Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel logo

God’s Word for You

Acts 7:39-43 they made a calf-god

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, December 20, 2019

39 Our fathers, however, refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts they turned back toward Egypt. 40 They told Aaron, ‘Make gods for us who will go before us. As for this man Moses who led us out of the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.’  41 That was the day when they made a calf-god, offered a sacrifice to the idol, and began taking delight in the works of their hands.

An additional, seventh, “this man” (see verses 35-38) makes the point that Israel rejected “this man Moses” at Mount Sinai on the same day that the Law was being given to him by God. Unwilling to wait a few hours or days for their deliverer to return to them, they commanded Aaron to built for them a golden calf.

Stephen coins a new term, “to make a calf-god” (moschopoieo, μοσχοποιέω), echoing a term in Plato which is “make an idol” (eidolopoieo, εἰδωλοποιέω). The mob of Israelites pressured Aaron to undertake this task, so they were as responsible as he was for doing it (Exodus 32:35). The term “they began taking delight” takes us into their hearts; their motives. These were people who had spent their lives in Egypt, under the influence of a nation that worshiped many gods. The experience of their lives was very different from ours. For them, one worshiped this god in this place, and that god in that place. It was not too much of a stretch for many of them to believe that once they had been removed from Egypt, they could worship another god besides the one who rescued them. In their way of thinking, misled by Egyptian polytheism, once Yahweh guided them away from Egypt, they were free to worship a new, as yet unknown god, in this place. It may not have occurred to many of them that such pluralism was idolatry. They needed to be instructed; they needed to be guided. The Lord gave the people guides, through Moses and the many prophets. But their idolatry was never quite left behind; it was always with them.

42 “But God turned away and gave them over to the worship of the stars of heaven, just as it is written in the book of the prophets:
  “It was not to me that you slaughtered animals and sacrifices
  forty years in the wilderness, house of Israel.

The quote begun here is Amos 5:25-27. The “Book of the Prophets” is a reference to the Twelve Minor Prophets, in which Amos usually comes third (some ancient manuscripts and traditions place Amos second after Hosea). Stephen uses a passage from Amos to show that the idolatry that began at Mount Sinai in the wilderness never really departed from Israel. It stayed with them throughout their whole history.

A translation question here is what to do with Stephen’s use of the negative word (μή) that begins the quotation. Many translations ignore it and flip the sentence structure to an interrogative (therefore a rhetorical μή), but I have taken the passage as a declarative sentence and left the μή intact as a negative: “It was not to me…” This is the way the Greek Septuagint takes Amos 5:25, although the Hebrew original asks a question that expects “no” for an answer. Either way, the message of the Holy Spirit through Amos and Stephen is that the children of Israel were sacrificing animals to false gods in the wilderness. They were guilty of crass idolatry.

43 No, you even took up the tent of Moloch
  and the star of your god Rephan,
  the statues you made to worship.
  Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.”

Stephen leaps ahead some five hundred years in time from Moses through the times of Joshua, the judges, the united kingdom under Saul, David and Solomon, and the divided kingdom when God sent many prophets to his people. Finally, they were taken away into captivity to Babylon. “Moloch” was the god of the Amorites, usually spelled Molech. He is mentioned five times in warnings in the law (Leviticus 18:21, 20:2,3,4,5) and in many other Old Testament passages, sometimes as Molech, others as Milcom. Since Molech has the same consonants as melech “king,” it is not surprising that the Greek translation brought it his name here, although Amos 5:26 has “You lifted up the shrine of your king” in the original Hebrew.

The other idol, “the star of your god Rephan,” is confusing in Amos 5:26. There, it seems to be “Kaiwan.” Some have speculated that Rephan or Romphan (however it was spelled) was the name in Egypt (in the Coptic dialect) for the planet Saturn. Saturn was worshiped as a divinity in many ancient cultures, including Egypt, Arabia and Phoenicia. The distinction is not really important to Stephen’s point, since any of these interpretations lead the text to the same statement about idolatry.

Luther describes the concept of god in his usual clear terms in the Large Catechism: “A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart…. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you have not the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God” (First Commandment, paragraphs 2-3).

Christians must not imagine that because our children and our families don’t have gold and bronze statues in little shrines at their doors that there is no idolatry in their hearts. We must pray for them, and we must teach them the true faith in God and what it is to trust in Christ. We rely on Jesus for our forgiveness, because Jesus is the only way to the Father in heaven (John 14:6). We must rely on Jesus also for the little things we need, day by day, from food and water to medicine and work that satisfies our natural need and desire to be useful. All of these things come from God through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Put your trust in him for everything.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


Browse Devotion Archive