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The Golden Calf


Authors: Jo Milgrom and Yoel Duman







The Golden Calf




Of all the people of Israel`s backsliding during the course of their wanderings in the desert, the episode of the Golden Calf is the most serious. But a short time after receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai that stress the prohibition against idols and graven images, they demand of Aaron

Go make us gods which will go before us. Exodus 32:1


How can this lack of faith be explained? The text notes that the people’s demand came in the wake of the continuing absence of Moses – the leader, savior, legislator and prophet – who went up to the summit of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. In other words, the people— although liberated from slavery in Egypt, were not yet free of their slave mentality—panicked at the loss of human and spiritual leadership. And therefore they seek emotional support based on patterns familiar from Egypt, known for its many gods, with their unique forms and countless idols.


Naturally, this episode served as the subject of many artists, because of the dramatic nature of the event and its description and because of its subject matter – tangible and physical description of the Divine. We must look at this artwork from two main perspectives:

How did the various artists understand this embarrassing incident?
What is the original meaning of the Golden Calf specifically and of idols in general?








The Ancient Near Eastern Background


Archeological finds from the Ancient Near East show that the Bible`s material culture was influenced by two imperial civilizations – Egypt and Babylon/Assyria. Neither of these worshiped an abstract concept like the God of Israel, but rather physical figures representing fertility and strength. Their gods were often depicted in human form and each one had a means of transport and a symbol of his role. The storm god, for example, clutched lightning bolts in his hands; the sun god wore rays of light. One of the most impressive examples of such means of transportation is this Assyrian rock relief, found at Maltai on the Iraqi-Turkish border— each god rides/stands on his vehicle.


Procession of Assyrian Gods, Maltai, 704-681 BCE

Procession of Assyrian Gods, Maltai, 704-681 BCE


In the Ancient Near East, the most popular vehicle was – a calf! The reason for this popularity seems to be the calf`s unique combination of tender fertility and power. Therefore it is no wonder than when in despair, the children of Israel also chose the calf to represent the absent god and leader. A closer look at this bas relief and other ritual objects from all over the Ancient Near East shows that the biblical Golden Calf was not meant to be an image of God Himself, but of His symbolic representative animal. But as the medieval biblical commentator

Radak

(Rabbi David Kimche) explains, regarding the golden calf of Jeroboam I of Israel (I Kings 12), the people of Israel turned the vehicle into the object of their worship – as happens in many religions, where a drawing or figurine meant to symbolize the divinity is misunderstood by the believers as the divinity itself. And even in the modern, secular world, this is a familiar occurrence: for example, money changes from a means to an end in and of itself. Therefore, the phrase “Golden Calf” is widely used today to refer to reverence for unworthy objects.


Dubi Keich, The New Calf, 2002

Dubi Keich, The New Calf, 2002









The Medieval Calf – Jewish Midrash and Christian Art


Several standard depictions of the Calf developed during the Middle Ages. For example, Christian artists often presented the sin of the Golden Calf alongside a description of the giving of the Torah, in order to highlight the infidelity and ungratefulness of the people of Israel. But the photo below is of a highly unusual portrayal of the incident from a 12th century church in the French town of Vezelay


The Golden Calf, Abbey Church of Mary Magdalene, Vezelay, France, 12th century

The Golden Calf, Abbey Church of Mary Magdalene, Vezelay, France, 12th century

To the left of the calf, a figure raises the Tablets of the Ten Commandments and it is therefore clear that this is Moses, who is descending from the mountain and sees the worship of the calf
(Exodus 32:19)

When he approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses became enraged and he hurled the tablets from his hands and smashed them at the foot of the mountain.

To the right of the calf, another figure carries a lamb on his shoulders. This is Aaron, the high priest, Israel`s ritual leader during the period of wandering in the Sinai Desert, who is about to offer a sacrifice. His role in the Golden Calf affair, as the creator of the idol, is very problematic, as is evident from the Midrashic attempts to justify his actions.

