When my sister and I were young our mom ran a daycare out of our home, which was great for my sister and I because we had instant friends! They even got dropped off on our doorstep in the morning and were picked up in the evening when we had had enough of them! There are more stories from that daycare than I have space for here, but I’ll share one for now.
Every day after spending time doing activities inside the house, my mom would let us loose into our backyard. It wasn’t a big space, but had plenty of room for ten kids to run around and have a good time with the big wheels, doll houses, and various sporting equipment that lived out there. One of the options we had to play with was our planter box, and since my mom knew nothing would grow in the hostile environment of a child’s exploring years, she put shovels and pails in there and let us dig. One day, when I was about 2 years old, I was digging in this planter box alongside one of the other kids in the daycare, and as I lifted a big pile of dirt onto my shovel, I had a thought. I looked at the dirt, then at the kid next to me, then at my mom who was dealing with a feud over a Barbie, and proceeded to fling the pile of dirt over my shoulder into the neighboring kid’s face. He wailed through the dirt on his face, and I had dirt on my hands.
As my mom took me inside for my dad to punish me (he happened to be home that day) I kept asking, “What? What did I do wrong?” This only proceeded to antagonize my mom and led to a more severe punishment from my dad, but the question I asked was pure; I did not understand what I had done wrong. When I looked at the dirt and then at the kid, I was truly curious as to what the outcome would be if I flung dirt in his face, and quickly found out he would cry and I would get in trouble. It is one of the only times in my life that I can remember truly not comprehending the result of my actions (though I learned them quickly and never did that again). And I can’t help but think of this story when I read about Aaron’s ordeal with the golden calf in Exodus 32.
At this point in their story, the Israelites are still wandering in the desert after their miraculous escape from Egypt, and their fearless leader, Moses, is currently on top of a mountain having a conversation with God. This is actually the conversation that results in the Ten Commandments, but we will come back to those. For now, leave Moses on the mountain and direct your focus to the Israelites, who are complaining at Aaron (Moses’ brother and primary communicator):
“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”” – Exodus 32:1
Aaron knows that God has commanded them to follow Him only, but finds himself surrounded by an angry crowd and a bit outside of his wheelhouse. After all, Moses is the one who speaks with God and makes big decisions, while Aaron is merely the public speaker, parroting everything Moses tells him to say. Who knows what this crowd will do if he doesn’t give them what they want, but he has never been forced to make a decision like this! So Aaron concedes and commands them to give him their gold jewelry:
“Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”” – Exodus 32:2-4
The people are appeased and take the opportunity to sacrifice to the calf and revel in their triumph at a festival they throw the next day. But their victory is short lived, because while they were busy replacing the God who had led them out of Egypt, Moses was being told by that God about their rebellion and then sent down the mountain to call them on the carpet. And Moses knows exactly who to go to in order to get answers:
“He said to Aaron, “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?” “Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil. They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”” – Exodus 32:21-24 NIV
Aaron comes clean, only blaming the Israelites for a moment as he calls them evil, and appears to own what he has done. But if you’ll notice, there is a key difference between his story to Moses and the account of what actually happened from earlier in the chapter. Aaron claims to have collected their jewelry and placed it all in the fire, when all of a sudden out pops this shaped and formed calf made from the gold. Yet in the original account in verse four it says that “He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool.” What a weak attempt at avoiding guilt! Aaron clearly formed the idol that the Israelites abandoned God for, but later claims he did not, and suggests that the fire took the gold, formed a calf, and spit it back out!
If I’m honest with myself, I think I knew that throwing dirt in the kid’s face would be an unpleasant experience for him, though I did not know exactly what would happen. And I think if we were regularly honest with ourselves, we’d know that many of the decisions we make in life are not leading us closer to God, but further away. I can’t wake up early to read the Bible, I need more sleep. I could do it now, but I’ll wait to forgive my aunt once she’s come to me and apologized. I’ll pray for that person later, I’ll even add it to my TO DO list. These missed opportunities and little decisions we make take us further and further from relationship with our God, until one day we find ourselves face to face with an idol. A golden calf, or a job, or a relationship, or an addiction, or our children, or approval, or validation, or anything else we place before God. Our idols. And when we see them for what they are, we start explaining it away like Aaron, stammering like Moses because we know, deep down, that we held the tools that shaped these idols in our lives.
Idols happen. Regularly and repeatedly. They creep into our lives in conscious or subconscious ways, vying for our time and affection until we have none left for God. And because he formed us and knows us better than we know ourselves, God dealt with idols first in those Ten Commandments he was giving Moses on the mountain:
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me.”” – Exodus 20:2-3 NIV
Our God knows our hearts, that we were made to love and give our lives to Someone greater than ourselves, yet knows that we are constantly giving them away to many somethings that aren’t worth our affection and devotion. So he tells us to keep him first, but only after he reminds us of who he is and how incredibly and unendingly devoted he is to us, the one who brought us out of all of our Egypts and enslavements. It’s as if he is saying:
I made you, and I know you. In deeper ways than you will ever know yourself. And I know that, like Aaron, you’d like to believe that you never had a tool in your hand, never fashioned an idol for yourself as your eyes drifted from me. But I see you and your idols, and I am committed to you. I always have been. So come back. I delight in you and desire to be your delight in those places in your heart that you try to stuff idols. They’ll never fill those voids, but I promise I will. Now let’s get you washed up. You have gold on your hands.
Photo by Megan Burgess