On golden calves and making excuses
Updated: Jun 4, 2020
When I was teaching English I had a rule that if the students were going to be late handing in an assignment, they would naturally be docked a few points. However, as I love a good story, if they could write a creative excuse as to why they couldn't turn their work in, I would give them a few points back. It could not be "My dog ate my homework!" but something more clever, something that either had to make me smile or think.
Most kids didn't do it, as they complained that the writing of the excuse seemed too much like homework, and not doing their homework was the thing that got them into a pickle in the first place. But every now and then a kid would do it, and it always brightened my day when they did. There was a kid named Alessandro who was supposed to write a paper on the historical development of English who, instead handed me the excuse: "I have not yet written my assignment because you have asked me to look into the past and my therapist tells me that dwelling in the past is not healthy." And my all-time favourite, from a kid named Marco: "I did, indeed, write what you had asked. But last night the authorities raided our home to arrest my father for being involved in organised crime. They confiscated all of his documents. I was so proud of my English homework that I had left it on his desk so that he, too, could be impressed as I'm sure you would be too, sir. Sadly, it was taken up by the police and it is now state's evidence so you would need a written order from a judge to get it which is a real shame because you would have loved it."
In today's first lesson we have a fantastic excuse - not as clever as Alessandro's or Marco's - but one that certainly makes me smile each time I read it. Moses has been up on the mountain getting the Ten Commandments, and the Hebrews are getting anxious because they feel he's been gone too long. So, already breaking the first rule that Moses is going to give to them when he gets back, they ask Aaron to fashion a golden calf, probably so that they can have a nice god that they can control rather than that unpredictable one up on the mountain. Aaron should have known better, of course, but maybe he gave into peer pressure or maybe he, too, wanted a different kind of god than the Big-G God, so he gave into the peoples' whinging and fashioned a nice calf. Who doesn't love a good calf?
Of course, Moses comes back from the mountain and can hear his rascally people before he even sees them, and he knows by their voices that they're up to no good. In a moment of anger he smashes the tablets that God has just taken such care to carve. Poor Aaron is caught gold-handed, and like Lucille Ball after being caught in some shenanigans by Desi Arnaz, has some 'splainin' to do.
First of all Aaron uses a classic tactic in making excuses: he tries to shift the blame elsewhere. "Come on," he basically says to Moses, "you know what these people are like!" But then, wanting to separate himself further from the aureate kerfuffle, Aaron goes on to admit that, yes, he may have asked the people to take their gold off and he may have thrown it into the fire but then it was out of his hands. "I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!" he says. It just happened. What could he do?
I once heard someone talk about this passage in terms of God's infinite patience with humankind's folly, but I'm not so sure this is the best passage to demonstrate that. Sure, God seemed to let Aaron's ridiculous excuse slide, but then he does go on to order the killing of 3000 people, so I don't think anyone besides maybe Genghis Khan would see that as a moment in which great patience was on display.
For me, what is so wonderful about the Book of Exodus in general is the fact that each step the Hebrews take from out of the mud pits of Egypt, across the desert, through the Red Sea, into the wilderness, and in to the Promised Land is taken with God as their point of reference. They were certainly a contrary lot and prone to all kinds of mischief, but they nevertheless moved through life mindful that it was God who was somehow leading them; their lives didn't really make sense without him. They could do all kinds of silly things - they did do all kinds of silly things - but at the end of the day they knew that they belonged to God, and he was with them in every step forward, in every step back, and in every eye-rolling excuse they uttered after every ridiculous misstep. At times they may have been angry with God. At times they may have doubted God. At times they may have been confused by God. But they knew - and God knew - that they were connected. And that knowledge would give them insight as they just kept moving forward.
I like that image, find it particularly relevant as someone who seeks to follow a God who is at times anger-inducing, doubtful, and confusing. But I feel like I need to stick with him as I know he's most certainly stuck with me. I need to do whatever I can to bolster our connection.
As a matter of fact, just last night I was going to write more on this very subject. But then I went into the kitchen and threw a couple of ice cubes in a glass and out came this gin and tonic. It just happened. What could I do?