A Toxic Exchange
The golden calf incident of Exodus 32 provides us with a vivid illustration of what can go wrong when we fall into brazen idolatry. If when you read Paul’s comments in Romans 1 where he talks about the exchange of the truth for the lie, you wondered what that looks like, here is your picture. This is an account of in-your-face idolatry. The unholy exchange is front and center. This idolatry is a toxic exchange.
The children of Israel had been brought out of Egypt by Yahweh under Moses’ leadership. These people of God saw the wondrous and mighty works of God performed for their benefit in the ten plagues. Even then they were prone to grumble and complain. When they were caught between the sea and Pharaoh’s army, they failed to trust in the God who had carried them well this far. Moses had to command them to stand fast and see the salvation of their Lord. Impatience and lack of faith came readily to the children of Israel.
Lest we are tempted to judge these folk we need to be reminded that we are likewise frail as dust. It is patently obvious that the children of Israel were a stiff-necked people and sinful indeed. But so are we! Left to our own devices we too are slow to believe and trust in the Lord when trials come our way or when things don’t go according to our plans. This is not to deny or ignore the redemptive-historical difference between OT Israel and the NT church, but it is to remind us that Israel is the OT church and that their experiences are not so foreign to us that we can so glibly dismiss them out of mind. After all, as Paul reminds us, the ins and outs of Israel’s travails were recorded for our benefit. Let’s just say that complaining, grumbling, boredom, and impatience are perennial problems and the sin of idolatry did not pass away with the coming of Jesus Christ.
The children of Israel have already revealed their true colors and so we should not be completely surprised when we come to the opening verses of Exodus 32 to see them growing impatient. We have seen it before. And unfortunately we will see it time and time again throughout the history of redemption. The children of Israel grow impatient in the absence of Moses who is up on the mountain top communing with God and receiving the Ten Commandments from his finger tips. It is a shocking disgrace that while Moses receives the Ten Commandments at the top of Mount Sinai at the base of the mountain the children of Israel break every last one of them!
In the absence of Moses the people call for the manufacture of idols. Simply because Moses is delayed by God the people grow antsy and revert to their old habits. Undoubtedly the children of Israel had learned some bad idolatrous habits in Egypt. Undoubtedly they learned to worship a pantheon of so-called deities. And here in the absence of their leader they seek to contextualize the true faith in a way that made sense to their Egyptian-conformed hearts and minds. Yahweh had brought them out of the house of bondage with a mighty outstretched arm and the children of Israel saw no problem with portraying the true God in the form of an animal. They attributed the magnolia Dei to a hunk of molten metal (“my precious!”).
And that is not all.
The toxic exchange resulted in tragic consequences. Richard Weaver is credited with the pointing out to us that “ideas have consequences,” but we see it right here in Exodus 32. When the children of Israel demand idols to worship it doesn’t end with formal idol worship. The children of Israel celebrate the manufacture of the golden calf with a feast and we are told that they “rose up to play.” The rejection of the true God inevitably results in a downward spiral of sinful degradation. Once again the apostle Paul illustrates this fact for us in Romans 1. The children of Israel not only worship a false god, they also worship God falsely. They attribute true redemption to a false god and then “break loose” in perversion. The exchange of the truth of God for the lie is toxic indeed!
A Spineless High Priest
The quick defection of the children of Israel from the worship of the true God of Israel to the squalid perversity of false worship of a golden calf is not all there is to this story. In the absence of Moses we find the people appealing to his elder brother Aaron. Aaron is the high priest who is supposed to represent God before the people and the people before God. Here we see an utter breakdown in godly leadership. Instead of rebuking the people with their unrighteous demand he immediately and spinelessly capitulates to their desire.
Not only that.
He calls for the children of Israel to hand over their gold earrings in an eerie counterfeit of the gifts spontaneously given for the construction of the tabernacle. The gold is melted down and formed into the shape of a calf. And Aaron is the one who does it! And then Aaron calls for a feast to celebrate the manufacture of this shiny new golden calf. Idolatry is a counterfeit of true religion all along the line. The invisible God is represented by a visible idol and Aaron calls for a feast to celebrate this golden calf that supposedly brought the children of Israel out of bondage. Idolatry attributes to false gods the great redemptive works of the real God. God is robbed of his rightful due.
Idols can be metal or mental, physical or immaterial. Whatever takes the rightful place of the true God is idolatrous. Things good in and of themselves can become satanically spoiled by the heart’s wrongful worship of them. Idolatry is not limited to the ancient world of Egypt and Israel. When we take our eyes off the Triune God of the Bible we inevitably set them on something far less worthy of our worship. It is not as if we can avert the eyes of our heart from all worship. We are made in the image of God and so are created to worship. The question which needs to be answered it whether we will worship the true God or a sorry substitute.
