Not So Idolatrous
Insight Behind the Golden Calf of the Bible
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic investigates a story that many of us are familiar with from Sunday School or at least within the larger fabric of Western Culture; the Golden Calf from the time of Moses. While it looks like an egregious violation of paganism, when we dive in a little, we find it’s not quite so simple, nor as disobedient as it appears.
As background for this quick analysis, we should think back to the essay on Exegisis and how reading from the text and understanding the culture, language, and people of the time is crucial for the analysis of older texts within contemporary reading.
With this analytical model in mind, let’s look at the text from Exodus 32
32 Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled around Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt—we do not know what happened to him.”
2 Aaron said to them, “Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”
3 So all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.
4 Then he took the gold from their hands, and fashioned it with an engraving tool and made it into a cast metal calf; and they said, “This is your god, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”
5 Now when Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of it; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.”
In this text “god” in verse 4 is Elohim. This is contrasted with “Lord” in verse 5 which is YDVH or Yahweh. Why two different words for God? This opens the first can of worms of how the Bible was compiled.
Who wrote the Bible? Simply put, many people wrote it as is discovered when looking at the Documentary Hypothesis. This theory is based on linguistic analysis of the Bible texts and the understanding that what we call the Old Testament was compiled during the Babylonian Captivity between 597 BCE and 538 BCE and called the Masoretic Text. Bottom line, they estimate five key constituent writings that were merged into the text as we know it.
The Yahwist: Where we get the name of God as YDVH or Yahweh
The Elohist: The second prime contributor to the stories
Deuteronomist: Largly making up Deuteronomy and the laws
Priestly: Making up the rest of the laws and other discussions
X - Kind of the filler text that we don’t have a solid understanding of
Of note, there are also other sources that are referenced in the Old Testament that are no longer available to us known as the lost books of the Bible. They include the Book of the Wars of the Lord mentioned in Numbers 21:14 and The Chronicles of the Kings of Israel and The Chronicles of the Kings of Judah which are mentioned in 1 Kings 14:19,29.
With this context, we can dive back into the nuance behind Elohim.
Whether we use the term Elohim or YDVH is largely determined by the source that fed which part of the story. Even more interesting is that the Hebrew alphabet was borrowed almost extant from the Phonenician pictographs and only formed into the block letters thousands of years later.
Before we get into Elohim, YHVH is another name for god often pronounced Yahweh. Yet the Hebrew alphabet doesn’t have vowels and so we only know for certain the consonants and guess at what the vowels might have been. (YHVH to many is pronounced “Yod Hey Vah Hey”, literally pronouncing the consonants) For this study, we’ll pause on this name since it appears to be a later addition to the story.
Returning to the Elohist source and looking at those early Phonecian pictographs we find that the root of Elohim, El is a picture of an Ox (aleph) plus the picture of a Yoke (lamed). The idea being communicated with El is that you are yoking yourself to a greater strength or power.
The rest of Elohim consists of pictographs representing Grace, Effort, and Chaos making the entire word for God read roughly as “the strength I’m connected to that stills the chaos.” Many other interpretations attempt to tie it to other biblical verses and concepts but loosely we start to see the larger concept of yoking (submitting) ourselves to a greater power.
So Why a Calf?
Why on earth did the Israelites think, mere weeks out of slavery in Egypt, that making a golden idol in the form of a calf was kosher? (pun intended) Given that their God had just handed down the covenant terms, what we call the Ten Commandments, of which the first two are to have no other gods and to make no idols, this seems especially egregious.
Well, the calf is a diminutive form of the ox. It’s logical to interpolate that to represent the God who brought them from Egypt, they’d create a representative model of how they describe their God. The strength of an ox cast in the form of an intermediary calf.
Far from being a shockingly pagan idol with zero connection to the God they claim to follow it suddenly becomes illuminated in the same context that the modern church displays a cross as a symbol for God.
I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest this absolves them of wrongdoing according to a critical reading of the Bible but it does highlight that it wasn’t as completely illogical as it appears at first blush. As, who writes , commented in feedback to this essay:
Technically speaking, it’s heresy, but it’s interesting heresy! :)
He went on to clarify that while this nuance is interesting we shouldn’t miss the main point of the story which is how Aaron tried to stand up to an agitated mob and did what he thought he had to do to keep things together. Rabbi Garfinkel shares:
My favorite verse in the story is Ex. 32:24 - "So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off!’ They gave it to me and I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf!” That verse always gives me a chuckles because it shows Aaron in a desperate struggle to explain what he’s done. “Oh gee, look what happened, a golden calf walked out of the fire!”
So there are two stories here. The first is that there’s almost always a nugget of golden truth that we can use to justify an action. The second is that we often buckle to the pressure of popular opinion and use that nugget of gold to justify our actions.
I think uncovering the link between the Ox and the calf makes this story hit closer to home because we can look at it and go, “Ooohhhh… that isn’t as blatantly wrong as I thought…” In fact, it certainly causes me to pause and look for when I’ve stretched to justify my own Golden Calf moments at work, in life, and in faith.
I find it fascinating that when we sit back and understand the additional layers of context that surround even ancient stories, we find that there’s much more than meets the eye. It highlights the power of Systems Thinking where we approach things with insatiable curiosity, the humility to learn more, and intentional reframing to understand the topic from another perspective.
This is a fun example that many of us grew up with in the Western Tradition yet I’m sure there are a ton of other examples we can also learn from. Please share your insights on when you’ve encountered a similar story!
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