Pilgrim’s Road Trip #12 – When The Compass Points At A Golden Calf

Pilgrim’s Road Trip #12 – When The Compass Points At A Golden Calf June 6, 2013

We live as exiles. We’re called to be pilgrims.

I am journeying through Scripture chronologically, stopping at a few oases along the way, in order to contemplate our exile experience. I’ll also offer some helpful thoughts about how Christ can reshape that identity and reorient our journey so we live as pilgrims. To read earlier posts in the series, click here.

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If you’ve ever been thrust into a disorienting new reality after years of a fairly predictable existence, the words of business author William Bridges may resonate with you:

When you moved into your new house, or got the promotion, or had the new baby, the change probably happened pretty fast. But that is just the external, situational change. Inwardly, the psychological transition happened much more slowly: instead of becoming a new person as fast as you changed outwardly, you found yourself struggling for a time in a state that was neither the old or the new. It was a kind of emotional wilderness, a time when it wasn’t quite clear who you were or what was real.*

Moses’s people had been crying out for change for generations, but when the change came, the people’s internal compass pointed backwards, toward Egypt. Maybe Egypt wasn’t exactly Eden, but the Israelites quickly developed a case of nostalgia for their old stomping grounds. Their responses were not unlike what we see in the responses of long-term prisoners who are set free, and report missing the 3 square meals and structure of prison life. The Israelites learned almost immediately that the wilderness would provide neither for them. They might have developed mighty muscles during their time in Egypt, but their “trust muscle” had atrophied from generations of disuse. In spite of God’s miraculous provision of food, water and protection, the Israelites discovered that the wilderness in which they were encamped came with its own confusing new rules. They no longer knew who they were or what was real.

When the one who’d led them into this wilderness explained that he would be climbing to the top of Mt. Sinai to get further instructions from God, the people must have waved goodbye using the last bit of strength from that weakened trust muscle. It didn’t take long before their compass pointed back toward Egypt:

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us 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.'” – Ex. 34:1

Aaron knew just how to lead these people in his brother’s absence. He gathered gold from them, perhaps called on the skills of the artisans who’d been called by God days earlier to serve him, and put together a god familiar to the people – a god they already knew how to worship because they’d seen their slavemasters doing so.  

When God sent Moses down from Sinai to break up the party going on round the golden calf-god, the scene is both absurd – particularly Aaron’s classic excuse, “…they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” (vs. 24) and heart-rending. The story could have ended here, at the point of this mass rebellion.

But this is a story of mercy. That mercy included some tough discipline meant to reset that broken compass pointing back toward Egypt inside the Israelits. That mercy included Moses, raised as an Egyptian, lived most of his young adult life in exile, and whose hands had once killed one of his own people, who interceded for people who didn’t merit the gift of another chance.

That mercy would transform these people into the people who could point their children in the right direction, toward trust in God. And that trust would allow those children to follow him where he’d promised to lead them the day they’d left Egypt.

To ponder: How have the habits of what was “the good old days” in your life negatively affected the way you’ve responded to God when you’ve entered a time of transition? 


*From Managing Transitions: Making The Most Of Change (DaCapo Press)

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