The Bible is a big book. Well, it’s a big collection of books, compiling many centuries of history, poetry, prophecy, and other genres together. In that sense, it’s not nearly as big as it could be. As the Apostle John said about the activities of Jesus, “If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”
In that sense, what the Bible spends time on is inherently important. It’s highlighting events and narratives from throughout a massive amount of history and basically saying, “Here, these are the key parts.” What gets left out? A lot of things that aren’t directly moving the narrative forward. Sometimes it’s a lot of time. I mean a lot of time. Like the hundreds of years that the Israelites spent in Egypt after the time of Joseph and before leaving for the Promised Land. How many generations exist between the books of Genesis and the book of Exodus? About six or seven? Things were great when they first got into Egypt in the last chapters of Genesis, but things became really bad by the time Moses enters the scene.
Where was God all that time? We’re not told. The story doesn’t fill in all the blanks. It tells us God is faithful, even and especially when things don’t exactly seem to be working out as expected. Keep having faith anyhow, we’re told. Or as King Ahaz was told by the prophet Isaiah, “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.” (Isaiah 7:9)
The Bible is a record of God’s faithfulness and a record of humanity’s insecurity. Some of the people in the Bible trust, keep pressing on, finding hope and trust confirmed. Some fall away, never to be heard from, lost. In Hebrews 11 we’re given a record of those who kept the faith. What about those who don’t? We hear about a few, like King Ahab or Judas. It doesn’t work out well for them.
The message throughout the Bible is that God is faithful. The call throughout the Bible is “Keep the faith.” That’s not just a message of encouragement, that’s life and death in times of crisis. Who do we trust to bring hope? Who do we trust to bring answers? Do we give into the chaos and get lost in the frenzy and embrace anxiety? Or do we find a peace in patience?
Those are some of the questions that Scripture continues to ask us. And the fundamental narrative of this journey of trust is the Exodus narrative.
Remember how I said the Bible is pretty efficient, telling us what is important and leaving out the rest? We also can see what it finds especially important because it will spend a lot of space on those events. The last week of Jesus, for instance, takes up a significant amount of space in the Gospels. Jesus was a good teacher, certainly, but the Gospel writers are emphasizing that we have to, we simply have to, pay attention to the crucifixion and how it should be interpreted as part of God’s plan.
So, when the Exodus narrative takes up not only a few chapters, not only one book, but about 5 books (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua), it’s clearly an important event in the Old Testament, and in the Bible, and thus in history. It and the creation narrative really are the most fundamental stories in Scripture, the rest of the Bible is a reflection of these. Even the New Testament, where a person can’t really understand Jesus if they don’t know how the Gospel writers are intentionally connecting his work to the creation and exodus stories.
In our shared reading this week, I’m using a small part of that exodus narrative, the famous story about Israel and the golden calf. It really sums up a lot about the work of God and how people respond. God is doing a work, but it’s not obvious to everyone, so they get impatient, and want something—anything!—visible to help them feel like things are under control. They make an idol, and that idol may not be powerful, but at least it’s present.
This is a harder passage than the ones we’ve looked at in previous weeks. It’s a story of faithlessness, of God’s anger, of frustration, of bad leadership, of judgment. It’s a story that God takes faith seriously and that falling aside isn’t a laughing matter.
It brings together a lot of the Exodus narrative in how a people who have been delivered give up hope because things aren’t working out like they’d hoped. It also gives us some very interesting insights about God and how God works. Can God change his mind in light of prayer? This passage suggests just that.
It also calls us out. What do we turn to when we’re anxious or discouraged? I realized that I’m I’m often among the people, and in frustration or irritation, I can lose sight of God and get caught back into the ways of the world. When God doesn’t act on my timing, I have sometimes tried to find a more immediate answer or momentary distraction.
Noting those times that I’m “worshiping the calf” has been a way to keep me focused where I need to. I don’t have an excuse to avoid God, and the calf doesn’t offer any real hope.
Do you have a golden calf in your life?
What themes stand out to you? What questions do you have? Do you relate to this at all? Share something that comes to mind so that we can share this passage with one another and learn from each other.