1 Kings 12:26-33, 13:33-34; Psalm 106:19-22; Mark 8:1-10
I have never wanted to create a god. I would never think to construct something out of metal or stone or wood, only to begin to worship it upon completion. This is why the stories of the Israelites turning to the worship of golden calves have, for a long time, been confusing to me. It seems to make idolatry into something that’s an obvious, explicit turning away from God, a deliberate decision to say, “No, I choose to worship this unliving thing, made with my own hands, that I know is not God.” This is not any idolatry with which I am familiar.
I have been happy to discover, then, that perhaps this is not what the Israelites were up to. One theory explaining the repeated trope of the golden calf is not that God’s people intended to fashion for themselves new gods. Yahweh and El—both names ascribed to the God of Israel—were often symbolized with bulls. Further, in the Ancient Near East, it was common to depict images of gods enthroned, not by showing them sitting in a stately chair, but instead standing atop an animal associated with the god in question. If one wished to create a new throne for the God of Israel, it would have been natural to fashion a golden calf.1
Now, this is the idolatry with which I am familiar. This is the idolatry that does not seek a new God, but rather, seeks to relocate God. We are unhappy with where God has chosen to dwell. We may be frustrated, desperate, impatient, mournful, angry; we may feel lost or abandoned, and deeply confused at God’s words or his silence. And so we react in an understandable way. We have bowed before the throne we know, and we go away unsatisfied; perhaps, then, we need only construct a new throne. Maybe then God will abide where we want, no, need him to abide. And maybe this throne is constructed of metal or stone or wood. Maybe it is crafted out of stacks of money, or the praise and adulation that comes with status. Maybe it is fashioned out of systems and causes we have flung ourselves into. Maybe it is made of the love or the flesh of another person. No matter. We have made our new throne, that we may behold our God, who brought us up out of Egypt.2
But God has already chosen his throne. From the beginning, he has lovingly made it, and human craftiness will not dissuade him from his choice. So our throne remains empty, and what was originally meant to be a seat of God becomes an idol, an object of worship unto itself. And this idol hungers. Unlike God, the idol is a created thing, and cannot sustain itself. It needs food. It needs fuel. It needs more, and more, and more. We may, for a while, happily give. And then we give a bit more. Just a bit. But the idol is unsatisfied. Each time we add fuel to the fire, it grows, and demands ever more of us. It seeks to consume us, to devour us; in itself, it is weak, but if we continue sprinkling our blood on its altar and throwing our flesh into its fire, it can overcome us, exhaust us, diminish us, and make us nothing.
But this does not need to happen. God has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.3 Now, God is his own flame; but God repeatedly shows himself as the flame that does not need fuel, that sets the bush alight in front of Moses without causing it to burn,4 that sets the pyre ablaze after Elijah has doused it with water, rendering the kindling useless.5 God sustains himself, and the only thing he is interested in burning up is that which would separate his beloved creation from himself. He wants the throne he has always wanted. Make no mistake; God wants your flesh and your blood. But he wants it whole. He wants you whole. He loves you thriving and free; his glory is for you to be fully alive. You are his throne. We are his throne. We are where he chooses to dwell. And God does not simply want us as an idle object on which he may rest; he wants to dwell in us so that we may dwell in him.6 He sees us, the crowd, weak with hunger in the desert, and has compassion. He does not want to consume us or devour us; he wants to feed us.7 And God knows that he is the sustainer of all things,8 so he chooses to feed us with the only thing that can forever sate our hunger: himself, the bread of heaven, the cup of salvation.
God offers himself up to us that we may live. “Come,” he says, “enter the fire that you may not be burned. Enthrone me that you may be enthroned in glory. Eat of me, the bread of life, that you may hunger no longer. I know, I know, the loaves look few, and the table looks small, but come. Come, and be fed.”
- A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible in its Context, Michael Coogan
- 1 Kings 12:28
- Luke 1:52
- Exodus 3:2-3
- 1 Kings 18:21-38
- John 17:21-23
- Mark 8:1-4
- Wisdom 11:21-26
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