Take a trip, when you have some spare time, through the books of 1 and 2 Kings. Of all the dismal failures of the Jewish people at the hands of their misguided leaders, one particular failure gets mentioned over and over again. Take for example 2 Kings 15:9,
“And he [Zechariah, not to be confused with the prophet of the same name] did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as his fathers had done. He did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin.”
If this were the only example of this, then it would go unnoticed, but over and over again, kings of Israel are summarily dismissed as bad leaders for having not “departed from the sins of Jeroboam.”
So what was the “sin of Jeroboam?” 1 Kings 12:28 gives us the answer.
“So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, ‘You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’”
The way he phrased that last line ought to sound familiar. The very same words are used by the wandering Israelites in Exodus 32:4 when they fashioned for themselves the original golden calf. Lesson: God’s not all that excited when his people make golden calves and worship them.
But though this sin seems distant and quaint to those of us living without literal golden calves, I am beginning to understand that this is the worst sin in the Bible. A little closer examination of the text in Exodus 32 will show what I mean. Don’t make the mistake, as is easy to do with a cursory read, that the Israelites are worshipping the actual calf itself. Aaron sees what they have built and announces in verse 5 that, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” That is, “to Yahweh.” The sin of the Golden Calf is not worshipping the calf, but worshipping the God of the Bible through the calf.
Again, what’s the big deal? Surely God would appreciate a bit of creativity once and a while from his worshipping people. But if not, then surely they can get partial credit for having at least made the effort. Good intention, bad execution…right?
But this strikes me as an awfully shallow application of this story. There is much more to this act than can be summed up in an admonition to follow carefully a regulative principle for worship as the people of God gather. Rather, what seems to be the concern is the tendency among God’s people to remake him in their image. “God created man in his own image and we gladly return the favor,” I once read somewhere.
In other words, God condemns his people in the most thoroughgoing of ways when they decide that they “don’t like to think of God in that way.” He is holy, granted, but what that means, among other things, is that he is unchangeable. He is who he is. “I am that I am,” he says to Moses. “Don’t you try to make me fit into your categories. Love me and worship me on MY terms and not yours.”
Now, before you charge God with a bit of relational peevishness, consider that this tendency is the death of any real relationship. For years, I have observed the moment when a dating relationship reaches its D-Day. The moment that one person begins to resent what the other person is, the relationship is over. Love, if it is to be unconditional, loves that person, NOT what they like to imagine that person to be. The vast majority of relationship strife I have seen stems from one person trying to manipulate their partners into fitting into their mold what they think they ought to look like. It is the supreme relational selfishness.
What if God’s condemnation of the Golden Calf incident (and the many calves to follow) is simply his way of protecting the integrity of the relationship he wants to establish with us? Because in demanding that we accommodate OUR relationship with Him to the realities of His character, has not HE also accommodated himself to US by “taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men?”