Updated: Feb 3, 2021
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, 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.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a 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 proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt! The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
This is the Old Testament selection from the Episcopal Lectionary for Year A, Proper 23, the nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost. It will next be read aloud in church on Sunday, October 15, 2017. This is important as it is about the Israelites building an idol of a golden calf, when Moses was not back on time; and how Moses seems to bargain for the LORD’s patience.
To me, this reading has been a source of slight confusion. First of all, Aaron appears to have fallen in with the wayward Israelites, even helping them with their rebellion. Second, it seems to make God appear surprised at that panic in the camp at the foot of the mountain. However, knowing the truth is always spoken in Scripture and confusion is always a matter of not putting deeper thought into that which confuses, I believe I have something to offer about these aspects of the reading.
In the Exodus 19 we read, “Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for You warned us, saying, ‘Set bounds about the mountain and consecrate it.’” Then the Lord said to him, “Go down and come up again, you and Aaron with you; but do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, or He will break forth upon them.” (Exodus 19:23-24) A.) This means that Aaron was holy, just as Moses was holy; and B.) Moses came down from the mountain of God and presented the Laws to the people, as was the reading from Exodus 20, about the “Ten Commandments,” the selection for Proper 22 Sunday.
Now, in Exodus 32, we have jumped beyond the chapters that tell of the other laws, and the willingness of the people to serve the LORD. They accepted the Covenant. Chapters 25 through 30 deal with building an ark to hold the tablets, the specifics of the tabernacle, and the specifics of the priests who will be allowed in that holy place. Aaron and his sons were designated the first priests of that tabernacle. This means chapter 32 is like one of those Quentin Tarantino time jumps (i.e.: Pulp Fiction), or it is a dream sequence.
Wait. He was in Pulp Fiction?
When the story of Genesis was telling about Abraham, a similar dream sequence was presented in the second telling of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, was simply held ransom by the kings of the five cities on the plain in the first telling (where Sodom and Gomorrah were two of those cities), at which point Abraham got some friends together and went and defeated those kings, freeing Lot. Several chapters later, we then read the dream of the fire and brimstone destruction, after Abraham bargained with God about saving those cities … if there were five good people in them. Lot became a weak character in that second telling of Sodom and Gomorrah (along with his whole family), much like Aaron appears to be in this second telling of Moses on the mount.
The reality is that the dream sequences are not to be read as literal history. The dream sequences are to be read as prophecies, with prophecies focused on an omnipresent and continuing future. In dream sequences, metaphor plays a greater role in interpretation. However, a dream sequence cannot ever be used as reason for doubt, as an error reproducing a previous story. Anything that seems to be contradiction is not.
Realizing that prophecy needs to be seen as the value here, we read: “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, 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.”’ The Hebrew word translated as “delayed” is “ḇō·šêš” (or “buwsh”) which is rooted in the word “bosh.” That word actually states “to be ashamed, or disappointed.”
This means the entire dream sequence is founded on a time when the people shamed Moses, after he came down with the Law. It reflects their disappointment caused by their inability to honor those holy laws, leading them to figuratively seek Aaron. That name means, “Very High” (Jones’ Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names) or “Bright” (NOBSE Study Bible Name List). This means the people will invariably fail to live up to their commitments to God and seek out a surrogate in their stead (a king to be like other nations, a pope to be God’s link to mankind, or a televangelist who needs money to keep from being called home by God). It is an ongoing disappointment.
In this reading, Aaron became the figurehead spokesman for God, whom the people approached, saying, “Come, make gods for us, 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.” The Hebrew word translated as “gods” is the infamous “elohim,” which in Genesis chapter one was written many times, with each routinely translated in the singular (and capitalized) as “God.” By matching the plural number to “us” and the prior use of “the people,” it is easier to see how the Israelites asked Aaron to make them (little-g) “gods,” as those chosen by God to be led out of Egypt.
In the prophecy, this says a future will come when the people will act as gods on earth, due to their religious heritage. Certainly, there are many Christians who see the Jews in this light, and the history of disappointment to uphold their end of the Covenant with God making the Jews a fulfillment of this prophecy. Still, Christians do a good imitation of the miserable records held by “chosen by God” people, with their shameful acts in the name of Christ.
