How long would they have to wait? That seems to be the question the Israelites were asking while Moses was up on the mountain meeting with God. It had been three months since they left Egypt, and while they were well-fed with the manna they collected each morning and sufficiently hydrated with water from the rock of Horeb, three months was a long time to just wander in the desert. Surely God had a plan, right?
Their leader, Moses, who was the mediator between the people and God, had gone up to Mount Sinai weeks ago, leaving them waiting in the camp at the base of the mountain. And they were growing restless. Without Moses, how would they hear from God? How would they know where to go? How would they be able to survive?
But it wasn’t like Moses left them without a plan. He’d given instructions to the elders, and left Aaron and Hur in charge of settling disputes. And though he hadn’t given them an exact timeline, he’d given them just one job to do: “Wait here until we return to you.” They had all they needed for the time being and yet …
It seems strange to us that the people whom God preserved through generations of slavery and even the 10 plagues in Egypt, the people who followed Moses through the water walls of the parted Red Sea and who, just weeks before, stood at the foot of Mount Sinai as God revealed himself with flames and smoke and quaking would so quickly abandon His plan for them and make a god of their own. It hadn’t even been 40 days since they’d sworn their allegiance to Yahweh, shouting, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do!”
But they’d seen Moses walk up into the fiery mountain, and they hadn’t seen him since. And the God of the mountain they thought had led them out of Egypt hadn’t spoken to them since Moses’ disappearance. They needed something to believe in, someone to lead them, someone who wouldn’t abandon them in the wilderness. They needed a god who wouldn’t make them suffer and wait. So they pooled their resources and came up with a much more suitable god, one that would give them exactly what they wanted.
“Such was the influence of the polytheistic world in which they lived,” writes John MacArthur in the notes of his study Bible, “that the Israelites, in a time of panic or impatience, succumbed to a pagan world view.” The Apostle Paul calls them idolaters, and it’s easy to see why: they built a golden calf out of their cast off earrings and worshipped it.
Yet I look at my own life, and I see the same temptations. When God seems delayed, when I’m ready to move forward and he’s nowhere to be found, when my circumstances seem hopeless, how quickly I turn to other things to believe in and other people to help me find my way. I do Google searches instead of pray; I trust the word of an expert instead of seek wisdom from those God has put in my life; I eat chocolate to feel better. Netflix doesn’t abandon me in the wilderness.
I could excuse my own idolatry by saying that I didn’t walk through parted waters or see God’s presence in a flaming mountain. Surely I’m less culpable than the Israelites who should have known better. But Paul doesn’t see it that way. He tells the Corinthians that “these things happened (to the Israelites) as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved.” Truly they had their own story to live; but their story also serves as a cautionary tale: in every time and in every place, God’s people will be tempted in the face of difficulty and waiting to turn to the temporary balm of lesser gods.
That’s all idolatry has to offer: temporary fixes. The Google searches are ultimately inconclusive. The experts have limited knowledge. The chocolate eventually runs out, and before you know it, the Netflix queue is empty. Yet the comfort and direction and purpose I seek are still missing apart from waiting on God, holding out for the Lord of lords who alone can fill the empty parts of me.
As we press into this season of Lent, our first desert wondering is this: what are the idols in our lives? What are the influences of our own world that we easily revert to when things are hard or when God seems absent? Don’t look only for the obvious, the golden calves which clearly are powerless to effect real change in our hearts and our lives. Look also for the subtle idols, things like work and health and family and friends. If we aren’t careful, even these good gifts from God can take His place in our priorities, in the way we use them to provide meaning and soothe life’s sore spots.
John Calvin famously called our minds “idol factories,” where we’re always “daring to imagine a god suited to our own capacity.” We don’t fall into idol-making only when we’re young or unbelieving, only when we’ve known less of God’s glories or experienced fewer of God’s works. In 1 Corinthians 10, when Paul tells his readers to “flee from idolatry,” he’s talking to the church, to believers who’ve had first-hand teachings of the Apostles. We are all at risk of turning to lesser gods.
That doesn’t mean we’re powerless, though. We don’t have to live in Aaron’s version of the golden calf story, when he said he threw the gold jewelry into the fire and, oops, out popped the calf. For one, that’s not how it happened. The Bible says Aaron “fashioned the idol with a graving tool.” It wasn’t an accident; he made his idol into art. But also, idolatry was not Aaron’s first temptation. See, it wasn’t actually Aaron’s idea to create a new god. Instead, the people brought the idea to him as their new leader. They reminded him that he’d been in the shadow of his brother Moses, but now Moses was gone. Before Aaron ever gave in to the temptation of idolatry, he first gave in to the temptation of pride, to believing he knew better than God how things should go.
You might say pride is at the heart of all idolatry, pride which wants its way no matter what the will of God says. Which is why Paul tells the Corinthians, “Let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.” Having trouble identifying idols in your life? Follow the pride. Look for those areas where you insist on your own will, where your way seems better than Gods, where you are most prone to defensiveness and arguing. Once you identify pride, you won’t have to travel much further to find your idols, the things you’ve created in your own image to take the place of God.
That’s why many of us started our Lenten journey with our foreheads smeared with ash and our hearts cracked open to expose the sin we’ve been harboring. It’s an occasion for reflection, for mourning, for repentance, and also for hope. See, God has not left us to ourselves. He has not abandoned us to the idols we’ve created. But he knows our temptations, and if we look for it, He’s promised also to provide a way out.
“No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man;” Paul writes, “and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape, too, so that you will be able to endure it.”
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Artwork by James Tissot, public domain.