When the Powers Take Over – OT

The Golden Calf

When the Powers Take Over

Israel’s Experience

Exodus 32:1-14

The dateline on an article in the Los Angeles Times reads “February 1, 2024, Las Flores, Mexico.”  It starts out like this:

Franz Kauenhofen was once a pious member of his Mennonite community in this tropical stretch of southern Mexico. He read the Bible, tended to his fields and reared his three children to obey the teachings of the church. 
“He never bothered anyone,” a childhood friend recalled. “He was a very kind, very noble person.”

Los Angeles Times article, February 1, 2024

Yet, Franz Kauenhofen now sits in a Mexican jail awaiting trial for theft, kidnapping, and murder as the most notorious drug dealer in the Campeche of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. How does someone growing up in a tight-knit Christian community that bans “televisions, computers, the internet and smartphones” get involved in international drug trafficking? How does a simple farmer become a feared and hated drug dealer? How does someone who believes in Christ’s way of peace order the killing of members of his own church?  These are troubling questions.

But this is not a new story. In the Old Testament book of Exodus, the story is told of how God led the children of Israel out from their slavery in Egypt. God appointed a leader, Moses, along with his brother, Aaron, to take them out of the land of Egypt, the most powerful empire of the day. God opened the sea allowing them to escape the powerful Egyptian army. God gave them water and food in the desert. God brought them to the foot of the mountain of God where Moses ascended to receive God’s law.

Yet, in Exodus 32, when Moses comes down from the mountain, he finds the people worshipping a golden calf that they have created to represent God to the community. How could this happen?  How could a community taught that the one true God cannot be represented by an image give up their gold to melt down and make into an idol? How could they bring sacrifices to this statue and declare this was the god that had brought them out of Egypt? How could they descend into drunken partying and sexual orgies so out of character to what they supposedly believed?

However, even this is not the most shocking aspect of the story. The entire Old Testament is the story of how Israel, God’s people, did this over and over again. They got into trouble and fell into sin. They ran into danger as a community of faith. God then sent a leader to rescue them and save them from disaster. Yet, they always slid back into the very same behavior and the same problems. Eventually, they ended up in exile, a people without a land of their own. How did a people with so many privileges and spiritual advantages end up so sinful and corrupt?

If we look closely at Exodus 32, we discover the root reason why “good people” who have so powerfully experienced God’s salvation become captive to powers that are revealed to be evil. Verse 1 begins, When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain…

At this point in their liberation from slavery and wilderness journey, the people of Israel had come to depend upon Moses’ leadership presence in their midst. He represented the leading of God, the voice of God. When he disappeared up the mountain and there was no sign of him for days and even weeks, they became anxious. Their anxiety turned to fear and fear turned to distrust.

Fear was at the root of their shift in attitude. There was no Moses in their midst. There was no one to tell them what to do next. They didn’t know if he was even still alive up there on the mountain. They realized that they were vulnerable. They were afraid that they were stuck there leaderless in the desert at the foot of the mountain. What were they going to do when the food ran out and they had no land or other means of income?

This lack of a tangible leadership presence led from fear to distrust. If there was no Moses visible in their midst, the very presence of God was questioned. There was no leader speaking for God, no visible representation of God, and no assurance that they weren’t simply stuck. How were they even sure that this God that Moses kept talking about even existed? Maybe they needed to hedge their bets and pull in another god or two rather than depend on the supposed existence of one God and one leader.

Fear and distrust led to a slippery slope of action. The people decided they needed to take matters into their own hands. Out of their fears of being stranded in the desert, they needed to assert themselves.  They returned to old patterns learned in Egypt and from the nations around them. The rest of Exodus 32:1 says, …the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, 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.” Out of their fear and lack of trust, they resorted to a “do-it-yourself” approach. They could no longer wait upon a leader who may no longer be alive or his God who may not even exist. They wanted a god they could see and touch and use to control their own destiny.

This attitude of fear instead of trust is at the heart of all idolatry and all evil. The Israelites never quite learned their lesson. Whenever the crops failed or their neighbors harassed them, or things went from bad to worse in their villages, they were afraid. They forgot about the God who had saved them and they went back to old patterns of worship and the ways of their neighbors who seemed to be doing better. They hedged their bets and started adding gods and pagan worship practices to the worship of the LORD (Yahweh).

The shift was subtle at first and gradual. It wasn’t that they were abandoning worship of the one true God; they were just adding their loyalty to the other spiritual powers that they saw working around them. It’s an old story repeated time and again in history. “God and family.” “God and country.”

The shift is made clear in the story of the golden calf. When the calf was made and the altar built, Aaron, who had abdicated his leadership to a powerful group of tribal leaders wanted to recover some of that leadership. He wanted to have it both ways. When the people said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt! the original language is ambiguous. It could be translated “This is your god, O Israel…”

Aaron picked up on this …and made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD” (to Yahweh, to the one true God.) This is the human tendency to want to have it both ways.  We want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to give lip-service and say that we are worshipping God while also “being realistic” and catering to the other powers.

However, such a double-minded attitude in practice means bowing to the other powers and spirits and isms in the world. These are powerful spirits to be sure, but are not really gods or God. Human beings in general tend to act out of fear of the present moment, which is essentially a fear that God is not really going to save us from this particular mess. We think we need to make compromises to the “powers that be.” We need add-ons to our faith.

Sadly, this is what happened to Franz, the Mennonite farmer in Mexico. His wife was having health issues and needed more money for treatment than he could make farming his land. And the drug dealers needed a place to land their planes and unload their cargo. Reading between the lines, we can assume that Franz was afraid that saying “no” would lead to the death of his wife and also endanger the rest of his family by making the drug lords angry.

So, Franz added a “realistic” option to his faith. Soon, he was compromising many aspects of his faith as he was caught in a cycle of fear of the drug lords. It even led him to the murder of those who were in the way of his standing with the drug cartel. He was held hostage to their demands, and it only ended with his arrest.

What starts out as a seemingly innocent compromise, a nod to the powers in the world around us, ends up as a new form of slavery to those same powers. What seems an innocent step to be realistic and cover our bases becomes totally evil. We end up enslaved to a power that is not aligned with God.

This is the Old Testament witness to how the powers of evil take over even the lives of those who are called “the people of God.” In a follow-up article, I will discuss the Apostle Paul’s response to these same dynamics and his teaching on how to avoid the takeover by the powers in the New Testament church.

The end result is the same whether in ancient Israel, the early church, or the church today. When we compromise and give into the powers, the powers eventually take over. We may shake our heads at the Israelites and our Mexican Mennonite farmer who end up involved in obvious evil. But we need to examine ourselves, our church, and our supposedly Christian society. We can too easily go down the same path.


Los Angeles Times article, February 1, 2024
La Silla Rota, January 25, 2023 (Original in Spanish)
Menno-Welt, February 4, 2023 (Original in German)

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