Although the immediate issue seemed to be an absent leader, whose whereabouts was suspect; the worship of the gold bull-calf by the Israelites in the Sinai desert soon after their Egyptian liberation has always perplexed me. Imagine, just coming off the ten impossible-to-replicate signs and wonders in Egypt, and watched the whole of Pharaoh’s pursuing army drowned in the Red Sea miracle. Then, Moses promulgated God’s laws to them and they affirmed their covenant with Him (24: 1-11). To top it off, soon after observing for forty days, a fearsome divine display on Mount Sinai, the dismayed Israelites (due to Moses’ prolonged absence) turned around, and demanded that Aaron make an ‘elohim’ to lead them forward (v.1). This is incredible. Of the 2,600 occasions mentioned in the Old Testament, ‘elohim’ referred to the God of Israel in over 2,055 times, but it can also mean a deity, a prophet, an idol, or a heavenly being. How did ‘elohim’ turned out to be a golden calf (vv.2-4)?
The symbol of the calf as a deity was not an unfamiliar symbol in near eastern religions at the time, and it was often represented for its strength, and equated with God even by the Israelites (cf. Num 23:22; 24:8). Did Aaron mean it benignly as a pedestal for God to be seated invisibly, not unlike the throne above the cherubim with the mercy seat which had yet to be crafted (cf. Eze 1:10, where one of the faces of the cherubim is a bull)? Aaron’s intention was to have the people keep faith with the Lord; and he used God’s proper name when he said, “…Tomorrow shall be a feast to Yahweh”’ (v.5). The next day began well, when they offered burnt and peace offerings, but it soon descended to a level where eating and getting drunk, with unbridled sexual activities being enacted (v.6: the word ‘play’ in most translations, connotes sexual involvement – the same word used in Gen 26:8 for ‘fondling or caressing’), indicated where their faith lay. In this instant, Aaron broke the second commandment (20:4), and the people, the first (20:3).
However, there are important presumptive lessons in this story. Once words are materialized, as in this case represented by a crafted creature or an entity, it speaks louder than the utterances; the Israelites’ behaviours illustrated that whatever religious authorities may have intended, the perception of the peoples’ prevalent views may be very different. That was Aaron’s gravest lesson. Although God accommodates Himself to human understanding and linguistic limitations, He does not tolerate divine symbolic representations per se; the obvious danger being that one generation’s symbol can be the next generation’s idol.
We began with leadership, and we end with it. In Moses’ absence, the Israelites’ impetuosity and individualism drove them to choose a divine symbol to lead them. Perhaps it does exemplify how tenuous the Israelites’ faith was in Yahweh. This lesson for Aaron and the Israelites was a costly one. Before we judge them too quickly, a parallel with ourselves can be drawn as we at times invariably fixate on our church or theology, church-related activities or our human leaders and pastors, eclipsing our focus on the eternal Yahweh, whom we serve. For the people of God, this ageless message is loud and clear, despite the fact that our gods may verge on a subtler modern form: “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth” (20:3-4).