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The Glory of God and Idolatry

Introduction

They made an image of a calf at Horeb,

and worshiped a metal idol.

They traded their majestic God

for the image of an ox that eats grass.

They rejected the God who delivered them,

the one who performed great deeds in Egypt (Psalm 106:19-21).40

“Too many gods.” That’s what my Indian friend said as we traveled in his great homeland. And many gods there were. I’ve seen very few idols in this country, and when I have seen them, they were usually in the home of someone from a country where idols were worshiped. Idolatry may seem to be one sin that we are unlikely to find in America, and certainly not in the church in America.

If we define idolatry as the worship of other gods, or, as the Old Testament often referred to them, “foreign gods,” then we might suppose that idolatry hardly exists in this country. But if we were to define idolatry as the worship of the One True God as a lesser god, we might find idolatry in many evangelical churches today.

We are pursuing the theme of the glory of God, and for several lessons, we shall be looking at Exodus 32-34. You will remember that this is the portion of Scripture where Moses asks God, “Show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18), and his request is granted (Exodus 34:5-7). But before we can consider these wonderful verses, we must first see how the sin of idolatry is an offense against the glory of God. That is our topic for this lesson.

Circumstances Leading to the Sin of Israel in Exodus 32

The revelation of God’s glory to Moses comes out of the context of Israel’s great sin of creating and worshiping the golden calf (Exodus 32). I wish to begin by reviewing the setting for this great sin, for it is only against this backdrop that we can appreciate the magnitude of Israel’s sin.

Three months41 after their departure from Egypt, the Israelites arrive at the Desert of Sinai, at the base of Mount Sinai. The miracles of the exodus must therefore be fresh in their minds. Did they continue to sing the “Song of Moses,” which we find in Exodus 15? From the crossing of the Red Sea to their arrival at Sinai, God had: (1) sweetened the bitter waters at Marah (Exodus 15:22-26); (2) provided manna (Exodus 16:1ff.) and quail (Exodus 16:13); (3) provided water at Massa and Meribah (Exodus 17:1-7); and (4) gave the Israelites victory over the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-16).

When the Israelites reached Sinai, God reminded them of all that He had done for them and promised to make them “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” if they would keep His commandments. The people agreed (Exodus 19:3-8). God spoke to Moses in such a way that the people would revere Moses and listen to him (Exodus 19:9). After Moses sanctified the people and established boundaries at the foot of the mountain, God revealed Himself in a powerful way:

16 And on the third day in the morning there were thunders and lightning and a dense cloud on the mountain, and the sound of a very loud horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their place at the lower end of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was completely covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire; and its smoke went up like the smoke of a great furnace, and the whole mountain shook greatly. 19 When the sound of the horn grew louder and louder, Moses was speaking and God was answering him with a voice (Exodus 19:16-19).

It is hard to tell exactly how many times Moses ascends and descends the mountain; my estimate is that it must have occurred five times from Exodus 19:1 to 23:33. On what appears to be Moses’ fifth ascent, God gives these specific instructions:

22 The Lord said to Moses: “Thus you will say to the Israelites: ‘You yourselves have seen that I have spoken with you from heaven. 23 You must not make alongside me gods of silver, nor make gods of gold for yourselves. 24 You must make for me an altar made of earth, and you will sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your cattle. In every place where I cause my name to be honored I will come to you and I will bless you. 25 And if you make me an altar of stone, you must not build it of hewn stone, for if you use your tool on it you will have defiled it. 26 And you must not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness is not exposed’” (Exodus 20:22-26).

Here, God begins by calling attention to the fact that He has spoken from heaven but has not appeared in any form. They must not seek to fashion an image (an idol) to represent Him because He cannot be represented by any such form. When they offer their sacrifices, they must not do so on a stone altar that has been fashioned in any way with tools. (I take it that they would be tempted to embellish it with idol-like representations.) There must be no steps leading to the altar, lest one’s nakedness be exposed. Men’s devotion and worship should be focused on the unseen God.

When we come to Exodus 24, we come to one of the most unusual accounts in the entire Pentateuch (the first five Books of the Law). The Lord summons Moses, Aaron, and his sons Nadab and Abihu, along with 70 of the elders of Israel (Exodus 24:1). They will worship God from a distance; only Moses may draw near to the Lord (Exodus 24:2). When Moses spoke to the people, he repeated all the instructions God had given. I assume this to be all of the instructions recorded in Exodus 20:22 through 23:33. The people responded, “We are willing to do all the words that the Lord has said” (Exodus 24:3b).

Moses then wrote down all the words God had spoken thus far and built an altar as God had instructed (Exodus 24:4; compare 20:24-26). Moses sent some young men to offer burnt offerings and peace offerings on the altar (Exodus 24:5). Moses took half of the blood of these sacrifices and splashed it on the altar. He then read the “Book of the Covenant” (that is, the book in which he had written all the words of the Lord, Exodus 24:4a), and when they heard the words Moses read, the people agreed to do and obey all that the Lord had spoken (Exodus 24:7). The people thereby entered into a covenant with God:

3 And Moses came and told the people all the Lord’s words and all the decisions. All the people answered together, “We are willing to do all the words that the Lord has said.” 4 Then Moses wrote all the words of the Lord. Early in the morning he built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve standing stones—according to the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 And he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls for peace offerings to the Lord. 6 And Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. 7 And he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “We are willing to do and obey all that the Lord has spoken.” 8 So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it over the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Exodus 24:3-8).

It is what happened next that is most amazing:

9 Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet something like a pavement made of sapphire, and clear like the heaven itself. 11 But he did not lay a hand on the leaders of the Israelites, so they saw God, and they ate and they drank (Exodus 24:9-11).

I believe this is a covenant meal, whereby the people formally enter into covenant with God through their representatives, the 70 elders. The Book of the Covenant has been written, Moses has read it, the blood of the covenant has been sprinkled, and the covenant meal has been eaten. The covenant is sealed by these actions. The “ink is hardly dry” in the Book of the Covenant before the covenant will be broken.

