They turned to Aaron, Moses' brother, the soon-to-be appointed High Priest of Israel, and said, “Make us gods that shall go before us. For this Moses, the man that brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has become of him.”
Let's stop right there. Their own language really betrays how secular the thinking really was. It was Moses that delivered the people from Egypt, probably by his cunning diplomacy and manipulation of naturally occurring events. Right. In Isaiah 44, the logic of idolatry is clearly revealed. Man is simply geared to worship: to make sense of things, to rally around. Secular psychologists have suggested that the need to worship is ingrained in us by the comfort we have as children, looking up to a “higher power” that we found in our parents; wanting to sustain that feeling of being protected and provided for. From this perspective, we don't really believe in god or gods. We know that it is our own efforts or the efforts of our human leaders that have enabled us a community to be self-sufficient and sustaining. But, we desire a common point of focus that we can identify ourselves with; so we erect an image, an icon, an idol that represents an ideology that binds us together.
The need for an idol tells us two things about the community of Israel, as they wandered out of Egypt and across the Sinai peninsula. First, the people worshiped Moses as the representation of their divine identity. They knew that he was only a man. But, they also understood that god and gods were simply focal devices. The leadership, the elders of Israel, had good reason to be concerned. People, without such a focal device will wander. Indeed, Proverbs 29:18 tells us that, “Where there is no vision, the people perish; but he that keeps the Law, happy is he.” The second thing that we know about the community of Israel is that Aaron was no leader. That shouldn't suggest that he was weak in character or inept at carrying responsibility. It just means that he wasn't the kind of guy that people were inclined to follow. In fact, the people came to him telling him what to do instead of asking him what they should do. So, the children of Israel came to Aaron and said, “Give us a leader, because you're not it.”
It kinda makes me wonder where Korah was during this tumultuous time. Later, when the political and religious structure of Israel is up and running, Korah stages a political coup, undermining the leadership of Moses and trying to take the priesthood of Aaron for himself. Korah has the perfect opportunity, here, to say, “Moses is gone! Follow me!” But, instead, he is among the crowd that appealing to the boss's brother for something they can believe in.
Aaron knows that this isn't a very good idea. He starts by suggesting to the men that they have their wives give up their jewelry for the new idol project. In many Bedouin cultures, the wives wore their personal dowry as jewelry. All of their financial means, should anything happen to their husband, was contained in the precious ornaments that they could display. Women who had very expensive jewelry were, obviously, women with value, themselves, and were, therefore, worth preserving and honoring, as opposed to carrying off as carnal property. Sure... they'll give up their earrings, no problem. But, it backfired. Not only did the women give up their earrings, but all the people contributed to the project. They were desperate for leadership.
So, Aaron fashions for the people a golden calf.
There's some debate as to what and why this particular representation. Some believe that it was Chemosh, a fertility god of the Moabites that they had probably seen representations of when destroying the cities of Jericho and Ai. Others believe that it was the Egyptian Apis, who wasn't really a god, exactly; but an emissary of the divine on which the appeals of man could approach the holy city of Memphis (no, not Tennessee). If, it was Apis, then the golden calf wasn't the divine object of worship; but the Invisible God who rode upon Apis (not unlike the cross as the Christian icon representing the resurrected Christ).
So, Moses comes down and sees the goings on with the golden image central to their revelry. He's, understandably, concerned. Okay, so, he's more like, a little miffed. Alright. He went ape-shit.
Please, allow me to apologize for the usage of such a vulgarity. But, really, there is no English comparison to the expression of Moses' rage. It should slap us in the face. Because, just think about it: Moses spent forty days in the presence of absolute holiness and comes down to the people rescued from a living death by the Giver of Life... and finds this.
Moses smashes the covenant stones, formed and engraved with the finger of God, then calls out, “Who is on the side of the Lord?”
All the sons of Levi gathered before him. This included Korah, by the way. All the men of Levi, who were, before, enjoying the party right along with the rest of them; the leaders of Levi (Korah included) who had stood together with the others, demanding from Aaron an idol for worship, came to Moses with renewed dedication and commitment to Adonai.
Moses commands them, “Each of you, strap on your sword and go through the camp, slaying, every man, his brother, his comrade, his neighbor.” 3000 men died. Three thousand sons of Israel, brothers and cousins, who were (earlier, just that day) reveling and partying together with these Levites, were cut down: not for their sin of idolatry, but for failing to answer Moses' call (because that was the only difference between those who were slaying and those were being slain).
Moses, then, speaks to all the grieving people. And, what he says to them, in this most tragic moment of Israel's history, provides for us the difference between a community and a bunch of people traveling together with a common focus. Moses said, “Consecrate yourselves today to the Lord, every man upon his son and upon his brother, that God may bestow on you a blessing.” The word “consecrate” means “to lay one's hands upon, in blessing.” It is this idea that is described in Acts 8:18, through which the Holy Spirit was imparted to believers. It was encouraged as a duty of the elders to “lay hands upon” ministers to Timothy in 1st Timothy 4:14. It was described as a fundamental of worship in Hebrews 6:2. Essentially, the command is this: take personal responsibility for the guy standing next to you.
Paul said, in Romans 8:28, that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to His purpose.” It's hard to imagine how the episode of the Golden Calf, the Great Debacle, could have been anything but a warning against how seriously God is offended by idolatry (and how quickly we're inclined to go that way). But, there may have been something powerful in this event that transformed this collection of loosely related individuals, into a single community. Moses explained, really, in a single statement, that our success in this journey through the wilderness we call life, isn't based upon our personal, unique, individual understanding of God. Rather, it is how we take responsibility for one another, bearing one another's burdens, lifting your brother when he is falling, trusting him to do the same for you, that gets us along.
The Golden Calf incident could have resulted in a lot of different things. It could have, easy, been the death of a nation and the scattering of Egyptian refugees to the farthest reaches of the land. It could have resulted in the annihilation, the genocide of a race that no one today would have ever known had existed. It could have resulted in totalitarianism: Moses exalting himself as the poobah of Israel, defining their identity as a nation according to his own terms. But, instead, a community happened. Brother turned to brother, and placed his hands upon him in consecration, declaring, I will be here for you.
I think we often miss such opportunities. We sit at the base of the mountain, waiting for Moses to come down, twiddling our thumbs. And when people start to frenzy around us, demanding something (anything) to worship or focus on, we either join in or we don't. Seldom, if ever, do we even consider that we might actually interject a voice of reason. I wonder if anyone even said to his neighbor, “You know, Moses didn't forget about us for the forty years he was in exile, I can give him at least 40 days.” It's sad that, many times, the reason we give for not being the voice of reason in an unreasonable situation is because nobody else is doing it... but, maybe, nobody else is doing it simply because you're not, or I'm not. But, Moses wasn't talking about standing up against a mob and taking leadership over a nation. He was simply telling the men in the community, “Reach out to the guy next to you.”
I think, a lot of times, national debacles happen because communities didn't take that kind of personal responsibility for their own neighbors early on. And, in other instances, national tragedies have been averted because people did.