In the story of Exodus, we read that Moses led the Hebrew people out of their slavery in Egypt, with the help of great miracles performed by their God. As they traveled through the desert, they survived with the help of more miracles. They made an agreement with God—he would continue to protect and lead them and they would serve him forever. Then Moses went up the mountain to talk to God, to receive the law.
But after forty days and nights, the people grew restless, and asked Moses’ brother Aaron to build them another God to worship, saying “we don’t know what has happened to this Moses.” Aaron asked for all their gold earrings, melted them down, and formed them into the shape of a golden calf. Then the people brought sacrifices and burnt offerings, and began to create a great celebration for this calf God.
Well, the story goes on to tell us that God was angry, and Moses was angry, and many lives were lost, before the people repented and reconciled. But that is not what is most interesting to me about this story. What I find most curious is that even though this group of people had been up close and personal with God, even though God freed them, and did miracles to feed them—they still forgot all about that after only forty days. They wanted something solid that they could worship—and so they exchanged their God for an idol.
It is an old story, but it still rings true today. Human beings have a perennial problem. We are very quick to turn any idea or experience of God into an idol—something solidified, defined, predictable, and under control.
Think about the image of God that many of us absorbed as children from our American culture. This God is an old white man with a beard and a long white robe who sits on a golden throne in heaven. Remember him? He is supposed to control things on earth and grant favors to the good people who pray to him, while punishing the people who do bad things. There are plenty of preachers who will tell you that if you are good and give your life to Jesus and your money to them, that God will make you prosperous and successful and healthy.
And if you don’t follow their prescriptions, well, you’d better beware. A certain televangelist I won’t name blamed a number of disasters on pagans, feminists, and gays and lesbians. After the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, he claimed that the Haitian people had been cursed by God, because they had made a deal with the devil during their 19th century liberation struggle.
I don’t believe in that God. Maybe that televangelist doesn’t want to see it, but I have noticed that goodness can go hand in hand with poverty, illness and misfortune, and those who are wealthy can more than occasionally be selfish, greedy, and downright mean. I don’t believe in a God who blesses the prosperous people and curses the misfortunate people. I think that particular God is a kind of idol, a golden calf, created by people to prop up their own prejudice or insecurity, and apparently, to put other people down.