Exodus 32 is such a well-known story for those who have spent any time around church. It’s the story of the Israelites making themselves a golden calf to worship. I imagine that most of us automatically think this story is about idolatry. We think they had stopped worshiping God and instead started to worship the calf. But is this really what happened?
Not long ago I was teaching on this passage. I pointed out that they hadn’t forgotten about God or that he had just delivered them. They weren’t suddenly wanting to worship a calf-god. They were still wanting to worship God by using the image of the calf. The problem with this is they were making God into something he wasn’t. They were making the Creator into the created. In other words, they had created a false image of what God was like. And by worshipping this they were failing to truly worship God. They had effectively swapped God for a little god while still thinking they were worshipping God. One person who was listening suddenly burst out “Why haven’t I heard this? This is a message for the church today.”
She is absolutely right. But it is not so obvious to see. Egypt was full of gods, each with their own physical image. It was a natural thing for the Israelites to do. But we don’t do this. I have yet to see any golden calves when I go into different churches. This isn’t the struggle that 21st century Western churches deal with. We tend to be ok with worshipping a God who isn’t physical. Perhaps this is because many of our modern day idols aren’t physical.
But none-the-less we can still be tempted to create our own non-physical calves. We do this whenever we fail to see God in his fullness and inevitably we end up with a distorted view of God. It is so easy, so tempting, and it often starts out with good intentions. Consider this. God is love. He loves you. God longs for relationship with you, so much so that Jesus even died for you. He thinks you are special and of enormous value. There is truth in this but it is not the whole truth. When we isolate God to merely love he becomes a boyfriend. God is not a boyfriend!
Equally true is that God is a just judge. The Bible uses words like ‘fear’ and ‘tremble’ when it talks about God. It records instantaneous deaths and warns not to approach God too lightly. This is true but if this is the focus then God becomes fearsome and impersonal and we use religion as a means of saving ourselves from retribution.
The Danger of a Wrong Understanding of God
If we are not careful these are things that can dominate our gatherings. Our wrong view of God is hard to see because it contains some truth. But it is not the whole truth. It is a shallow one dimensional picture. As Christians we need to strive to seek the fullness of God. When we fail to do this we end up serving our own image of what God is like instead of the reality of who God is. We trade worshipping God for a much subtler version of the golden calf.