I mentioned in my sermon on Exodus 25 yesterday that I think part of the reason so much detail is given in the instructions for constructing the tabernacle is that God didn't want any of it left up to the imagination of the Israelites. That's not because God considers imagination a bad thing but because imagination is not a neutral thing; it is shaped by our experiences and Israel has just had their collective imagination shaped by 430 years of oppression and slavery. That is not an imagination which is prepared to produce a healthy representation of God.
Exodus 32 is a case in point. While Moses is on Mt. Sinai with Yahweh, the people at the foot of the mountain decide that they need to make gods for themselves. The construction of this idol is presented in direct contrast with the construction of the tabernacle. Whereas the construction of the tabernacle was initiated by God, this action is initiated by the people totally apart from any consultation with God. Whereas the tabernacle is constructed from gifts freely given by anyone who wished to contribute, here Aaron commands all the people "Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." Whereas the instructions for building the tabernacle were orderly and well thought out, the construction of the golden calf is hasty and impetuous. In fact, in one of my favorite lines in all of scripture, Aaron portrays it as almost accidental explaining to Moses "So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf." Seriously Aaron? My four year old comes up with more clever explanations for her behavior. I'm pretty sure some ancient manuscripts of this verse add "And Moses rolled his eyes."
In addition to being an affront to the construction of the tabernacle, the actions of the people are also a direct violation of the first two commandments given so recently at this very same mountain. Not only that; the people even minimize the liberating work of Yahweh in the exodus, their very own salvation, in that they say upon seeing the calf "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" In this one act of idolatry, Israel has forsaken the salvation of God, God's law, and God's presence with them. In fact, if we listen closely we will likely even hear echoes of Genesis 3, the original act of idolatry, in this story. Like Adam and Eve, the people are eager to trust a voice other than the voice of the one who has provided for them. Like Adam, Aaron passes the blame for his wrong doing. And just as there are serious consequences in the garden, so there are serious consequences here in the camp. Moses gives orders that lead to the death of 3000 Israelites (and its not absolutely clear that he was acting out of God's guidance rather than his own anger) and God strikes the camp with a plague on top of that. This is not just any story of any sin. This is the story of sin in Israel's self-identifying narrative. The very telling of the story is itself a confession. It says this is a part of who we are; a people prone to idolatry.
It is often said that the first step to correcting a problem is admitting that you have a problem. Maybe that is how this story can function for us as Christians. When we claim the Hebrew Scriptures as our Old Testament, we are saying that Israel's story is our story. Their failings are our failings too. If we are to read Exodus 32 as Christian Scripture then we must confess that we also are a people prone to idolatry.
With that in mind, I find it fascinating that this disastrous story, this paragon of sinfulness, begins with nothing more profound than a failure of patience.
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said, "Up, make us gods 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."Moses takes a little longer than expected on the mountain and from there everything else begins to rapidly unravel. I don't find that scenario fascinating because I think it is unusual or extraordinary but because I think it is such an apt description of the times we are most vulnerable to our idolatrous tendencies. It is precisely when God seems absent or quiet, the times when we can't perceive God doing anything, that we are are most likely to make God in our own image. I think this is one of the greatest temptations for the Church in America. It is so rare that we experience a genuine movement of God in our churches that rather than doing the hard work of continuing to seek God we decide to create our own God experience with our worship bands and our clever outreach programs and by doing so we threaten to make God even more absent in our lives. Every pastor find themselves tempted to do what Aaron does. When the people complain that they haven't seen God in a while, its much easier to ask the people to give more of their gold so that we can construct our best facsimile of God's work among us than it is to keep asking people to seek God.
I think we are so quick to fill that void, so ready to put something, anything in the place of God's absence because deep down we fear that maybe God won't show up. We are prone to idolatry because one of our greatest fears is that all that time seeking for God, waiting for God will turn up nothing and we would rather have something rather than nothing, even if its fake.
At its root, I think this failure of patience is also essentially a failure of memory. So quickly the people of Israel forgot who it was that delivered them from Egypt. I think the antidote to our failures of patience is to remind ourselves over and over again of what God has already done for us. I began this post by pointing out that our imaginations are shaped by our experiences. This might be the most important reason why we gather to tell the story of our faith week after week, why we must keep hearing the stories of scripture and telling our own stories of God's faithfulness. It is the hearing and telling of those stories which shape our imaginations and, like the Israelites, we are a long-enslaved people in desperate need of having our imaginations reshaped so that we might see what is possible with God.