“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.’
Aaron answered them, ‘Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 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 32:1-4
God has rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, brought them across the Red Sea, destroyed Pharaoh’s pursuing army, and provided water from a rock and food from heaven. The people have been on the move towards the promised land and stopped at Mount Sinai so that Moses can meet with God and be given the law to govern and guide the people.
While Moses is on the mountain a long time meeting with the Lord, the people grow impatient waiting for him to come down.
These people have seen the miracles of the Lord and been led by Him in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22). They are anxious to be on the move again towards the promised land. Instead of continuing to wait for Moses–who had been on the mountain forty days (Exodus 24:18)–they go to Aaron and ask him to make them gods that will go before them. These gods are to take the place of the Lord in leading them to the promised land by going before the people in the same way that the Lord had in the pillar of cloud and fire.
Even though these people have seen the mighty hand of the Lord, once they are left waiting for a time, they revert back what they have seen in Egypt, namely gods that they can see with their own eyes. Since Moses and the Lord won’t lead them where they want to go, they have Aaron fashion gods for them that will. Not only do they look to these “gods” to lead them forward, but somehow give them credit for leading them out of Egypt. This first step away from the Lord quickly leads to further sin and confusion. Verse 25 tells us that the people began to “run wild”.
When Moses came down from the mountain with Joshua He put out a call that “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” The Levites rallied to him and Moses instructed them to use the sword to put an end to the carousing (Exodus 32:27-29).
“The next day Moses said to the people, ‘You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.’
So Moses went back to the Lord and said, ‘Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.’
The Lord replied to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.’
And the Lord struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.” – Exodus 32:30-35
While our current situation is different from the Israelites in the desert in some very important ways–namely Christ has come, we are under the New Covenant, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit–there are still things that we can learn from the Israelites in this story.
- Even after seeing the hand of God move and lead us in spectacular ways we can still be led astray
The Israelites witnessed some very awe-inspiring miracles and their needs had been provided for in equally miraculous ways. In spite of those displays of power and compassion, the people still wandered from God. We have also witnessed God’s hand at work in our lives and in the lives of those around us and yet we can forget what God has done in the past and wander off the narrow road seeking someone or something else to lead us.
- Times of waiting can be especially hard
The Israelites didn’t know when Moses was coming back down from the mountain. After forty days they weren’t even sure if he was coming back at all. When we find ourselves waiting on the Lord and it takes longer for Him to act or direct than we expect, we become vulnerable to trying to forge our own path or follow someone or something that is not God. While we would think that the memory of the miracles would be enough to keep the Israelites patient, it wasn’t. Here however, is where we have an advantage over the Israelites in the desert. As believers in Christ we have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us during our waiting. While we may be waiting for the leading of the Lord we do not have to wait for His presence. He is with us right now, strengthening us, encouraging us, giving us peace and assurance.
- God’s plan is still accomplished even if we go astray
This episode with the Golden Calf was only one of many times that Israel strayed from God, but the Lord still accomplished His plan of salvation and always saved for Himself a remnant of people who did not go astray. In our own lives, God is faithful to “discipline those He loves” (Hebrews 12:4-12). If and when we get off track He graciously brings us back and sets us on the right path again.
“if we are faithless,
he remains faithful,
for he cannot disown himself.” – 2 Timothy 2:13