The golden calf

By Melody Shobe

As the news from Wall Street keeps rolling in, you have to wonder at the timing of it all. Not because of the connection with the anniversary of Black Tuesday coming soon. But because of the connection with the readings that we are currently hearing from Exodus in the Revised Common Lectionary. Over the past few weeks, we have followed the journey of the Israelites, hearing how God has provided for them every step of the way. God parted the Red Sea to save them, rained down bread from heaven to feed them, and made water flow from a rock to quench their thirst. Again and again God has taken care of their needs. And yet, as soon as Moses goes up the mountain to talk to God, the people become restless. They want something tangible to put their hope in, not this invisible, unknowable God. So Aaron tells them to hand over their gold and jewels, which they willingly do. And they melt down the gold and jewelry, and they make a statue of a golden calf and they worship it.

It is, perhaps, one of the saddest stories in all of Scripture. At the very moment when God is meeting Moses on the mountain, the people are blaspheming God in the valley. What is surprising to me, as I read the story of the golden calf in Exodus 32, is how willing people are to give their gold and jewelry over to this new idol, when they have been so unwilling to give of themselves to God. With God they have kept asking– asking for food, for water, for safety. And they have kept complaining– about the things they don’t have that they want, about the brighter vision of bygone days, or about the way that God isn’t working on their schedule. But when Aaron starts to make an idol, they strip off their earrings and jewelry and hand them over. No complaints about how little they already have. No questions about why they should give. No concerns about who is going to make the decisions about how their gold is used. They are practically falling over themselves to give to this golden image the things they have withheld from God.

It is not a reality far removed from our own. Even today, we make idols of things when God’s back is turned. We might not be pulling off our earrings to melt down into a golden calf, but we’ll pull out our credit cards to buy a new car or big vacation or whatever else we think we want. We complain about not having enough while buying far more than we need. Artists and poets have continued to make a connection between the golden calf and the dollar bill. A bronze bull on Broadway bears a marked resemblance to the Golden calf near Mt. Horeb. But what is surprising to me is how willing we as individuals and we as a country have been to hand over what we have to Wall Street. We’ll strip off our earrings and hand over 700 billion dollars to bailout big businesses, but we can’t step up and make sure no one is going to bed hungry, or that every person in this country has healthcare. We become panicked and outraged about the state of the economy, but we can’t summon enough urgency to be panicked and outraged about the state of the planet. God gets our requests and our complaints, but God and God’s people aren’t getting the gold in our ears.

As I have heard the stories read from Exodus again over the past weeks, I have had to shake my head. Not in disbelief over what Aaron and the Israelites did so long ago, but out of conviction that I am falling into many of the same traps here and now. Fear of the unknown, rather than fear of God, is at the heart of my motivation. And I can only live in hope that the God who forgave the Israelites again and again, who waited patiently for them to repent and return, still forgives and still waits.

The Rev. Melody Wilson Shobe is Assistant Rector at a church in the Diocese of Texas. She is a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary and is married to fellow priest The Rev. Casey Shobe.

Past Posts