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The shameful Golden Calf

July 27, 2015

Exodus 32: 15-24, 30-34                                           Monday 27th July

As usual, a quick recap, to remind us of the scriptural journey we’ve made through the Book of Exodus, and to fill some gaps.

Moses, the baby who miraculously survives to be raised as an Egyptian prince, goes into exile, but returns as an old man to liberate the Israelites from slavery. They escape from Egypt, through the Red Sea, leaving Pharaoh and his fearsome army completely defeated. They travel through the wilderness, begin complaining nd getting nostalgic about the ‘good old days (oh yeh?). Then…..

Last Wednesday:  

Manna from heaven                                                   Exodus 16: 1-5, 9-15

Thursday:                                                                    Exodus 19: 1-2, 9-11, 16-2-7

After three months in the wilderness, Israel pitches camp in Sinai; Moses is instructed by God to lead the people in worship, in preparation for them all to witness a theophany – God speaking from the cloud.

Friday                                                                          Exodus 20: 1-17

The Ten Commandments: 1. no gods but me (and no idolatry); 2. no misuse of God’s name; 3. keep the Sabbath holy; 4. honour your parents; 5. no killing; 6. no adultery; 7. no thieving; 8. No false witness; 9. no coveting property; coveting living things belonging to others.

Saturday                                                                     Exodus 24: 3-8

The people accept the Ten Commandments via Moses; a temple is built and communion sacrifices” made; the people are sprinkled with ‘the blood of the covenant’. (blood = life)

And so to today, when we hear about Moses returning down the mountain with Joshua, and to their horror finding the Israelites worshipping a pagan idol. Talk about reverting to type – we heard only on Friday how the Israelites were told in no uncertain terms about worshipping idols, and here they are, at it again! No wonder Moses got angry!

Who was Joshua, the man coming down the mountain with Moses? He was a soldier, a military leader. Maybe that’s why, when he heard the noise of the people shouting he said, ‘There is the sound of battle in the camp’. It was Joshua who was to go on to be Moses’ successor. The name Joshua is Hebrew for ‘God is salvation’. Does that sound familiar? It should do, because that is what the name Jesus means: ‘God is salvation’ And the reason they mean the same is because the two names ARE the same. ‘Jesus” is the English version of the Hebrew name Joshua, coming to us via Latin and Greek!

[I was in Marks and Spencers recently and the young man on the till was wearing the name badge ‘Joshua’ I said, “Do you know what your name means?” and he said, ‘No.” I said, ‘It’s the English version of Jesus!” What was his reaction, do you think? He looked delighted and said, “That’s really good!” ‘(And no, I wasn’t dressed like this. I was an under-cover evangelist’!)]

Let’s just take a brief look at someone else in today’s story. Aaron, Moses brother, who had arranged for the golden calf to be made and worshipped. Who was he? Well, he was three years older than Moses, and it seems he was never really as successful as his illustrious brother. Being three years older is significant, because remember, Pharaoh had given the order, ‘Throw all the boys born to the Hebrews into the river’.[1] Aaron escaped that edict because he was already three, but his baby brother was subject to that command, and that’s why Moses was put in a basket in the River Nile…. the rest being history.

Aaron grew up in Egypt, but not in the palace like his younger brother (obviously it would have been dangerous for his mother to draw attention to Moses true identity by bringing her other baby son into the palace). Aaron was a priest, which must have been, as they say, stony ground, because the majority of the Israelites had abandoned their faith over the 400 years they were exiled in Egypt. It was only when they were old men that Moses returned to Egypt and make contact with his brother again.

What this story today illustrates, yet again, is the fact that God’s ways are not our ways. Moses is the leader, appointed by God to liberate the people from slavery. Not the traditional ‘eldest son’, but the younger brother. And yet as soon as Moses leaves to go up the mountain to commune with God, despite the immense power they have seen invested by God in Moses – the escape from Egypt itself, the dividing of the Red see, the feeding with manna and quails – still, as soon as he is not physically with them, the people begin to lose faith. What do they do? They turn to his older brother, who had been left in charge of the camp. Human thinking.

What on earth got into Aaron, for him, a priest, to accede to the demands of the people to make them a god? He immediately gives in, collecting up gold rings to fashion a Golden Calf – in the process immediately breaking the first two of the Ten Commandments just delivered to them by God – those about worshipping false gods and making graven images! He simply lets the people revert back to the old pagan ways of Egypt. Perhaps he is reverting to type himself, after forty years of fudging religious principles in Egypt, trying to keep some semblance of authority as a religious leader; perhaps making the golden calf is a delaying tactics, playing for time in the hope Moses will get back before it’s completed. This is an example of weak, weak leadership. A true leader does not just do what is easy or what is popular; a true leader does what is RIGHT, and leads the people to see that it is the right thing to do. Aaron, sadly, capitulates to the loud mouths to try and stay popular. Disastrous.

After this episode, when Moses returns and stamps his authority on the people by immediately countermanding his older brother and destroying the golden calf (even making the people drink their precious gold idol!), now it’s is very clear who is boss both in terms of leading the nation politically AND leading the nation in religious matters.

Moses tells the people in no uncertain terms, ‘You have committed a grave sin.

And this shameful episode in the history of the Jews is remembered to this day by fasting and praying by the Jews – the 17th of Tammuz marks the day when the tablets of the Ten Commandments were destroyed (and also the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70AD.)

This year our Jewish cousins celebrated 17th Tammuz only two days ago – the 25th July. It marks the beginning of a three week period that culminates in the day of Tisha B’Av, a major fast day remembering the disasters that have struck the Jewish people throughout their history, including the Nazi Holocaust that started when Hitler took power in 1933.

I love this history of the Jewish people. It unites us Christians with them and teaches us so much because it is our shared Salvation History too. We come to God through Jesus because of the Chosen People; their history, our history, highlights the folly of human thinking; the need for good leadership; and above all, the need to worship God properly. This is nothing to do with human leaders currying favour or chasing popularity. No, this is about doing what is right, as laid down by God.

[1] Exodus 1:22

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