahweh, upset about? Remember, at this time, Moses was on the top of the mountain, sealing the deal, as you will, on behalf of the Israelites. They were essentially entering into a relationship contract with God that can be likened to a marriage agreement.
It won’t be like the covenant I made with their ancestors on the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. They broke my covenant, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD.Jeremiah 31:32
Honestly, there are innumerable verses that compare Israel to a bride and God as the groom, but the point is that their relationship was supposed to be that of fidelity and love. Yet, on the day of their marriage, Israel was impatient and bowed down to a golden calf. Remember the second commandment, being made at that same moment?
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.Exodus 20:4-6
That was a separate commandment from the first, which mentioned not worshipping other gods. So, what is He jealous of if the image is of Him? Well, first, the calf was not indicative of God’s image but that of a canaanite type god. It was something more tangible and understandable to the people of Israel than a fierce God of roaring winds and thunder they couldn’t see without terror.
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sounding of the ram’s horn,and the mountain enveloped in smoke, they trembled and stood at a distance. “Speak to us yourself and we will listen,” they said to Moses. “But do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”Exodus 20:18
They decided to send Moses up to speak to God rather than face Him themselves. Israel couldn’t handle Him. After wandering the desert for so long and not having any place to call home, no certain source of sustenance, Moses disappearing for longer than expected, and no leader in his place, they wanted something they could control. They could control a golden calf. It was safe, an image from their past, and they could touch and see it.
God was heartbroken because they didn’t seek the true Him.
Have you seen anything similar in this modern world that could be likened to what the Israelites did that day? I’ve seen people make God in their own image. Even if the evidence is to the contrary, they will say God agrees with what is obviously sin or that He shames what is obviously good, if that makes it easier on them to continue their life as they want. I think it’s a common thing to hope God is controllable, that He will do what we want Him to do.
The truth is, God is not controllable. He is like a gentle breeze sometimes and like a terrible storm or avalanche others. He is rock steady, and we can always depend on Him to be good. However, what that is is not determined by the world, and He doesn’t go by the rules of what society deems good and bad. He existed before anything and anyone here, and He will continue to exist when everything is wiped away. He is an ancient force who happens to love us. Yet, He is anything but safe.
Can you do God the favor of reaching out to the true Him, and coming into His presence without preconceived notions of what you’d like Him to be? He loves the true us, as broken and sinful as we are, and we should attempt to know and love the true Him as well.