Moses is now summoned to the top of Mount Sinai, where he will receive the remainder of the law, and the commandments written on stone:

12 And the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me to the mountain and be there, and I will give to you stone tablets, namely the law and the commandments that I have written, so that you may teach them. 13 So Moses set out with Joshua his minister; and Moses ascended the Mount of God. 14 He said to the elders, “Remain in this place for us until we return to you. Aaron and Hur are here with you. Whoever has any matters of dispute can go to them.” 15 Then Moses went up into the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 And the glory of the Lord resided on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day he called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in plain view of the people. 18 And Moses went into the midst of the cloud when he went up to the mountain; and Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights (Exodus 24:12-18).

If I am reading this right, the 70 elders remain on the mountain, at the place where they ate the covenant meal in the presence of God. Aaron and Hur go down to the people, at the base of the mountain. There, these two will deal with any disputes until Moses returns. Moses goes up the mountain, accompanied by Joshua. Joshua stops short of the top of the mountain, and Moses alone ascends into the cloud of God’s glory. Moses then remains there for 40 days and nights. Chapters 25-31 record the things God spoke to Moses during these 40 days and nights.

Rebellion and Revelry in Israel’s Camp
Exodus 32:1-6

1 When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered together around Aaron and said to him, “Get up, make us gods42 that will go before us. As for this fellow Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!” 2 So Aaron said to them, “Break off the gold earrings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people broke off the gold earrings that were on their ears, and they brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received them from their hand, fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molten calf. Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it, and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow will be a feast to the Lord.” 6 So they got up early on the next day and offered up burnt offerings, and they brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play (Exodus 32:1-6).

What is described here is all the more amazing in the light of the earlier chapters of Exodus. In something short of 40 days, the Israelites are no longer willing to wait for Moses to return. They persuade Aaron to make them a god. Aaron is not presented in a favorable light in these verses; indeed, he is presented as the counterpart of Moses. He is almost a Jeroboam (see 1 Kings 12:25-32). He calls for the Israelites to give him their gold jewelry, he melts it down and then fashions it into a golden calf. Sacrifices are offered, and a day of feasting and celebration is declared. In fact, this “celebration” was a drunken orgy (Exodus 32:2-6).

Israel’s Rebellion Scrutinized

I have studied and taught this text before, but somehow I never considered Israel’s rebellion in Exodus chapter 32 in the light of the earlier events in Exodus, particularly Israel’s ratification of the covenant with God in chapter 24. Allow me to make some observations and then to note the contrasts between what we have read earlier in Exodus and what we now read in chapter 32.

(1) According to Moses’ instructions, Aaron and Hur43 were to lead Israel until his return; instead, Aaron followed the lead of the people. Consider these words in Exodus 24:

12 And the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me to the mountain and be there, and I will give to you stone tablets, namely the law and the commandments that I have written, so that you may teach them. 13 So Moses set out with Joshua his minister; and Moses ascended the Mount of God. 14 He said to the elders, “Remain in this place for us until we return to you. Aaron and Hur are here with you. Whoever has any matters of dispute can go to them” (Exodus 24:12-14).

The 70 elders were on the mountain, where they had eaten in God’s presence – and lived! (Exodus 24:9-11). When God called Moses to meet Him at the top of Mount Sinai, he took Joshua with him part way. Moses instructed the 70 elders to remain where they were until he returned. I take it then that these elders were not a part of the idolatry that took place back in the camp of the Israelites. Moses sent Aaron and Hur back to the people, to lead them in his absence, until he returned.

My point is that Aaron, along with Hur, was appointed by Moses to lead in his place, until he returned. We do not hear anything about Hur in the description of Israel’s idolatry. What we do find is that Aaron is the prominent figure – not as a leader, but as a follower:

1 When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered together around Aaron and said to him, “Get up, make us gods that will go before us. As for this fellow Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!” 2 So Aaron said to them, “Break off the gold earrings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people broke off the gold earrings that were on their ears, and they brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received them from their hand, fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molten calf. Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it, and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow will be a feast to the Lord.” 6 So they got up early on the next day and offered up burnt offerings, and they brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play (Exodus 32:1-6, emphasis mine).

When I read this passage, I see Aaron, not as an agent of God, nor as an agent of Moses, but as the agent of the people. The people spoke, and Aaron acted. They initiated, and Aaron followed. As Moses put it,

And Moses saw that the people were running wild, for Aaron had let them get out of control, to the derision from their enemies (Exodus 32:25, emphasis mine).

Leaders do need to be responsive to those whom they are called to lead, but first and foremost they must obey God’s commands, as declared in His Word. Let God’s leaders beware of catering to the wishes (and even the demands) of those who find God’s Word and God’s presence insufficient.

(2) Earlier, the Israelites were repeatedly commanded to “keep their distance” from God, but in Exodus 32, they want Aaron to fashion a “god” they can handle. Notice how often and how emphatically God instructs the Israelites to maintain a healthy distance from Him:

12 And you will set boundaries for the people all around, saying, “Take heed to yourselves not to go up on the mountain nor touch its edge. Whoever touches the mountain will surely be put to death! 13 No hand will touch him—but he will surely be stoned or shot through, whether a beast or a human being; he must not live. When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast they may go up on the mountain” (Exodus 19:12-13).

21 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down and solemnly warn the people, lest they force their way through to the Lord to look, and many of them perish. 22 And let the priests also, who draw near to the Lord, sanctify themselves, lest the Lord break through against them” (Exodus 19:21-22).

23 And Moses said to the Lord, “The people are not able to come up to Mount Sinai, because you solemnly warned us, ‘Set boundaries for the mountain and set it apart.’” 24 And the Lord said to him, “Go, get down. And you will come up, and Aaron with you; but do not let the priests and the people force their way through to come up to the Lord, lest he break through against them” (Exodus 19:23-24).

18 And all the people were seeing the thunderings and the lightning, and heard the sound of the horn, and the mountain smoking—and when the people saw it they trembled with fear and kept their distance. 19 And they said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die.” 20 And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you so that you do not sin.” 21 The people kept their distance, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was (Exodus 20:18-21).

