When [Moses] relates that Rachel stole her father's idols, he is speaking of a vice that was common. From this we may gather that man's nature... is a perpetual factory of idols.
-John Calvin (as quoted by Elyse Fitzpatrick in her book Idols of the Heart)
I can remember as a child thinking about the whole idol concept. (I know... weird kid, right?) I mean, who was the guy who originally thought up the idol. There had to be a first guy that did this. There had to be some guy who thought to himself, "hmm... I think that I am going to make a god."
If you make your own god, how do you actually bow down to it. You know that it is just a piece of stone or some carved wood. I can understand how people generations later can live in a deceived state. Their whole lives they have been worshipping this idol, but what about the first guy.
Maybe, though, his original idea wasn't to make a god. Maybe it was to bring God to himself. Maybe, he was trying to understand the one true God, and decided to make an image to represent Him. That is what the Israelites did. When Moses went up to the mountain, and all of the smoke and thunder was going on up there, it must have been absolutely spectacular. It must have been something that was beyond their comprehension. So to try and understand this dreadful and awful God, they decided to make an image that they could understand.
The Israelites chose a calf, a golden calf. I can't say exactly why they chose a calf, or who decided it would be a calf. Maybe there was a committe formed, and after the manna and bird stew potluck, they took a congregational vote.
In their efforts to make God tangible, they picked a calf. The calf could have represented provision, because of all of that God had done for them. This calf was also controllable, unlike the God of the thunder and clouds that was at work in the mountain. The God that had said that if anyone even touched the mountain, that they would perish. Oh yes, a calf was much better for them. It would represent God to them, but in doing this, they had created their own God.
One of the matriarchs of the Israelites, so to speak, was Jacob's wife, Rachel. Many years earlier she had stolen some idols from her own father. We don't have all of the details as to why she did this, but Elyse Fitzpatrick makes some possible suggestions. Here is what she says of Rachel:
Perhaps she believed that there might be a god that ruled over the earth, but he was too far away and too unmanageable for her comfort. She couldn't trust him to order life as she desired. She needed a tamer, more docile god -- one she could control. She wanted a god that would give her what she needed. She wanted a god she could steal; one she could hide. She wanted a god she could keep in her purse.
She goes on to say that an idol isn't simply a stone statue or some carved replica, an idol is anything that takes the place of the one true God. I have heard others say that "...if you are willing to sin to obtain your goal, or if you sin if you do not get your goal, then your desire is sitting in the place that only God should hold."
Idolatry is not a dead concept in the lives of the civilized world. Maybe it is even more prevalent than ever. We might not have little statuettes sitting around our houses, but the idol might be there all the same.
Near the end of the Bible, during a time when you would have thought that idolatry was near extinction, the apostle John states in one of his letters, "Little children, guard yourselves from idols." (I John 5:21) I think that this warning is just as valid today as it was nearly two thousand years ago.