Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
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.”
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.”
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.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt.” (Exodus 32:1-7)
Shortly after freeing the Israelites, Moses went up onto a mountain to talk with God about what would come next. Knowing that the people would rebel, the Lord kept Moses for forty days, and allowed what we just read to occur in order to teach us a lesson: stagnation causes corruption. Think of it, if you leave bread out too long, it will become moldy. We too can become rotten by not moving. Let’s look more closely at this story to see what it can teach us.
Before arriving at the mountain, the Lord had already made his presence known through numerous miracles, Psalm 78:12-16 recounts what God had done so far,
He did miracles in the sight of their fathers
In the land of Egypt, in the region of Zoan.
He divided the sea and led them through;
He made the water stand firm like a wall.
He guided them with the cloud by day
And with light from the fire all night.
He split the rocks in the desert
And gave them water as abundant as the seas;
He brought streams out of a rocky crag
And made water flow down like rivers.
Over the forty years in the desert, these people had seen miracles every day and yet when they got stuck, they started to forget.
This “miracle amnesia” is echoed much later by the prophet Elijah. Elijah was used by the Lord as a mouthpiece for God and in turn the Lord protected him on numerous occasions. One such example is seen in 1 Kings 17:1-6,
Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Leave here, turn eastward and hid in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. You will drink from the brook, and I have ordered the ravens to feed you there.”
So he did what the Lord had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.
This is all very amazing stuff. God spoke to him, gave him a ready source of water, and in a Disney-esq twist, sent birds to bring him food! And the Lord hid Elijah from King Ahab and the extremely vengeful Queen Jezebel, who began to kill all of the prophets in response to the drought. Yet, after all of this, and a few other pretty big acts of God, Elijah is threatened and panics. We see this described in 1 Kings 19:3-4,
Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he game to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
The Lord proceeds to ignore this request and sends Elijah on his way. Why? Because the Lord wants Elijah (and us) to wake up and see the big picture again. It is interesting to note that Elijah says, “I am no better than my ancestors.” It seems he realizes his tunnel vision even as he is speaking.
The disciples of Jesus took this issue of only seeing the problem a step further. After traveling with Jesus, who performed miracles, healings, and spoke with the authority of God for quite some time, one would think that a disciple would have complete faith. But we find this is very much not the case. Mark 6 records an event in which Jesus feeds over five-thousand people with only five loaves of bread and two fish, which produced twelve basketfuls of leftovers. Mark 8 starts with a similar story in which Jesus is able to feed over four thousand people with only seven loaves of bread, this time leaving seven baskets of leftovers. Yet, just a few verses later, the disciples see a problem, “The disciples had forgotten to bring to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat (Mark 8:14).” Now, Jesus wants to teach them a lesson, but watch and see how their minds are focused on the problem.
“Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”
They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.” (Mark 8:15-16).
The disciples, just like the Israelites, had forgotten everything except the problem. Remember, right away, the Israelites forgot the power that brought them out of Egypt, they say to themselves, “As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” “This fellow Moses”? They have even forgotten their great hero, and have reduced him down to “some guy.”
It seems that like the Israelites, the disciples have brought Jesus down to the level of “some guy.” Jesus then reminds his followers just who it is they are traveling with in Mark 8:17-21,
Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you still talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?
“Twelve,” they replied.
“And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
They answered, “Seven.”
He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”
Jesus is speaking not only to his disciples, but to us as well. When a problem comes, we must open our eyes and remember what we’ve overcome before. Jesus almost sounds a little hurt at the end, “Do you still not understand that you’re traveling with the son of God?” John testifies that, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). They are traveling with the living Word of God! Many Christians make this error as well, as the Bible itself is the Word of God.
Anyway, back to the Israelites. Our passage from Exodus reminds us that when the people become corrupt, so does our leadership. Many people complain about lying politicians, and yet we fail to realize that it is us who put these people into office. The Israelites turn to Aaron, Moses’ brother since God is keeping Moses too long. Aaron, afraid of the people, immediately gives in and begins to make their new God. Keep in mind the order, when the people are rotten, the leadership follows, not the other way around.
The next phase of stagnation is recounted by Stephen in Acts 7:40-41, he explains,
They told Aaron, “Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt –we don’t know what has happened to him!” That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and held a celebration in honor of what their hands had made.
When we focus on a problem and begin to get tunnel vision, we lose sight of everything around us. Just as the disciples forgot they were with Jesus, we forget the people God has put in our lives and quite often we forget about God as well. We start to think only about ourselves and then begin to rely on our own strength, this is extremely dangerous. Just like the Israelites, we think, “if God isn’t helping me right now, then there must be no God.” This is a mistake because as Peter minds us,
“All men are like grass,
And all their glory is like the flowers of the field:
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
But the word of the Lord stands forever.”
