In three previous articles, I treated various broader aspects of the Golden Calf incident, such as the basic teachings of the passages concerning the incident and some of their various applications to believers today.1 This post focuses attention on the Israelites’ religious syncretism in what took place on that infamous occasion.
Israel’s Knowledge of God before the Incident
Through the plagues that He brought upon Egypt, God judged its gods (Exod. 12:12) and showed to His people as well as to others that He was the one and only true God (cf. Exod. 8:10; 9:14; 10:2; 14:4, 18; 18:11). He then gave the Israelites who came out of Egypt clear teaching that they were not to make any idols or images (Exod. 20:4, 23), as the Egyptians and other peoples did (cf. Exod. 23:24).
Furthermore, He instructed the Israelites about the feasts that they were to keep to Him (Exod. 23:14-19). He made known to them as well the altars (Exod. 20:24-26; cf. Exod. 27:1-8; 30:1-6) that they would build to Him and the sacrifices that they would offer upon them as part of their worshiping Him (Exod. 20:24; 29:1-30:38).
Israel’s Religious Syncretism in the Incident
Before the Israelites, therefore, engaged in the Golden Calf incident, they had been thoroughly instructed by God about what they were and were not to do in worshiping Him. Nevertheless, in the absence of Moses, the people congregated around Aaron and demanded that he make for them an idol (Exod. 32:1).
Aaron not only cooperated with them in making the idol (Exod. 32:2-4; 35), but he also made an altar before it (Exod. 32:5a). Moreover, he declared that the next day would be a feast to the Lord (Exod. 32:5b).
When the people, therefore, rose early the next day and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings and sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play (Exod. 32:6), they purportedly were supposed to have been observing a feast to the Lord. In reality, however, they were engaged in religious syncretism that robbed God of His glory (Ps. 106:20-21) and was idolatrous worship that greatly provoked the Lord (Neh. 9:18).
Their feasting that purportedly was supposed to have been to the Lord was in actuality the rejoicing in the works of the hands (Acts 7:41) of people who had turned back to Egypt in their hearts (Acts 7:39). Their singing and dancing in what was supposed to have been a feast to the Lord (Exod. 32:17-19) was in fact not worship of the Lord at all but the unrestrained debauchery of people of whom even their enemies were ashamed (Exod. 32:25)!
God’s Rejection of Their Religious Syncretism
While the people were supposedly observing what was supposed to have been their observing a feast to the Lord, the Lord informed Moses of the heinous sinfulness of what they actually had done and were doing (Exod. 32:7-8). God rejected their religious syncretism and purposed to annihilate them for their idolatrous perversion of His worship (Exod. 32:9-10; 1 Cor. 10:7).
Aaron had brought very great sin (Exod. 32:21) upon the people through the leading role that he played in their perversion of the worship of the Lord (cf. Exod. 32:25). God was intensely angry with both the people and him and would have destroyed them all had Moses not interceded for them (Exod. 32:11-14; Deut. 9:19-20).
God’s Gracious Dealings with Them in spite of Their Sinfulness in the Incident
In His great compassion and mercy, the Lord did not annihilate them nor forsake them in the wilderness (Neh. 9:18-19). In fact, He continued His goodness to them in leading them, instructing them, providing for them, and using them for His own purposes in spite of the great sinfulness of what they did in the Golden Calf incident (Neh. 9:19-25).
The Israelites thoroughly perverted the worship of the Lord on this occasion through their incorporation of an element of pagan worship (the idol) into what was supposed to have been a feast to the Lord. The heinous sinfulness of their religious syncretism should cause all believers to take heed not to incorporate elements of debauched pagan origin into any aspect of their worshiping the Lord.
1If you have not done so, please read the previous articles in this series before reading this article:
(See all the articles in this series under point 11 here)