Golden Calf: Worshipping the wrong God in the right way?

Wed, 13/02/2008 - 15:12 -- James Oakley

Hmm. Not sure.

It’s often been said that the golden calf is a breach of the 2nd commandment, rather than the 1st. That is: It’s not worshipping another God. It’s worshipping the right God in the wrong way – by use of images. In support of this is Aaron’s declaration: Behold, your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt.

But I wonder.

The contrast between Moses up the mountain and what goes on as the people below get bored is striking.

  • Moses gets instructions on how to build a house for God on earth. The invisible God will be visibly amongst his people again. The people get bored waiting and want Aaron to build them a visible representation of God.
  • Moses one is to be made of gold; the people make one out of gold.
  • The tabernacle had an altar in front of it for offerings, so did the calf.
  • The people worshipped their calf by: (i) offering burnt offerings, (ii) then peace offerings, and (iii) sitting down to eat and drink. Just as they should have done with the mandated sanctuary.

So it seems that the people are doing everything as they should do – just with the wrong God in front of them.

If so, it is a terrifying passage. Because it means that false worship can look really very much like true worship. All the right ingredients can be in place. But if the wrong God is on the throne, it’s a disgrace. Which means that as we seek to be ever-reforming of our worship practices (as surely we must), it is not just the form of things to give attention to. They do matter, but we could get the form so close to right that we don’t notice the elephant in the room.

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Steffen Jenkins's picture

Hi James,

I'm with you.

I think Joshua 24:14 makes it more plausible still that an Egyptian God is being worshipped, and being given credit for the Exodus. "Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord." (ESV)

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