The Israelites were in a situation that would make anyone nervous. They were in the wilderness, a huge displaced population; in Egypt they had been a valuable workforce, but now anywhere they went they would be intruders, draining resources and threatening the local people. Maybe we could compare them with the huge numbers of people living today in refugee camps around the world. Distrusting nations would refuse them entry, even temporarily – sound familiar? The more generous might take pity on them, letting them pitch their tents near a water supply, offering them their surplus food for a time. But it was inevitable that somewhere, and soon, they would have to go to war simply to stay alive.Of course, God had promised them their own country – but they knew it wasn’t ‘terra nullius’ – a land belonging to no-one. It was home to the Canaanite people, and they weren’t going to roll over and wave their feet in the air when the Israelites arrived. They were going to have tofight. They needed a commander, and they needed a god.These days we don’t tend to think we need a god. But even we need what a god represents when we go to war: something to fight for, something to defend, something to assure us we’re right, and something to strike fear in our enemies’ hearts. The Israelites had all that – they’d be fighting for their freedom, and a place to call home; they’d be defending their lives and the future of their people; and recent events had proven that the god of their fathers, ‘Yahwh’, was on their side; clearly their cause was just.
But he was invisible. Other nations had huge terrifying gods that put heart in their people and chilled their enemies; by spectacular rituals they called on their gods and received messages and signs on demand. The Israelites needed a god that they could see.
Moses had gone to get the visible proof – slabs of stone carved with the laws of Yahweh. But where was he? Impatient and frightened the Israelites take matters into their own hands, and design their own god. All perfectly reasonable – if Yahweh wasn’t the true, living God.