During the years Israel was in Egypt, they all but forgot Yahweh. I’m sure they heard stories of how God appeared to their forefathers in the distant past, and how He made promises to bless and multiply them. But 400 years of silence had turned all that into legends. When God appeared in a burning bush, Moses had to ask His name so he could tell his people which diety was going to deliver them.
Then God revealed Himself to His people by delivering them from their oppressors through great and mighty works. There were the plagues, the death of the first-born, the parting of the sea, the water from the rock, the manna and the quail. By the time the children of Israel reached Sinai, they knew a lot about God from what He did. There was no mistaking Who did all of these amazing things. And yet they didn’t know Him.
Moses went up the mountain to receive the Law, and by the time he came down, the people had made an idol in the form of a golden calf. This wasn’t any idol. According to Aaron, this was supposed to be what Yahweh looked like.
He received what they handed him, and fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they said, “These are your gods, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”
– Exodus 32:4
Obviously, after all they experienced, Aaron wasn’t saying some other god saved them out of Egypt. They knew it was Yahweh. They were first-hand witnesses. And yet, they got it all wrong on the nature of their God.
One definition of an idol I hear today is “anything that takes the place of God in your life”. This is a good definition, but it is not the only one. As this account shows, an idol can also be any false or incomplete (one-sided) representation of the one, true God. I think even as believers, we probably idolize God to some degree or another in this way without knowing it.
None of us can fully comprehend what God is like. Pick any one of His attributes (i.e. omniscience, omnipresence, holiness, love, etc.), make it your life’s work to study that attribute, and you will only barely scratch the surface in understanding Him in that way. Yet, even if you could comprehend one attribute of God, you would idolize Him if you ignored the other attributes. God is love, but He is not only love. God is holy, but He is not only holy. God is good, but He is not only good. It is a deceptive and dangerous thing to focus on only some of God’s attributes while ignoring His others.
I encourage you to seek to know God in all His fullness. Don’t focus on one or two of your favorites sides of God’s character and nature. Know your whole God, not just a subset. Avoid making an idol of Him.