What’s So Wrong with a Golden Calf? What Happens When We Make Our Own Ways to God
Put yourself in our shoes. We meant well. I mean, it wasn’t as if we woke up after waiting all those days and said to each other, “Hey, let’s become idol worshipers today.” It was nothing like that. We hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Moses for so long that we figured he was dead up there on the mountain somewhere. And here we were, smack dab in the middle of no man’s land. We had to do something. We had to get moving, and we needed God to lead the way.
So we made this icon of the Lord, this golden calf. Aaron certainly seemed to have no qualms about it, and he was the brother of Moses. It was officially sanctioned, you might say. Our soon-to-be high priest himself gave it a thumbs up. What more could a people ask for? We never intended to our alter our allegiance, to swap creeds. We said as much: “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? Everyone knew it was Yahweh who rescued us from slavery. And if there was any doubt, Aaron removed it when he built an altar before the calf and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to Yahweh.” Hear that? To Yahweh. We never meant to praise a metal cow. This was divine worship, not bovine worship. The image was just that—an image, an icon of our God.
Needless to say, if you’ve read the story in Exodus 32, things didn’t turn out so well. When Moses finally showed up, all hell broke loose. He smashed to smithereens the stone tablets the ten commandments were written on. He took our icon, burned it, ground it into powder, scattered it over some water and made us drink it. He turned the Levites into executioners, and when they were done, we had three thousand graves to dig. So the law was shattered, our icon was becoming urine and dung inside our guts, and lots of bloody corpses littered our camp. All this because we decided that it was okay for us to choose how we approach God.
Obviously, we were wrong. And we suffered the consequences. It doesn’t matter how pure, or how religious, our motives were. It doesn’t matter that we meant well. We learned, in the hardest of ways, that we don’t get to decide how God is to be worshiped. He doesn’t leave it up to us to determine how best to come to him. He takes no opinion polls, doesn’t put his finger to the cultural winds, never forms a committee to make the decision for him. It doesn’t matter how pretty our golden calf was, how good it made people feel, how it connected with them, how comfortable they felt approaching God that way. In the end, because we, not God, had made this calf our own way, our own truth, our own life, it became our own downfall, our own lie, our own death.
God is big on the scandal of particularity. No one comes to him on their own terms. They come to him only via his son, Jesus. To see Jesus is to see the entirety of God. All the fullness of divinity dwells in him. We worship God who is a man, a man who is God, a Godman who is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through him, for in him the Father was pleased to dwell, in him the Father paid for our sins in the currency of blood, in him the Father gives us the entirety of himself.
So learn from us Israelites. Trash your golden calves. Treasure Jesus Christ. In him you have everything you need, and more.
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