Wednesday 10 August 2011

False worship (Exodus 32)

1. The sound of war

When Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said to Moses, “There is the sound of war in the camp.” Moses replied: “It is not the sound of victory, it is not the sound of defeat; it is the sound of singing that I hear.”
Exodus 32:17-18

A few moments ago, I sent out an email informing the members of our mid-week bible study group that our regular Wednesday night meeting had been cancelled. I had spent most of the evening considering whether or not to do so, listening intently to the BBC news coverage of the UK riots in the background as I read through this week’s bible passage from Exodus 32. After much prayer and some consultation with the brothers, I decided this was the wisest course of action – if not only to allay any fears the parents of the youth in our midst may have had.

Still, what affected me most was the bible passage itself. Exodus 32 is a turning point in Israel’s journey with God and is possibly, one of the darkest moments in history of the people of God. For here we see the very heart of the bible’s definition of sin. Here we see the nation’s descent into idolatry.

You’re probably thinking, “What’s the big deal? Idolatry isn’t that bad.” You might even say that in our day and age, “Idolatry’s not all that relevant.” Maybe in Asia: where we still have altars with joss-sticks in our living rooms. Perhaps in India: where statues of deities adorn temples and draw thousands to worship. But certainly not here in 21st century Cambridge?

In verse 17, Joshua hears a loud commotion coming from the camps. He concludes that Israel is being attacked, but Moses corrects him. It wasn’t the sound of victory they heard, nor was it, defeat. It was singing. Just think about that for a moment. What kind of sound could confuse a seasoned army general like Joshua into thinking that what he assumed was war, was in fact, a celebration? It must have been loud; men and women shouting, perhaps even, screaming at the top of their voices.

I suggest to you, it was not unlike the sounds heard the past few nights in the streets of Peckham, Hackney and Enfield. And it was what Moses soon saw that truly shocked and angered him.

Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies.
Exodus 32:25

What Moses saw was a display of shamelessness, lawlessness and irresponsibility. But even these were mere symptoms of the one “great sin” (verse 30) committed against God.

The question we are meant to ask of this passage – is the exact same question plaguing the Prime Minister, the mayor of London and the communities affected by the riots this past week. The question we are meant to ask is: What could have caused this?

2. Make us gods

For the past few months at Rock Fellowship, we have been with Moses up on the mountain of God, receiving instructions for the true worship of God – the building of the tabernacle – in chapters 25 to 31 of Exodus. And all this while, the people of Israel have been camped out at the base of the mountain. Waiting.

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

Some say they were getting restless. “What’s up with Moses? He’s taking his time, isn’t he?” Others say they were rightfully anxious. Perhaps Moses was never coming down. (Maybe he’s been zapped by God!) What they needed was a backup plan. They needed someone else to take Moses’ place; who would lead them on in their journey to the Promised Land.

Still, their speech in verse 1 betrays the fact that the Israelites weren’t all that innocent or sincere in the request made to Aaron, Moses’ brother. They refer to Moses as, “this fellow Moses”. Moses has become “this Moses – this man who did this thing” In other words, he’s just another guy. He is nobody special. And besides, “We don’t know what has happened to him.” He has Fong Fei Kei!

In essence, they say to Aaron, “You take his place.” Anyone can do the job – why not you? Yet, not only do they try to replace Moses; at the heart of their request is the attempt to replace God himself. “Make us gods who will go before us,” they say to Aaron.

What should Aaron have said at this point?

“No.” That’s what he should have said. Or, he could have said, “Wait. Be patient. God has never ever let us down.” Or better still, “You idiots!”

Instead, we find this as Aaron’s response in verse 2.

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, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
Exodus 32:2-4

It is important to notice that Aaron is not telling the Israelites to worship another god. He doesn’t say to the Israelites, “Worship Buddha instead!” He doesn’t point them to a pagan deity and tell them change their allegiances to a different god. Instead, in his warped mind, this is actually the same God. It’s just a different way of worshipping this same God: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” (verse 4)

So from Aaron’s perspective, he isn’t breaking the first commandment (“You shall have no other gods before me”Exodus 20:3). Rather, it is the second commandment that seems to have slipped his mind (“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below”Exodus 20:4).

