A Commentary on Human Nature
This Sunday's Old Testament lesson can be understood as a narrative commentary on the first commandment ("you shall have no other gods...you shall not make for yourself an idol"; cf. Exodus 20:1-4). Or, it can be understood as a narrative commentary on the fickleness of human nature (we are the kind of creatures who do exactly what we are told not to do) and the faithfulness of God (The Lord is the kind of creator who keeps promises).
But first things first. The passage really starts at verse one. So, be sure to include verses 1-6 when the lesson is printed or read for worship.
When preaching this text (and let's be frank, no story this week is nearly as fun and powerful to preach), the challenge is to help the congregation get caught up in the unfolding story. The story unfolds with a series of scenes, in which the phrase, "who brought us up out of the land of Egypt," recurs. The story is set just after the Exodus from Egypt and the gift of the covenant. The recently emancipated people had been gathered by God at Mount Sinai. There, they were claimed by God and received "the two tablets of the covenant," which God gave to Moses (Exodus 31:18).
Scene 1: "Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt"
The first scene focuses on the people, in the absence of their leader Moses. The people of Israel express fear, because they have lost their human leader. Moses was sequestered with God in an extended executive session. He was gone so long the people grew afraid. "When the people saw 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."
The last phrase is especially worth noting, because like most heresies, it is half-true. Do the people get it right? Did Moses bring the people out of Egypt? Well, on the human level, he did. Moses was the human God used to bring the people out of Egypt. But on a deeper, theological level, the people do not get it right. God brought the people out of Egypt. As the first commandment says, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt" (Exodus 20:1).
As a commentary on the first commandment, this first scene exposes what happens when God's people fall prey to the temptation of confusing the human "image of God" that is a spiritual leader (a pastor, parent, bishop, teacher, mentor) with God. When that leader disappears, humans can lose sight of God and lose faith in their direction.
And having lost sight of God and, in turn, lost their direction, the people long for a visible image of God to lead them. "Come, they said, make a god for us, who shall go before us. . ." The Hebrew word for God--elohim--should be translated in the singular as "a god" here rather than in the plural (for an explanation, keep reading).
Scene 2: "'This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!"
The second scene focuses on Aaron. Aaron gathers the collective costume jewelry from the people, melts them down, and makes a golden calf.
Two quick textual notes:
1. The NRSV, translating the Hebrew text reads, "they said." But the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament reads, "he said." The Greek preserves the older tradition. The text should read: Aaron...cast an image of a calf; and he said...
2. The NRSV then translated the Hebrew text as, "These are your gods, O Israel..." The Hebrew word for God--elohim--is plural in form, but can be either singular or plural in meaning. Just like the English word "brains," it does not necessary designate a plural. In this context, where Aaron made one golden calf and where in verse 5 Aaron announces "a festival to the LORD" (that is, to Yahweh), the term is obviously singular. Thus, the phrase should be translated:
He said, "This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt."
So what was Aaron's sin? Traditionally, most interpretations of this story accuse Aaron of making an image of a false god. But that is not really where Aaron when wrong. As indicated by Aaron's proclamation in verse 5--"Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord"--Aaron's mistake was to make a false image of the true god.
Similar to the people in scene 1, Aaron gets it slightly right and mostly wrong. Aaron knows that Moses did not lead the people out of Israel--the Lord did. And thus he proclaims a festival to the Lord. But, in order to give the people something to follow, Aaron makes a false image of the true God--which God had forbidden in Exodus 20:1-4.
Our idols are often false things that we worship in place of God--such as money, power, fame, career, self, the Minnesota Vikings, my new Norwegian sweater, or my old guitar. But idols can also be our false images of the true God. Things that we associate so much with God, that we worship them instead of God--the church building, the old liturgy, the retired pastor, the painting above the altar, a doctrine to which we cling too tightly, or the Minnesota Vikings. This form of idol can actually be even more dangerous to faith than outright idols. No finite image can fully capture the infinite God.
Scene 3: "Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt."
In scene 3, we switch to the mountain top, where the Lord is consulting with Moses. The Lord's Google Alert icon flashes on his laptop, and he reads a report of what Aaron and the people had just done down in the valley. He turns to Moses and says:
"Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely...they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, 'This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" (verses 7-8)
Notice, twice more, the key phrase "...brought up out of the land of Egypt..." First, even the Lord does not quite get if right! The Lord says to Moses, "Hey, they are your people. You brought them up out of the land of Egypt." And then, quoting the people (and again note my translation of elohim in the singular), the Lord cites how the people have confused the visible, finite, earthly image, with the invisible, infinite, heavenly God.
And then the Lord does the unthinkable. He offers to scrap Abraham's descendants and start over with Moses and his descendants. "Now let me alone, so that my wrath my burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation." Remember that back in Genesis 12, God had promised to make a great nation of Abraham's descendants. Well, they were many in number, but they certainly were not great in the spiritual sense. So by saying, "of you I will make a great nation," the Lord was offering to make Moses the new Abraham...to start over.
Scene 4: "Your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power"
In the fourth and final scene, Moses is finally the only one in this story to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: Israel is "your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt." This is the fifth time that the key phrase repeats in this story. And, for effect, Moses adds to it: "with great power and with a mighty hand."
And then, Moses says, "Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self..." That is, aware that the Lord had offered him the tempting chance to be a new Abraham, Moses throws the promise to Abraham back at God's in bold act of intercessory prayer: "You promised! You promised Abraham! You promised Isaac! You promised Israel! By your own name you promised!"
And the good book says: "And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people."
The Faithfulness of God
What kind of God do we have? What kind of Lord created the earth, chose Abraham, brought Israel out of Egypt, and gave us the Ten Commandments? A God who keeps promises. Sometimes keeping those promises means God has to forgive rather serious sins. But that is the nature of the One who has claimed us. God is faithful. And God keeps promises.