Imagine with me for a second the drama that has just unfolded – the entire nation of Israel has exited Egypt in a magnificent display of power and might. This was no small feat as Egypt was the most powerful nation in the world at that time. Their God, our God, parted the sea and allowed the Israelites to depart on dry ground, and when the last person stepped foot out of the sea the water returns to its natural state and the pursuing Egyptian military drown.
After the initial celebration, and while the Israelites are camped in the wilderness of Sinai, God has a meeting with Moses on Mount Sinai where He’s reminded Moses of what He has done for them and how He has drawn Israel to Himself. God wanted to rescue His people because He wanted to show them His love and care for them. With that in mind He offers them a wonderful promise.
“If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Exodus 19:5-6
This favored status comes with a condition. They must obey. When Moses brings the news of this great promise back to the elders they eagerly agree to it. The covenant called the Mosaic covenant is ratified in an elaborate ceremony that included several days of preparation, a thick cloud of smoke on the mountain, trumpet blasts, animal sacrifice, thunder, and God’s presence. It probably was another awesome display of God’s power and might. Yet, the Israelites response to it was not joy, but fear. In Exodus 20:20 Moses says that God came with the thunder and smoke to test them so that their fear of Him would keep them from sinning.
Their fear keeps them from experiencing God directly so Moses continues to act as their spokesman. He goes to the top of Mount Sinai to receive instructions from God. These instructions include the Ten Commandments. Moses stayed on the top of the mountain with God for 40 days. During this time the Israelites decide to take matters in their own hands and create a god they can worship. You know the story – everyone contributes their finest and as Aaron puts it when confronted, a golden calf just popped out.
There are several interesting twists to this story I hadn’t noticed before. First of all, when the golden calf is completed the people exclaim that these are the gods who brought them out of Egypt. They attributed to an object of gold all the power and might that belongs to the One True God. Secondly, when they are designing their own god they incorporate the same worship elements they had just experienced with God. They build an altar, sacrifice burnt and peace offerings, and held a festival complete with feasting, drinking and revelry. They took what was true, right and holy and imitated it so that it looked like real worship.
The fear of God did not keep them from sinning. Instead it made them find an alternative they could more easily manipulate. The alternative did look beautiful and their worship of it had all the trappings of the worship they had just experienced with God. Yet, it was all an imitation. It couldn’t rescue them when they were in trouble. It couldn’t give them guidance when they were lost. It couldn’t speak to them when they needed reassurance. And it certainly couldn’t save them from their waywardness and rebellion. Only the real thing can.
Is Israel’s story your story? Do you do all the right things that make others think you are worshipping and pursuing God; yet, you’ve found a beautiful imitation that you’re convinced is working for you? Do you attend church, belong to a small group, serve in the church and community yet, keep God at arm’s length? These passages in Exodus show us that the real God is worth pursuing. Get rid of the golden calves in your life and pursue the real thing.
“Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” James 4:8