The word idol (verse 4 “He… made it into an idol”) means image or picture. What Aaron thinks he is doing is imaging or picturing God in a form that can be seen and appreciated (it is made with gold, shaped into a calf) and can therefore be more accessibly worshipped. Still, for those of us who have been following closely the events of the past few chapters, what we are meant to hear are echoes of the construction of the tabernacle.

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.” So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.
Exodus 32:5-6

Aaron is not so much counterfeiting God, as he is counterfeiting the worship of the true God. The calf – made of gold and shaped with a tool – is meant to be a copy of Ark of the Covenant, also made from gold, on which is located the mercy seat, representing God’s throne. Aaron builds an altar on which he offers sacrifices – again mimicking the layout of the tabernacle and prescribed worship of God. Everything from the burnt offerings, fellowship offerings and even the “festival to the LORD” is Aaron’s sincere attempt at providing an alternative yet somewhat familiar way of worshipping God.

And that is what makes this story so sad. The Israelites think they are sincerely worshipping God. God, however, sees things rather differently.

3. I have seen these people

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’”
Exodus 32:7-8

From God’s perspective, the Israelites have rejected him. Or more accurately, they have rejected his commands, “They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them.” As a result, God in turn, rejects them. Notice how he addresses Israel before Moses as “your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt.” They are no longer “my people, Israel”. He says to Moses, “They are your problem, Moses.”

“I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
Exodus 32:9-10

These people,” says God in verse 9. It ought to remind us of how they referred to Moses back in verse 1 as “this fellow”. God is distancing himself from the Israelites, not unlike the way they distanced themselves from his servant, Moses.

These similarities are more than coincidences. God obviously knows everything that is going on down below in the camps with the Israelites. “I have seen these people” (verse 9). “They… have made themselves an idol in the shape of calf” (verse 8). God knows all the details.

But he says all this for Moses’ benefit – and for ours, as the readers – for one particular purpose. God wants Moses – and God wants us – to take on his perspective of what’s actually going on. And he does this so that we, like Moses, might think of how we ought to react to what is actually going on – all from God’s perspective.

That is why God says in verse 7, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought out of Egypt” have done this. God isn’t throwing a tantrum. God is saying to Moses, “If you were in my shoes, how would you feel? What would you do?”

You see, Moses isn’t just the leader of the people of Israel. He is their mediator – a word which means, middleman. He doesn’t just lead them to God. He represents them before God. The mediator is the man who stands between two separate parties – perhaps even, enemies – representing one to the other, in an effort of reconciling both into a relationship with one another. And God is here teaching Moses what it means for him to mediate on behalf of Israel before holy and righteous God. As we see in verse 11 onwards, Moses understood what he needed to do, perfectly.

4. The mediator

But Moses sought the favour of the LORD his God. “O LORD,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
Exodus 32:11-14

Moses appeals for God’s mercy and favour to forgive the nation of Israel for their rebellion. Not on the basis of their goodness; they had none. Not even on the basis of their sincerity; that it could be explained away as misplaced good intentions. He doesn’t even leverage on his own track record; having spent all this time on the mountain in communion with God. No, Moses pleads with God – and this is so important to see – on the sole basis on God’s own integrity and fame.

He says to God, “Your reputation is at stake. If you wipe them out now, the Egyptians will question your goodness and say that you intended them harm all this while.” Furthermore, Moses reminds God of the promise he made so long ago. “Remember Abraham, Isaac, Israel – men you gave your word to, to whom you swore by your own self, to give their descendants a land to be their own inheritance forever. You promised, God. And a promise is a promise!”

In other words, Moses is saying to God, “You have more to lose.” And the result? Verse 14: The LORD relented. God changed his mind.

I wonder if we get how big a deal this is. God changed his mind. Some versions translate verse 14 as “the LORD repented”. Some people feel very, very strongly that this undermines God’s omniscience – his “all-knowability”. How can God know every decision, every outcome and every situation and yet change his mind? You change your mind when circumstances change. But God knows all circumstances, so he can’t change his mind. Can he?

