Forming Faith Blog

Fear and the Golden Calf (October 11, 2020)

The Israelites experienced fear and responded by taking control and making an idol. How do we respond to fear?

Golden and bronze calf statues. The Israelites tried to take control of their fear by creating an idol.

After years of slavery and suffering, God answered the Israelites’ cries for help. God demonstrated power and inspired fear in the Egyptians, ultimately leading to the liberation of the Israelites from slavery. Since then, God parted the sea (Exodus 14), fed them bread from heaven (Exodus 16), provided them water (Exodus 15:22-27; 17:1-7), and has been giving instructions to Moses for a new way of life (Exodus 20–31).

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

As our story begins, Moses has been on Mount Sinai with God for forty days and forty nights (Exodus 24:15-18). It’s not stated directly, but it is reasonable that the cloud covering the mountain and the glory of the Lord remained the entire time. It was the people’s job to wait. As we all know, waiting is hard. As time passed, the people became more and more afraid. How do they know that their leader—and connection to God—is still alive? Without Moses, how can they be assured of God’s presence and protection?

Resolving Fear

What did they do with this fear? They tried to resolve it. A God who is invisible and omnipresent is something hard to grasp. God is clearly present in either a manifestation (a burning bush, a column of fire and smoke) or an intermediary (Moses). They may or may not have seen a manifestation of God on the mountain, but if so, it was over there, not over here. And their human intermediary, Moses, had disappeared. So, they fell back on what they had learned in Egypt: create a physical representation of a god (an idol). So, they pressured Aaron to create a statue of God/gods.* And he did. [In his words to Moses, it was a miracle. Throw gold into a fire, and out comes a statue!]

Wrath and Fear

They did this out of fear, but they should have been more afraid of breaking the whole “no graven images” commandment. At this point, God was done with them. “They’re hopeless! Let’s start over.” Moses stood between God and the people with two interesting arguments.

  1. What will the Egyptians think? How will this affect your reputation?
  2. Don’t forget your promises to our ancestors!

Surprisingly, this worked, mostly. Moses still ordered a slaughter, and God still sent a plague. But the people as a whole survived to complain another day.

Our Fears

What does this have to do with us? What does this have to do with faith formation? A common way to apply this story is to generalize the idol. “Sure, we don’t make statues and claim they are divine, but we put many priorities ahead of God.” This is a great and valuable application of the story (and the Commandments)).

But I might suggest a variation on that. Ask the question: what do you do when you are afraid? Perhaps more specifically (for an older audience): what do you do when you are afraid that God isn’t there for you? The clear answer is to look back at what God has done and the promises God has given us and respond with patient faith. But even that might not be enough.

Reality Check

We need to be cautious about casually throwing around responses like “God will provide” and “God will answer your prayers.” Why? Because they are easy to disprove (at least from a certain point of view). People of faith can still die of lack of resources, while others have more than they can ever need. People of faith can suffer and die no matter how many prayers for healing they receive, possibly at the same rates as people without faith. Fear can lead to doubt, and doubt can lead to fear.

Faithful Response

How can we respond to this cycle of doubt and fear? Not with trite encouragements or throwing Bible verses at people. No, this is where the church comes in. The real church, not a building with its member rolls. In a time of fear, uncertainty, and doubt, we need to sit with those who are suffering, not just telling people about Jesus, but being Jesus to them.

What if we are the ones filled with doubts and fears? Then be present to each other. Strive to trust and be vulnerable. Listen to each other and hear the stories of God in Scripture and in each others’ lives. For me, at least, God is most present with me in the presence of those who love and care for me.

Free Resource

One thing the Israelites in the Book of Exodus always forget to do is to look back at what God has already done for them. Download a free game for this week demonstrating the importance of “Looking Back.” This activity comes from our Living the Word: Kids (PK-2nd – Narrative Lectionary) curriculum and has been adapted for intergenerational in-person, online, and home-based use.

In God’s love,

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

* An interesting question is whether the Israelites were demanding idols of a plurality of gods or an image of God/YHWH. I don’t have the time to do a thorough search, but the Hebrew word here is elohim, the plural noun commonly used to refer to our singular God (YHWH). An amateur argument about the people demanding an idol of the singular God is that Aaron made one statue and used the formula so far used only to identify YHWH. Hebrew scholars, if I’m wrong, educate me!

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