Students of Scripture must always be conscious of what's going on when a sacred text is being written. Those events not only motivate the author to write, but divine inspiration only kicks in when he or she addresses them.

This is the case in Sunday's Exodus (32:7-11, 13-14) reading. Though our Elohistic author is narrating a 1,300 BCE event, he is focused on something during the eighth century BCE - the period in which he composed this passage.

One classic way to depict the presence of gods in the ancient Middle East is to employ cherubs: mythological beings sporting a human head, the wings of a bird and the body of a bull. (The Egyptian variant is the sphinx.)

People - including Jews - believed the gods used these creatures to travel and, when stationary, were enthroned on their backs. (Note how many psalms describe Yahweh "seated on the cherubim.")

Temples and shrines to Yahweh displayed cherub statues to assure the faithful of Yahweh's presence. The Ark of the Covenant even had two cherubs on its top. There was one problem with this practice: Some people started to believe the cherubs actually were Yahweh!

No golden calves
Eighth-century prophets like Hosea condemn the "calf of Samaria" and warn of "blowing kisses to calves." Scholars agree these are derisive references to cherub (calf) worship in Israelite shrines.

This is one reason biblical experts conclude that the Genesis 32 golden calf narrative has nothing to do with Israelites at the foot of Sinai worshipping an Egyptian calf-god. Rather, this narrative is rooted in the Israelite cherub-worship during the period the text was composed.

Even Christians can uncover cases of cherub-worship in our various denominations - practices or customs which probably originated with the best of intentions, but developed into implicit idolatry. How often, for instance, are Catholics more concerned for the words of Church authorities than for the risen Jesus' Word in our lives?

We're called to go back to our "Exodus beginnings," to return to people, situations and frames of mind which originally gave us faith. As the I Timothy author reminds his readers (1:12-17), "This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost."

Remember how Mark's Jesus defended His ministry when His practice of associating with sinners was challenged? "Since when do the sick need a doctor? I came to call not the just, but sinners."

Wrong worship
Luke's chapter 15 (1-32) hammers away at the same basic truth. In three parables, Jesus praises the person who goes after the lost instead of being content just to deal with the saved.

Had the evangelist not presumed some in his community identified with the older brother's strict justice frame of mind instead of the father's prodigal generosity, he wouldn't have included this parable in his "lost stories" collection.

It didn't take long before Jesus' followers began "worshipping" the good folk in their communities instead of employing those special individuals as a force to reach out to those who weren't so good. Goodness was originally intended to be a means by which others could be helped, not as an end in itself.

Understanding what the Elohistic author intended, our faith is directed into areas many of us don't care to visit. If our faith really is biblically based, we're always on the lookout for golden calves in our Church.