God instructed the Israelites to keep their distance, and they gladly did so. They were terrified by the presence of God in their midst and did not wish to draw near. Now, somehow, in Exodus 32, the people are troubled by the absence of Moses, and they want to have a “god” who can be near them, a “god” who will go before them. They want a “god” they can handle:

When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered together around Aaron and said to him, “Get up, make us gods that will go before us. As for this fellow Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!” (Exodus 32:1).

(3) The golden calf was no work of art, but a crude counterfeit of Israel’s glorious God. Three observations led me to this rather unexpected conclusion that the golden calf was a very crude piece of work. First, there is no evidence that Aaron has any metal working skills, or that he has any great artistic ability. While Aaron is at work at the foot of Mount Sinai fashioning an idol for the Israelites, God is informing Moses that He has gifted Bezalel and Oholiab as master craftsmen, and He designates them to do the skillful, artistic work on the tabernacle furnishings (Exodus 31:1-11). We must conclude that Aaron was not the most suitable person for making anything of gold. Second, we have to take the time factor into account. Do you think that Michelangelo could have painted the Sistine Chapel in a week? Do we think that Leonardo da Vinci could have painted The Last Supper in a couple of days? The Israelites convinced Aaron that Moses had been gone so long that there was little chance he would return (Exodus 32:1). We know that Moses was on the mountain for 40 days and nights (Exodus 24:18). Surely we must conclude that it was late in this 40-day period that Aaron set out to make the idol. That would mean he had but a few days to complete this project. One doesn’t do great work quickly. Third, we have the words of Aaron himself:

22 And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they tend to evil. 23 And they said to me, ‘Make us gods that will go before us, for as for this fellow Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.’ 24 So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, break it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and this calf came out” (Exodus 32:22-24, emphasis mine).

I have always laughed at this ridiculous explanation, but there must be a measure of truth in it. While Aaron has sinfully minimized his role in the making of this idol, he has called attention to the fact that it was not a masterpiece, but rather something very hastily fashioned. All three lines of evidence point to this same conclusion.

God gave Moses very specific instructions as to how the tabernacle and its furnishings should be fashioned, and it was done just that way (Exodus 25:9; 26:30; 31:1-11; 39:32). There were no divine instructions given to Aaron; he seems to have done this on his own (or with the advice and counsel of some of those who had seen foreign idols). Bezalel, Oholiab, and those under them carefully crafted the tabernacle furnishings, and this process seems to have taken considerable time. The golden calf had to have been hastily “crafted” by Aaron. It could hardly have been a work of art. And yet the Israelites were willing to worship this “half-baked god” as their god.

My point is this: this idol was no work of art, which by virtue of being a masterpiece, naturally attracted people to worship it. It was a piece of junk art, with all sorts of flaws and imperfections. I would like to suggest that these flaws actually made the idol more appealing to the Israelites. When the moral failures of President Clinton were eventually exposed, I expected outrage on the part of the American people, but there was none. A friend from another country told me that in other parts of the world, people expect this kind of conduct from their leaders. I think I can partly understand why this would be so. If our leaders can have their flaws – if they can sin and get away with it – then it must be alright for me as well. A flawed leader makes me feel more comfortable about my flaws.

The God of Israel, whose glory was displayed on Mount Sinai, was terrifying to the Israelites:

18 And all the people were seeing the thunderings and the lightning, and heard the sound of the horn, and the mountain smoking—and when the people saw it they trembled with fear and kept their distance. 19 And they said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die.” 20 And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you so that you do not sin.” 21 The people kept their distance, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was (Exodus 20:18-21).

The manifestations of the presence of the awesome and holy God of Israel terrified the people. They wanted to keep their distance. They were afraid to sin and thus offend Him. Who could fear the ugly creation of Aaron’s hands? Here was a “god” they could take with them, a “god” who could be near to them, a “god” who would not intimidate them with its perfections. The flawed god of Aaron was just the kind of “god” who made the Israelites feel more comfortable. Now, they could sin in its presence without fear.

(4) God had already revealed some of His laws to men (Ten Commandments), and the people had promised to obey. Among these commandments was a specific prohibition against idolatry. At the exodus, God had declared victory over the gods of Egypt (Exodus 12:12; 15:11; 18:11; Numbers 33:2-4). He showed them to be powerless, and Himself to be all powerful. That took place only three months before (Exodus 19:1). From the time that the Israelites reached Sinai, God warned them not to practice idolatry:

3 You shall have no other gods before me. 4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on earth under it, or that is in the water below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations to those who hate me” (Exodus 20:3-5).

“You must not make alongside me gods of silver, nor make gods of gold for yourselves” (Exodus 20:23).

“Take heed to do everything I have told you to do, and do not make mention of the names of other gods—do not let them be heard on your lips” (Exodus 23:13, see also 23:24, 32-33).

This prohibition of idols was clearly a part of the covenant to which the Israelites committed themselves:

3 And Moses came and told the people all the Lord’s words and all the decisions. All the people answered together, “We are willing to do all the words that the Lord has said” (Exodus 24:3; see also 23:7; 19:8).

How quickly the Israelites forgot and forsook their covenant commitment!

(5) God had manifested His glory on the mountain for some time, and it was apparently still evident at the time of Israel’s sin. The glory of God was displayed at Sinai, beginning with the Israelistes’arrival at Sinai:

16 And on the third day in the morning there were thunders and lightning and a dense cloud on the mountain, and the sound of a very loud horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their place at the lower end of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was completely covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire; and its smoke went up like the smoke of a great furnace, and the whole mountain shook greatly. 19 When the sound of the horn grew louder and louder, Moses was speaking and God was answering him with a voice (Exodus 19:16-19).

18 And all the people were seeing the thunderings and the lightning, and heard the sound of the horn, and the mountain smoking—and when the people saw it they trembled with fear and kept their distance (Exodus 20:18, emphasis mine).

15 Then Moses went up into the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 And the glory of the Lord resided on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day he called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in plain view of the people (Exodus 24:15-17, emphasis mine).

