Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Aug 20 2011 - E100.22a – Exodus 32:1-14, The golden calf

Moses had climbed up a mountain which seems to have all the ferocity of a volcano. He had now been gone for some time and the people begin to think that he is not coming back. Who will lead them now?

The pillar of fire and smoke has gone; the fire is on the mountain. So the people decide that they need a more permanent symbol of the presence of the god who has brought them out of Egypt. They ask Aaron to make them an idol, a god they can see and touch. This will be the image of the god who has brought them out of Egypt, the god who will lead them on to the land of promise.

Aaron seems quite ready to comply with the people's request. He gathers the golden jewellery which the people are wearing – perhaps the very items they were given by the Egyptians. He has it melted down and shaped with appropriate tools until it is made into the image of a calf (note his rather different account of how it was made in tomorrow's passage). When the people see it they declare, "This is the god who brought us up out of Egypt."

There is a deep irony in the fact that the Israelites are making an image of god, while God himself is meeting with Moses on the mountain to give the Law, one stipulation of which is that the Israelites should make no image of God.

God knows what the people are doing and is filled with anger towards them. He tells Moses that he will destroy them and make a new people for himself from Moses and his descendants.

Note the remarkable selfless prayer of Moses (cf. Psalm 106:19-23). He pleads that God might spare the people, not because they deserve it, but for the sake of his own name and glory. He pleads what God has already done for them – he rescued them from slavery and brought them safely out of Egypt. He pleads God's reputation – what will the Egyptians say if they hear that the Israelites have perished in the desert? He pleads God's promises – remember your covenant with Abraham and your purpose to bless. And because of Moses' prayer, the people are spared.

It is easy for us to see the utter foolishness of the Israelites. But we are not so quick to spot our own folly. All too easily we place our security and hope in the things we can see and touch, the things we can control. It is hard to trust a God whom we cannot see.

Father God, you are the one who has rescued us from the tyranny of sin. You gave your Son for us and have promised to bring us with him safe to glory. For the sake of your name and for the sake of your Son who pleads for us, you do not treat us as our sins deserve. Forgive us that all too often our hearts turn away from you to idols which seem so much more substantial. May this be our prayer and singleminded purpose:

The dearest idol I have known
Whate'er that idol be
Help me tear if from Thy throne
And worship only Thee

Peter Misselbrook