“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).
In the last post, I tried to show the relationship between the First and Second Commandments. Both address our God-ward orientation in all of life and what it looks like to acknowledge him in his world. But if the First Commandment addresses whom we worship, the Second answers how God is to be worshiped. The two are closely related; when we imagine that we can worship God as we please, we eventually worship the the god we please.
Nowhere is this seen more clearly or with more trustworthy authority than in the story of the Old Testament. There God himself illustrates the importance of getting the Second Commandment, not only through stories where it’s explicitly broken and punished (like Leviticus 10:1-3 or 2 Samuel 6:1-8), but over the long arc of Israel’s history. As Breaking Bad slowly unfolds into a commentary on how pride corrupts even the best intentions, so the history of Israel plays as a condemnation of worshiping the true God falsely.
But the Hebrews who heard Moses preach Deuteronomy on the plains of Moab didn’t have to be fortune tellers in order to understand the ever present danger of false worship. They had already heard first-hand accounts from their parents about the dire consequences of worshiping God in ways he hadn’t commanded.
A careful reading of the story of the golden calf shows that their idolatry wasn’t breaking the First Commandment; that is, the Israelites didn’t see themselves as worshiping a different god.1 Rather, they rejected the Second Commandment and worshiped God in a way that was, you could say, contextualized to their cultural background as lifelong residents of Egypt.2 The golden calf incident wasn’t offensive to God because it portrayed him as a bull; it was offensive because God cannot be understood or worshiped in any way apart from what he has explicitly revealed about himself.
As the following chapters of Exodus make clear, God didn’t take Israel’s false worship lightly. Here’s a rundown of God’s responses: He threatened to destroy Israel and re-boot the nation-family with Moses (32:10); he disciplined three thousand of the people with death (32:25-28); he sent a plague on the camp of those who remained (32:35); he made them grieve when he commanded them to leave Sinai and go on toward the Promised Land without his special presence to bless them (33:1-3); he ordered them to give up many of the treasures with which they had left Egypt (33:4-6). The promise of the covenant, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:1-8) was nearly forfeited. Lest we miss the point, Israel’s false worship had brought them to the brink of destruction, and it was only the passionate intervention of Moses, their covenant mediator, that saved them from total annihilation. In short, it was the breaking of the Second Commandment that nearly ended Israel’s story at the beginning. No wonder that the making of images of God for false worship is repeatedly called “the evil thing in the eyes of Yahweh” (Deuteronomy 4:25; throughout 1-2 Kings).3
In God’s incomparable mercy, the people of Israel weren’t abandoned. God kept his promises to lead Abraham’s children into the Promised Land of Canaan. But within a few generations of receiving the centuries-old promise, Israel was already turning back to worshiping Yahweh falsely. In Judges 17-18, the author records the story of Micah, an Israelite who makes a substantial payment to the local silversmith in exchange for a “carved image” (Hebrew phesel, the same word used in the Second Commandment) and a “metal image” (Hebrew massekhah, also used to describe the golden calf in Exodus 32). As if this weren’t bad enough, Micah contracts with an itinerant Levite to live in his home and serve as a personally ordained chaplain. The climax of the account reveals that this unqualified and blasphemous pseudo-priest is none other than Moses’ own grandson, Jonathan the son of Gershom (Judges 18:30). Every detail of the story drips with disgust; Israel’s fall from obedience was so great that even their covenant mediator’s line was corrupted with false worship!
But once again, God gave Israel undeserved help and raised up David, a king and chief worshiper who, along with his son Solomon, led Israel into a golden age of peace, prosperity, and pure worship. Yet Solomon’s son, the foolish Rehoboam, oversaw the disastrous splintering of Israel into a Northern and Southern Kingdom. Jeroboam I, the founder of the Northern Kingdom (which came to be known simply as Israel), formally instituted false worship in his domain by building not one but two golden calves and placing them at its northern and southern borders. He established an extra-biblical priesthood and a copycat Passover celebration to rival the true one held in Jerusalem. And when he dedicated the images of the calves, he went so far as to quote Aaron’s words from Exodus: “Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28)! Notice that Jeroboam wasn’t, in his own mind, establishing a new religion; rather, he was just establishing a different way of worshiping the one true God. He was merely changing a few of the names and places from what God had commanded (in detail, if you’ve read Leviticus lately). But in no time at all, other gods were being worshiped in the Northern Kingdom. False worship opened the door to false gods.
Lastly, even severe judgment and discipline couldn’t stamp out the effects of false worship in the community of God. The false worship of Israel eventually migrated in other forms to the Southern Kingdom (known as Judah). It began with the evil King Ahaz redecorating the temple (2 Kings 16:10-18), which included replacing the temple’s altar (whose construction is specifically commanded in Exodus 27:1-8) with a copy of the one used by Israel’s pagan neighbors. It culminated with King Manasseh, the most despicable king in Judah’s history (2 Kings 21:1-18), systematically instituting the worship of other gods and dismantling biblical religion such that “Manasseh led them astray to do more evil than the nations had done whom [Yahweh] destroyed before the people of Israel [in the conquest of the land following the exodus]” (2 Kings 21:9).4
After the Assyrian Empire swept Israel into the dustbin of history (2 Kings 17), the Babylonian Empire (acting as God’s agent of discipline) conquered Judah and deported many of its citizens in the sixth century B.C. One such captive was Ezekiel, who had served as a priest in Jerusalem before being seized and carried off to Babylon. In captivity God spoke through Ezekiel as a prophet, and in chapter eight of the book named after him, God reveals to him in a vision that the temple back in Jerusalem now hosts “an image of jealousy, which provokes to jealousy” (Ezekiel 8:3). In the same vision, God takes him on a tour around the temple to point out the unthinkable: the Hebrews still left in the land have not learned their lesson. Horrifyingly, those living in the devastated ruins of Jerusalem now come to the temple of Yahweh to worship unclean animals (Ezekiel 8:7-12), the Babylonian god Tammuz (Ezekiel 8:14), and the sun itself (Ezekiel 8:16). What had been absolutely unthinkable a few centuries earlier—worshiping other gods in the very temple of the one true God—had become a reality.
Could God paint a clearer, more disturbing picture? When we lose the true worship of God, we lose the true God. Worshiping God in ways he hasn’t commanded, regardless of the reason, is dangerous and, if the goal is to enjoy and commune with God, counterproductive.
But why is that? What about unbiblical worship is so corrupting? How exactly does our worship shape our theology, both practically and on paper? We’ll look at that in the next post.
1. Due to a quirk in Hebrew grammar, the phrase ‘elleh ‘eloheykhah in Exodus 32:4 could possibly be translated “these are your gods” (as in the Septuagint, ESV, NRSV, NIV, KJV) or “this is your God” (as in the NASB, NKJV, HCSB). The context seems to favor the second option, since after crafting the idol, Aaron specifically commissions a feast to honor Yahweh (32:5). This seems to reveal an artistic intent for the calf to represent the one true God, not a separate deity.
2. The worship of Apis, a deity represented as a bull, had been common in Egypt for over a thousand years before the Israelite exodus. Given the centuries they had sojourned among the Egyptians, it stands to reason that the Hebrews would have carried over the Egyptian religious significance of a calf (representing strength and communication with the divine) in worship.
3. The way that false worship is singled out as being singularly heinous is lessened when rendered as “what is evil in the sight of the LORD,” the English Standard Version’s translation of the Hebrew phrase, which occurs 54 times in the Old Testament.
4. Note that even Manasseh is not beyond the gracious and powerful reach of the Lord. For the amazing account of his conversion and repentance, see 2 Chronicles 33:1-20.