The story continues…
Part 18 (Exodus 32)
Only when they reach Mount Sinai are the Israelites told the purpose of their deliverance: they are to be the people of God, bound to Him by covenant. This is like a form of marriage, carrying with it a demand for unqualified love and loyalty. So, as part of the covenant stipulations, they are warned that idolatry will provoke God’s jealousy and wrath (Exodus 20:4-6). Yet within a few weeks this is exactly what happens (Exodus 32:1-10)…
Impatient to continue on their journey, the people soon grow weary of waiting for Moses to return from his audience with God on the mountaintop, and decide to take matters into their own hands by demanding a ‘god’ that they can see. Aaron is unable to resist the pressure put on him to make an idol, but attempts to limit the damage by making it an ‘image’ of Yahweh. However, the bull-statue that he presents to them is the standard way of representing Baal (the fertility god of the Canaanites). It might be labelled withYahweh’s name – but in their minds the people are bound to confuse Him with a very different kind of god. A whole religion (altar, priest, sacrifices and festival) is quickly invented to go with the idol, and the people adopt it with great enthusiasm. But the impromptu ‘festival to Yahweh’ rapidly degenerates into a drunken orgy.
And God is horrified. The nation that He has brought out of Egypt to be His own special people, the people He has rescued and fed and protected, have brought the idolatry of Egypt with them. They prefer a lump of metal to the living God! The attribution of His holy name to an idol is the ultimate insult:
“They exchanged their glorious God
for an image of a bull, which eats grass.” (Psalm 106:20)
As a result, He cannot even bear to call them His own people any longer (Exodus 32:7). His relationship with them is violated, and the covenant that He has so recently made with them is null and void. In order to uphold His righteousness and holiness, He announces His intention to destroy them.
“We should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill.” (Acts 17:29) The making and use of images can always be rationalised as an aid to worship, but invariably such things fail to convey the true glory and splendour of the invisible God – and thus they dishonour Him. At the same time, because they are so much easier for human beings to comprehend, by degrees they end up replacing Him. This is why God regards the worship of any kind of idol as spiritual adultery – and jealousy is His very proper reaction.
“I am Yahweh; that is My name!
I will not yield My glory to another
or My praise to idols.” (Isaiah 42:8)
So the Israelites, instead of enjoying a beautiful and intimate relationship with their God, must now face the terrible consequences of His anger.