Read Exodus 32:1-6.
This passage has always puzzled me. Barely three months after crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites were found worshipping a golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai. What’s more puzzling was that Aaron seemed to be under the impression that they were actually worshipping the LORD Himself. How come?
Drew Dyck, in his book Yawning at Tigers, suggests a few reasons. He mentioned that Egypt was an idolatrous nation. When the Israelites slipped back to idolatry, they were simply reverting back to the way of life they were most familiar with. Old habits don’t die easily. Idolatry was Israel’s default religious practice for 400 years. Crossing the Red Sea didn’t change it yet.
Dyck believes, however, that something more was at play. When God appeared to the Israelites in Exodus 19:16-19, the spectacle was very terrifying. The writer of Hebrews summarizes the scene with words like fire, darkness, gloom, storm, trumpet blast, and the disembodied thundering voice of God that Moses ended up saying, “I am trembling with fear.” The presence of God was too much for the Israelites that they asked for God to stop speaking to them.
When the people gathered gold and asked Aaron to fashion an image of a god, what they were doing was basically create a manageable, domesticated, less frightening, totally tamed version of God. They didn’t want the awesome presence of divinity; they preferred something or someone that is scaled-down to their level. Dyck writes:
Here, the contrast between God and an idol couldn’t be clearer. We’re told that after offering sacrifices to the golden calf, the Israelites “sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry” (Ex. 32: 6). But when God descended on Mount Sinai, “everyone in the camp trembled” (Ex. 19: 16). You don’t tremble before an idol…
The differences don’t stop there. You can also control an idol. You determine everything about it: what it’s made out of, where it goes, and how it’s worshipped. Not so with the sovereign Creator of heaven and earth, who alone dictates the terms of his worship.
An idol is safe. It never challenges you. It isn’t threatening. It doesn’t judge sin or demand loyalty. But the Holy One of Israel is a jealous God— passionate and loving, yes, but unspeakably dangerous too. The actions of the Israelites might seem strange to us, but when you consider the challenges of worshipping the living God, the lure of tame idols makes much more sense.
This story used to be a distant story for me as a modern Bible reader. I used to think that this particular experience of the Israelites had nothing to do with me. Until today. Until today when I realized that I, too, create idols like this everyday. Instead of coming to God in His own terms, worshiping Him the way he prescribed, and feeling a sense of awe in HIs presence, I just come to church on Sundays expecting the ordinary, tamed, scaled down version of God. I try to pull Him down to fit to my preconceived definitions of who and what He is. I domesticate Him and try to fit Him into a mold, my mold. I walk around church on Sundays not feeling the sense of awe and wonder the befit Him. I yawn in the presence of God and I don’t even notice how strange that is.