Sadly, the Israelites have not grasped the concepts of monotheism and imageless worship (even their deliverance from Egypt they attribute to Moses, not Yahweh), and they find it hard (despite the evidence of the daily manna and the pillar of cloud) to comprehend an invisible and intangible God. Impatient to continue on their journey, they soon grew weary of waiting for Moses to return from his meeting with God on the mountain, and decide to take matters into their own hands.
So the people ‘gang up’ (there is more than a hint of intimidation) on Aaron, who lacks the spiritual conviction to resist their demands. The making and use of images can always be rationalised as an aid to worship; but invariably such things dishonour God and end up replacing Him.
“At Horeb they made a calf
and worshipped an idol cast from metal.
They exchanged their glorious God
for an image of a bull, which eats grass.” (Psalm 106:19,20)
The bull-statue is the standard representation of Baal, the fertility god of the Canaanites. And this is what is presented to the Israelites as an image of Yahweh. It might be labelled with His name, but it is a gross misrepresentation of His nature. For although the bull could be said to represent Yahweh’s strength and power, in the minds of the people it is associated with sexual potency. A whole religion (altar, priest, sacrifices and festival) is quickly invented to go with the idol, and the people adopt it with great enthusiasm. They claim to be honouring their God; but in fact, they have created a completely different god – one with no moral demands – and the ‘festival to Yahweh’ rapidly degenerates into a drunken orgy. The consequences will be disastrous… God is offended almost beyond recall, and the nation comes close to being wiped out (Exodus 32:9-13).
We might not go so far as to worship statues of animals; but that does not mean we are immune to the lure of idolatry. Growing weary of waiting for Christ’s return (II Peter 3:3,4), the Church has far too often succumbed to the spirit of the age and absorbed aspects of the surrounding culture, giving them a Christian gloss to make them acceptable. It’s hard to look at the proliferation of mediaeval saints and not see a strong resemblance to the personal and local deities of pre-Christian paganism. But before we condemn the mediaeval church, we need to consider how much some sections of the modern church flirt with the New Age philosophy of self-discovery, while others pander to materialism. “Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy?” (I Corinthians 10:22) It’s a dangerous thing to do!