Holiness and the Golden Calf

Sept. 26, 2009
Holiness as Cleanness
For the moment, I’m going to skip my Greek exploration of holiness and look at God’s reaction to His holiness being violated by His people. In Exodus 32, we read of the tale of the golden calf, and I think that we can learn a lot about God’s holiness from this. Or rather, what His holiness wasn’t.
The Golden Calf
In this period of time, the giving of the law, God was revealing to Israel things never revealed before. He was showing them who He was and what He wanted of them. So, I do not think it is too far a stretch to say that from the golden calf incident, God chose to show things about His character.
A first interesting thing to note is that Aaron was not making a new god, He was saying to Israel, “This is your God, oh Israel, who brought you out of Egypt!” (32:4) In verse 5, he even said that they would have a feast to YHWH, meaning that the golden calf (in his opinion) was an idol of YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He did not seek to create a new god, but simply to give a form to the invisible God.
Why was this such a great sin? After all, it seems like he was just trying to help the people worship God! Well, yes, but there are a lot of problems with the way he went about it. God had already commanded them (Ex. 20:4) not to make idols in the form of anything in heaven above or earth below. Srike one. In addition, it sounds like they were indulging in an orgy. Strike two. But perhaps the greatest strike (and the list could go on) is that this was a violation of God’s holiness.
First of all, it’s interesting to note that to Moses, the calf was not a perverted version of God, it wasn’t God. He said, “They have made for themselves a god of gold.” (32:31). I wish I had the Hebrew knowledge to say for sure, but it sounds like Moses is saying “that’s something other than YHWH.” Why? Why didn’t he just say that it wasn’t right to worship an idol and call it YHWH? Why was the golden calf something that was entirely not YHWH?
I believe the greatest part of that answer is that the idol was not holy. Remember, holiness is separateness. It is the other-worldliness of God. No animal could capture that essential part of God. Not only is a calf an every-day animal, but by worshipping the invisible God as a statue, you make him just like all the gods of the surrounding nations, who are worshipped as idols. In other words, by making him every-day, you strip Him of His holiness.
Perhaps more than anything, that is what the Israelites got wrong at the golden calf. That is why the anger of God burned against them. And so, from that incident, we see the essenense of holiness (separateness) displayed again. This is the negative of it: what holiness is not.
One more interesting note
One more interesting note about the golden calf incident is the description of the tablets which the law was written on: “Now the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God engraved on the tablets.” That is appropriate. The tablets were not God. They were not an image of God. They were His writing, and in them people could learn of Him, but they were not objects of worship.
The tablets maintained God’s holiness. They were holy, but there was a layer of separation between them and most holy God. They were just His work. Because they were not an object of worship, in a sense, they were an antithesis of the golden calf.
Another interesting part of this story is where Moses intercedes, in verses 11-14. Because Moses pleaded for the people, God relented and did not bring the calamity He was threatening. It’s just like Jesus. Because He intercedes for us, God relents and does not punish us as our sins deserve. By not worshipping Him and serving Him as He deserves, we are just as guily as the Israelites. We do not treat Him as holy: no one does. And when you violate the holiness of God, you deserve wrath, a plague. However, like Moses, Jesus steps in the way, and God gives us His mercy.

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