Israel had been enslaved to Egypt. God heard their cries and called them out, striking their oppressors with ten plagues and destroying their pursuers after giving His people safe passage by parting a sea. Now that He'd saved them (important to note that the salvation came first), He wanted to tell them how to follow Him, bringing Moses up the mountain to meet with him while the rest of the nation stood below, waiting. God goes into tremendous detail with Moses on what following Him should look like, and in the meantime, those below grew frightened without their leader.
Their solution was straight out of the cultures around them: make gods to save us. Use the resources we have, our gold (Aaron's idea) and make something we can see, touch, and trust. No matter what we've seen Him do, this God who delivered us can't be trusted as much as something we make ourselves. No matter His mighty works in the past, only the certainty of our efforts can be trusted with the present.
In the minds of the desperate Israelites, their actions may not have even constituted a full turning away from God:
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 feast to the Lord.”The word translated "Lord" was the Hebrew name for the God who had led them out—they'd attached His name to their worship of what they'd created. And as the next verse shows, the implementation of this homegrown salvation brings them peace.
And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.The rest, as they say, is history (but history worth reading, with a few twists and turns that are at once surprising and uncomfortably familiar): God tells Moses of the people's sin and talks of destroying them (true righteous indignation). Moses intercedes on their behalf, not on the basis of their goodness but because of God's own glory. When he descends, his own anger overtakes him (also true righteous indignation) and he throws down the tablets on which God has written and destroys the idol. Afterward, Aaron gives a slanted, irresponsible account of his actions, and a cycle of judgment and mercy (shocking to our sensibilities) commences.
There's a ton to unpack in this account, but for now, it's the golden calf and the reasons behind its creation that have my attention. In so much of the political buzz, I fear the desire to craft our own salvation and how that might affect our decisions. For those not professing a trust in Jesus for their salvation, "vote your conscience" is sound civic advice consistent with being good neighbors in our shared nation. For those who do trust Him, not making a golden calf of our government and our role in it is far more important than what box we might check at the polls—this matters so much more than even the most important candidate or issue.
As our pastors were briefly fond of saying, "Please don't hear what I'm not saying." There's nothing inherently idolatrous about being politically interested and active. Indeed, our vote is an important duty. Neither was there anything inherently wrong with:
- missing Moses and being concerned about his absence.
- being frightened at the base of the mountain after being led out of freedom (and all things familiar) by an awesome and terrible God, who was up on that mountain.
- making things.
Christians are called to live as citizens of God's Kingdom in the here and now as well as through eternity. We're to be ambassadors of the King and represent His reign, which is already in effect. We're to be a blessing for others. It'd be misguided and outright silly to suggest that such a mission calls us to be aloof and inactive—we're called to the good works God has prepared in advance for us to do, and it's reasonable to conclude that means both activity and planning. But if we're more interested in the salvation we can bring about—politically or otherwise—than in the One who truly brings salvation and in being part of His people, then we're likely engaged in calf making (even in His name).
Only God and we know our own hearts, and we always less than He. When we're reluctant to search them with Him, their state is probably already revealed. Whether left, right, or center, our civic religion must never take precedence over the truth of the gospel. Not even during an election season.