The golden calf
While Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the commands that God gave, the people became worried about whether or not he would return and they demanded that Aaron make gods to lead them.
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf.
And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it.
And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.” And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. (Exodus 32:1-6)
There are two statements in this account that once puzzled me. These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt! Why is the plural, “gods”, used when there is only one calf? Why did Aaron say, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD” when they were going to worship the idol he had made?
The answer to the second question is that they believed they were still worshiping God. The calf was intended to represent him. Their error was not in who they worshiped but in how they worshiped him. They mixed elements of true worship with pagan customs. And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. Worship of God did require these offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. These were the practices of those who worshiped idols and were not included in the worship of God. When Jeroboam led the ten northern tribes to break away and form a new nation he set up two golden calves for his people to worship. He probably thought he was still worshiping God but simply doing it in a different way.
Today there are churches that no longer follow the Bible but accept the beliefs of the culture in which we live. They accept divorce and same sex marriage. They see nothing wrong with abortion. They believe in evolution and an earth that is millions of years old. They have dialogues with other religions rather than evangelizing them and attempting to convert them to the truth. In my opinion they are the modern equivalent of those who worshiped the golden calf.
But what about the first statement? Why would one calf be referred to as gods? Perhaps the reason is that they knew God is a Trinity or at least that the Godhead was made up of more than one person. After all, God often uses plural pronouns when speaking about himself.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26)
And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:6,7)
The Bible clearly teaches that God is one.
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. (Deuteronomy 6:4)
That doesn’t necessarily mean he is one in a numerical sense. The Bible also says that when a man marries a woman they are one flesh.
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)
If a man and a woman can be one flesh surely the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit can be one God.
The Jews apparently understood that when the Messiah came he would be God in human form and therefore worthy of receiving worship. Herod claimed that he wanted to worship the Messiah.
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” (Matthew 2:7,8)
When the Wise Men found Jesus they did worship him.
And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11)
We think of such ideas as the Trinity and the incarnation as being unique to Christianity but apparently the Jews once believed and understood both of them. The reason they deny them now is that they rejected Jesus as their Messiah and this meant they had to reinterpret the prophecies of his coming to conform to their beliefs. For example, Christians see Isaiah 53 as a prophecy of the suffering Jesus endured to atone for our sins. Jews believe that the sufferer is the nation of Israel and the chapter shows the suffering it experiences at the hands of gentiles. Their rejection of the truth has resulted in their inability to understand many other scriptures. The beliefs of modern Jews aren’t a reliable guide to what Jews believed in Bible times.