Why Not Worship a Golden Calf? KI TISA, EXODUS 30:11−34:31

In one of the most well-known biblical tales in Exodus, of all people, Aaron, the High Priest of the Israelites, makes a calf out of molten gold (32:4). It is made to be an object of worship “to the Eternal” (32:5). Rituals, that include sacrifices and festive dancing, attend those rituals. (32:6) The story seems to be the epitome of idol worship or idolatry.

Further, Aaron defends his action and never seems to be punished for an act of apparent treason against God. But 3,000 Israelite idol worshippers are murdered as punishment, though rabbinic commentators tend to focus on the words and actions of Moses; because of his pleas to God (32:11-14), God reverses Himself and does not eradicate the Israelites from the face of the earth (32:19). However, when Moses himself directly observes what the Israelites did, in a rage, he smashes the tablets on which are written the ten commandments. He burns the golden calf (32:19-20).

That got me. Everyone, or almost everyone, knows that gold does not burn – except in rare circumstances if you use fluorine gas. And there is no evidence that Moses had access to such a substance. In any case, in an oxygen atmosphere, gold will not burn. It is inert. So why tell such a preposterous fib?

You don’t believe that the Torah lies? Read it yourself. Oops! That is not exactly what the text says. Moses did burn it, but only to soften it so he could grind it into a powder which he sprinkled on the water which he made the Israelites drink. Perhaps I mis-read other parts of the narrative. Let’s read it again.

א  וַיַּרְא הָעָם, כִּי-בֹשֵׁשׁ מֹשֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן-הָהָר; וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל-אַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה-לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ–כִּי-זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה-הָיָה לוֹ. 1 And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him: ‘Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what has become of him.’
ב  וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, אַהֲרֹן, פָּרְקוּ נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב, אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵי נְשֵׁיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם וּבְנֹתֵיכֶם; וְהָבִיאוּ, אֵלָי. 2 And Aaron said unto them: ‘Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.’
ג  וַיִּתְפָּרְקוּ, כָּל-הָעָם, אֶת-נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב, אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם; וַיָּבִיאוּ, אֶל-אַהֲרֹן. 3 And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron.
ד  וַיִּקַּח מִיָּדָם, וַיָּצַר אֹתוֹ בַּחֶרֶט, וַיַּעֲשֵׂהוּ, עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה; וַיֹּאמְרוּ–אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. 4 And he received it at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they said: ‘This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.’

We are given the circumstances. Moses had gone up the mountain and had not returned. They asked Aaron to make them a god (אֱלֹהִים) that could go before them in their flight from Egypt. Perhaps they were not asking Aaron to make a substitute for God, but a substitute for Moses whom they had begun to treat as a god. After all, they did not abandon God, but planned to worship God the next day. For Aaron proclaimed: “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” (32:5) Today shall be a festival for replacing Moses. Was that the suggestion? Was Aaron engaged in a palace coup against his younger brother? But then why build an altar in front of the golden calf? There was no altar to Moses.

Further, Aaron announced in verse 4 that this is thy god (אֱלֹהֶיךָ) when the request had been for a god (אֱלֹהִים). You can see how tricky it gets. From the previous chapters, there had clearly been no objections to making objects out of gold dedicated to the worship of God – the breastplate for example that the High Priest wore. Opulence, as I wrote, was the order of the day. Aaron did not try to melt down what the artisans had already crafted. He asked for donations of the people’s personal jewelry.

Further, the occasion of the request was not that Moses had been gone for so long, but that his day of return was delayed. But it was not. Rashi, therefore, offers a commentary to explain why the Israelites had become confused in their counting of the days, with the suggestion that Aaron was just practicing a delaying tactic.

Already we have at least two possibilities.

  1. Aaron was engaged in a palace coup;
  2. Aaron was totally loyal and was engaged in stalling.

There are other complications in interpreting. Those beseeching Aaron were not the Israelites who escaped from Egypt, but Egyptians who had escaped with them and wanted their gods to be represented in the leadership. They wanted multiculturalism to be respected and Apis or Osiris represented in leading the exodus and not just a god who appeared as a cloud of smoke of a pillar of fire. They wanted something much more solid.

Thus, the people, whoever they were, wanted:

  1. A substitute for God;
  2. A substitute for Moses;
  3. An addition to the Israelite pantheon.

This begins to read like a story which at multiple points can be read in different ways and, depending which interpretation you make at that nodal point, the story continues with a different trajectory. Perhaps a close and nuanced reading only sinks us deeper into confusion. The above are only samples. For example, if the text is read as an allegory about the situation at the time it was written, then it might be a story to reprimand the Israelites in the Northern Kingdom who had split off from the Southern Kingdom. Jeroboam, the Northern Kingdom’s first king, to offset Jerusalem as the centre of worship with the symbols of winged lions (cherubim) adorning the sacred altar, created his own cultic practice around the worship of a calf.

What precisely is the situation? What are the motives of the protesters? What are Aaron’s motives? Was Aaron simply a passive nebbish who gave way to a populist appeal, or someone who was taking advantage of that appeal but who subsequently did not and would not take responsibility for his actions? Or was he himself the secret initiator of the uprising? Why a golden calf? To compete with the opulence of the existing mobile tabernacle? But how do you move a weighty statue? Further, if God is represented by fire and clouds, both ethereal in some sense, this idol is itself made from a material that comes up from the bowels of the earth. Perhaps the dissatisfied followers just wanted to be grounded.

The tale at the very least seems to be a contrast between the weighty and the ethereal, the inert and unenergetic (inert, from the Latin in (not) and ert (energetic), versus the dynamic. In building a golden calf, the preference is for a “native” state rather than a nation in the making. A person relates to God, argues with God, tries to persuade God as Moses does. There is no relationship with a golden calf. The Israelites and the golden calf did not share any memories and no covenant bound them together. A calf made of gold is inert and does not react to or relate with other substances. Echoing yesterday’s blog, the golden calf symbolizes a stress on the natural, the earth-bound as the driving force as opposed to hope and promise and ethical principles and laws. On the one hand, the calf is stable and balanced – see Aristotle’s depiction of the Golden Mean. The tale is about the misdirection of populism, the demand for political correctness and a resistance to rapid change.

And then in addition to fire and air versus earth, water is introduced. Moses makes the Israelites drink water sprinkled with the dust of the pulverized gold. We recall that whenever the Israelites enter the Tent of Meeting, they wash their hands with water so “they will not die.” Perhaps, this is just a hygienic practice. The message is clear and repeated over and over. You have to cleanse yourself. You have to take responsibility for what you do wrong. What stands out most in this story is that Aaron, the High Priest, does not take responsibility for what he does and is not punished for what he did.

Recall that the idol is a calf, not a mature bull. It is young and immature. Further, even matured, a cow is a dumb and passive creature. The bias is obvious. The dynamic versus the static. Laws of man not determined by laws of nature. But it is also an allegory about goals. In everyday life, we see it all around us. People are awarded gold medals and gold trophies, Nobel prizes in gold, gold plated Oscars and Emmies, the Palme d’Or. Perhaps Moses sprinkled gold on the water that he forced the Israelites to drink so that they would incorporate gold as a sign of value into their very being. The gold dust would mature them.

Return for a moment to Aristotle’s golden mean. The Tanakh is not about making a deal between polar extremes, but dialectically working with two qualities, say freedom and rights, not versus equality, but between two values having different and related dimensions. The task is to make them compatible, not seek to weaken either through choosing a point between.

We do not worship a golden calf because we do not worship inertia. We accept gold as ornamental, especially in relationship to that which adorns the divine, but we do not make the gold divine.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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