3.16 The Golden Calf
The first crisis in God's experimental community did not take long to erupt. The primary obstacle Israel faced here and throughout its history was not the lure of foreign gods, not hostile nations, not unwillingness to keep the laws and rituals, but failure to recognize their new identity as the people of God. It seems amazing that so soon after the experience at Sinai, the whole nation, led by Aaron himself, should violate the covenant of obedience they had just sworn at the altar. It shows the tremendous gap between God's intention and Israel's condition. God was calling them into a new self-image which was fundamentally at odds with their Egyptian heritage, as well as with the conduct of their future Canaanite neighbors. But the present character of the people was actually no different from the actions of their contemporaries: idolatry, drunkenness and revelry. They had a slave identity, a servant mindset, formed by generations of negative thought patterns. When the master was absent, all restraints were removed. They were not a self-directed, self-disciplined people. The Promised Land was far way, the Law looked like hard work -- so, "let's live for today."
In Exodus 32, the sinful actions listed were making burnt offerings, eating, drinking, revelry, singing and dancing. Aaron piously called it "a festival to the Lord" (Ex 32:5), though it was probably more like an orgy (Ex 32:25). The people were “running wild” and “out of control.” NIV Study Bible says, “The same Hebrew root underlies both phrases and is found also in Pr 29:18 ('cast off restraint'). Anarchy reigns among people who refuse to obey and worship the Lord” (p.135, footnote).
Yet, apart from the idolatry involved, it is possible to sympathize with Israel. After they had crossed the Red Sea, there was a short time of celebration, involving singing and dancing (Ex 15:20). There is a need in man, even a religious need, for celebration, and especially after a lifetime of servitude. Later Israelite religion was not all laws and rituals -- it allowed plenty of opportunity for social gatherings through 7 annual feasts. So it is not the "party atmosphere" that is condemned. It was that the people gave way to long-suppressed, unrighteous passions.
If the poor conduct of the Israelites is not all that unexpected, God's response was surprising. He warned Moses:
"Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation" (Ex 32:10).
God's timetable was to bring about a complete personal and social transformation of the Israelites, taking them from an oppressed rabble to a complex holy society, in one generation! Well, it did not happen. Now, in the Golden Calf incident, God saw the gap that existed between His perfect plan and the raw material of Israelite humanity, and He threw in the towel. As with Noah and the Flood, He repented that He ever started on this project of relating to mankind, and decided to abandon it. He would restrict Himself once again to one righteous man. In short, God quit! In fact, He even accused Moses of being the bad parent:
Then the Lord said to Moses, "Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt" (Ex 32:7).
Now wait a minute, Lord. Whose idea was this? By whose hand were the Egyptians defeated? Moses had to stand in the gap for the very people whom the Lord redeemed! It was Moses who reminded God of the covenant promises made to the patriarchs (Ex 32:13). He told God that the Egyptians would despise His Name when they heard that He destroyed Israel after delivering them from bondage. Amazingly, Moses talked God out of His judgment (or at least lessened its severity) (Ex 32:14). As a true intercessor, he stood between the aggrieved Deity and the clueless populace, the leader of whom was his own spineless brother (Ex 32:24). He was even willing to bear their punishment.
"But now, please forgive their sin -- but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written" (Ex 32:32).