According to verse 14, the answer from Scripture seems to be “Yes”. But it is not contingent on our goodness or wickedness; but on the sole basis of God’s sovereign will. He saves those he chooses. He punishes whom he chooses.

And yet, what is clear from this passage is: God who is sovereign as judge appoints a mediator to speak on our behalf, and he chooses to listen to his mediator. That is role that Moses plays. It’s not an easy role, mind you. Moses could have cut his losses and run. God tells Moses in verse 10, “Let me get rid of these losers and I’ll start over with you. You – Moses – You will be number one, and we can start all over again!”

But that, too, is a test for Moses in his role as mediator. Moses is to put the interest of the nation – a people who do not deserve God’s grace; a rebellious nation of idolaters – Moses is to put their well-being above even his own. That is the kind of mediator we need. That is the kind of mediator God listens to.

But even this Moses, this mediator, will soon lose his cool.

5. You have committed a great sin

Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.

When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. And he took the calf they had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.
Exodus 32:15-16, 19-20

The tablets contained the Ten Commandments – inscribed by God himself. There were two copies because there were two parties involved – God and Israel. This was a contract between God and his people; a contract that Israel had broken through their act of idolatry – hence, the breaking of the tablets at the foot of the mountain.

Moses is angry. That much is clear. But as he addresses Aaron, we also see that Moses is sorely disappointed with his brother.

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 jewellery, 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

I imagine this exchange between Moses and Aaron would be something like Michael Scott going up to his Assistant (to the Regional Manager), Dwight Shrute and saying, “Dwight! What did you do this time?” Or Chau Sing Chi scolding his sidekick Ng Man Tat when he messes things up yet again.

Aaron is trying his best to cover his backside. “You know, Moses, you know how these people are. They made me do it. This is all their fault!” But then the most ridiculous bit is where Aaron says, “All I did was take a bunch of ear-rings and throw them into the fire. And poof!! Out came this golden calf!”

You can almost hear the bass drum and cymbals go B’dam Ching!!!!

The bible doesn’t dignify Aaron’s explanation with any response from Moses whatsoever. It was ludicrous! Instead the commentary in verse 25 reads:

Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies.

Now we’ve been focusing on the calf and the altar and the gold earrings and the people of Israel getting impatient with Moses. But verse 25 is there to say that this really should not have happened in the first place. Aaron should have known better. He was the High Priest, for goodness sake; chosen by God to serve at the tabernacle, the meeting place with God. Only he would be permitted to enter God’s presence in the Most Holy Place. He was representative of all the people. His sons were to follow in his footsteps, serving as priests before God.

Aaron was responsible for the nation as leader, as priest and as mediator. But when confronted by Moses, “What did they do to you? Did they threaten you? Did they torture you?” Aaron cooks up a fairy tale and passes the buck. “It’s their fault, not mine.”

And yet… there was some truth to Aaron’s statement. “You know how prone these people are to evil,” he said. Aaron knew the evil, destructive desires of their hearts. And yet, he knowingly let them have their heart’s desires.

Notice that Moses repeatedly calls this “a great sin” (verses 21, 30 and 31). What is this “great sin”? Was it sexual immorality? (That is, in part, hinted in the word “revelry” in verse 6.) Was it the golden calf that Moses destroyed and ground to a powder, scattering it into the water supply and forcing the Israelites to drink from (verse 20)? Or was it the false worship of the true God?

What was this great sin of the Israelites? Paul refers to this very episode in 1 Corinthians 10 by saying this:

Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play."
1 Corinthians 10:6-7

“Do not be idolaters,” Paul says, not of the Israelites, but to us as Christians today. “These things took place as examples for us”. What is also very intriguing is how Paul clearly identifies the sin as idolatry, yet does not make any reference whatsoever to the golden calf. Instead, he quotes Exodus 32 verse 6 “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play,” even leaving out even the beginning of the sentence that had to do with offerings and sacrifices.