But the most striking element in the capital from Vezelay is the frightening figure standing on the Calf. Close examination reveals that this figure, with the talons of a bird of prey and wild hair, is emerging from the mouth of the Calf. Although obviously a Christian work, this strange figure is actually related to a popular medieval Jewish Midrash, Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer. It is Samael, i.e., Satan, who entered the idol and mooed from inside it! The Midrash expresses the Jewish imagination regarding the story and the object and tries to explain the power of an inanimate object over the people of Israel – the idol spoke, thanks to Satan. And as a result of the intervention of this demonic power, who functions as a sort of Trojan horse (inside the statue the enemy is hiding!), human leadership, Moses and Aaron is pushed aside.









Multiple Readings of the Israelite`s Behavior


Let us now consider the role of the congregation in this episode. The two paintings below, drawn around the same time, represent two essentially different approaches to the people of Israel’s behavior during the Golden Calf incident


James Tissot, The Golden Calf, 1904

James Tissot, The Golden Calf, 1904


Emile Nolde, The Golden Calf, 1910

Emile Nolde, The Golden Calf, 1910


On the left is a 1904 painting by the French artist, James Tissot, on the right a 1910 painting by the German artist Emil Nolde. In Tissot`s rendition, the crowd is composed primarily of men wrapped in prayer shawls; they are worshiping the idol, their hands outspread and bowing, in an atmosphere of awe and holiness. In contrast, in Nolde’s painting, characterized by intense colors, uninhibited movement and nudity, the crowd consisting of both women and men appears to be in unbridled ecstasy, a kind of orgy. Many other depictions of the Golden Calf episode portray the crowd in a similar
fashion. The basis for both interpretations is found in the text (Exodus 32:5-6):

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it, and Aaron announced: Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord. So they arose early the next morning and brought burn offerings and well-being offerings and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose to make merry.


On one hand, the text contains elements of the ritual practices common in the biblical era (altar, burnt offerings, well-being offerings). On the other hand, there are elements that deviate from the usual ritual practice (making merry, and dancing – verse 19 above); the interpretation of verse six by
Rashi (the foremost medieval Jewish commentator) further strengthens the frenzied impression reflected in the works of Nolde and others.









Idolatry – Ancient and Modern

Lastly, let us take a look at a painting by Filippino Lippi, a 15th century Italian artist.


Filippino Lippi, The Worship of the Bull God Apis, c. 1500

Filippino Lippi, The Worship of the Bull God Apis, c. 1500


This painting is actually not called “the worship the Golden Calf” but “the worship of the Egyptian god, Apis.” The god Apis, or Hape, is mentioned in very early Egyptian documents but he became particularly important during the New Kingdom (1500-1000 BCE). He is pictured as a bull and associated with the God of creation, Ptah. The crescent on the shoulder of Lippi’s flying bull is one of the identifying symbols of Apis, according to Egyptian sources.


It appears that Lippi was familiar with the worship of Apis from Roman writings on the Egyptian religion, which generated great interest during the Renaissance. Music, dance, wild abandon and spiritual elation accompanied this cult symbolized fittingly by the flying calf. It seems that Lippi concluded that the worship of the calf in the biblical story was an adaptation of the Egyptian religion and rites – actual idol worship. The association of the Golden Calf with Egyptian gods also appears in
Midrashic sources
.


But one might say that any attempt to depict God in a tangible manner is a misunderstanding. The contemporary priest and philosopher, Thomas Merton, said, without elaborating further, that the photograph below is the only known image of God


Thomas Merton, The only known photograph of God, 1960s

Thomas Merton, The only known photograph of God, 1960s


In response to the question of what is so divine about such a hook, we might answer that it can elevate us and rescue us, that it is unclear where it comes from, that it can also cause pain.


But it seems that Merton actually meant that any visual or verbal depiction of God can only be partial and incomplete at best. What is idol worship? The belief that such a partial depiction is whole.



