The Golden Calf

READ: Exodus 32:1-35

It doesn’t take long for Israel to turn away from God in the wilderness. The way God deals with them teaches us to both fear and trust him.

Why do bad things happen to good people? There’s a question that has generated a lot of conversation without producing much consensus. But one thing does seem clear. Troubles can show what we’re really made of. Crisis reveals character. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” wrote Thomas Paine in the dark days of the American revolution. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” It’s the same with faith.

The summer believer can never show his faith is real unless he passes through hard experiences that could shake his faith in God’s love and power. The sunshine Christian doesn’t know if her commitment to following Jesus is genuine, or merely the habit of a religious upbringing — until she proves faithful to the Lord through every kind of difficulty and suffering.

Here’s how the apostle Peter puts it.

Now for a little while . . . you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6-7)

Crisis reveals character, including the character of our faith. The wilderness experience of the people of Israel in the Exodus, like any time of testing, revealed the character of those who passed through it. The true nature of the faith of the people of Israel quickly became evident as a result of the hardships they encountered on their march through the Sinai desert. Sadly, most of them flunked the test of faith. Reading through the book of Exodus shows how brief the honeymoon was between Moses and the people; actually, between the Lord and his people. They were scarcely out of sight of Egypt before the grumbling began. Israel made their way from one camp to the next to the accompaniment of a continuous chorus of complaints. “We don’t have enough food . . . There isn’t any water . . . What are you going to do? Why did you take us out here to die?” Their perpetually simmering discontent was always ready to break out into open rebellion.

And worst of all, almost immediately Israel proved unfaithful to the Lord who had saved them. These were the same people who had seen God dry up the Red Sea so they could escape on dry ground. They had been delivered from certain death by the power of God’s mighty arm. They had witnessed the total destruction of their enemies. These were the people who had camped at Mount Sinai, where they trembled to see the fire and smoke and hear the thunder of the living, holy, Almighty God. There they accepted the Lord’s covenant promises and pledged themselves to keep his law.

You’d think people like that might be inclined to follow God and be faithful to him, to honor and respect and obey his word. But then, you would also think that people like us who may have known the love and grace of God in Christ Jesus would also be inclined to love and respect him and be faithful to his word without grumbling or complaining. So how are you doing at that? Me? Not so good at times.

Israel’s chronic sin, though, was idolatry. Despite all he had done for them, most Israelites most of the time preferred the gods of their pagan neighbors to serving the Lord. Canaanite religion drew them like flies to raw meat, and they first turned to idols before the ink was even dry — or perhaps I should say, before the stone was cold — on the Ten Commandments.

“I Will Punish Their Sin”

The story, from Exodus 32, is about the golden calf. While Moses is up on the mountain receiving the commandments from the Lord, things quickly go wrong back in the camp. Moses has been gone forty days, and the people have grown restless. “Make us gods who shall go before us,” they demanded of Aaron. “As for this Moses, we don’t know what has become of him” (v. 1). So Aaron takes their gold and fashions it into a calf (“calf” is the traditional rendering; more likely what he made was the figure of a bull, after the popular Canaanite images for Baal). And then the people begin to worship the calf in an orgy, also following the fashion of the Canaanites.

When Moses returns he smashed the stone tablets of the Law in a fit of rage and then unleashes vengeance against the worst of the offenders (vv. 25-29). But his anger is only a reflection of the wrath and judgment of the God who solemnly swears to punish sin as it deserves (v. 34), and then who keeps his word (v. 35). And the Israelite camp is decimated by a plague. The whole story of both the sin and its punishment is shocking to us. And it’s meant to be.

Think for a bit about the nature of Israel’s sin with the golden calf. At first glance it seems like they broke the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). But in fact, the golden calf was an offense against the second commandment, which forbids making or using images to worship God. As the story makes clear (see vv. 4-5), Aaron’s golden statue was intended to represent the Lord himself. Israel’s problem, at least at this stage, was not the worship of false gods, but the false worship of the true God. They made an image and used it as a symbol for God and an object of worship. Now what exactly is wrong with that? Or to put it another way, why do we need the second commandment prohibiting the use of images in addition to the first commandment about not worshiping any other gods?

The Bible forbids this, I think, for two reasons. First, because image worship is dishonoring to God. The purpose of ancient idols was not so much to depict the god as to represent it, so that the god’s supposed power could be more readily accessible, easier to use. In other words, the primary function of the image was to enable the worshipers to control their gods and manipulate them into doing what they wanted. But the true and living God, the God of the Bible, can’t be viewed or used in that way or any way.

He is the Sovereign Lord. He controls us, we don’t control him. He can’t be put in a box, or carried about from place to place, or bribed with food and drink or other offerings. You can’t make the true God deliver the goods for you, and any kind of worship that makes you think you can is idolatry, and sin of a serious order.

Here’s the other point about images. Worshiping them is forbidden because it is misleading — literally so. It leads those who do it away from the living God to worship gods of one’s own devising. There’s only one image of God we are to worship, the image he himself offers us — Jesus Christ, who in the words of the New Testament is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:20).

The Compassionate and Gracious God

So we can begin to understand why worshiping the golden calf was such a serious offense. That’s not surprising. What is surprising to us as modern readers is God’s reaction. I don’t think the wrath ought to surprise us, not the death that visited Israel’s camp that day. It seems to me that was clearly deserved, even though it’s the most upsetting feature of the story to a modern reader. No. What I think should really shock us about this story is the incredible, undeserved mercy of God. We sing about it all the time, don’t we, but do we really believe in Amazing Grace? If we were honest, shouldn’t we change that to “Taken-For-Granted Grace”? As R. C. Sproul has written,

We are not really surprised that God has redeemed us. Somewhere deep inside . . . we harbor the notion that God owes us his mercy. . . What amazes us is justice, not grace.

R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God

I wonder: have you ever felt a thrill at the realization that, although God would be perfectly within the right if he destroyed everyone — beginning with you and me — and although his justice in fact demands that he should do exactly that, nevertheless God is merciful toward us?

We see it in the aftermath of the golden calf. Moses, the Old Testament Mediator, intercedes on behalf of the people. And the Lord forgives them and renews his covenant with them. Then, calling Moses once more to the top of the mountain, God reveals himself to him.

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty . . . .” (Exodus 34:5-7)

That text from Exodus 34 is one of the high points of the Old Testament. And crisis does reveal character, doesn’t it? Not just our character, but God’s. Though we sin, though we turn away from him to worship gods of our own making, the Lord is still gracious and merciful.

But as great as that text is, the puzzling question for which Exodus has no answer is how God can do everything he says he will do. He says he’s merciful and compassionate, abounding in faithful love. He promises he will forgive, but then he adds that he will not leave the guilty unpunished. But how can all that be true? How can God at once offer guilty sinners gracious forgiveness and yet “by no means clear the guilty”? Moses doesn’t know the answer. For that, we have to wait for a greater than Moses, a better Mediator, the one who suffered the punishment due to the guilty so that God might be, in the great gospel words, “just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). Do you know this Mediator?

About the Author

Rev. Dave Bast retired as the President and Broadcast Minister of Words of Hope in January 2017, after 23 years with the ministry. Prior to his ministry and work at Words of Hope, Dave served as a pastor for 18 years in congregations in the Reformed Church in America. He is the author of several devotional books. A graduate of Hope College and Western Theological Seminary, he has also studied at both the Fuller and Calvin seminaries. Dave and his wife, Betty Jo, have four children and four grandchildren. Dave enjoys reading, growing tomatoes, and avidly follows the Detroit Tigers.