The point I am trying to make is that the physical manifestations of God’s glory (the smoke, the fire, the blast of the horn, the earthquake-like trembling of the ground) were on-going throughout the time Moses was on the mountain. We would have been amazed at the scene taking place at the base of Mount Sinai. The Israelites are worshiping the golden calf as their “god” while behind them, in full view, is the smoking mountain, with all of the other manifestations of God’s glory. How could they exchange such inferior “glory” (that of their idol) for the greater glory of God on the mountain?

Israel had grown accustomed to the supernatural and the spectacular. Every day God miraculously provided His people with manna and water. They had come to expect it. And if there was any kind of delay, they protested. They grew discontent with mere manna and demanded the meats and spices they had enjoyed in Egypt. The presence of God on the mountain had somehow become common fare to the people. Is it not amazing how quickly we become accustomed to the supernatural presence of God in our midst? Do you not see this in your own life? How wonderful it was at first to know the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of eternal life! How amazing was the knowledge of His grace! What a joy it was to know that God dwells in us, through His Spirit! And yet how quickly these supernatural blessings are assumed, and virtually forgotten. So it was with the Israelites and the presence of God in their midst.

(6) Before the Israelites worshiped the golden calf, God had already promised that His presence would go before the Israelites to drive out their enemies:

“I am going to send an angel before you, to protect you in the way, and to bring you into the place which I have prepared” (Exodus 23:20).

“For my angel will go before you, and bring you in to the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and I will cut them off” (Exodus 23:23).

“I will send my fear before you, and I will destroy all the people to whom you come; I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you” (Exodus 23:27).

Yet in the absence of Moses, the Israelites demanded an idol from Aaron so that “god” could go before them:

1 When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered together around Aaron and said to him, “Get up, make us gods that will go before us. As for this fellow Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!” (Exodus 32:1)

The very fire and cloud that underscored the presence of God on Mount Sinai had already protected them at the Red Sea:

21 And the Lord was going before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them in the way; and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could go by day and night. 22 He did not take away from before the people the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of the fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22).

God was present with His people, in the pillar of fire and the cloud, fighting for them:

24 And in the morning watch the Lord looked down on the host of Egyptians through the pillar of fire and cloud, and he threw the Egyptians into a panic. 25 He jammed the wheels of their chariots so they had difficulty driving, and the Egyptians said, “Let’s flee from the presence of Israel, for the Lord fights for them against Egypt” (Exodus 14:24-25).

It was the pillar of fire and the cloud that gave evidence of the presence of God with Moses (Exodus 33:9-10), as it was the pillar which filled the tabernacle as visible evidence of God’s presence in the Holy of Holies. It was by this means that God would guide the Israelites in the wilderness:

34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35 And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 36 But when the cloud was taken up from on the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on all their journeys; 37 but if the cloud was not lifted up, then they would not journey on until the day it was taken up. 38 For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, but fire would be on it at night, in plain view of all the house of Israel, in all their journeys (Exodus 40:34-38).

Is it not amazing that the Israelites wanted a golden calf as proof of God’s presence with them and of His protection of them, while the pillar of fire and the cloud were there on the mountain? While Moses in on the mountain, engulfed by the glory of God and asking to see more, the Israelites are down below (in full view of the mountain and the glory of God), seeking to exchange the glory of God for a golden calf.

(7) There is a very clear contrast between the worship led by Moses in Exodus 24 and the “worship” led by Aaron in Exodus 32. We must remember that God gave these instructions to Moses in chapter 20:

24 “‘You must make for me an altar made of earth, and you will sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your cattle. In every place where I cause my name to be honored I will come to you and I will bless you. 25 And if you make me an altar of stone, you must not build it of hewn stone, for if you use your tool on it you will have defiled it. 26 And you must not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness is not exposed’” (Exodus 20:24-26).

Notice the worship led by Moses, in accordance with God’s instructions in chapter 20:

4 Then Moses wrote all the words of the Lord. Early in the morning he built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve standing stones—according to the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 And he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls for peace offerings to the Lord. 6 And Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. 7 And he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “We are willing to do and obey all that the Lord has spoken.” 8 So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it over the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” 9 Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet something like a pavement made of sapphire, and clear like the heaven itself. 11 But he did not lay a hand on the leaders of the Israelites, so they saw God, and they ate and they drank (Exodus 24:4-11, emphasis mine).

Moses did the following things as recorded in Exodus:

He built an altar, as instructed (24:4; see 20:24).

He44 offered burnt offerings and peace offerings (24:5).

He read the Book of the Covenant (24:6-7a).

The people agreed to obey—they entered into covenant with God (24:7b).

The covenant was ratified with blood (24:8).

Moses and Israel’s leaders ate and drank at a covenant meal in the presence of God (24:9-11).

Moses established the pattern for true worship for the Israelites, just as God instructed him.

Approximately one month later, we see Aaron leading the Israelites in worship. (We should recall from Exodus 24:12-14 that only Moses went to the top of the mountain. He was accompanied part way by Joshua. The 70 elders were told to wait where they were, until Moses and Joshua returned. Aaron and Hur were sent back down the mountain to judge the people in the absence of Moses. After some period of absence,45 the people persuade Aaron to lead them in a very different kind of worship, but one that mimics that of Moses:

1 When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered together around Aaron and said to him, “Get up, make us gods that will go before us. As for this fellow Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!” 2 So Aaron said to them, “Break off the gold earrings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people broke off the gold earrings that were on their ears, and they brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received them from their hand, fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molten calf. Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it, and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow will be a feast to the Lord.” 6 So they got up early on the next day and offered up burnt offerings, and they brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play (Exodus 32:1-6, emphasis mine).

What a contrast we find here!

Moses listened to God and obeyed; Aaron listened to the people and did as they said.

Moses made an altar; so did Aaron (32:4).

Moses offered burnt offerings and peace offerings; so did Aaron (32:6).

Moses went up on the mountain with the 70 elders, and there they shared the covenant meal; Aaron declared a feast, and the Israelites had a drunken orgy (32:6).

