He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ (Exodus 32:4 NIV)
We tend to look down on Israel here when they made God in a human image. The calf or cow was the symbol of technology for Israel when they were slaves in Egypt. The cows would help them move their carts full of straw and bricks as they built the buildings for Pharaoh and Egypt. To own a cow in those days was to indicate the status one had in the community. Owning a cow would be the equivalent of owning a Rolls Royce car today.
Moses was up on the mountain with God for a long time. The people of Israel get a little nervous. How can we communicate with God if Moses is not around? Aaron, Moses’ brother, the second in command, told the people to give him all their earrings of gold. They got a lot of this jewellery as the people of Egypt gave this jewellery to them when Israel left Egypt. Every firstborn was dead because of the Passover. Egypt just wanted Israel to leave immediately and gave them whatever they wanted as Israel left.
Aaron gets their gold and burns it. He shapes it to be a golden calf. He tells them to worship the Lord by worshipping the golden calf. They do so and engage in other questionable activities.
Yet for us it is definitely not a golden calf. What can it be? It can be something else. It can be a sport or cars or computer games or even food. The calf was an innocent animal they used in Egypt. Yet they shaped their gold to become an idol. We too can shape something innocent and even helpful in our lives to become an idol. Before long, the idol consumes us. By God’s grace, Moses pleaded with God to relent from punishing Israel. God could have cancelled out Israel immediately. Instead because of Moses’ pleading, he relents but takes them through a journey in the desert for 40 years. It is nothing but the grace of God.
It was 1994. I was involved with a church planting project for my theological studies at Regent College. We ran a Kids’ Klub on Monday evenings with children from the neighbourhood of Southeast Vancouver. There were about 15-20 children with a volunteer crew of about 6-8 depending on the night. During that time, I met someone I will call “Bruce”. Bruce rented a room in a house nearby. Bruce told me that he became a Christian quite dramatically. He told me that he drank a lot and would lose all his money to that drinking addiction. He didn’t use the word but knowing Bruce he would call it an “idolatry”. Bruce was helpful to us for the Kids’ Klub every Monday afternoon. He didn’t help us at the church during the club, but he had a gift with the phone. There were no such thing as mobile phones in those days. He would use his house phone to remind the parents and volunteers about Kids’ Klub. If there was a child or a volunteer who could not make it, Bruce would let me know. As far as he was concerned, God intervened into his life with God’s grace. Later, as I chatted with Bruce, he told me that he had gone to prison for killing someone. He served his time and got out. The grace of God helped him settle down in part of Vancouver. The grace of God helped him overcome his drinking habit and criminal conviction. The grace of God helped him pick up the phone to call the parents and the volunteers every Monday afternoon. The grace of God saved Bruce from his idolatry.