A sermon on Exodus 32. 1-14 by Garry Deverell
While Moses was on the sacred mountain, talking to Yahweh, the people below grew restless. They came to Aaron, Moses’ brother, and asked that he make gods who would go before them in their journey to the promised land. Aaron agreed to do so. From the trinkets of the people he forged the image of a golden calf, and when it was done, the people acclaimed the calf as the god who had brought them out of Egypt. The next morning they arose to worship the calf-god with the offerings of grain and live-stock that Moses had commanded for Yahweh. And what did Yahweh think of all this? Well, to understate things just a little, he was not amused! Our story recounts Yahweh’s words to Moses: “I have seen this people, how stubborn they are. Leave me now, so that my anger may burn hot against them so that they are consumed utterly”. God only changes his mind, we are told, because Moses takes the part of the people, interceding for their lives by reminding Yahweh of the promise to their ancestors, that this tribe of misfits would become a great and noble people in the land that God would give them.
The Hebrew prohibition against the making and worshipping of images for God or the gods is very ancient. Although the story we recounted just now was most likely written during the late monarchy of the separated kingdom of Israel, its theological message is very much older than that. The classic statement of the prohibition belongs to the very beginnings of the Yahweh cult, and may be found in Exodus 20.4-5, as the second and third of the Ten Commandments:
You shall not make for yourself an image, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God . . .
Note that there are two separate prohibitions here. The first is against the making of an image to represent Yahweh, and specifically against that image being taken from the created world; while the second warns against the worship of any such image in the place of Yahweh.
It is important for our purposes tonight that we note the ways in which the theologians and priests of Israel interpreted these injunctions after the fact. First, it is very clear that Israel did not feel constrained to ban every image of God. If that were the case, then they would never have made the Ark of the Covenant, a rectangle box of acacia and gold, with angelic beings moulded into its uppermost surface. The biblical record speaks of the Ark as the ritual place where Yahweh is most intensely real, a kind of throne for the divine presence. Moses listens to the Ark as if to God himself (Ex 25. 22). It is placed in the inner sanctuary of tabernacle and temple, a place which is so full of God’s presence that not even a priest may enter, except by the blood of atonement, and then only once each year (Lev 16). In later years, the Ark was carried into battle. When the soldiers could see the ark, it stood for them as a sign that God was with them. But when the Ark fell, it seemed to them that God had abandoned them (Joshua 6.4; 1 Sam 4). It is clear from these accounts that the Ark became for Israel what the pillars of cloud and fire were for them in the exodus: a tangible sign and image of God’s presence and protection.
A second point follows from this, that the general prohibition of images in fact makes a distinction between those chosen by Yahweh to represent himself, and those chosen by the will and inclination of human beings alone. The biblical texts make it clear that the Ark, the stone tablets of the Covenant, and indeed the whole liturgical cult of Israel, were chosen and instituted by God. What the prophets rail against, on the other hand, is the making of images for a worship instituted not by God, but by human beings. And the essence and goal of this false worship is said to be the illusion that human beings can manufacture their own wholeness or salvation, apart from the independent and free initiative of God. The classic statement is that of 2nd Isaiah, in the 44th chapter:
The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine. He takes a cedar tree, which he uses as fuel to cook his meal. The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, “Save me, for you are my god!” Thus, he feeds on ashes. A deluded mind has led him astray, and he cannot save himself or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud?” (44.13, 14b, 15a, 17, 20).
In this prophetic perspective, the problem with images is not so much that they are images, but that they are images by which human beings seek to represent the possibility of salvation apart from God. Or, to put it in a slightly different way, the sin of idolatry is simply the belief that God’s way and will can be reduced or domesticated to the themes and forms of independently human desire and imagination. It is the sin that confronts us in the story of the golden calf.
