The people of Israel come to Aaron requesting that he “make us a God who will go before us” (Exodus 32:1 – see the marginal reading). It’s been less than two months since they were sprinkled with blood as part of a ceremony where they promised their obedience to Yahweh and His laws (24:1-8). For His part, God has promised to dwell among them (25:8, 29:45-46). But Moses has been gone for over a month and their insecurity is showing. They’re in the desert with no leader and seemingly no God. What should they do? After all, they have to do something, don’t they? They decide to take matters into their own hands.
Their request isn’t for another god. It is for “a false image of the true God” (Jacobson). It’s a violation of the second commandment rather than the first. And in their “worship” that follows, we can clearly see why making an image of the Almighty is a terrible idea.
Their chosen image for God is a calf—not surprisingly the same representation chosen by the Egyptians, Canaanites, and other nations to represent some of their gods. Although they are out of Egypt, Egypt isn’t out of them! Wanting to present the timeless I AM WHO I AM in a fashionable, culturally pleasing way is not a failing limited to desert dwelling Israelites.
Canaanite worship was especially offensive. The calf was a representation of Baal—the god of rain. Worship of Baal involved sexual activity designed to excite Baal to do the same with his consort, Asherah, which would result in fertility of the earth. God’s gift of beautiful intimacy between husband and wife was being prostituted into an impersonal, crude act to secure favor of gods who were nothing like Him. This is the image being attached to Yahweh in Israel’s creation of the golden calf to represent Him.
It also explains why He is so angry with Israel. They have violated the covenant He made with them. They have imaged Him after the pagan gods of Egypt and Canaan and their associated immoralities and destructive practices. They have exchanged the treasure of the knowledge of the true God for something that exploits and abuses (Romans 1:21-23).
And all of this says something to us, doesn’t it? The temptation for us to create God in our own image has been with us since the garden, but it’s especially prevalent in our consumer culture. Instead of a golden calf, we want to represent God by “love”—not the holy, biblical kind of love that is His nature, but a false version that allows people “in the name of love” to dictate to God what behaviors we will or won’t adopt. (Under this rubric, no one would bat an eye about imaging God as a golden calf or understand why He would get so upset about it). But allowing people to do things that are sinful and dishonoring is not the kind of love that God is about or we are to be about.
Interestingly, this is one of the Old Testament stories Paul will bring to the attention of the church at Corinth—which had its own tendencies toward idolatry and immorality. After recounting this episode in 1 Corinthians 10:7, he tells them, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us” (v. 11). They are to “be careful” (v. 12).
These are wise words that still speak to us today.