Moses set a pattern for true worship; Aaron established a pattern for false worship:

25 Jeroboam built up Shechem in the Ephraimite hill country and lived there. From there he went out and built up Penuel. 26 Jeroboam then thought to himself: “Now the Davidic dynasty could regain the kingdom. 27 If these people go up to offer sacrifices in the Lord’s temple in Jerusalem, their loyalty could shift to their former master, King Rehoboam of Judah. They might kill me and return to King Rehoboam of Judah.” 28 After the king had consulted with his advisers, he made two golden calves. Then he said to the people, “It is too much trouble for you to go up to Jerusalem. Look, Israel, here are your gods who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” 29 He put one in Bethel and the other in Dan. 30 This caused Israel to sin; the people went to Bethel and Dan to worship the calves (1 Kings 12:25-30, emphasis mine).

(8) The Israelites worshiped this idol as the true “God who brought Israel up out of Egypt” (32:4). God was not visible; He did not manifest Himself in any form that could be represented by an idol. Thus the Israelites were forbidden to represent God in any “creaturely” form (compare Deuteronomy 4:11-18). Yet Aaron fashioned a golden calf, and regarding this image, he said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (Exodus 34:4). If Aaron thought he was only creating a “visual aid,” he was wrong. This was an idol.

The Inspired Interpretation of the Incident at Sinai

We are not left to our own devices so far as the interpretation of the incident at Sinai is concerned. Beyond what we read in Exodus 32-34, several other texts interpret what happened at Sinai. Let us briefly consider them:

Psalm 106:19-22

19 They made an image of a calf at Horeb,

and worshiped a metal idol.

20 They traded their majestic God

for the image of an ox that eats grass.

21 They rejected the God who delivered them,

the one who performed great deeds in Egypt,

22 amazing feats in the land of Ham,

mighty acts by the Red Sea (emphasis mine).

If I had a Ford Pinto and traded it straight across for a classic 1965 Mustang in mint condition, I would be “trading up.” I would be getting something far better than I was giving up. At Sinai Israel was “trading down.” They were “trading their majestic God for the image of an ox that eats grass” (Psalm 106:20). They were rejecting the God who delivered them powerfully at the exodus for a metal god that would “go before them” in future battles. They traded the awesome God of Mount Sinai, the Creator of the universe, for a shoddy creation made by Aaron. Granted, they called this idol “the God who brought them out of Egypt” (Exodus 34:4), but saying so doesn’t make it so. It was but a piece of metal, formed in the shape of an ox that eats grass.

Acts 7:38-43

38 This is the man who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors, and he received living oracles to give to you. 39 Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him, but pushed him aside and turned back to Egypt in their hearts, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go in front of us, for this Moses, who led us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him!’ 41 At that time they made an idol in the form of a calf, brought a sacrifice to the idol, and began rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away from them and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets: ‘It was not to me that you offered slain animals and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, was it, house of Israel? 43 But you took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images you made to worship, but I will make you move beyond Babylon’ (emphasis mine).

Stephen is standing before the Sanhedrin, but he is not defending himself. He is declaring the gospel in the most powerful terms. He shows that these religious leaders are doing exactly what their forefathers did – rejecting God and those who spoke for Him. As a part of his indictment, Stephen turns to Israel’s rebellion at Mount Sinai. They rejected Moses (actually for the second time in this sermon – see Acts 7:27, 35) as their leader. Stephen says that they did this because they had already “turned back to Egypt in their hearts” (Acts 7:39). Stephen quotes from Amos 5:24-27 to show that Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness was not what we might have expected (or what his audience would have liked to believe) – a time of devoted worship and service to God. In the wilderness, they sacrificed to the idols of their ancestors. Wow!

The expression which really caught my attention is Stephen’s prophetic indictment: “God turned away from them and gave them over to worship the host of heaven” (7:42). The expression “turned them over” reminded me of the same expression in Romans 1.46

Romans 1:18-25

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, 19 because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made [in this case, what He has done at the exodus]. So people are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to dishonor their bodies among themselves. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen (emphasis mine).

Paul begins in chapter 1 by showing that the Gentiles are sinners, deserving of God’s wrath. It is not until the next two chapters that Paul really bears down on the Jews, accusing them of even greater guilt because of their greater knowledge of God. But as I compare the incident at Mount Sinai with Romans 1:18-25, I see many similarities. The Israelites, like the Gentile heathen, knew about God, because God made it plain to them with all of the manifestations of His power in Egypt, in the desert, and at Mount Sinai. His “invisible attributes” – His eternal power and divine nature – were clearly revealed to the Israelites. But in spite of this knowledge, the Israelites refused to glorify God. They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for that of a four-footed beast – a cow no less. The result was a feast that brought about sexual anarchy and chaos.

In Exodus 32, the Israelites were acting just like the heathen! Then as I read several other biblical passages, I realized that they were heathen. Why do we suppose that the Israelites worshiped God in truth while they were in Egyptian bondage? I looked at the passages where God heard the cries of His people:

23 It happened during that long period of time that the king of Egypt died. And the Israelites groaned because of the slave labor and cried out, and their desperate cry about their slave labor went up to God. 24 And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. 25 God saw the Israelites and God had compassion (Exodus 2:23-25).

7 Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt. I have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. 8 I have come down to deliver them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up from that land to a land that is both good and large, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the territory of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. 9 And now, indeed, the cry of the Israelites has come to me, and I have also seen how severely the Egyptians oppress them (Exodus 3:7-9).

The Israelites were certainly being oppressed and mistreated by the Egyptians, but I do not see any reference to prayer. God heard the groanings of His people, and He remembered His covenant. There is no indication that the Israelites faithfully served God during the time of their sojourn in Egypt. (To be sure, Joseph remained true to his God, but one doesn’t see this with any other Hebrew, except for a few like Moses’ parents and Moses himself.)

What we are told in Scripture indicates that the Israelites were idol-worshipers while they were in Egypt, just as they had been when they were in Paddan-Aram.

