The Golden Calf, Impatience and Compromise


Scripture Exodus 32 1-14   Jan Savory

Today’s scripture reading takes us back to the Israelites in the wilderness. Its a story of a statue of a golden calf and the impatience and compromise that  enabled this idolatry.

Exodus – a story about Human Nature

Today we are back with the story of Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness. What, back with Exodus again?   I’ve heard many people ask: “Why do we bother reading all that ancient stuff in the Old Testament” (what we more accurately call the Hebrew Bible).  Yes, there are parts which are very dull and seem to have little relevance to our lives today. But much of it has much to each us – its diagnosis of human nature, it’s exploration of the mystery of God’s purposes in the world, and of our collective need for God to do through us what we can’t seem to do for ourselves. Today’s story is a case in point. Human nature hasn’t changes much since Moses’ day. The golden calf was a symbol of Impatience and Compromise

Where we left the Israelites

After a few months crossing the desert, Moses and the Israelites came to the foot of Mount Sinai where they set up camp. There is  a great show of pyrotechnics (which reads like a combination of a major thunderstorm and volcanic eruption) to show God’s power. Then, Moses goes up Mount Sinai and the Israelites overhear God speaking to Moses from a cloud on the mountain giving the ten commandments to Moses. The people give God and Moses a blank cheque, agreeing to whatever else God tells Moses. And he goes back up the mountain, where God explains what he wants of his people. This takes 40 days, a biblical expression meaning “a long time”.

Meanwhile the Israelites wait at the bottom of the mountain, with Aaron, whom Moses has left in charge. This is where today’s reading about the golden calf, a symbol of impatience and compromise takes place. 

Did it happen?

The short answer is: “Who knows?”  A more important questions is: Does it matter if it really happened?”  Not to me.  There are truths in the story that go beyond actual events, and this is a story that tells us a lot about human nature.

Impatience then

First, The Israelites got tired of waiting. 40 days is a long time to be camped in a desert doing nothing. Sure, they had food. God provided Manna everyday and all they had to do was go out and pick it up, and there were quails that came every night, but that got boring, too.  Morale hadn’t been high during the months of wandering since they left Egypt; grumbling had become a way of life. And now, their leader was absent – maybe he had deserted them, maybe he was even dead.  I think this is the root of the Israelite’s problem: Patience, or rather the lack of it, which led to idolatry. If they hadn’t been impatient, they wouldn’t have been tempted into idolatry. Learning to wait patiently raises faith to a profound trust that God is working, and moving even when things seem to be going nowhere.

Impatience now

It isn’t easy. We live in a world which expects instant gratification. Easy credit means we can buy what we want without waiting till we’ve saved for it. The speed of the Internet makes us expect answers to emails or texts right away. Our impatience makes us when the car in front doesn’t move as soon as the light turns green, or causes us to get upset when the person ahead holds up the check out line looking for a credit card or chatting to the sales clerk.  

What does this say about us? I think it says that it’s all about me. The idol that impatience drives us to in this day and age is self-centredness, where I put myself at the centre of things. I put my own wants and desires about loving my neighbour, above following the commandments of my God.

A frustrated leader

With Moses AWOL, the Israelites turned to Aaron, whom Moses had left in charge. What was he doing to support the people, to rebuild morale? I wouldn’t be surprised if he was tearing out his hair, having tried everything in his “How to be a Good Leader” manual. It must have seemed like the answer to prayer when the crowds came with a suggestion – to make an image out of gold so they had something to worship. 

Aaron’s compromise, a Golden Calf 

The golden calf, a symbol of impatience and compromise
Aaron shows the Golden Calf to the Israelites

I’m sure Aaron had his doubts, but if this stopped the grumbling and complaining, why not? The idea of an invisible God was a new one. All other nations that they had encountered, including the Egyptians, had visible Gods. That’s what they wanted. Aaron saw that he could restore his popularity, and have some peace for awhile if he made them a god. Like so many people pleasers, he justified his decision: the calf could be an image of Yahweh and they’d have feast to celebrate JHWH. Everyone would be happy. Of course, it didn’t work out that way. It just turned into one big party: “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel”

A people pleaser

Aaron was the classic people pleaser! Oh the messes we get ourselves into when we compromise our principles for our advantage – in order not to upset our boss, to gain popularity.   Or even just for a little peace.    

Compromise at work   

When I was working in various levels of Systems Development, I was frequently called upon to give status updates to our clients or Upper Management.  If the project was over budget or behind schedule, I was sometimes asked to “paint a Positive picture” that we’d deliver on time and within budget. – another way of saying lie about the status of the project. Protect the organization? Please my boss? Or be truthful and keep my self respect and principles.

Compromise in public life 

Politicians have this challenge, too. Ensure re-election? Keep the electorate happy? protect the status of the party?  Or live up to their principles? One US senator was, faced with this dilemma. I’m talking bout Mitt Romney, who became the first senator in US history to vote to remove from office a President from his own party. He said “As a Senate Juror, I swore an oath before God to exercise Impartial Judgement …” Voting against the President and for impeachment has left his political future in question. When asked about this he said that a hymn came to mind. “Do what is right; let the consequence follow,” then he added “And I don’t know what all the consequences will be.” Time will tell Romney how badly he damaged his career.

The idol in these cases would be popularity, position, financial security – not bad in themselves, but idols when we place them at the center of our lives where God belongs. It’s not the path to freedom, to God’s kingdom. It encourages in us a worldview in which people are expendable, interchangeable commodities.

The dangers of compromise

The Israelites were tired of waiting and were making life miserable for Aaron. Even id Aaron knew what he was doing was wrong, he tried to compromise. He built the idol – to please the people, regain his popularity and to have some peace. Then, to appease his conscience and God, he built an altar to YHWH in front of the calf and offered sacrifices to YHWH. But, as we have seen it didn’t work. He had it all planned out, but it didn’t work. It never does. Jesus said “You cannot serve God and money”. You cannot serve God and your idol, whatever that is. It is far past time that we try to have live our lives both ways. Either God reigns n our Lives  or God does not. The choice is always ours.  Amen