Aaron showed no metal character but instead fashioned a metal calf. Aaron failed to rely upon God and gave in to an idolatrous demand without so much as a whimper. What’s more, Aaron tried to pass off his sin and spinelessness on the people and the fire! Of course the people were sinful in their desire and in their demand. But Aaron should have resisted them and brought them back to reality. It might have cost him his life but he failed to even raise a modest objection. When his brother confronts him he shifts the blame onto his people and he involves himself in shameless historical revisionism. “Hey bro, I tossed the gold earrings into the fire and out popped this golden calf!” The high priest who is called to represent God before the people and the people before God fails on both counts. One could be forgiven if he thought the Aaronic priesthood was created to be obsolete in time. Yes, that is indeed the case. So says the author of Hebrews. Beginning with Aaron the high priest was taken among sinful men to offer sacrifices day in and day out year after year. One would need to come who could sinlessly represent God to the people and the people to God. That high priest would come and he would be in the order of Melchizedek rather than Aaron. That high priest is none other than Jesus Christ.
A Less Than Perfect Mediator
Moses may have been clueless about what was happening at the base of the mountain. But not for long. God himself would reveal to his servant what the children were doing in the valley. Sadly, while Moses was away the Israelites would play. Unlike his elder brother Aaron, Moses would shift into Mediator mode and would pray for his people. He would entreat God not to wipe them off the face of the earth. And God would relent from the deserved destruction. Unlike Aaron, Moses would not try to blame shift.
Moses would descend from Mount Sinai’s lofty heights and would meet his assistant Joshua on the way down and both of them would hear the sound of revelry in the camp below. It was not the sound of victory or defeat but the sound of debauchery which struck their ears. In anger Moses would smash the Ten Commandments at the base of the mountain (and so would necessitate another giving of the tablets), he would grab a hold of the golden calf, melt it down, grind it into powder and toss it into the water and he would require the Israelites to drink the mixture. Talk about eating crow. Moses would also execute divine judgment in the camp by sending Levites throughout and 3,000 would lose their lives for the sin of idolatry. Sin is serious business.
But Moses would once again ascend the mountain to intercede for his sinful people with a holy God. In the midst of his entreaty he told God to blot him out of the book if God intended to blot out sinful Israel. This is real, earnest, and sincere mediation. Moses sought to represent his sinful people before a righteous God. Moses did not try to sugar coat his people’s attitude and actions. He was honest with the Lord. He had such heart-felt love for his people that offered to substitute himself for them. But Moses could not serve as a substitute for his people since he himself was a sinner like his people. Not even the apostle Paul could substitute himself for his fellow kinsmen as he so wished he could (as recorded in Romans 9:3). Moses demonstrated sincere mediation in his desire to be blotted out of God’s book, as did Paul, but he could not take the place of his people. Another would have to come and serve as a substitute for sinful Israel (and for the sinful human race as a whole). Moses was a shadow pointing forward to the only real Mediator between God and man. That is, only Jesus Christ could substitute himself for his sinful people. And that he did!
A Spotless Lamb
Sinful Israel demanded a visible representation of Yahweh and they got a golden calf. They asked for and received an idol. A sinful misrepresentation of God. In God’s economy a truly visible representation of the true God would eventually come in the person of Jesus Christ. But God had the prerogative to offer the visible representation of himself to us and not have one foisted upon him by a sinful people. God would show us himself in due time and in due season. In fact, in the fullness of time God would send forth his Son…And his son would be an exact representation of his being, full of grace and truth.
When God revealed himself finally and fully through his Son, he came not as cold metal (or hot metal, for that matter!). He did not come as a shiny, golden calf. No! He came instead as a spotless lamb. As John the Baptist put it, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” When Jesus was asked to show certain men the Father he pointed out the fact that they who had seen him had seen the Father. Jesus Christ and not the golden calf would and could represent God to a sinful people. The golden calf was dead upon arrival. But Jesus would give his life as a ransom for many. The golden calf was an idol manufactured in the hearts and minds of a sinful Israel before it was built by Aaron. The Son agreed to come to earth to die the death others deserved even before they could receive him by faith.
In an amazing way, the golden calf incident shadows forth in divinely ordained types the coming One who would represent God to his people and his people to God. Jesus Christ and not Aaron would be the sinless and sympathetic (not spineless!) high priest. Jesus Christ and not Moses (or Paul) would be the one Mediator who stands between God and man. Jesus Christ the spotless Lamb would represent God to his people and would offer up his holy life and perfectly sacrificial death to God and not the golden calf. God himself would provide the Lamb rather than the sinful people fashioning a golden calf. The spotless Lamb is a true representation of God. The golden calf, as pretty and as impressive as it might appear, did not represent God. God reveals himself in his own time and in his own way. It is this true God: Father, Son, and Spirit, whom we are to worship truly and truly worship.