Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6, Common English Bible)
There is a story in Exodus 32 where the people of God have grown impatient. Moses had been up on the mountain with God for too long. There had been no messages, no texts, no pigeons, nothing. In their anxiety, the people circle around Moses’ brother, Aaron. “Come,” they cry out, “make gods for us, who shall go before us.”
The people had already been anxious because they have been wandering in the wilderness. And without the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day, they do not know of God’s presence in their midst. It is still something they are getting adjusted to. The irony is that as the people circle around Aaron, Moses is on his way down the mountain with the tablets.
But, Aaron gave in to the people. He told them to collect all the gold among the people. They melted it and molded it into a golden calf. The Wesley Study Bible says, “The golden calf represented either an image of the Lord or another deity all together.” The golden calf had become the focal point of their worship, not the Lord. The Hebrew people had done that with their liberation. They were still giving Moses credit for their liberation, not the Lord God.
The Israelites must have been tempted as they traveled from Egypt to the Promised Land to worship other gods. The polytheists had a catalog of gods. You have a problem or an issue, there’s a god for that. If you were having fertility issues, there was the god Baal. If there were issues in your marriage or with a pregnancy, there was the goddess Kathirat. And these ancient gods had images associated with them.
It is possible that because the people of God had been surrounded by images of other gods who had specific attributes, they were looking for something similar in the Lord God. It was still a “new thing” to have a God with multiple attributes. The Lord God can be loving, a parent, a giver of life, a redeemer, and a judge.
The 20th century theologian Paul Tillich defined religion as ultimate concern. Ultimate concern is that which concerns us the most. The ultimate concern, Tillich says, becomes our religion. It may not be a golden calf, but if drugs become our ultimate concern to the point everything we do is to fulfill that concern, it has become our religion.
With God has our ultimate concern, we affirm the relationship that God called us to. We also affirm that God has gone before us, beside us, and behind us. The very god the Israelites went to Aaron looking for to worship, is the very Lord God whom they had neglected.