Seeing Aaron, a “Bright,” upstanding holy man (man of the cloth), who has suddenly been elected to a “Very High” position of responsibility, a quick brain hears the people clamoring for him to make them able to claim eternal life in heaven ownership (“gods”). Having gone to his head, he does what all future High Priests, Popes, and Megachurch pastors always do. Aaron said, “Bring me all your gold!”
By specifying “golden earrings” (“gold rings”) the symbolism is the people wanted to be “gods,” but they sought words of approval about material wealth [golden news to their ears]. Therefore, this is a prophecy of the people wanting to see holy men in robes, holding tall staffs, wearing “Very High” hats, who live in palatial estates that are trimmed in gold; and it is a statement of the willingness of the people to contribute to that end.
In regard to this, we read: “[Aaron] took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”’ This is an over simplification of the Hebrew text, as it is not actually stated, “He took from them.”
The literal translation has Aaron “receiving [the gold earrings] from their hands,” which makes the gold an offering, more than a demand. It was motivated by an instruction from the “Very High” holy man, but compliance was never mandatory. It is received in the same way that believers are told they can do the Lord’s work by sending them their pledges and check.
Once the gold was received, it was then “fashioned with a graving tool,” which says the gold was altered with some form of writing etched into the earrings. This was a separate process that took place, prior to the gold being changed into a “molten calf.”
The Hebrew words that are translated as “molten calf” are “‘ê·ḡel mas·sê·ḵāh.” There is evidence that this translation may be misleading and not saying the golden earrings were melted and poured into a mold. Such a transformation would negate all fashioning with an engraving tool, begging the question, “Why do that?” In the reading read in church, this aspect of engraving is omitted in translation.
The word “egel” does mean “calf,” but “maccekah” (the root word) means “covering.” It makes more sense that Aaron would call for a real, live, “nearly grown male steer” to be brought before him. The golden earrings would have been engraved with the names of the families contributing them, and these would be “made” into a ceremonial “covering” of metal, which would be placed over that “calf.”
I imagine that, especially from a distance, the calf would look golden when covered in a woven spread with many thousands of golden earrings pinned to it. It would look like a young live bull had been molded as molten gold.
Given this possibility, Aaron saying, “These are your gods, O Israel,” is a plural statement that the individual earrings were symbolizing the wealth given to the Israelites as they exited Egypt. This makes revisiting Exodus 12:35-36 worthwhile, which took place after the angel of death passed over the Egyptians and killed every firstborn male.
As their exodus began, we read: “Now the sons of Israel had done according to the word of Moses, for they had requested from the Egyptians articles of silver and articles of gold, and clothing; and the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have their request. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.” (NASB)
This can now be seen as Aaron calling for all those ill-gotten gains, which would be deemed as the cause for why Moses was “delayed.” Worry had set in that God was no longer leading them because of that greed. So, with all those Egyptian earrings pinned to a cloth spread that was placed over a bull of sacrifice, it makes perfect sense to read, “When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it.”
From Genesis 4 and throughout the Old Testament, an altar was “a place of slaughter or sacrifice” (the meaning of the Hebrew word mizbeaḥ, which is written in the text of this reading). Christians today seem to think all the Old Testament altars were some stone barbecue pits, used for outdoor grilling and fun. All the people in the Old Testament who used altars were priests, those who ritually sacrificed fresh slaughtered animals to please God. Ordinary people had campfires and usually ate breads, dairy products and vegetables. Therefore, Aaron had an altar built to sacrifice a living, young bull “calf.”
Popes don’t make steak sacrifices.
It is difficult for me to grasp Aaron making an altar to sacrifice an idol made of gold. I am fairly certain this is not commonly taught, so I ask you: “What does you brain tell you about this?”
When Aaron then said to the Israelites, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord,” the word written that is translated as “Lord” is “Yah·weh.” This means the calf was not a sacrifice to Egyptian gods. It was a cleansing offering to YHWH – “I Am that I Am” – the One God of Israel (and Jesus and Christians).
To then read, “They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel,” the people celebrated a festival not commanded by God. This too acts to say this reading from Exodus 20 is then a prophecy of such festivals.
Rosh Hashanah (Beginning of the Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) can be seen as such a Jewish festival of New Year celebration. The Day of Atonement is when a scapegoat is released into the wilderness, carrying away all the sins of the people. In John there is mention of the Festival of the Dedication (aka Festival of Lights – Hanukkah), which was added when the Second Temple was erected. None of these festivals were ordered observed by God. However, this festivity that seems dedicated to God does not stop there.
