Golden Calf: Idolatry or Political Usurpation?

Because I lived my childhood in the Midwest, New Yorkers often have the misperception that I am from farmland, surrounded by cows.  In the past I have been teased about having a “pet cow” or about waking up at the crack of dawn to milk the animals even though I live a good 15 minute drive from the closest farm.  As I thought about this week’s Torah portion, however, I reflected on what it would mean to be in an agrarian society where cows were the main animal and resource in one’s life.

This Shabbat we see a cow of infamous mention: The Golden Calf.  When Moses was on Mount Sinai, the Israelites worried about him not coming down and threatened mutiny, stating “Make us a god who shall go before us.”  Therefore, Aaron took all their jewelry and formed it into a golden calf.  The Israelites sang and danced, bowing to this calf and saying “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”  This incident infuriated Moses so much that he shattered the 10 commandments by throwing them to the ground.  God sent a plague to punish the Israelites for the sin of the golden calf.

Rabbis have stated that this story shows the impatience and lack of belief that our ancestors have, which led them to sin.  Rather than trust in Moses’ return, they panicked and created an idol to become their replacement leader.  Similarities have been pointed out between the golden calf and the Egyptian bull which represented the Egyptian god El.  What interests me, however, is one line in particular: Exodus 32:4.  Whereas the common translation of this line reads “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt,” the correct translation is “These are your gods, O Israel.”  Since there is only one calf, why is there plural language?

A story from First Kings 12 might help us answer that question.  This section comes after the 12 tribes conquered portions in the land of Israel under Joshua and created a unified kingdom under David.  David’s grandson Rehoboam was ruling, and he afflicted the Israelites with hard labor.  10 of the tribes chose to separate under a new king, Jeroboam.  Jeroboam was concerned that the members of these tribes will continue to pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices, so he created two golden calves, one in Dan and the other in Bet El, and said “You have been going up to Jerusalem long enough.  These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”

The second line of Jeroboam’s statement is exactly the same as the one in our portion!!!  His reasoning, however, is completely different: the golden calves are not created for idolatry but are rather for Jeroboam’s political goal of diverting the Israelites away from Jerusalem.  Many contemporary biblical critical scholars think that this was the original context of the golden calf and the Exodus story in our Torah portion was a later insertion.  If this is the case, it indicates that things are not what they seem: the golden calf is not an alternative god but rather a symbolic representation of the Israelite God which demonstrates that God can be found in alternative locations to Jerusalem.  The calves in Bet El and Dan are emanations of the very same God that took the Israelites out of Egypt as the God whose Temple is in Jerusalem: they exist solely to show that God can be worshipped outside Jerusalem.

The lesson that each of us can take from the golden calf is that things are not always what they seem.  What seems like an idol representing an alternative god might instead be a symbolic representation of God created for political reasons.  Similarly, what sounds foreign to us (a statue of a calf) may not have been foreign to our ancestors, as cows were the primary sacrificial object as well as the main animal utilized in their agrarian lifestyle.  While a legitimate claim can be made by saying that our ancestors were idol worshippers, a deeper look and comparative approach reveals that not everything we consider an idol might have been an idol to them.  It is easy to jump to conclusions or take the traditional line, but I would urge each of us to step back, reexamine situations or texts with a critical lens and make our own conclusions.  We may continue to feel that our original conclusion is correct yet it is important that we take the time to carefully examine what we read and what we hear rather than taking it at face value.

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