Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Golden Calf (Exodus 32)

The following quote is taken from

"Kill Your Neighbors - "(Moses) stood at the entrance to the camp and shouted, 'All of you who are on the LORD's side, come over here and join me.' And all the Levites came.  He told them, 'This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Strap on your swords! Go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other, killing even your brothers, friends, and neighbors.'  The Levites obeyed Moses, and about three thousand people died that day.  Then Moses told the Levites, 'Today you have been ordained for the service of the LORD, for you obeyed him even though it meant killing your own sons and brothers. Because of this, he will now give you a great blessing.'"  (Exodus 32:26-29 NLT) 

            This passage is part of the larger story of how the Israelites sinned against God by making a golden calf to worship.  You can read the full story here:

            At this point in Israel's history, God had just rescued the Israelites from perpetual slavery in Egypt.  The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years, and were oppressed with hard labor (Exodus 1:8-14).  The Pharaoh of Egypt had also commanded the murder of thousands of infant Israelite boys (Exodus 1:22).  God sent Moses and Aaron to give God's command to Pharaoh to release the Israelites, but Pharaoh refused, and so God sent ten plagues on Egypt (Exodus 7-11).  After that, Pharaoh finally relented, and God led the Israelites (and non-Israelites who left Egypt with them) out of Egypt and into the wilderness, even parting the Red Sea so that they could pass through (Exodus 14).  While in the wilderness God took care of the Israelites, bringing water out of a rock for them to drink, and bread from the sky ("manna") to eat (Exodus 16-17).  When they reached Mount Sinai, God gave Moses the covenant that God was about to make with the Israelites: he rescued them from slavery in Egypt to bring them into a good land of their own, to protect them, bless them and make them his holy nation and treasured possession - as long as they kept his commandments.  The Israelites agreed to these terms (Exodus 19:8; 24:3, 7), and Moses received God's commandments on Mount Sinai while the people were gathered at the bottom of the mountain.  Moses was on the mountain for 40 days and nights (Exodus 24:18).
                Moses had been gone for so long that the Israelites began to think he had either died or abandoned them, and in their impatience and panic, they committed a great sin.  "When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, 'Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him'" (Exodus 32:1, NIV).  So Aaron fashioned a calf idol out of the gold earrings the people brought him, and they began to engage in idol worship, in defiance of the first commandment God had directly spoken to them prior to Moses' going up Mount Sinai: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them" (Exodus 20:2-5, NIV).  The Israelites had received this commandment directly from God before Moses left, but they disobeyed.
            The charge of idolatry is a very grievous sin, which God does not take lightly (see Exodus 20:3-6, 23; 23:13, 23-24; 34:17; Leviticus 19:4; 26:1; Deuteronomy 4:15-28; 5:7; 6:14-15; 8:19; 12:31; 17:2-7; 27:15; 29:17-18).  God warned the Israelites on several occasions that if they committed idolatry, it was a crime that warranted the death penalty.  The Israelites' covenant with God demanded that they worship and serve him only.  They were not supposed to worship other gods or fashion idols for themselves.  God had warned them that if they did these things, it would lead to their destruction: "If you ever forget the LORD your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed" (Deuteronomy 8:19, NIV). 
            Why is idolatry considered such a serious crime?  The severity of the judgment, capital punishment, is due to the severity of the sin.  God is the only God, the Lord and creator of all the universe.  When anyone bows down and worships or pays tribute to a false god or idol, they are taking credit away from God and giving it to something undeserving of that credit.  "I am the LORD; that is my name!  I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols" (Isaiah 42:8, NIV).  The crime of idolatry was so serious that it was often referred to as adultery against God (Ezekiel 6:9).
            In response to the Israelites' betrayal after he had rescued them from slavery, God was furious.  He was so angry that he told Moses he would destroy all of them, and start over with Moses and his family, making them into a great nation.  Moses reminded God of his promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and God refrained from destroying all of the Israelites (Exodus 32:7-14).  However, this great sin could not go unpunished (Numbers 14:18).
            In response to the Israelites' idolatry, Moses broke the tablets of the original covenant, to symbolize that the Israelites had broken their promise to God.  He then burned the calf idol, ground it into powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it (Exodus 32:15-20).  He then called everyone who was willing to repent of their sin and be on the Lord's side to come to him, and all of the Levites came to him.  They were then commanded to kill those who were unrepentant and wished to continue in their idolatry, breaking God's covenant - even their family members, neighbors and friends.  Those who were unrepentant were killed, but the rest of the Israelites were spared (Exodus 32:25-30).  God is willing to show mercy to those who repent.
            This story is a sober reminder that God's commandments are not to be taken lightly.  He was very serious about the covenant that he made with the Israelites, and they were aware of the consequences if they broke it.  It was the Levites who would end up being God's priests, and they had to do the devastating task of carrying out God's judgment that day - even against family and friends.  Their loyalty was first to God.  God expects this kind of loyalty from all who believe in him - we are not commanded to take such drastic actions as the Levites did in the Israelite theocracy, but we are expected to put God and his commandments first in our lives.  Jesus said, “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.  Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Matthew 10:37-38, NIV).
                Today, instead of God's old covenant that the Israelites continuously broke, we have a new covenant - a covenant not only for the Jewish people, but Gentiles as well - the New Covenant of Jesus, God's promised Messiah (Hebrews 8).  "While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, 'Take and eat; this is my body.'  Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you.  This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins'" (Matthew 26:26-28, NIV).