As a quick reminder, for the past several chapters, Moses has been atop Mount Sinai. Joshua has been about halfway up the mountain, waiting on him. The rest of Israel?
They’re at the foot of the mountain, camped out and waiting. Moses is gone for a week. They wait. Two weeks. They wait. Three weeks, and still waiting. Four weeks, and the waiting goes on. Then we come to Exodus 32 (link).
Finally, after about forty days, the people decide that perhaps Moses isn’t coming back. They are at the foot of a mountain, remember, that God has descended on in fire and thunder and cloud. After these forty days, the suspicion rises that whatever is going on up there, it’s not survivable.
So the people come to Aaron and tell him to make a god for them to worship and to be the center of their community. Aaron then tells the people to bring him some gold, and he fashions it into a calf. One question that has long troubled me about this passage is this: Why does Aaron know, so readily, how to fashion an idol? That begs for an answer, but I don’t have one.
After they start partying around the calf, God informs Moses that he had better get down the mountain and straighten them out, because God is ready to destroy them. They have, after all, bailed on the covenant commitment they made a mere 40 days before. Moses pleads with God for mercy, God grants it, and then Moses goes down to try and fix the problem.
The end result? People are killed in judgment, the original two tablets of the law are smashed, and the golden calf is ground up and added to drinking water. God threatens to send the people on without Him, and Moses pleads that God not do so.
Now, since none of us are headed from Egypt, up through the wilderness, and moving into Canaan (I assume), we need to dig through this and find the principles that apply to our lives. This is what you do in striving to understand Scripture. When you work through narrative passages, look at what is present. Examine the actions that are taken, examine the actions that are not taken.
Take the time to see if certain actions are given with a positive view or a negative view. If you want an example of how to look into that, find the same news story on CNN, MSNBC, and FoxNews. It will be obvious in how it’s phrased whether the same facts are viewed positively or negatively. I’d recommend reading four or five major sources on the next unemployment report. It’s a hoot at times.
So, when we come to this passage, what do we see?
We see people who have been waiting for forty days, and who get restless. Their restlessness leads to a loss of focus, which leads to idolatry, which brings judgment. Even in the judgment, there is a longer-term response of grace and restoration.
How does this apply to us?
First: there are a great many times in our lives that the extraordinary is distant from us. We have a day-to-day life that is, more often than not, routine. Even as followers of Christ, every day is not stunning and adventurous. While we see more day by day how deep the grace and the love of God is, and this should grow our astonishment at Him, most days remain on the border of mundane.
Normal days, though, should not lead us into temptation. The people of Israel are the example of what not to do in the situation. There was enough to do in honoring the covenant they had made a mere forty days before. They were supposed to spend their time learning to live with one another and in relationship with God.
The extraordinary times will come often enough: these people crossed the Red Sea and will see other great things. We need to understand the same is true of us. We will see extraordinary things from time to time, just not all the time.
Second, we need to learn from Aaron’s example. He is, again, a negative example. Very rarely does a whole community, whether a nation or a church, go quietly into sin without asking a few people what their opinion is. Take a look at the coming political season: every candidate will tout religious people to back their opinions. Every one. Obama will have his, Romney will have his--
The question is how many who are Christians will have the courage to either in public or in private actually address issues from a true, honest Bible-based perspective.
Third, we need to learn from Moses’ example. There is always a reason to plead for God’s grace for those around us, no matter how far away they are running.
We also should learn from the example of destroying the golden calf. Do not keep stuff around that has been entrapping you to sin!
Today’s Nerd Note: This passage also gives us the origin of the Levites as the priests/teachers of the Israelites. They were the first to be willing to stand, even forcefully, for the truth. Is that what we think of when we think of religious leaders today? Or do we think of quiet little people who would never rise up to destroy the enemies of righteousness?
Historically, it was often religious leaders who led the way. Sometimes wrongly, but sometimes rightly: a good many sermons encouraged the way to Lexington and Concord. A good many of those even lamented slavery and had they been heeded, the Civil War would have been avoided. Christian preachers in Germany warned of the Nazis. Christians have been fighting human trafficking, African warlords, and drug problems for decades and centuries before they make the news and draw celebrities.
Christian leaders have often been wrong, but they have also often been right. Rise up for what is right.