That is, the bible is talking about idolatry – but it is saying that idolatry has less to do with statues in temples, and more to do with the riots in London. The 16th Century reformer, John Calvin taught that the human heart is an idol factory. We manufacture idols not out of stone and wood, but from our desires, our wants and our ambitions. That’s why Paul chose the verse that had to do with eating, drinking and partying. Not because these aren’t good things, but because our hearts are prone to turn these into god things. We worship the gods of food, pleasure and sex. The sad reality is these false gods let us down. They disappoint us. And as the riots have shown this week, they can even destroy us.

1 Corinthians 10:6 echoes Aaron’s statement before Moses. “You know these guys, they are prone to evil.” Paul says: These things are examples for us so that we do not “desire evil as they did”. Who on earth would “desire” evil? The bible says: We would. We justify our wants. We say, “The heart wants what it wants.”Our hearts are set on our idols – no matter the cost, no matter the harm – to us or to others.

But the bible says God will judge our hearts and our actions.

6. Whoever is for the LORD, come to me

So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the LORD, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.

Then he said to them, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbour.’” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the LORD today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”
Exodus 32:26-29

This is gruesome. Moses calls for volunteers – those who will choose to align themselves with God, no matter what. The Levites step up to the plate. Now many Christians hear “Levites” and think priests in the temple (maybe you don’t – and you’re thinking “Levi’s jeans” instead), but at this point in the bible, they weren’t priests (and they weren’t wearing blue jeans). God hadn’t chosen them yet. At this point in the story, the Levites were simply Moses’ cousins; his brothers. And it is based on what they are about to do here in Exodus 32 that God appoints this family to serve exclusively as his priests. God commands the Levites to take a sword and run to and fro the camp; back and forth; killing their brothers.

What is going on here? Commentators link this to the drinking of the powdered idol water back in verse 20. Numbers 5 speaks of a test of adultery involving a similar concoction. To detect whether a wife has been unfaithful to her husband, the woman must drink water sprinkled with dust taken from the tabernacle while swearing an oath before a priest. Somehow this enables the priest to determine her guilt or innocence. The bible experts say the same thing is going on with the idol dust water. Drinking this exposes who were the individuals responsible for instigating the nation into idolatry, and these are the specific men that the Levites executed – about 3000 in total – a specific number of people.

Some draw a connection to their ancestor Levi who, back in Genesis, together with his older brother Reuben, went on a bloodthirsty rampage killing all the men of Shechem in a bid to exact revenge for their sister, Dinah. Later on in Numbers 25, Phinehas, a descendant of Aaron was responsible for killing an Israelite Baal worshipper, but in the process turned back God’s anger that saved the nation from a plague (Interestingly, this is also referred to by Paul in 1 Corinthians 10).

What does this all mean? I can’t say for sure. My guess – and it really is my guess – is that, these guys who signed up to Moses that day knew what they were in for. These weren’t the spectacled nerdy skinny IT guys with jail-broken iPhones offering to serve God by creating a new website for church. They were blood-thirsty mercenaries looking for some action. And God used them to bring death and punishment to their brothers. They were zealous to do God’s will, yes. But these were far from saints. God would appoint them later as priests, yes. But they were still sinful men, equally as sinful as their brothers. Still, God would and could use them for his service and purposes. They were, as Moses says in verse 29, “set apart”.

But the last word of judgement is not between the Levites and their brothers, but between Moses the mediator and God.

7. Perhaps I can make atonement for your sin

The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” So Moses went back to the LORD and said, “Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.”

The LORD replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.” And the LORD struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.
Exodus 32:30-35

The execution carried out by the Levites was gruesome, but it was just a pale shadow of God’s judgement and anger of their great sin of idolatry. You see, one of the reasons we shy away from passages like this is simply because: We don’t take hell all that seriously. We read about the Levites and go, “How could God have let that happen?” And rightly so, we feel horrified about that act of violence. But we think death is the worst thing that could ever happen to us. Or we do know there is a hell, but really, hell is just some existential place, or just a state of mind. We do not take seriously the fact that there is a fate worse than death itself.

