When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.”
Exodus 32:1, 3-5
God is who God is. We as Christians actually celebrate the unchanging nature of God. Though we don’t understand Him all the time, and though we are constantly learning more about Him, we find rest in the idea that He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
When we come to areas of life where the reality of God frustrates or confuses us we have two options. We can allow ourselves to bend and be shaped by the truth that we have learned. Though this is difficult for us to deal with, we become like a ball of wax being melted and poured over a solid structure; the wax will harden having taken the shape of the thing it was poured onto.
Or, we can go the route that the Hebrews went in this text, we can remain who we are, with our opinions and assumptions, and just re-shape our image of God to fit our needs and desires. The key piece of this text, to me, is how the Israelites referred to the golden cow. In verse 4 the cow is called a “god”, a lower case “g” is used to describe the image. They attribute their rescue and redemption to this cow, but it is only considered one in a group of “gods” that had a hand in bringing them out of Egypt. Aaron will have nothing to do with this. Like a good church kid he won’t stand for blatant idolatry, that’s what they left behind in Egypt, so he announces, in verse 5, that they will be having a feast to “the Lord”, capitol “L”.
The celebration that Moses winds up walking in on is fact too close to some of the gatherings that we have today. We are referring to the right God, but we are worshiping Him in a form that we want Him to be, not necessarily in the form that He actually is. We know that we aren’t supposed to worship outright idols, so we redefine who God is and then worship Him thinking we are safe. I can’t help but wonder if this is what Jesus was referring to when He said, “many will say to me ‘Lord, Lord’, and I will have to tell them that I don’t know them.” (obviously a paraphrase). It really doesn’t matter if we are using a lower case or capital “L”, if the thing we are naming isn’t really God but some man made counterfeit that better suits our purposes.
The cow is one of the most unassuming, tame, and docile creatures around. When they go to sleep you can get a running start and put a shoulder into the side of a cow and it will keel over without a fight. Cows lazily plod around much of their days, nibbling grass, burping cud, and mooing at highways. I can’t ever think of a time when I was in the presence of a cow and felt like I was going to lose the mental or physical advantage. Perhaps this is the appeal of a cow god. He isn’t very imposing, doesn’t require a whole lot, and even if he gets slightly out of line you can push him over with just a little bit of effort. It’s the perfect God for a group of people that really don’t want to change, but who want to be told they’ve changed and at the same time do whatever they want.
The God of the Bible is far better pictured as the Lion of Judah. He roars His way through the meadow, He tears the flesh from His prey, and He is never, ever underestimated by either friend or foe. Aslan, in the Chronicles of Narnia, though always good, is always at least slightly uncomfortable to be around. “He’s not a tame lion!” the refrain is repeated, because there’s no such thing as a “tame lion”. And in our moments of doubt and fear, there can be a terrifying quality to knowing exactly who God is. The cow god in the wilderness was created in a fire, the God of the mountain is Himself an all consuming fire.
I can’t say that I’m always comfortable knowing what I know about God. I can’t always say that I feel safe being the way that I am in His presence. But I know beyond any doubt that God, the true God, is good, and that He loves me. When I find myself in the wilderness and my leaders have been gone for weeks and I’m not really sure what to do, I pray that I will be the one to step into the fire and allow myself to be shaped into His image. The only other option is to use the fire to redefine who He is, and that, my friends is never safe.