Photo credit: Jan Koetsier
Readings: Exodus 32:1-14, Secrets of Heaven #8869 (see below)
See also on Youtube https://youtu.be/waekQgQylT0
We continue today in our journey with the children of Israel in the wilderness, and seeing how their challenges can be metaphorically applied to our own internal challenges. What we missed last week was the transmission of the ten commandments. Having reached Mount Sinai, Moses ascends the mountain and communes with God, receiving God’s instructions for the life of the Israelites and their journey in covenant together, a people and their God.
However, Moses takes a fair bit of time up there on the mountain with God. If you check out the book of Exodus chapters 20-32, you will find that God has much much more to say to Moses than just the ten commandments. Chapter 24 v18 tells us that it was forty days and forty nights. In our time of constant contact and communication with each other, is it possible for us to imagine what it would have been be like to not hear from Moses, their leader, for well over a month? The Israelites start to get impatient, and we hear what happened in our text today. They commission (or though some translations would argue that they coerce) Aaron to melt down their jewelry into an image of a golden calf, and they begin to worship that calf and indulge in inappropriate behavior.
God, of course, is annoyed. We need only imagine how we feel when someone has reneged on a promise to us for this reaction to make some sense. It feels like a betrayal. We feel wounded and disappointed and angry. However, this is the point where we pause to recognize that the bible is a human story about God, and is not the final word on God’s nature. *We* would feel wounded, disappointed and angry. God is pure love and wisdom and sees things in an eternal way. Swedenborg tells us that…..”the Word speaks of Jehovah’s reacting in that kind of way because the sense of the letter consists of ideas of things as [humanity] sees them.” (1) We project our human feelings on to God, we move away from God and interpret that distance as anger. We cannot fathom the complexity of the simultaneous existence of love and judgment and transmute this into God having to be convinced of mercy. And that is a fascinating discussion, but it will need to be for another day, because I have a different direction that I wish to explore. But suffice it to say, God would never actually have to be convinced not to smite us. That’s not how God works.
What I would like to talk about today might seems like a very small issue in the original Hebrew, but I think it leads to some very interesting implications for our own lives.
In the very first verse of our text, the people come to Aaron and say “Come make us gods who will go before us.” The word translated as “gods” here is elohim, which is both the generic plural for “gods” and the singular for the God of Israel. So it could also be translated as “Come make us a god…” To quote from a commentary: “The reader must weigh whether, as biblical scholar Rolf Jacobson offers, the text is “referring to a false god other than the Lord or to a false image of the Lord.” (2)
In other words, were the children of Israel asking for a completely false god (ie another god) to worship or a false *image* of the one true God to worship? What was the sin here: worshiping a statue in the shape of a calf and believing it was a god, or making the statement that this statue is the shape of God?
This question takes on even more gravitas when we extrapolate the story to our own lives. We are invited to think about our own false idols, false gods that we worship. But as indicated by this interesting translation dilemma, there are two ways we can look at it.
The first is to ask, what is it that we are worshipping *instead* of God? What is it that we are making more important than God? And to answer this question, we can look simply to how we are spending our time, we can ask what occupies our thoughts? Where is the bulk of our energy going, physically and emotionally? What does our life worship? Security, wealth, superiority, reputation, control, body image, ideology…how much time and energy are we devoting to these things? These can all become false gods to us when we sacrifice the best parts of ourselves to them, when we bow down to them above all.
The second question however is, what image might we be projecting onto God so that we might worship that image while pretending that we are worshiping God? What image are we fashioning out of our own self-intelligence, our own selfish agenda, and lifting up as a picture of who God is and what God wants? The current administration’s preoccupation with the appearance of strength might be one example of the way this plays out. Do we fashion for ourselves a strongman God, an angry and judgmental God, so that we might be able to justify playing strongman ourselves, being angry and judgmental ourselves? Remember, the Israelites did not just go from a pious worship from the one true God to a pious worship of an image of a calf. They used the occasion to justify behaviors that they knew the Lord would not support. To quote author Anne Lamott: You can safely assume you have created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
I think it can be argued that the second practice, worshiping a god that we have created in our own image, is the greater blasphemy. It is one thing to worship something other than God, to replace God with something that we find more important, consciously or unconsciously. It is another level of dissembling to lie to oneself and others about who God is, to make and perpetuate a false image of God to serve our own purposes. One could say this has a lot of similarity to another commandment: taking the Lord’s name in vain.
Our Swedenborg reading makes clear this process is worshipping that which comes from the self. We human beings are so very susceptible to this common failing, so much so that it is immortalized in our fairytales: Mirror Mirror on the Wall, who’s the greatest of them all? We look into the reflection that we are pretending is God and of course this god says: You my Queen, You my King. You are the greatest of them all, the most devoted, and the most devout, a warrior for our cause. And we are satisfied. But it is, of course, an illusion. Just as much as the angry God in this story, the one where God’s mercy needs to be explained as the brainchild of human being. Many times, we are looking at God through a veil of our own construction.
Swedenborg writes further:
Nor do those truths have the Lord within them which are taken from the Word, in particular from the sense of the letter there, and interpreted in favour of personal dominion and personal gain. In themselves these are truths because they come from the Word yet they are not truths because they are interpreted wrongly. (3)
The story of the golden calf is a very human story. And it is also a warning. Particularly in times of challenge and uncertainty, we crave certainty, and the surety of our rightness, and the easiest way to get that is to just make a god ourselves, and to make a god *out* of ourselves. But this is not what the life of the spirit calls us to. It calls us to a difficult practice of patience and trust and openness, one that will reveal to us our shortcomings but will also lead us to a land that will be our home. This is what our God ultimately looks like: one who leads and loves. Amen.
1 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” 2 Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.” 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry. 7 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ 9 “I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” 11 But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. “LORD,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’ ” 14 Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
Secrets of Heaven #8869
'You shall not make for yourself a graven image' means no product of self-intelligence. This is clear from the meaning of 'a graven image' as that which does not come from the Lord but from a person's self. A product of one's own understanding is meant by 'a graven image', and a product of one's own will by 'a molded image'. Having either kind as a god or venerating it is loving all that comes from self more than anything else….These are 'the makers of graven images', and the images themselves are what they hatch from their own understanding and will, and wish to be venerated as things that are Divine.