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When Spiritual Life Goes "South"
By Gordon MacDonald

"[The Lord said to Moses,] 'I have seen these people… and they are a stiff-necked people' ” Exodus 32:9

This is among the strangest of the stories found in the annals of Israel's desert wanderings. Moses has gone to the mountain to commune with God. He remained in the presence of the Lord longer than usual, and the people grew uncomfortable. The pagan spirit — which had never been far from the surface — erupted within them. “Come let us make gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him.”

Before we condemn these foolish words, let us stop for a moment and consider whether this spirit has ever resided within us. Such deviant performance is easily recognized in someone else. It’s much harder to spot a similar edge in ourselves.

Israel forgot its commitment and its gratitude toward the God of Abraham, as well as the spiritual leadership of Moses. And in this vacuous moment there was "generous giving" of a different type. Aaron called for the giving of gold, to be melted down and reformed into the shape of a calf. When it emerged from the fire, the people shouted: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

The blasphemy from the mouths of the people stuns us. How could they? How could Aaron, who responded only by building an altar and announcing a religious festival for the next day? How could they think of replacing the invisible God of Moses with an object of gold? [Note 25]

And yet, we must search our hearts every day for the propensity to build similar idols. Not golden calves, certainly, but idols nonetheless: materialistic acquisitions that become, in troubled moments, symbols of spiritual infidelity, of elevating comfort, well-being, status and self-importance into a place of prominence that belongs to God alone. Cars, homes, boats, club memberships can all be marvelous possessions, but they can also become calves around which we do our own dances and rituals.

As Israel plunged into false worship, we are told they got up to indulge in revelry, a term reflecting a downward spiral into pagan debauchery. Unspeakable things happened around that calf. We begin to understand how low people can sink: people like the Israelites, perhaps also people like ourselves.

"I have seen these people," God said to Moses, "and they are a stiff-necked people." Is that what God thinks of people who turn their gold into calves rather than kingdom work?


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