At its best, contextualization requires us intentionally to interpret the Bible with empathy. (For my first post on “intentional contextualization,” click here.)
When ready the Bible, we have a natural tendency to villainize people when they fail. We often identify ourselves with the “good guys” and wonder how in the world those “other people” could ever have been so bone-headed or stubborn. We tell ourselves that we would never have acted like “those” people.
Empathize with Idolaters?
Israel’s fall in worshiping the golden calf (Exodus 32) is a case-in-point.
One rarely teaches the passage in a tone that explains how it was possible for Israelites to worship the idol. To do so does not mean we should justify their heinous sin. “Empathy” does not mean we have to agree with others. We simply need to be able to see things through others’ eyes.
However, when we do not make the effort to read Scripture empathetically, we limit the possibility of contextualizing the biblical message.
By distancing ourselves from the people in a story, we overlook the fact that we too might think or feel in ways strikingly similar to the sinners in the text. Although we haven’t sinned in precisely the same way (e.g., worshipping a golden calf), there may be other ways that our assumptions and justifications lead us astray.
If we can identify, i.e., empathize, with the idolaters and Pharisees for a moment, new potential applications will likely emerge. Said otherwise, if we distance ourselves from the struggles and failures of those in Scripture, we can apply the insights that readers could gain.
“Making Sense” of the Golden Calf
Using Exodus 32, how do we get inside the Israelites’ mind as they wait for Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai?
The ancient Israelites were enslaved in Egypt for centuries. They had been slack to circumcise their children and needed reminding that is was the LORD (not some other god) who committed to rescuing them. At the very least, these observations suggest the worship of the LORD did not thrive in Israel before the exodus. Accordingly, much of what they would know about the LORD was recently gained knowledge. After all, it has only been a matter of weeks since they received the commandments from Moses (back in Exod 20).
By contrast, polytheism was the norm in the ancient Middle East. Accordingly, worshipping idols “made sense” inasmuch as it was typical.
Notice what Aaron actually says. At one level, he and the Israelites did not think they were committing a fundamental compromise. In v. 5, he announces,
“Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD” (v. 5). Then in v. 8, he says concerning the idol, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (v. 8).
He doesn’t overtly deny the existence or power of the LORD. Instead, from Aaron’s perspective, he is simply adapting their way of worshipping. This method would make it far more straightforward and easy to accept for the average Israelite. In that historical context, one would have difficulty wrapping their mind around the idea of there being ONE true God.
Therefore, if Aaron wanted to rapidly solicit a favorable response from the people, fashioning the golden calf made pragmatic sense.
Aaron and Israel had reasons for their sin, albeit misguided ones. The fact that they had a rationalization does not give them legitimate justification for their disobedience.
Without empathy, we cannot understand why Aaron and Israel succumbed to idolatry. It’s much easier to dismiss them as ignorant and hardhearted. Yet, if we do that, we will just as quickly overlook our own rationalizations. We will become hypercritical of others.
Furthermore, we will miss critical applications that come out of the text. In the next post, I will highlight five applications that we can discern from reading Exodus 32.