Exodus 32:1-14

Relief for the Stiff Neck

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Exodus 32:1-14

Relief for the Stiff Neck

Dr. Keith Wagner

A kindergarten teacher told her class they could make a picture of anything they wanted to. Each student drew very colorful pictures of houses, trees, their families, etc. When the teacher passed by Johnny’s desk she asked him what he was making. He said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” “But no one knows what God looks like,” the teacher replied. “They will when I get through,” Johnny protested.

Just what does God look like? What image would you draw if you were instructed to make a picture? The Israelites, along with the leadership of Aaron, constructed a golden calf. There is much speculation as to why Aaron decided on the image of a golden calf. In that time a bull was used as a divine pedestal. In was understood as a link to God. The Israelites built the golden calf as a replacement for their leader, Moses, who was long overdue from his trip in the mountains. The golden calf provided them security. It gave them a visual image of the presence of God since Moses had not yet returned.

The Israelites were feeling insecure and needed to create an image that gave them the assurance that they had not been abandoned by God. They needed a God they could see. They had faith in Moses but Moses was out of town. Perhaps they were too dependent on Moses and could not put their trust in an invisible God. Or perhaps Aaron was trying to give them something concrete (or in this case, gold) to hold on to, because of their insecurity.

Meanwhile, God is greatly disturbed by their actions. God told Moses that “they have acted perversely.” God went on to say they were a “stiff-necked” people and God was determined to destroy them. I find the term, “a stiff-necked people” very interesting. I believe it means that this was a group who were narrowly focused, inflexible and closed-minded to the ways of God.

We may never fully understand the passion of the Israelites to build a golden calf. That being said, humankind has created images as a substitute for God all through history. Even today we build gods we can see to make ourselves secure. And like the Israelites we build golden calves too. Are we not also a “stiff-necked people” who are inflexible and closed-minded to the presence of God?

First of all, like the Israelites who were too dependent on Moses, we also live with dependencies as well. Some depend on their parents. Others depend on the company they work for. Still others depend on traditions. And unfortunately there are those who form a dependency on something else, like drugs or alcohol.

God selected Moses to lead the Israelites but they had to learn to stand on their own and be faithful when Moses was absent. Out of their insecurity they turned to Aaron who gave them some tangible evidence that God had not abandoned them. God, however is an invisible God who wanted their trust. God had liberated the Israelites from Egypt and has promised to be with them throughout their journey. But, they panicked. There are times when we panic too. Those are the times we also have to learn to trust in God.

Secondly, like the Israelites, we too build things because tangible objects make us feel secure. We may not worship them, but they can still become our gods, consuming many of our resources. In New Orleans the company that owns the casinos is already talking about rebuilding. It seems to me there is something wrong with their priorities. The infrastructure of the city is in shambles, including many churches. There are plans to rebuild the levies and many of the buildings in New Orleans. But, structures are not what the people need. What they need is faith that God has not abandoned them and will be with them as they strive to rebuild their lives and their community.

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When Charles William Elliot was the president of Harvard University, had had the occasion to dedicate a new hall of philosophy and searched for an appropriate inscription to place above its entrance. He called together his faculty members and after much deliberation they agreed upon the well known Greek maxim, “Man is the measure of all things.” With that they adjourned for the summer. When the school reopened in the fall the faculty was surprised to find that Eliot had decided upon his own inscription. Instead of the phrase, “Man is the measure of all things,” he inscribed the words (from Psalm 8), “What is man that Thou are mindful of him?” If we were to choose a motto to live by it seems to me that the inscription President Eliot chose is more appropriate, especially when we apply it to our faith.

Third, also like the Israelites, we are often inflexible, reluctant to change and close ourselves off to the creative ways in which God is present in our midst. What was Aaron thinking? He failed to restrain the people and fed their idolatrous impulses rather than provide pastoral leadership. Rather than give them assurance and build their faith, he succumbed to the foolishness of creating the golden calf.

When we are reluctant to change our traditions they become the focus of our faith instead of faith alone. In 1829, Martin Van Buren, then governor of New York, wrote the following to the president: “The canal system of this country is being threatened by the spread of a new form of transportation know as ‘railroads.’ The federal government must preserve our canals for these reasons: If canal boats are supplanted by railroads, serious unemployment will result. Captains, cooks, drivers, repairmen and lock tenders will be left without any means of livelihood. Canal boats are essential to our defense. In the event of trouble with England, the Erie Canal could be the only means by which we could move supplies. The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel through the countryside at the breakneck speed of 15 miles per hour.” (from Sourcebook of Wit & Wisdom, Communication Resources)

Systems, structures, sacred icons, practices, ritual, even liturgy can become a barrier to change, thereby keeping us from growing and moving into the future. In other words, they become our golden calves, consuming our resources, demanding our loyalty and giving us a false sense of security.

God was angered at the rigidity and lack of faith of the Israelites. Because they put their trust in the golden calf God said they would be punished. Moses, however appeals to God to change his mind. Since God is open and flexible, his mind was changed and the people were spared. We will be spared too, by being open and flexible people who welcome change.

––Copyright, 2005, Dr. Keith Wagner. Used by permission.