3 “Blood guilt will be accounted to any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox or a lamb or a goat inside the camp or outside the camp, 4 but has not brought it to the doorway of the tent of meeting to present it as an offering to the Lord before the tabernacle of the Lord. He has shed blood, so that man will be cut off from the midst of his people. 5 This is so that the Israelites will bring their sacrifices that they are sacrificing in the open field to the Lord at the doorway of the tent of meeting to the priest and sacrifice them there as peace offering sacrifices to the Lord. 6 The priest is to splash the blood on the altar of the Lord at the doorway of the tent of meeting, and offer the fat up in smoke for a soothing aroma to the Lord. 7 So they must no longer offer their sacrifices to the goat-demons, acting like prostitutes by going after them. This is to be a perpetual statute for them throughout their generations (Leviticus 17:3-7, emphasis mine).

God forbade the Israelites to sacrifice their animals anywhere except at the tabernacle. He did so because the people were sacrificing to the goat demons. This seems to have been their normal practice. It was a practice that they had learned earlier, in the land of their ancestors, as well as from the Egyptians:

14 Now obey the Lord and worship him with integrity and loyalty. Put aside the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the river and in Egypt and worship the Lord. 15 If you have no desire to worship the Lord, choose today whom you will worship, whether it be the gods whom your ancestors worshiped beyond the river, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living. But I and my family will worship the Lord!” (Joshua 24:14-15, emphasis mine)

We tend to think that just because the Israelites (and a few others) followed Moses out of Egypt that they were believers. We might be left with some doubt if we had only Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:

1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they were all drinking from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. 5 But God was not pleased with most of them, for they were cut down in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:1-5, emphasis mine).

Jude puts it a bit more plainly:

5 Now I desire to remind you (even though you have been fully informed of these facts once for all) that Jesus,47 having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, later destroyed those who did not believe (Jude 5, emphasis mine).

Those who were destroyed in the wilderness were those who did not believe. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that the Israelites did not enter the Promised Land because of unbelief:48

16 For which ones heard and rebelled? Was it not all who came out of Egypt under Moses’ leadership? 17 And against whom was God provoked for forty years? Was it not those who sinned, whose dead bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear they would never enter into his rest, except those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they could not enter because of unbelief (Hebrews 3:16-19).

Conclusion

There are many lessons to be learned from the failure of the Israelites at Mount Sinai. Allow me to suggest several.

First, we are instructed that just being numbered among the children of Israel was no guarantee that they were true believers in God. Judas was one of the 12, but merely being with Jesus did not make him a true believer. Jesus warns of the danger of assuming that one will receive God’s blessings merely by being in close proximity:

24 “Do your best to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. 25 Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, then you will stand outside and start to knock on the door and beg him, ‘Lord, let us in!’ But he will answer you, ‘I don’t know where you come from.’ 26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 But he will reply, ‘I tell you, I don’t know where you come from! Go away from me, all you evildoers!’ 28 There will weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. 29 Then people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and take their places at the banquet table in the kingdom of God. 30 But indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:24-30).

Merely being among those who believe is not enough. You may have attended a church for 25 years, but you may not be saved. You may have given time and money, but that will not save you either. Salvation is not a matter of attendance, or even of participation in church. Salvation comes when you acknowledge that you are a sinner, and that only Christ, the Lamb of God, can save you. Let us learn from Israel that being in a place where God is near is not the same as having experienced God personally, through faith in Jesus Christ.

Second, we should see that idolatry is an offense against the glory of God. It is so obvious with the Israelites at Mount Sinai. They worshiped a golden idol (and not a very glorious one, I have suggested) while the glory of God was displayed on Mount Sinai, in the sight of all (Exodus 24:17). Idolatry is seeking glory in something other than God. Idolatry finds God insufficient and inadequate. Idolatry insists that there must be something better than God. Whatever we value more than God is an idol, and thus the attention we give it is the practice of idolatry. This may be different things for different people, but I believe that we all have our idols, the things we turn to before we turn to God, the things we turn to instead of God.

Third, we learn from this incident that idolatry is most dangerous when it is practiced in the name of the One True God. I believe that the idol Aaron crafted looked very familiar, like one of the idols these folks had worshiped before, or that they had seen others worship. But they did not name this “god” Baal or some other name. They spoke of this “graven god” as “the God who brought you up out of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4). The most dangerous form of idolatry is that which claims to be orthodox, but which turns men’s hearts from God, and from obedience to His Word. Idolatry at Sinai was practiced as worship. It was nothing of the kind.

Fourth, we should see from our text that God takes idolatry seriously. Idolatry is an offense against the glory of God, because it seeks glory elsewhere than in God, and because it diminishes the glory of God. God could have completely annihilated the entire nation for their sin at Sinai. Let us not dare think of idolatry as something petty in the eyes of God.

Fifth, idolatry leads to self-indulgence, sin, and utter chaos. The Israelites’ worship turned into an orgy. True worship involves awe and reverence because of the character and glory of God. Seeing God as He really is produces a godly fear, and this fear motivates us not to sin:

And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you so that you do not sin” (Exodus 20:20).

Israel’s “worship” of the golden calf minimized the fear of God, resulting in all kinds of sin and disorder:

So they got up early on the next day and offered up burnt offerings, and they brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play (Exodus 32:6).

17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “It is the sound of war in the camp.” 18 And Moses said, “It is not the sound of those who shout for victory, nor is it the sound of those who cry because they are overcome, but the sound of singing I hear.” 19 And when he drew near the camp he saw the calf and the dancing, and Moses became extremely angry. He threw the tablets from his hands and broke them to pieces at the bottom of the mountain… . 25 And Moses saw that the people were running wild, for Aaron had let them get out of control, to the derision from their enemies (Exodus 32:17-19, 25).

I believe we can illustrate the way idolatry promotes immorality in the New Testament Book of 1 Corinthians. In chapters 8 and 9, Paul has been dealing with the issue of food offered to idols. In chapter 8, Paul argued that one ought to refrain from eating “idol food” if it causes a weaker brother to stumble. In chapter 9, Paul argued that one should refrain from “idol food” if it in any way hinders the advance of the gospel. From 1 Corinthians 9:24—10:13, Paul shows how important it is for Christians to discipline their bodies and their fleshly appetites. In the first 13 verses of chapter 13, Paul looked back over the history of Israel in the wilderness and showed that Israel’s failures often were associated with fleshly indulgence.

