The Golden Calf and the Importance of Plurals (Exodus 32)

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This post was inspired by an almost-throwaway comment made last Sunday in the sermon at Mars Hill Bible Church. Heck, this blog wouldn’t exist if I wasn’t obsessed with the obscure references and readings used by preachers; on the other hand, I should probably try not to get so distracted half way through a sermon…

Anyway, the Golden Calf. Moses has climbed Mount Sinai to receive the Law of God, and he’s been gone so long that the people back on the ground start getting twitchy. They go to Aaron, the brother of Moses and designated high priest, to get something sorted; they don’t want a God stuck up a mountain who may well have just fried Moses, they want a god who they can see and touch and understand. They want a god to carry before them.

And Aaron, who is either an idiot or terrified he’s about to fall victim to a lynch mob, goes along with it. He collects all the gold he can – much of which was plundered from Egypt, so there’s perhaps something here about their relationship with their former oppressor – and forges it into a golden calf. “Here are your gods!” he proclaims; notice he uses the plural even though there’s only one calf. This may be important.

Anyway, Moses returns, sees what’s happened, grinds down the calf, makes the Israelites drink the resulting gold dust (a metaphor for the lack of sustainable provided by the memory of Egypt?), people get executed, it all ends badly. The story is the archetypal warning against idolatry and if that’s all there is to it then that’s enough. But there may be something else going on…

See, this story is referred to in Nehemiah 9, only there the writer corrects the weird plural thing – one calf, one god. And reading it like that leads to another possible interpretation – what if the calf is meant to be the God? We tend to think the calf was intended as a replacement for God, but what it was a mockery, a grotesque charicature that reduced the majestic God of the universe, God the Uncreated, to a tacky bit of bling made only to shut up some whiners? They’ve turned the God who liberated them from slavey into a craft project, a cynical craft project at that.

But why not? After all, a craft project is controllable. You can worship it as a god if you want, but you’ll always have the upper hand because you know where it came from and you could always throw it away and get a better one, maybe in a nicer colour and with full social media integration. God isn’t that safe – he’s in charge. Maybe that’s why the calf is still an attractive prospect – given how some Christians treat others, I’m convinced they want God less than they want a golden calf who justifies hatred of whatever group they’re angry at this time.

And maybe that’s one of the greatest sins that makes up idolatry, turning God into our mouthpiece rather than us acting as his. And it’s a blasphemy because it results in a brutalised representation of God when God has already made himself visible and present in the world, through the person of Jesus. I mean, look at how Jesus is misrepresented and co-opted. Goodness knows what we could do if we were still making our own gods.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? If, as Christians, our God doesn’t look like Jesus, it’s just another golden calf. And it’s time for it to go.

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