Picture, if you will, one of the more dramatic moments of truth in all Scripture. Well, considering the many inspired reports of the events making up the Old and New Testaments and their cosmic importance, this may not truly be among the most profound, but there it is in the book of Exodus.
Moses has just returned from the heights of Mount Sinai with those two stone tablets under his arm. As he returns to the foot of the mountain, to the edge of the encampment of God’s people, Moses discovers them dancing around a golden idol in the shape of a calf. Not unknown for his temper—that murder back in Egypt, the striking of the rock to produce water—Moses loses it. He throws down the two stone tablets, breaking them into pieces. He furiously grinds the golden idol into powder, sprinkles the powder over water, and makes the people swallow it.
Then after all this, Moses hotly turns to his elder brother, Aaron, whom he’d left in charge while he was in a personal conference with God. He asks, basically, “What were you thinking?”
Aaron’s response has surely been repeated in one form or another millions of times among anyone caught in wrongdoing. “You know how these people are, Moses. They came to me demanding we make a golden calf.” And in the very words of Scripture itself, here is what Aaron says: “So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!’” (Ex. 32:24, NRSV).1
Coming from a long, multigenerational reverence for the words of Scripture, as is only appropriate given its sacredness, I am among those who were trained in the tradition that nothing else—no other book or object of any kind—should rest on top of the Holy Bible. I am aware that this may be taken, by some, as a kind of bibliolatry—a worship of “the things God created [a book made of ink and onionskin paper and glue and maybe even authentic leather] instead of the Creator himself” (Rom. 1:25, NLT).2 It may be countered by some that the book is humanmade. But it isn’t to be forgotten that as the apostle John says, “Through him [Jesus] all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3, NIV).
So, it may at first be a bit disconcerting to consider that, as one reads Aaron’s appallingly insipid response to his brother, Moses, it could bring, maybe, at least a kind of smile. “I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” Who can read this without at least a snicker? It’s too much like catching a kid with his hand in the cookie jar, and asking, “Why have you done this?”
This question “Why?” in fact, has always made me wonder why we often ask this of our children. “Why did you pinch your brother?” “Why didn’t you turn in your homework?” “Why did you steal that candy bar from the store counter?” Is it really possible that we expect a reasonable answer?
In the TV variety show of long ago, a character named Geraldine was played by comedian Flip Wilson. Geraldine often faced this very question about why she had done something wrong. Her answer, frequently, was “The devil made me do it!”
This suggests, in a way, yet another such moment of truth in Scripture when, in this case, two lawbreakers were found out and confronted. There is no way of knowing this side of eternity how long humankind had been on earth before it happened, but report of it appears as early as Genesis 3; “Genesis” defined as “origin,” the very beginning of man and woman. It was only a scant two chapters after “in the beginning”—of literally everything.
Adam and Eve, this couple created by God Himself, were hiding when God came, as was His custom by then, looking for them. “Where are you?” He called—as if, in His omniscience, He didn’t know.
“I was scared,” Adam said, “because I was naked, so I hid.”
“Who said you were naked? Did you eat of the tree that I told you not to?” again, as if He didn’t know.
So there are Adam and Eve, back there at the very beginning, transfixed, in a classic way, much like Aaron a couple thousand years later. And they respond to God’s inquiry in a way that, for all its typical humanness, also brings at least a wry, knowing smile. It’s the very first example of finger-pointing. Adam blames his wife; Eve blames the serpent.
Of course, the utter gravity of the situation cannot be dismissed. This was, after all, the immediate result of what has been called ever since “the Fall.” But who can read of this without at least a wincing humor over the irony of it—and of self-recognition?