And this is the word that was preached to you (1 Peter 1:24-25).
The Israelites heard God speak to them, to his words directly, and yet as soon as a problem came, they left the Word. This is why God had Moses bring the Word in writing down the mountain.
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 (Exodus 32:15-16).
Thus the Lord began to give the people his word, so that when in trouble, we can look to the scriptures, for,
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
However, while waiting for Moses, the people didn’t have the scriptures yet, just their memories, which were at present failing. So they looked at their problem, “This god we were following isn’t helping us right now,” and they devised a human solution, “therefore, let’s make a new god.” We do the same even today, when we’re hung up on something, be it an overwhelming problem, a life of sin, or even some sort of pride, we begin to separate ourselves from God. We trust in things that are not god. We look to money to solve our problems. We give into our lusts, and cravings, thinking it will make us happy, but it never does. We trust in our own minds, which is foolish as we often have little knowledge of our world and even less control over our own emotions. We need God, so instead of turning to an all-powerful Lord over us, we create gods that we think we can have some sort of control over.
The Israelites made a new God. This may seem like a stupid idea –because it is. In Isaiah 44:14-17 God talks about just how stupid making a god is,
He cut down cedars,
Or perhaps took a cypress or oak.
He let it grow among the trees of the forest,
Or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow.
It is man’s fuel for burning;
Some of it he takes and warms himself,
He kindles a fire and bakes bread.
But he also fashions a god and worships it;
He makes an idol and bows down to it.
Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
Over it he prepares his meal,
He roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says,
“Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
He bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says,
“Save me; you are my god.”
Idol worship is stupid. Thus, trusting in money is also stupid, as money is made from trees,
No one stops to think,
No one has the knowledge or understanding to say,
“Half of it I used for fuel;
I even backed bread over its coals,
I roasted meat and I ate.
Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?
Shall I bow down to a block of wood? (Isaiah 44:19)”
Trusting in oneself is just as stupid: “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14). Trusting in anything other than God separates us from our Creator. Why? Jesus explains in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” Jesus uses the example of money, but it is true for anything else as well, if we put our mind in one direction, it can’t go in the other. Trusting in anything other than God also breaks the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:3).” So obviously God will not work as much in one’s life if one puts their trust elsewhere.
So, already the Israelites have forgotten God, trusted in themselves (thus separating themselves from the God of their fathers), but they go even further than that! They make a new god, which violates the second commandment: “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). This would pretty much count as a complete separation from god. Now the Israelites had a whole new problem: They didn’t know where they were going. Until this point, as we read earlier, God was leading the Israelites with a pillar of cloud and fire, moreover, Moses, whom they had also forsaken, was the only one who knew the desert, as he had been living there for forty years prior releasing the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. The tunnel vision of the Israelites blinded them so much that they had not only given up on the only person who knew what he was doing, but also the God who was leading him. But the Israelites, trusting in themselves, decide to make a god who will lead them. Psalms 115:4-7 explains,
But their idols are silver and gold,
Made by the hands of men.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
Eyes, but they cannot see;
They have ears, but cannot hear,
Noses, but they cannot smell;
They have hands, but cannot feel,
Feet, but they cannot walk;
Nor can they utter sound with their throats.
So now the Israelites, who are blinded by their emotions and inability to see past their hang-up, have made a blind guide to go before them. Jesus has some advice for Israel and their false gods, “Leave them, they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit (Matthew 15:14).” This happens to us today, we put our hopes into things and activities that cannot help us, and then we wonder why things don’t get better. Churches separate because people become blinded to the big picture, Christians focus on something small and unimportant and forget why they are even at church. Marriages fall apart as couples become so engulfed in the negative that they can no longer remember why they fell in love with their spouse in the first place.
The Israelites continued to make things worse for themselves though, they gave into their passions and their desires. Why is giving in a problem? Jesus explains, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander (Matthew 15:19).” But what’s wrong with a little fun? Does God hate fun? No, God loves a good time. But when people give their bodies away to their desires, they become a slave to them. The Israelites had just left slavery in Egypt to become slaves to sin, completely lost in the wilderness of life. Where are you? What rules you?
Before you leave this post, let’s take a break to pray. To those of you who still think that you are too cool to pray, that’s fine, you’ll probably have more chances later. For those of you who are ready though, just read these words out loud and surely God will hear you.
I do have my hang-ups,
I do trust in myself or things that cannot help me
…pretty much all the time.
Forgive me for forgetting that you are always there,
Always ready to help me through your righteous plans.
Lord, thank you for seeking me out and reminding me of your presence.
Help me to come off of my mountain Lord,
And walk with me, and lead me through the wilderness of my life.
Bring me to the land that you’ve designated as mine.
In your name, Jesus, I pray,