Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Golden Calf

Tuesday, April 15, 2008 -- Week of 4 Easter

Today's Reading for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 961)
Psalms 45 (morning) 47, 48 (evening)
Exodus 32:21-34
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 5:11-16

What would we call it today? A slaughter; a massacre; religious genocide?

Moses returns from his absence on the mountain and finds that the people have turned from their loyalty to the God of Abraham and made a golden idol of a bull, a symbol of power and fecundity. They have been feasting and engaging in acts of religious or wanton sex, according to the custom of some cultic rituals. Moses confronts his brother Aaron, who offers a pitiful excuse. From the camp gate Moses cries, "Who is on the Lord's side? Come to me!" The sons of Levi respond, and Moses has them take swords and set upon the camp. "Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor." The text says that about three thousand people died that day. (A comparison: Over 900 died in the Jonestown, Guyana, suicide-killings among the People's Temple cult of Jim Jones.)

Taken at face value, it is a grizzly story. It darkens deeply the narrative of Moses, if it is a memory of the days of Exodus. The story may reflect a rebellion or civil war against Moses leadership, which Moses had to put down by force.

Some scholars have speculated that there may be other influences present in the story as it comes to us. The text of the long Sinai section of Exodus was composed largely by the Priestly tradition of redactors, written sometime after the fall in 587 BCE. The writers had access to many very ancient traditions, stories and texts, and they put their particular stamp upon the material, and their central priestly interest over various cultic matters involving the tabernacle, sacred objects, sacrifices and priesthood.

From the perspective of the Priestly writers, there is another civil war and rebellion that is of great significance, Jeroboam's rebellion in the 900's BCE which separated the Northern Kingdom (Israel) from the Southern Kingdom (Judah) and established a rival capital in Shechem. To prevent his people from returning to the Temple in Jerusalem, Jeroboam erected two temples at the ends of his kingdom, in Dan and Bethel. He made two statues of a golden calf, one for each shrine, and he spoke the same words over them as Aaron says in Exodus: "Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt." (1 Kings 12:28)

The Priestly authors are loyal to Jerusalem and the Southern Kingdom. They want to condemn the apostasy of Jeroboam. Some scholars think that they have linked the story of Jeroboam with the story of the calf in Exodus. A few think the Exodus story was created whole as a polemic against the Northern king.

It is very possible that the bull was an alternative symbol of the God of Abraham and Moses. In the North, the bull was a symbol of El, with whom the God of Abraham and Moses was identified, possibly as the invisible God atop the bull, much like the invisible God seated upon the cherubim of the Ark of the Covenant. The story of the golden calf in Exodus may be a fiction to condemn the Northern rebellion or it may have historical roots. It's hard to know with certainty.

What seems clear is that Moses faced murmurings, conflict and resistance to his leadership in the wilderness. The Hebrew people were challenged and tempted by the established religious cults, rituals and shrines related to the sacred bull traditions. And the division between northern and southern kingdoms created deep scars, present in the Gospel accounts in the hostility between Jew and Samaritan. Doubtless, all of these conflicts were bitter, costly and at times bloody.


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About Morning Reflections
Morning Reflections is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117

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The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

Visit our web site at www.stpaulsfay.org

Our Rule of Life
We aspire to...
worship weekly
pray daily
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live generously.

Lowell Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas


At 9:20 AM, Blogger The Underground Pewster said...

To some, such stories are justification to abandon the Bible. Once again we see that there is much to be learned from the stories that make us uncomfortable. Thanks for your perspective.


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