And that is why we miss the gravity of Moses’ statement in verse 30. You have committed a great sin. A great sin. Idolatry is a great sin. Replacing God with something less that God. Replacing God with something other than God. Making something else more important than God. Worshipping God “in our own way” and thinking of him the way we would like to think of him. Is a great sin.

In fact, it is the very definition of sin. Sin is not doing some naughty thing. It’s not breaking a rule. Sin is rooted in our heart’s desire which wants to replace God. We want to be god in our lives. We want to live life our own way.

Moses says that he will go up to God “to make atonement” for their sin. We have encountered that word “atonement” numerous times in our study from Exodus. It lies at the very heart of authentic biblical worship. Atonement is the covering over of our sin, such that a holy God will look at us and find our worship acceptable. The concept of atonement reminds us that God is angry with sin, and that there needs to be some sort of payment for our sin. That is the purpose of the sacrifice of bulls and goats. These animals are killed to pay that price for our sin, for our atonement.

Yet Moses does not mention the sacrifice of animal. What is the basis of his request for forgiveness in verse 32? Himself.

But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.

Moses says, Write me off. Take out my name from the book. It is as if God has this book, or this heavenly excel sheet, with a list of names: Who is in; who is out. It is a picture of judgement. And Moses says to God, “If you are going to take anyone out of that list, I would rather my name be the first to go.”

But God replies, in effect, saying, I will be fair. “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book.” God will still judge this Israelites for their sin. It hasn’t ended with the execution carried out by the Levites. There is more to come.

Rather unsatisfactory, isn’t it? Has Moses failed in attempt to “atone” for Israel’s “great sin”? People still die (verse 35: And the LORD struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.)

Was Moses wrong in offering himself, in place of his brothers? No, not at all. But Moses couldn’t take their place. And the display of his anger earlier, that prompted him to destroy the tablets of the Testimony, proves that even he, as exemplary as he was in his role as mediator, was far from ideal as their representative. Even Moses was sinful. He could not atone for his own sin, much less, the sins of all the nation of Israel.

Yet remember: God did say he would relent in bringing judgement (back in verse 14). God initially promised he would wipe out the entire nation.

No, Moses was absolutely right in approaching God to ask for atonement. But Moses was not the one to take the sin of the nation upon his shoulders. The bible is pointing forward to a better Moses, a better mediator who would and who could offer himself as the perfect sacrifice to atone for sin.

8. The book of life and lamb that was slain

Revelation 13 talks about judgement, salvation and a book - a book of life. The context of Revelation is false worship. It foretells a time when all the world will rise to give worship to a counterfeit God – a beast that assumes the place and position of God. In other words, it is the ultimate picture of idolatry. And verse 8 reads:

All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.
Revelation 13:8

Only those whose names are not written in this book will worship the beast. And the name of this book is the “book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.” That’s the whole title of the book. It is saying that the reason why these names are there is because they have been written there before God even created the world. It is saying that the reason why these names are there is because God decided, before he created us and before he created the world, to sacrifice his Son Jesus. Jesus is the Lamb that was slain.

Jesus is our true mediator. He was the lamb that was slain – that word “slain” is a brutal, bloody, violent word – not simply killed, but more like, “slaughtered”. He took the full punishment for our great sin. He was blotted out so that we could be written in. On the cross, the Son of God says to his Father, I will pay the price – it was as if I committed that great sin. Now please, forgive them, for my sake.

Is your name in that book? Was Jesus slain for you?

If so, come and see your King upon the cross. Come and worship the Lamb who was slain.

Come and see, come and see
Come and see the King of love
See the purple robe and crown of thorns He wears
Soldiers mock, rulers sneer
As He lifts the cruel cross
Lone and friendless now He climbs towards the hill

We worship at Your feet
Where wrath and mercy meet
And a guilty world is washed
By love's pure stream
For us He was made sin
Oh, help me take it in
Deep wounds of love cry out
'Father, forgive.'
I worship, I worship
The Lamb who was slain

(“Come and see”, Graham Kendrick)

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