Based upon this Paul writes, “So then, my dear friends, flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14). From there, Paul showed how involvement in these heathen practices made one a participant in idolatry and all it involved:

15 I am speaking to thoughtful people. Consider what I say. 16 Is not the cup of blessing that we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread that we break a sharing in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all share the one bread. 18 Look at the people of Israel. Are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? 19 Am I saying that idols or food sacrificed to them amount to anything? 20 No, I mean that what people sacrifice is to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot take part in the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Or are we trying to provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we really stronger than he is? (1 Corinthians 10:15-22).

I am not really surprised to find that in chapter 11 Paul must deal with fleshly indulgence in the meeting of the church, at the Lord’s Table no less:

20 Now when you come together at the same place, it is not in order to eat the Lord’s Supper. 21 For when it is time to eat, everyone takes his own supper. One is hungry and another becomes drunk. 22 Do you not have houses so that you can eat and drink? Or are you trying to show contempt for the church of God by shaming those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I praise you? I will not praise you for this! (1 Corinthians 11:20-22).

It is my understanding that when some Corinthian saints participated in heathen idol worship ceremonies (so they could enjoy a juicy steak or some kind of sumptuous meal), they observed and perhaps participated in other excesses. (Is it any wonder that Paul had to deal with sexual immorality in this epistle?) I believe Paul’s words imply that some participated in a heathen “table of demons” only to then gather with the saints to observe the Lord’s Supper (see 10:21). And when they came to the Lord’s Supper, I believe they brought some of the fleshly indulgence they learned from the idol worship ceremonies. Idolatry has the uncanny ability to promote all kinds of license and excess. I don’t think we really want (or need) to know all that happened before the golden calf at the base of Mount Sinai.

I must conclude that idolatry is not merely a sin of the ancients, but it is also a sin practiced today, even by Christians. We must avoid the sin of idolatry:

“So then, my dear friends, flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14).

“Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).

We are not nearly as likely to find men and women worshiping images (idols) in America as we are elsewhere in the world today. But I believe that idolatry is just as prevalent in America as it is anywhere else in the world. What form does idolatry take? What does it look like? How can we recognize it, in order to avoid it or to flee from it? We certainly do not have time to explore this matter as thoroughly as we should in this message. Nevertheless, let me conclude with a few statements about the characteristics of idolatry as seen in our text.

First, idolatry involves the work of men’s hands. The Israelites worshiped what Aaron made.

“Their idols are made of silver and gold

— they are manmade” (Psalm 115:4).

“Their land is full of worthless idols;

they worship the product of their own hands,

what their own fingers have fashioned” (Isaiah 2:8).

Second, idolatry is misdirected religious devotion. Israel’s idolatry here is misguided religion. I have often heard it said that we make idols of our cars, of our jobs, of money. Perhaps so, but in our text the Israelites worshiped an idol as though it were the true God, the God who brought them out of Egypt.

Third, idolatry is misplaced trust. The Israelites wanted an idol that would “go before them” (Exodus 32:1). When this expression is used in the Pentateuch, it conveys the idea of protection.49 They wanted an idol to carry before them to protect them. They were placing their trust in an idol, rather than in the living God, who had brought them safely from Egypt to Sinai. At the Red Sea, they had expressed confidence that God would lead the people to the Promised Land (Exodus 15:13-18). Now they think they need additional help. Idolatry is misplaced trust:

5 They have mouths, but cannot speak,

eyes, but cannot see,

6 ears, but cannot hear,

noses, but cannot smell,

7 hands, but cannot touch,

feet, but cannot walk.

They cannot even clear their throats.

8 Those who make them will end up like them,

as will everyone who trusts in them (Psalm 115:5-8).

17 Those who trust in idols will turn back and be utterly humiliated,

those who say to metal images, ‘You are our gods’” (Isaiah 42:17).

Fourth, idolatry involves misplaced praise. Idolatry gives praise to idols for what God has accomplished for His people:

And he received them from their hand, fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molten calf. Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).

5 “I announced them to you beforehand;

before they happened, I predicted them for you,

so you couldn’t say,

‘My image did these things,

my idol, my cast image, decreed them’” (Isaiah 48:5).

Fifth, idolatry is self-serving, misdirected religious devotion. Men worship idols for what they will do for them. Idols represent what men fear (in India, for example, it was tigers and cobras) or what they want (victory in war, safety from harm, rain, fruitful crops or herds, virility). Idolatry is very self-centered. Look at the outcome of Israel’s worship of the golden calf – self indulgence. Satan seemed to falsely suppose that Job worshiped God for the same reasons men worship idols:

9 Then Satan answered the Lord, “Is it for nothing that Job fears God? 10 Have you not made a hedge around him and his house and all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his cattle have increased in the land. 11 But extend your hand and strike everything he has, and he will indeed curse you to your face!” (Job 1:9-11)

What Satan should have learned from Job’s suffering was that this man worshiped God because of who He was, not because of what He gives. Idolatry is very different. It is not so much what the idol god is as what it is thought to give.

Sixth, idolatry is self-energized worship and service. The idol itself is man-made, as we have observed. But beyond this, the idol is absolutely impotent. It has to be carried about. It cannot see, or speak, or act. An idol is something that men seek to manipulate in order to obtain the outcome they desire. It is man’s manipulation, and not God’s sovereign action, which brings about what men desire. Idolatry reduces God to a “god” men can manage and manipulate, which leads to my final point.

