They say that when the cat is away the mice will play. There certainly seems to be something like that happening for the People of Israel while Moses is away, consulting with God on the mountain. The people had complained at various points during their wilderness experience, but God had heard their complaints and had acted each and every time. Its hard to think that such miracles could so quickly fade into the recesses of their collective memory, but without something tangible to remind them of God’s presence among them, something that could be seen, or touched, or be personally experienced in some way, not even miracles could keep the people’s attention for long. The irony in this story is that Moses was bringing back something tangible. He was bringing back the Law and it would serve as a tangible, quantifiable expression of the Living God as it was lived out in day to day life. The problem was that Moses was taking a long time to return and the people were growing impatient.
Now the same people that will tell you about the behaviour of mice in the absence of cats might also mention the notion that nature abhors a vacuum. When it comes to people, a lack of information creates opportunities to fill in gaps in the narrative. Sometimes we fill the gap with our imagination, that is, we make something up. It does not really matter what we make up, it does not even have to make sense. It just needs to make up for the lack of information. A lot of interesting conspiracy theories get started in this way.
Another thing that we might do is somewhat less imaginative; we fill the gap with something we already know. Often, that means we borrow something from the culture around us to help us to try and make sense of our experience. This is the trap that the Israelites fell into. They knew that a god had helped them to escape their captivity in Egypt, and that perhaps it was this god that had fed them with bread from heaven when they were hungry, and also gave them water from the rock when they were thirsty. They had never actually seen this god; in most cases, they just had to take Moses at his word. After all, Moses had done some amazing things on behalf of this god. The problem was that Moses was not there to tell them what this god was doing, so in the absence of reliable information, the people demanded that Aaron, the one in charge when Moses was absent, should fill in the gap.
Aaron, whether through fear or indifference complied with the demands of the people. He remembered what he had observed when growing up in Egypt and what he had experienced in wilderness thus far. He used the people’s wealth to create an image to which he ascribed all that they had experienced of the Living God. He gave them a god that they could touch and see, a god that they could be certain was in their presence. Not only did he borrow an image to cast as a god, but he borrowed ritual and acts of worship that were tangible in that they acted upon the senses and the baser instincts of those who participated. It was real, it felt good, and they believed that they were honouring God by participating.
It is easy to sit back and judge the People of Israel for their short-sightedness and lack of imagination in the absence of Moses. However, to do so might betray our own short-sightedness and lack of imagination. God continues to call us to a particular way of living, yet the culture around us continually beckons us, even to the point of seducing us, into thinking that to embrace the culture is to honour God. The Church in the 21st Century struggles with these issues just as surely as the Church did in previous centuries, and as the People of Israel did at the foot of the Holy Mountain when Moses was absent.
The calling of the Church is to remember and proclaim that God is present in a very tangible way. In Jesus Christ, “God became flesh and dwelt among us.” Those who are committed to him, the Church, His body in the world, manifest his presence in real and tangible ways every day as we continue to live in a way where we love God and love our neighbour.