So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” Exodus 32:3-4 (read the rest of the story here)
One of the first stories I remember from childhood is "Stone Soup." It's a folk tale about a traveler coming through a town and tricking the townspeople into providing him with food. At first he knocks on doors and asks for food, but the townspeople refuse to give him food and ridicule them. After a few rejections he builds a fire in the center of town and places a large pot of water on it. Then he adds a stone. He stirs the pot of water and periodically tastes it. The townspeople are intrigued by this behavior and ask him what in the world he is doing, and he tells them he is making stone soup. He then suggests that while plain stone soup is delicious, they can make it even better by adding other ingredients. The townspeople proceed to bring out the food that they had previously refused to share with the stranger, he adds it to the pot, and presto-- soon they all have soup to share.
The story of Aaron, Moses' brother, making a golden calf for the Israelites to worship is kind of a messed-up prototype for the stone soup story. The Israelites are none to happy with God for dragging them out into the desert and leaving them there with seemingly no end in sight. Often they have no idea where their next meal or drink of water will come from. In Egypt they were slaves, but at least they had the proverbial three hots and a cot. It seems as though they have gone from the frying pan to the fire. They are understandably mad at this God, and at his messenger, Moses, so when Moses goes up to the mountaintop to have a long heart-to-heart with God, his brother Aaron decides to take advantage of the Israelites in their weakened state and attempts to seize control by creating a false god for which he, not his brother Moses, will be the messenger. He takes the Israelite's jewelry, which is valuable but pretty much useless there in the desert, and uses it not to create delicious soup but false hope.
People today sometimes fall into the trap that the Israelites fell into. It is true that we don't pool our resources and intellect to create golden statues to worship, but too often when people work together it is not to do good but to do harm. This week is the week that most of the children in my state start school, so this passage of scripture makes me think of bullying. Being in school makes most kids feel vulnerable, so some of them try to get on top of the situation by participating in bullying. It is a way to fit in and belong and feel the safety and comfort of being part of a group working together, but wouldn't it be better if schools figured out how to harbor that desire of people to belong to a group and work together to create something rather than to tear down other kids?
This kind of working together to do something destructive doesn't just happen in schools and among children. It happens in families and in churches and in workplaces and in just about every human institution there is. Rooting it out can be difficult. A few verses after this, God suggests that the only way to truly stop it is to destroy the perpetrators. Moses refuses to participate in this. These are his people and he loves them. God loves them as well, but it is a tough love kind of love, and God knows that it will take a couple of generations to get them back on track spiritually and morally, and so because of this incident God forces the Israelites to continue to live in the wilderness for forty years, or two full generations. It is the grandchildren of the people who escaped Egypt who will get to experience the fullness of God's grace and love and mercy by moving into the so-called Promised Land, a land "flowing with milk and honey."
We don't like the idea that our sins and shortcomings might reverberate through our lives into the future the way the Israelite's poor choices do, but once we accept this, we can begin to make better choices for ourselves and our own lives.
The implication of thinking through the impact of our choices, good and bad, on future generations is pretty profound and far-reaching. For example, there is a wide scientific consensus that we are going through many natural resources in a way that will deplete them. One little-known but widespread example of this is overfishing. Our appetite for certain fish could make them unavailable within a generation or two or even sooner in some cases. The solution is to fish more carefully, but that would require some international cooperation, and thus far that cooperation has just not happened.
The bottom line is this: no person is an island. Our choices, for good or ill, impact other people, whether we want them to or not.