Finding Idols

By Sherry Black

A Reading from Exodus 32:1-20

1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took these from them, formed them in a mold, and cast an image of a calf, and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it, and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” 6 They rose early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being, and the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to revel.

7 The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ” 9 The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, and of you I will make a great nation.”

11 But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” 14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. 16 The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. 17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” 18 But he said,

“It is not the sound made by victors
or the sound made by losers;
it is the sound of singing that I hear.”

19 As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’s anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.

Meditation

God continued instructing Moses as to the ordination and function of Aaronic priests and sanctioned various offerings and sacrifices; God sanctified the day of Sabbath; and finally he gave Moses two stone tablets of the law, written with the finger of God.

Meanwhile back in the valley, the Israelites had become restless, desperate even. Their leader, Moses, had been gone so long! Was he coming back? Was he dead? Had that God consumed him? In their fear and frustration, they asked Aaron to make gods for them. Aaron had probably been trying to keep them calm and encourage patience, until he just couldn’t satisfy them. He said he’d make gods — IF they gave him all the gold jewelry they had gotten from the Egyptians when they escaped. He probably didn’t think they’d do it, but they did. He probably felt he had no choice: Aaron made a golden calf, a god. An idol.

John Calvin said that our hearts are idol factories. And are they not? We worship so many meaningless things! We settle for half-lives, half-truths, half-gods.

Professor and author Kate Bowler recently released a book of meditations titled Good Enough, with a companion guide, A Good Enough Lent. One chapter, “Shiny Things,” explores our relationship with idols, and the companion guide offers three questions for reflection I offer here to you, too:

  • What do your major life choices — your closest relationships, your family, your career, your hobbies — point toward?
  • How you spend your time, your money, your resources? What do those say about who you are?
  • “What is idolatry except beautiful things that do not transform us?” (Good Enough, 25). Given that definition of idolatry, what is something you might have to reconsider or redirect?

The Very Rev. Sherry Black is a second-career Episcopal priest, and has been a full-time hospital chaplain for ten years. She also serves a small mission church as priest-in-charge, and is dean of her deanery.

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