The Lure of the Familiar
When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain, they gathered around Aaron. “Come on,” they said, “make us some gods who can lead us. We don’t know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.”
In the last several chapters of Exodus (chs. 25-31), the Lord had been revealing to Moses how Israel should worship. Exodus 32 interrupts this revelation with a shameful story of worship gone awry. As Moses was on Mt. Sinai for an extended time, the Israelites asked Aaron to “make gods” to lead them (32:1). Aaron complied with this request, gathering gold from the people and molding it into the shape of a calf (32:3-4). Then he built an altar so the people might offer sacrifices and celebrate feasting, drinking, and “pagan revelry” (32:6).
Notice that the Israelites were not trying to worship other gods so much as to create an image of the “gods who brought [them] out of the land of Egypt” (32:4). They were violating, not the first commandment, by worshiping other gods, but the second commandment, by making an idol to worship. Thus Aaron could describe their pagan celebration as “a festival to the LORD” (32:5). The Israelites were not so much trying to reject God as to reframe their relationship with him in light of that which was familiar to them, namely, idolatry and revelry. They want to worship the LORD through means of a visual symbol that might well have been used for worship in Egypt or other pagan nations in the Ancient Near East.
To this day, God’s people do the same thing, though perhaps not so blatantly. We are forever “shaping” God to fit our expectations and experience. For example, individualistic Americans have turned the God who forms covenant community into a privatistic deity who cares only about individual salvation. We have allowed our society’s division of life into the sacred and the secular to influence our view of God, who is interested only in our religious behavior. We have taken the materialism of our culture and projected it onto God, who only blesses us with possessions but does not call us to share them generously, even sacrificially. And so forth, and so on.
What will help us to know and to worship the true God, rather than the “gods” of familiarity? When we turn to God’s Word in Scripture, we see God in truth. Moreover, we see God in flesh, Jesus, who is the ultimate revelation of God. The more we allow the Word in writing and the Word made flesh to shape our understanding of God, the more our worship will be in Spirit and in truth (John 4:24).
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: In what ways have you seen God shaped according to familiar expectations? How are you tempted to make God fit what is comfortable and familiar for you?
PRAYER: Gracious and Living God, as I begin to reflect upon this sad story in Exodus 32, I find it easy to look down my long nose at the Israelites, thinking of them as foolish in addition to idolatrous. But then I think of how natural it is for anyone, including me, to want you to fit our expectations. Yes, I expect I sometimes “shape” you according to what is familiar and comfortable.
Help me, Lord, to know you truly. Where my knowledge of you is tainted by my presuppositions and cultural bias, give me your wisdom. May I pay attention to how you have revealed yourself in Scripture. In fact, may these Daily Reflections help me to know you more deeply and truly.
Thank you, Holy God, for making yourself known in Jesus, the Word made flesh. May my knowledge and experience of you always be centered in the one who reveals you most precisely and powerfully. Amen.