In the Old Testament Law, God gave his people very specific instructions about how they were to relate to the people around them, including in their culture and worship practices.
Deuteronomy 12:2–8 reveals important principles in this regard. God commanded that the people destroy the places where pagans worshiped, including their altars, their pillars, their images, and even the names of the places. This is clearly more than simply insisting that they worship Yahweh rather than false gods; this is stark evidence that God rejects worship that imitates pagan worship in any way. Everything in pagan culture embodies religious commitments, and those elements that are imbibed with pagan religious meaning must be rejected for use in worship. One might ask why they had to destroy, for example, the altars and pillars; wouldn’t these be useful even for the worship of the true God? Yet God commanded that they be destroyed. He summarized his desires with the words, “You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way.” Instead, they were to listen to his instructions and find a place of his choosing for their worship.
Yet the people disobeyed these principles even as they waited at the foot of the mountain for Moses to return from receiving the law tablets. The golden calf incident is a terrible failure for this newly formed worship community, but unfortunately one that foreshadows many other failures in the days and years ahead. Fearing that Moses would never come back, the people demanded a physical representation of deity, just like the pagan nations had. Aaron complied, forming a golden calf, similar to the practice of both Egypt and Canaan, and the people celebrated with an orgiastic festival so noisy that it sounded to Joshua’s ears from a distance like “a noise of war in the camp.”
Most people likely assume that the Israelites’ problem here was one of worshiping a false god. Yet a closer look at what happened reveals something different. The common assumption is usually based upon the fact that most English translations use the term “gods” in Exodus 32:4–6 to describe what they desired to worship—“These are your gods, O Israel,” the people said. This is a legitimate translation of the Hebrew term Elohim in this text, a plural reference to deity common in the ancient near east.
However, that very term (in its plural form) is also used elsewhere to unquestionably refer to the true God, and other clues in the text indicate that the people were actually trying to worship the true God. One clear example is what Aaron says in verse five: “Tomorrow shall be a feast to Yahweh.” Clearly, the attempt here was to worship the true God through the golden calf. Moses made this fact explicit when he related this event at the end of his life in Deuteronomy 9:16: “And I looked, and behold, you had sinned against Yahweh Elohim (the LORD your God). You had made yourselves a golden calf. You had turned aside quickly from the way that the Lord had commanded you.” His final statement describes exactly what was so wrong with what they did—they did not follow God’s commands regarding worship.
Their motivation may indeed have been noble. They may truly have been attempting to show honor to the true God by erecting a symbol of strength and nobility in his name. Yet what this event makes clear is that God rejects worship of him in improper forms. He has the right to tell his people how he wants to be worshiped, and his people must follow those instructions to the letter. This event is also an illustration of a problem that will plague Hebrew worship for a long time—syncretism. They mixed true worship with false. They were attempting to worship the right object, but they were doing so not only through means that God had not prescribed, but also through means they copied from the pagan nations around them. God always rejects this kind of worship.
Another example of this principle is found in Leviticus 10:1–3, after the tabernacle was completed. Here Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu are severely punished by God for their worship. What was their problem? Their failure was not in that they attempted to worship a false god or that they attempted to worship the true God in a manner he had forbidden. Their sin was that, as the text says, they “offered unauthorized fire to the Lord, which he commanded them not.”
This account emphasizes that God is concerned not only with heart motive—although that is certainly central—nor is he simply concerned that people worship him alone—although that is, of course, true. He is also concerned that his people worship him in the right way, which includes not worshiping in ways that he has forbidden or inventing new ways to worship that he has not commanded.
God alone has the authority to establish worship practices.