The Israelites Blew It—and So Do We

I remember watching the closing moments of The Prince of Egypt, Stephen Spielberg’s animated telling of the Exodus story. Moses descends Mount Sinai carrying the Ten Commandments on two stone tablets, and uplifting music plays as the movie ends.

Kvetching in the Wilderness

The biblical account doesn’t wrap up so nicely. Once Israel is on the other side of the Red Sea, it becomes clearer and clearer that the Israelites’ biggest problem wasn’t slavery in Egypt. On the way from Egypt to Sinai, the people grumble because they want water (Exodus 15:2–26) and then food (Exodus 16:1–3). In 17:2 they quarrel (read revolt) against Moses because, once again, they are thirsty and demand water. This pattern of kvetching and rebelling would continue throughout Israel’s time in the wilderness. Then Israel comes to Sinai. Amid special effects that include a thick cloud, fire, thunder and lightning, the Lord descends, and the whole community hears His voice as He speaks the Ten Commandments to the people. Moses ascends and receives the laws and commandments from the Lord and then goes back down and teaches them to the people. Upon hearing everything that God commands, the people respond, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” (Exodus 24:7). Before the Torah was given to Israel they could claim innocence—they sinned because they were ignorant of God’s will. But now they know precisely how God wants them to live. The first two commandments are clear: they are to have no gods besides the Lord, and they are not to make or worship graven images (Exodus 20:3–5).

How They Blew It

So why, 40 days later, did Israel blow it by making and worshiping the golden calf? God calls Moses up to the mountain again, where He gives him further instructions and two tablets of stone inscribed with the Ten Commandments. The account continues:

“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.'” (Exodus 32:1)

The Medieval commentator Rashi indicates that the reason the people build the calf is because they believe Moses is late and they panic. In the ensuing confusion and terror, the people of Israel conclude that they now have no one to lead them, no one to represent God to them. This motivates them to go to Aaron, asking him to make them gods who will lead them.

Can Rashi’s speculative account be totally trusted? Was his purpose to exonerate the Jewish people—in particular Aaron—of guilt regarding the golden calf? We don’t know, but looking at the narratives leading up to their rebellion against Moses and God, fear may very well have motivated the Israelites to make another god. Whatever the motivation, they lose patience with Moses and seek a replacement.

Make Us a God!

The Israelites go to Aaron and demand that he make them a god. Moses had been leading and representing God to them, but now he is gone and they need something to replace him. That the Jewish people and Aaron were not intentionally trying to replace the Lord is indicated in Aaron’s statement in verse 5: “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord (the covenant name of God).” Like Moses, the golden calf would represent God to the people.

However, this was not the kind of worship that God desired. He didn’t want Israel to worship Him as they imagined Him; He commands that He be worshiped the way He reveals himself.

The Israelites know that they need to worship the God who brought them out of Egypt, but they give up on waiting for Moses to return from Sinai with the instructions for the Tabernacle—the worship that God desired. Rather than waiting for God’s instructions, the people take matters into their own hands and do what all the nations around them are doing—they make a false god to worship.

Who Will You Worship?

Human beings are designed to worship. We all worship, regardless of what god we say we do or don’t believe in. The postmodern author, David Foster Wallace, whose parents were atheists, spoke about this during a commencement address at Kenyon College:

There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. . . . Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.[1] 

As crucial as the choice of what (better: who) to worship, is the choice of how. Thankfully, God is not silent about worship—He tells us exactly how to approach and worship Him. However, if we ignore God’s instructions, we end up refashioning God into our own image just like the Israelites! Our problem isn’t simply that we may worship a counterfeit God. We may attempt to worship the true God in a false way and end up worshiping a different God. But how do we know the right way to worship God?

An Amazing Claim: The Way to Worship

In the New Testament, in the account of the woman at the well, Yeshua (Jesus) tells the woman: “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23­–24).

The woman’s response and Yeshua’s reply are a revelation:

The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:25–26),

For those who think that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah, this exchange is instructive. Yeshua claims to not only know but to be the right way to worship God. He says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Just as God gave instructions to Moses to build the Tabernacle, God sent Yeshua to make a way for us to worship the one true living God, by being transformed by His Son, the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).

[1] David Foster Wallace, 2005 Kenyon College Commencement Address, May 21, 2005 http://faculty.winthrop.edu/martinme/thisiswater.htm