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Or read the whole story Exodus 32:1-34:35
Why do we so often do the things we don’t want to do, and not do what we long to? The apostle Paul wrestled with that question in his writings, in more traditional Biblical talk it’s referred to as the Fall, or the inevitability of sin. John Calvin called it the total depravity of human nature. In our modern culture – even within the Church – we’re divided over the polar opposites stances of seeing humanity as inherently evil, or naturally good but often mistaken. Are we all fallen and sinful (Romans 3:23) or are we created good (Genesis ) How is it that we often, maybe always, seem to make the same mistake, getting lost along the same path? Are we doomed from original sin that we inherit, or is there something inherent in us that leads us to make the same mistakes, rarely learning from history? Is there any hope for us? Or are we just doomed?
Theological Themes, Interesting Points & Inter-textual links:
Our passage today – or the larger theme/story is of the Golden Calf. It’s almost a second fall, or the sequel to Adam and Eve eating from the forbidden tree in Genesis 2-3. In the absence of God, Adam and Eve are tempted to disobey what he’s already advised. In the absence of Moses, who has come to be associated with the presence of God by the Israelites in the desert, the former slaves quickly fear the worst, assuming that they’re lost, and resort to faith in the gods of Egypt and fall back on the wisdom of those that long oppressed them as slaves. Were they just weak, merely stupid, or was it a natural thing to do?
Why did Aaron make the calf for them? Scholars conclude that the calf was most likely a representation of the Egyptian god Apis, a bull: symbol of sexual fertility. Was Aaron just a closet heretic? Did he mean to twist their true worship of Yahweh into idolatry? Was he well-intentioned, doing the best that he could? Was he just afraid of the angry mob? Or was he trying to point the people in the right direction, back to Yahweh, ahead towards the fertile future that God has promised ever since they were still enslaved in Egypt? Could it be that this idolatrous feast was just a celebration of God’s victories gone astray because of the calf? How was it different than previous feasts (Exodus 15:1-12; 18:12; 24:9-11)?
Stiff-Necked is how God describes these people. Somehow they’ve gone from being his people, to the people of Moses (32:7). They’re not in need of yoga. It’s an image of an animal, most often led by a bridle, muzzle or harness. A stiff-necked animal is one that refuses to be led in a direction that it doesn’t want to go, even if it’s a good one towards water, food, shelter, security and safety. How are the Israelites stiff-necked?, refusing to follow the direction, wisdom and word of the God of the Exodus, Yahweh? Why do they look back to the land of their suffering for help, when things get uncertain? How and why do we often return to the past when we don’t know how to deal with the present or future?
[If Genesis 2-3 and Exodus 32 are stories of what again an again goes wrong with new beginnings they point to our shared past.] “When we fall, we do so as buying into a mind-set and playing out patterns of behavior that are deeply grooved in the human soul. We cannot simply say, ‘The devil made me do it,’ for we are responsible for buying into it. At the same time, there is an effective energy and powerful tendency, not simply originating with us, that works to seduce us into a mind-set and patter of behavior that amounts to falling short of what we were created and are called to become.” J. Gerald Janzen. Exodus.
This story of faithless people following a faithful God is told over and over in the Bible. In fact it might be the principal story of the stories we call the Bible?
Questions for wondering and exploring:
1. What troubles you and/or encourages you in these texts? Why? How does it contain good news for us?
2. How do you feel trapped in sin, or idolatry?; How are you stiff-necked? What are you afraid of happening should you choose (or we choose as a church) to trust and obey God in the uncertain places and spaces of our lives?
3. Theologian Jacques Ellul wrote “The church indulges our desire to “feel good” instead of responding to our need to be spiritually challenged and fed through solid exposition of the Scriptures. The electronic church in particular panders to our appetite for entertainment rather than authentic discipleship and maturity.” Do you agree or disagree? How do we point backwards or entertain as opposed to discipling and looking to God’s unfolding future?