Leadership Scholars

Encountering God, Not the Calf

By Luke Perrin

Adoration of the Golden Calf, Nicolas Poussin, 1634

A few weeks ago in my preaching class, our small group precept spent some time focusing on the story of the Golden Calf from the book of Exodus. It’s tale with vivid imagery, juxtaposing God with what the Israelites quite literally forged to be God. It’s a tale that has been used in Christian circles to command faithful believers to forgo addiction to idols. It’s a tale of God’s mercy in the midst failure. It’s a tale that begs us to focus on the Hebrew people and their sins, rather than the God speaking the Ten Commandments on top of an ominous mountain.

As a preacher’s kid, when I learned the story of the Golden Calf, I thought that it never would have been me. If I had seen the ocean stand on its side! If I had watched the deliverance of the plagues! If I had tasted the sweetness of manna descend from heaven, certainly I would remember! How could a people so easily forget?

But then the United States as we knew it changed. The world cracked open in May when our Black siblings in communities across America rose up to remind us that not everyone could breathe. A respiratory virus has killed over 500,000 Americans and hospitalized millions. Just a few months ago, an insurrectionist attack against the U.S. Congress killed five people—a breaking point after decades of growing far-right ideology and public white nationalism. One by one the delicate house of cards that constituted a life of privileged faithfulness and institutional security began to fall.

It seemed easy before.

That’s why the God in the story of the golden calf is so powerful to encounter. We focus so much on the Israelites and their mistakes in this story, with little focus given to God, and I think that’s a shame. It’s a shame because the God in this story is exciting. This God is rarely where the Hebrew people wish for God to be, but unmet expectations do not mean they are separated from God.

When our and their world went sideways, we looked for God in the familiar places of “before” and forgot that ours is a God on the loose, out up ahead, moving us forward and preparing us for a kingdom we could never hope by our own hands to build. We sought out God in what we knew before. We searched out hope in the Gods we built, and we found them woefully insufficient. The God in this story is the anthesis of what the Israelites built. Our God is beyond theirs and our imaginations, which cling to the Egypts, the political empires, and economic and social systems we know and have come to worship.

Yet, with help from a persistent Moses, God remembers. God remains and abides. God sustains. While we are waiting in the valley, we can look to Mt. Sinai, because Sinai is where the one true God resides. We trust in the one who alone is God and alone can save—a vital God to remember as we heal from physical and social sickness, confront our individual and communal grief, and continue to lament together.

Luke Perrin is a second-year M.Div. student at Duke Divinity School. He serves as an intern at Greenwood Forest Baptist Church in Cary, N.C., and is a current CBF Leadership Scholar.

3 thoughts on “Encountering God, Not the Calf

  1. P.S. Exodus 32 concludes:

    But the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book. […..] In the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.”

    Then the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf.

    And that’s how the Children of Israel encountered God that fateful day.

  2. “The God in this story is exciting.”

    Note text below from Exodus, Chapter 32.

    19 And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it.

    26 Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27 And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.’” 28 And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell.

    That’s a bit too much excitement, perhaps. Trigger alert.

    Hebrews 10:31 “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

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