Drinking the Dust of Our Idols

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, November 10, 2002



Exodus 32:1-6, 15-20 The Golden Calf

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."

Aaron answered them, "Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons, and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me." So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool.

Then they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt!"

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, "Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord." So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterwards they sat down to eat and drink, and got up to indulge in revelry. . . .

Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.

When Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said to Moses, "There is the sound of war in the camp."

Moses replied: "It is not the sound of victory, it is not the sound of defeat; it is the sound of singing that I hear."

When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned, and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. And he took the calf they had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.

Luke 9:1-6 Jesus sends out the Twelve

When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. He told them: "Take nothing for the journey--no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. If people do not welcome you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave their town, as a testimony against them." So they set out and went from village to village, preaching the gospel and healing people everywhere.

Arcana Coelestia #10465 Mixing the dust with water

And sprinkled it on the face of the water means a mixing together with truth. This is clear from the meaning of "water" as truth. And since it says that the dust into which the calf was ground up was sprinkled on the water, the meaning is that the falsity resulting from hellish delight was mixed together with truth coming from heaven. The reason why truth coming from heaven is meant by this water is that the water descended from Mount Sinai, and "Mount Sinai" means heaven, from which divine truth comes.


And Moses took the calf they had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it. (Exodus 32:20)

What a scene! The Israelites eating, drinking, and dancing wildly around a golden calf as Moses, who has just endured forty days on Mt. Sinai without food and water in order to bring God's laws to the people, comes down to see what they have done in his absence.

To put the scene in perspective, at this point it is only about four and a half months since the Israelites had been brought miraculously out of Egypt. First there were the ten plagues inflicted on the Egyptians, culminating in the death of the firstborn of everyone in the land except for the Israelites. Then, when Pharaoh changed his mind about letting the Israelites go, and sent his charioteers after them, pinning them against the sea, the Israelites experienced the miracle of the parting of the waters of the sea so that they could escape across it on dry land--while the Egyptians, who went in after them, were drowned by the returning torrents of water. Then, when they had traveled only a few days into the desert, the Lord provided water to quench their thirst. And soon afterwards, when they complained that they were hungry, the Lord provided them manna and quail to eat. Once again, he provided them water, this time through a miraculous stream coming out of a rock. He then proceeded to aid them in conquering their first enemy in the desert, the Amalekites. Certainly, if any show of force could have reached the hearts and minds of the Israelites, all these miracles would have!

Finally, when they were camped at Mt. Sinai, God caused the mountain to smoke and tremble, and the people heard the voice of a powerful trumpet growing louder and louder, until they themselves trembled with fear. They then heard God's himself speaking the words of the Ten Commandments from the mountain in a loud voice. There could be no doubt--could there?--that a powerful God had brought them out of Egypt, cared for them in the desert, and was now giving them laws that they were absolutely to obey.

Among those laws was this one:

You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6)

Yet only forty days later, Moses came down from the mountain only to discover that the people had made a golden calf out of their own earrings, and were worshipping it as their savior, who had brought them up out of Egypt.

How could they have forgotten so quickly all the things God had done for them, and the commandments he had spoken to them so loudly and clearly from the mountain?

There's an old saying that goes, "You hear what you want to hear." Of course the people had heard God's voice from the mountain. But had they really heard it? This was a people that had just come from a land where they had been slaves for several generations. And they were used to being slaves; they were used to not being responsible for themselves. Even when Moses came, on a commission from God, to free them from their slavery, after initially accepting him, it wasn't long before they stopped listening to him. It was not only the Egyptians who had to be convinced to let the Israelites go; the Israelites themselves had to be convinced, through the ten plagues, that it really was their destiny to be freed from slavery. And even after they were freed, they continued to grumble, and to resist Moses and the commandments of God.

In short, the Israelites were not all that interested in the ways of God. They preferred physical and material pleasures to the word of the Lord, and the freedom and responsibility that go along with it. Left to themselves, they would have remained slaves, wholly engrossed in physical pleasure and pain. They were not interested in spirit, in wisdom, in love.

And so, although they did experience the miracles that the Lord had done for them, and did hear his words, these things did not sink deeply into their consciousness. These events and these commandments did not make the strong impression on them that we might expect, because their minds and hearts were closed to the way of love to the Lord, love to the neighbor, and a willingness to be led by the Lord in all things.

It was less than two months from the time they had heard the Lord commanding them not to make any idols, and they were already worshiping an idol they had made.

It still seems amazing. And yet, how successful have we ourselves been in leaving behind our idols, and following the Lord fully and wholeheartedly? Of course, in our day and age we are not tempted to make a golden sculpture and worship it. We're much too sophisticated for that! Instead, we set up other kinds of idols: money, power, beauty, success, our own intelligence and rightness, pet theories and pet peeves that we continually harp on to any audience we can hold captive. These are just a few general categories of modern-day idols that we set up for ourselves. Each of us, if we take an honest look at ourselves, can get much more specific about the particular idols we have set up--the attitudes, behaviors, addictions, shortcomings that we put front and center in our lives, even though we know they are contrary to the way that the Lord has shown us to think, feel, and live.