In America, there is Thanksgiving, which is in some sense a quasi-religious holiday, where Americans (mostly Christians) give thanks for all the fruits of a new world. The festival known as Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) and even Halloween (All Hallows Eve) are examples of how Christians like to party, more than care about a religious connection to a holiday (from holy day). These can then be seen as the symbolism of this festival created by a High Priest, Pope, or King (President, Prime Minister) and not God. This story of Aaron and the golden calf festival prophesied that future that has since come.
When the focus of the story then goes to God and Moses on top of the mountain, we have an example of the Abraham story retold, when he bargained with God about how few holy people being present in wicked places would be required for God to spare those places His wrath.
At this point we read, “But Moses implored the Lord his God.” This also is a weak translation of what is written.
The literal translation states, “And sought Moses the face of the LORD his God.” This includes the Hebrew word “paneh,” which was the last word in the First Commandment, the one that all translations leave out. That Commandment fully states, “Thou shall not have the face of another god before [God].” The same words still mean you should not hold any other gods in higher respect than the LORD; but that now includes the face of one’s self.
The presence of that word here says that Moses did not speak as holy Moses, as if he were an equal to the LORD. In the same way, Abraham did not debate with God wearing his face as worthy of divine consideration. Moses then spoke as God speaking through him, because “the face of the LORD” was upon Moses. Undoubtedly, that face had a bright glow.
Keep in mind the symbolism of Moses being with God, on a plane that is high above the ordinary folk. Remember also how Peter, James, and John (of Zebedee) saw Jesus aglow next to Moses and Elijah. The symbolism is Moses was in heaven with the LORD, and the LORD was telling Moses to “Go down at once!” Those stubborn Israelites are at it again!
The same soul in Moses was in Elijah (who went down and ascended without death), and in Jesus (who went down and ascended after death and resurrection). What God told Moses in anger was a prophecy of the terrible ways that his priests were foreseen to act. For God to say, “Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation,” that is a prophecy of Christianity to come. A “great nation” of Moses followers would come through Jesus Christ (the same soul as Moses).
When we then read how Moses told the LORD a thing or two about how it would be wrong to punish the people He just saved, this has to be seen as God speaking through the face of Moses. The defense of mankind’s priests would come through the Judges, David, the Prophets, and Jesus of Nazareth (then Apostles). All would come speaking to the children of Israel who had sinned, telling them to repent or face destruction. Jesus and his followers were like Lot and his small family, in the corruption that was Sodom and Gomorrah, and the corruption that had come over Jerusalem.
Moses speaking as God on the mountain is a prophecy of all the prophets who would come in the name of the LORD. The message is always the same: “Repent or face destruction.” It is (needless to say) a prophecy that is in effect until the End Times.
When this reading ends by stating, “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people,” the LORD did not change His Mind. What was written was “way·yin·nā·ḥem,” which is rooted in “nacham.” That word means, “To be sorry, console oneself, or comfort.” It means God would send messengers of repentance to the people, which was part of His plan all along.
It is God’s pity for mankind that is why he bothers to comfort a bunch of stiff-necked backsliders.
I recall when in a class that was reading Genesis, I commented that God knew Adam and Eve would sin. I said it was part of His plan there also. However, a woman blurted out, “How can you say that!?!?!”
I replied, “Because God is Omniscient.” God knows the story from beginning to end, but we love to put a human face on God, because that makes him more approachable … more like an equal. God is not surprised by anything human do. He’s the Father, which means He has “eyes in the back of His head.”
Thus, the moral of this dream sequence prophecy is that God knows us so-called believers are like children who are told not to take a cookie from the cookie jar, which is then left unattended right in front of the children. To be born in a sinful world means sinners will abound … even those chosen by God to help redeem the ones not chosen.
To see anger in God is really to see anger in believers, when God is not giving believers their way. We love to say, “God turned His back to us,” when the reality is we turn away from God when we sin. The wrath of God is reincarnation, just as the wrath of a first grade teacher is to send little Johnny, who never learned anything, back to the first grade.
This prophecy tells us there will be the Law; but after that presence that will only mean breakage of the Law, requiring repentance.
Same story forever told.