Still, what I find most interesting in this story is not so much the sin, but the all-too-human impulse which gave rise to that sin. The story tells us, you see, that Aaron made the golden calf in order to relieve the sense of distance that the people feel between Yahweh and themselves. Yahweh, let’s face it, is not particularly user-friendly. He appears in the Exodus stories as a bush that does not burn, as an angel of death, as a pillar of fire or of swirling cloud. He is a dangerous and fiery God, who consumes any who draw near without the proper sense of respect. When Yahweh speaks, his voice is like a thundering that none may understand. None, that is, except Moses. Moses to whom he revealed his name and his law, Moses by whom God saved the people from Pharaoh, Moses by whom God parted the sea and provided miraculous food and water in the wilderness. But now Moses was gone from their presence, so it felt to the people as though God had abandoned them as well. The calf is made to fill that sense of absence, to bring God close where God felt far away. Here I must dissent from the view of the many interpreters who tell us, over and over, that the golden calf was a god of Egypt or of Canaan, a god whom the people chose to worship instead of Yahweh. For the evidence clearly points to something different. The calf is acclaimed with the words “It is Yahweh, who brought us out of Egypt”. The intention here is surely not to worship a pagan god, but to bring the distant Yahweh closer in the form of something that God had made. An intention I would see as not only human, but legitimately human. What, then, are we to make of the anger of Yahweh in this passage? Is Yahweh a God who has no compassion on such oh-so-human needs?
To my mind, one must look for an answer to such questions not in the individual passage at hand alone, but in the witness of Scripture as a whole. Scripture itself was born of the experience of a lack in the sacred stories. When new questions were asked, questions not contemplated by those who first told the sacred stories, more stories were told, or old stories were re-told in order to address newer concerns. In time, these newer formulations became Scripture as well. They became part of the deposit of faith to which later generations addressed their spiritual searching. Still, in the search for a compassionate God, a God who is close to us and understands, we must not simply ignore the prohibition against images which we find in the Exodus account. That prohibition, as we have seen, has a legitimate function in the life of a genuinely Jewish or Christian faith community. It reminds us that God may not be reduced to the terms of our own desires or imaginations. God is free to be God, and only a free God can save us, for a God of our own making would simply repeat our mistakes, and we would be condemned (as Feuerbach noted) to forever to write our desires upon an empty heaven. So where can we find a God who is both free and compassionate? Where can we find a God who is close enough for us to love, and yet free enough to be our saviour?
The answer, of course, is peculiarly Christian. Allow me to quote from the letters to the Colossians, and to Timothy:
He is the icon of the invisible God . . . for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Col 1.15, 20).
There is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all (1 Tim 2. 5, 6).
The letter to the Colossians speaks of Jesus Christ as an image of God. The specific term used in the Greek is ikon, a visible reality by which the invisible communicates itself to human sight and understanding. In Christian understanding, Christ is exactly this: a human being—visible, fleshly and real—by whom we may have a relationship with a God who has chosen freely, in Jüngel’s memorable phrase, not to be God apart from human beings. In this sense Christ, like the Ark of the Covenant, honours the Exodus prohibition against images made by human beings because he is God choosing for himself not only a human image, but in that image also revealing what humanity itself might be. In that very movement, God comes near enough to be our companion, advocate and friend. For the 1st Letter to Timothy makes Christ into a second Moses, a mediator who speaks for human beings before God. He understands our weakness and reminds God to be merciful for his own name’s sake. Just like Moses. And so, for the Christian testament, and for those of us who own this testament for ourselves, God is both the one who prohibits and the one who saves, the one who is judge and the one who ransoms himself for the life of the world. So, if we were to read these specifically Christian insights back into the Hebrew text of Exodus 32, we might find there a dispute or conversation between God and God. One the one hand, Yahweh is the mysterious and free God who can tolerate no rivals, no pretensions to understanding from the human side. On the other hand, God is the one who exercises that freedom by making a covenant of love with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, such that Moses may claim that covenant in his intercession for the idolaters amongst his people.
Why am I telling you all this? Simply because tonight, in this place, we worship our God with words and images from the imagination of human beings. And we have made this fact more obvious by our use of colours and sounds and pictures and smells. In certain traditions, this would be seen as blasphemy, as a deliberate attempt to make God in our own image. In others, it would be seen as inevitable, because if God exists at all, he cannot be understood, and so we may as well get on with creating our own because there is nothing else we can do! But actually, we are doing neither. Because although our words and images are indeed ours, and we must take responsibility for what we are doing and saying, we believe also that God is not God apart from these things, that God speaks and enacts God’s very own self in the midst of our worship. For as in Jesus we encountered a God who showed us how to be more fully human than we could ever be on our own, we believe that God can take even what we say and do tonight and speak to us in a voice nor our own and images not our own, such that we hear, even in what we have ourselves created, the substance of a creativity which has its truest origin in God.