And haven't we each had times when we gained some great new insight, and made a new resolve to live differently from now on? Perhaps sometimes it worked! But mostly, I suspect, it was not long before we forgot our high resolve and slipped right back into our old way of thinking and acting. Just like the Israelites, we go right back to worshipping the same "golden calf" that we have always worshipped in our Egyptian slavery to the habits that we have adopted from our material (and rather self-centered) life in the world. We're not all that different from the ancient Israelites. We do the very same thing, only on a different level.

And like the Israelites, when we slip back into our old habits, we probably think that the Lord doesn't notice it anyway. "As for this fellow Moses," we say--the one who brings us the word of the Lord--"we don't know what has happened to him." Once we slip back into our old habits, that insight we got in church, or while reading the Bible, or while taking a peaceful walk in the woods, or while talking to a close friend--once we slip back into our old habits, the insight and resolve that came to us from the Lord have slipped into the back of our minds, conveniently forgotten, out of sight, out of mind, allowing us to continue living just the way we have always lived.

And yet, that insight, that experience, is not totally forgotten. It may have moved out of our consciousness for a time, but it is still hidden in the depths of our mind and heart, communing with God in our soul, waiting to re-emerge when the time is right.

Moses did come down from the mountain, carrying the tablets with the Ten Commandments that the people had heard God speak from the mountain forty days earlier. And when he saw what the people were doing, he threw down those tablets and broke them to pieces--just as the people had rejected and broken the commandments through their behavior. Then Moses took the calf they had made, burned it in the fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water of a stream that came down from Mt. Sinai (see Deuteronomy 9:21), and made the Israelites drink it.

Yes, in our lives there comes a time when our bad attitudes, and the bad habits that go with them, have gone too far, and we realize that it is time to make an end of them. Whereas before the commandments of the Lord had seemed distant and theoretical, coming from the remote mountaintop, now they are up close and personal, right here with us. We realize that we have broken them, and that our violations are hurting both ourselves and the people around us. We know that we must change. And yet it is a bitter pill to swallow.

We have seen the truth. That is the stream flowing down from Mt. Sinai. But the effects of our violations flow onward together with the new truth in our mind, just as the powder of the burnt and pulverized idol mingles with the water of the stream. And whether we like it or not, we must drink the bitter water. We drink the dust of our own idols, and it gives a bitter taste to our new and deeper understanding of the truth.

It is the bitter water of knowing what we should have done (or not done), and living with the results of what we did do (or neglected to do). It is seeing the effects on our family, our friends, our co-workers. And it is living with the lasting impact that our behavior has had on our relationships with others. It is living with broken and lost relationships, and knowing that if we had listened to the Lord's voice earlier, this might not have happened. (Then again, it might have happened anyway! Living with the uncertainty is part of our struggle.) While our old life may grow fainter and more distant with the years, its effects are always with us.

We also continue to be affected by our old habits and attitudes in the way we think and feel. Having been in the wrong for such a long time, it will be harder for us to see things rightly. It will be harder to clearly understand what is true, and what course we should take. We will always have a tendency to fall back into our old ways of thinking.

Because we once established a pattern of ignoring the word of the Lord when it conflicted with a habit of ours, the Lord's word to us will now take a different form. For the first set of tables of the Ten Commandments, the "the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets" (Exodus 32:16). But for the second set, God commanded Moses to chisel out the tablets, and then God wrote on them the same words that had been on the first set (Exodus 34:1). The first set, of course, had been broken by Moses in his anger at the Israelites' quick violation of them.

Here is the meaning: Because we willfully turn away from God in our motives, thoughts, and actions, we cannot accept the truth in pure form as it comes from God. We cannot receive the commandments on the tablets that God makes. The truth instead has to be accommodated to our fallen state--written on tablets that Moses, a human being, chisels out. This is the secret of why the Bible contains so many harsh and difficult passages. This is why so many things in the Bible are spoken from the human perspective, rather than God's perspective. This is why there are things written in the Bible that if taken literally, are not true, but rather are the way God's truth looks to us when we resist and oppose it.

For example, the Bible often speaks of God's anger toward human beings. And yet God, who is pure love, can never be angry with us. The Bible speaks of God's anger, not because God is actually angry, but because when we are stubbornly opposed to the ways of God's love, refusing to listen to God's commandments and obey them, then we set ourselves against God's love. God's love then looks to us like anger, because it opposes our wrong and evil behavior, and the false ideas that we adopt to rationalize our actions. Because of our own unwillingness to listen to the voice of God's love as it seeks to guide us toward happiness, we hear something very different from what God is saying. The truth behind that harsher voice is still the same, just as the words God writes on the new tablets are the same. But the tablets are the work of Moses. God's word comes to us in a way that is not as clear and beautiful as it might have been if we had not worshiped at the golden calf of our own materialistic and self-centered desires.

Yet, the promise is still with us. Our road through the difficult and often painful desert of life will be longer and harder than it might have been. But if we persist, always returning to the spiritual journey that the Lord has set before us, we will reach our spiritual destination. If we continue to move forward on our life journey, we will come to dwell in our Holy Land of spiritual life, mutual love, and joy in the presence of the Lord. Amen.

Music: Meditation for a Quiet Evening
2002 Bruce DeBoer

Used with Permission