Seventh, Israel’s sin of idolatry involves reductionism. Idolatry produces a god made in man’s image. As said above, Israel found God inadequate in that they felt they needed something more, namely a “god” they could carry with them, a “god” they could manipulate. But in another way I believe we can safely say that the Israelites wanted less of God than He really was. This is because they were terrified of the God of Israel:

18 And all the people were seeing the thunderings and the lightning, and heard the sound of the horn, and the mountain smoking—and when they people saw it they trembled with fear and kept their distance. 19 And they said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die.” 20 And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you so that you do not sin.” 21 The people kept their distance, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was (Exodus 20:18-21).

A holy and righteous God who hates sin is a terrifying God to sinners. The Israelites found God just a bit too much. They wanted a God that more closely suited their perceived needs, a “god” in whose presence they could feel comfortable. Idolatry never does justice to God; it always understates Him, always diminishes His glory. Idolatry adds nothing to who God is, but instead takes something away. Their idol was not the terrifying God whose glory was displayed on the mountain; theirs was a much tamer god, one whom they could be near and manipulate. He was not a God who terrified them, thus motivating them not to sin; theirs was a “god” in whose presence they felt free to sin:

“So they got up early on the next day and offered up burnt offerings, and they brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play” (Exodus 32:6).

I believe reductionism can be seen in several ways in our passage. First, there is reductionism with regard to Israel’s leadership. It was God who was leading Israel, not Moses. He was the One leading Israel by means of the pillar of cloud (Exodus 13:21-22; 14:19-20). He was the One going before Israel (Numbers 14:13-14). He was the One who spoke to Israel through Moses (Exodus 20:18-21; 33:9-11; Deuteronomy 5:22-33). The Israelites demanded an idol because Moses was not among them, and they wanted something to go before them (Exodus 32:1). If they could not see and hear Moses, then let them have their idol. And so God’s sovereign rule over His people has been reduced (in their minds) from God, to Moses, to a golden calf.

We see reductionism in yet another way. God spoke to His people, giving them commandments that would govern and guide their daily lives. God was making a covenant with His people so that He could dwell among them and lead them into the Promised Land. God’s rule was to encompass all things. But the people demanded an idol that could not breathe, hear, or speak. They reduced the infinite and eternal Creator to a piece of gold they could carry about with them. And they reduced God to something (the idol Aaron made) that they could carry with them to battle to assure their victory. They wanted a good luck charm to carry into battle.50 They wanted less of God; Moses wanted more: “Show me Your glory” (Exodus 33:18).

I believe we are tempted to commit idolatry in this same way. We are tempted to emphasize the love of God and to minimize, ignore, or even deny the wrath of God. How often I’ve heard someone say, “I like to think of God as … .” It’s not surprising that their “god” is not the same god as the God of the Bible. Theirs is a god of their liking, a god they have fashioned in their minds (and not with their hands). If we don’t like what the Bible says about the ministry of women in the church, we pass it off as culture-bound and not universal truth. If we don’t like what the Bible says about homosexuality, we stress the fact that our God is a “God of love,” and so we reason that He (“he”) would not condemn people on the basis of their sexual practices. We see that divorce is now common among those who profess faith in Jesus Christ and so we water down or avoid the texts which condemn divorce. We are like so many preachers, who preach on the “happy texts” of the Bible, while omitting the hard texts. That, my friend, is 20th century reductionism – whittling God down to a smaller and more comfortable size.

Faith Haynes, an insightful member of our congregation, pointed out something about reductionism I had not considered. She said that our use of vocabulary and language has contributed to reductionism. We have taken all the words of majesty and greatness and neutered them. Someone goes camping in the mountains or whitewater rafting, and we ask them how it went. They are likely to respond, “Awesome!” What words today are reserved for God alone? In the King James Version of the Bible, the words “Thee,” “Thou,” and “Thine” were reserved for God. Now, we refer to God as “you,” without a capital “Y!” That is reductionism – thinking or speaking of God as less than He is.

Let us always be on guard against reductionism, representing God as something less, something other, than who He is. May God use this message to cause us to look for idolatry in our own lives and to serve Him for all that He is, in all His majesty.


39 Copyright 2003 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 10 in the A Study of the Church series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on February 15, 2004.

40 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

41 The expression “in the third month” (Exodus 19:1) does not precisely tell the time involved, even though Moses goes on to say that this measurement of time is to “the very day.” The question is whether this expression means that they arrived on the first day of the third month, and thus just two months from the exodus (as the New Living Translation renders, “The Israelites arrived in the wilderness of Sinai exactly two months after they left Egypt”) or after three full months (as the New Jerusalem Bible renders, “Three months to the day after leaving Egypt, the Israelites reached the desert of Sinai”). Most translations do not seek to clarify the matter.

42 The translations differ as to whether this should read “god” or “gods.” The term is plural, but that is not unusual. Did they want “gods” (i.e., several idols) to represent the “God” who led them out of Egypt, or just one “god” to do so? I am inclined toward the singular = “god.”

43 Is this the same “Hur” who was the grandfather of Bezalel, the one God gifted as an artisan (Exodus 31:2)? If so, it seems most significant that Hur is not mentioned as a participant in the making of Israel’s idol, or in their heathen celebration.

44 Through the young men he instructed.

45 It is not possible to discern precisely how many days passed before the Israelites approached Aaron. We do know that Moses was in the presence of God on Mount Sinai for a total of 40 days and nights before he came down (Exodus 24:18). It had to take several days for Aaron to fashion the golden calf, so the people must have begun to pressure Aaron sometime before the 40 days had expired.

46 A footnote in the NET Bible at Acts 7:42 reads, “The expression and gave them over suggests similarities to the judgment on the nations described by Paul in Rom 1:18-32.”

47 Some manuscripts read “the Lord” here. I am inclined to agree that it was Jesus who saved the people out of the land of Egypt. Paul tells us the Christ “was the rock that was following them” (1 Corinthians 10:4).

48 Moses did not enter the land either, but this was not because he did not believe in God; it was because he struck the rock in his anger (see Numbers 20:1-13, 24; Deuteronomy 1:37; 4:21-22).

49 See Genesis 33:12; Exodus 23:23; 32:1, 23; Numbers 14:14.

50 In this way, the Israelites made an idol of the ark (see 1 Samuel 4:1-11).

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Theology Proper (God)