Article Sources:

Exodus Rabba 51:8 While Moses was on Sinai receiving the Torah, the people had gone to Aaron, saying, Up, make us a god who shall go before us, for as for this Moses, the man that brought us out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him(Ex. 32:1). Aaron then said to them, Only yesterday you said, All that the Lord has spoken will we do, and obey  (ibid.,24:7), and now you say, Up, make us a god! But when Aaron beheld how they had slain Hur, he became alarmed and said to them. Break off the golden rings, etc. (ibid.,32:2). Whereupon the people instantaneously broke off their golden rings and showered them upon him until he was compelled to exclaim, Enough. Hence did Moses rebuke them with And Laban, and Hazeroth, and Di-zahab(Deut. 1:1). It can be compared to a young man who came to a city and found the people thereof collecting money for charity, and when they asked him also to subscribe, he went on giving until they had to tell him that he had already given enough. Further on his travels, he lighted on a place where they were collecting for a theatre, and when asked to contribute towards it, he was also so generous that he had to be told, `Enough!` Israel, likewise, con­tributed so much towards the Golden Calf that they had to be told `Enough`, and they also contributed gold so generously towards the construction of the Tabernacle that they again had to be told `Enough`, as it is said, For the stuff they had was sufficient for the entire job and more(Ex. 36:7). The Holy One, blessed be He, thereupon said: Let the gold of the Tabernacle atone for the gold they brought towards the making of the Golden Calf. Further did God say to Israel, When you made the Calf, you provoked Me to anger by exclaiming, This is (eleh) your god(Ex. 32:4), but now that you have built the Tabernacle, with the word `eleh`  I have bccome reconciled unto you.
 
Numbers Rabba 21:10
Then the daughters of Zelophehad drew near (Numbers 27:1) - Inthat generation the women built up the fences which the men broke down. Thus you find that Aaron told them, Break off the golden rings, which are in the ean of your wives(Ex. 32: 2), but the women refused and checked their husbands; as is proved by the fact that it says, And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears (ibid. 3), the women not participating with them in making the Calf.
Tanhuma Ki Tissa 19
And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down (Ex. 32:1) - 
Theword boshesh (‘delayed’) indicates that it was the sixth hour of the day. Forty thousand people had assembled to leave Egypt with the Israelites, and among them were two Egyptians named Jannes and Jambres, who had performed magical feats for Pharaoh, as it is written: And the magicians of Egypt in like manner with their arts(Ex. 7:22). All of them gathered about Aaron, as is said: And the people gathered them­selves together unto Aaron and said(ibid. 32: 11).
When Moses failed to return by the fortieth day and the sixth hour of that day, Aaron and Hur told them, He is now descending the mountain, (but) they did not pay attention. Some say that Satan arose and showed them the likeness of his bier on the mountain, and that is why they said: For this man Moses(ibid., 1). Then Hur stepped forward and rebuked them. Forthwith they turned against him and slew him. When Aaron witnessed this he became terrified and sought to occupy them with other matters. But they cried out: Up, make us a god(ibid.). All that they demanded was known to the Holy One Who Spoke and the World Came into Being.
Aaron said unto them: Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives(ibid., 2). Aaron told them to do this difficult thing because (he was aware that) the women would not agree to it. They had seen the miracles and the deeds that the Holy One, blessed be He, had wrought for them in Egypt, and what had transpired at the Red Sea and at Sinai, and so they went to the men and said: God forbid that we should renounce the Holy One, blessed be He, who has per­formed all these miracles and mighty deeds in our behalf, in order to fashion an idol. The men, however, refused to listen to them: And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears (ibid., 3). It does not say "in their wives` ears" but rather in their ears.
R. Jeremiah maintained that when they brought their ear­rings to him, Aaron raised his eyes heavenward and declared: Unto You I lift mine eyes, 0 You who is enthroned in the heavens(Ps. 123:1). You who know all thoughts are aware that I do this unwillingly. He tossed their earrings into the fire, and the magicians approached and performed magical feats. Some say that Micah ground the bricks that Moses had saved into the mixture, and that he took the tablet, which Moses had written upon when he raised Joseph`s coffin out of the Nile and cast them into the smelting furnace amidst the earrings. Then the calf came forth leaping. As it leaped about, the people began to cry out: This is your god, 0 Israel. The guardian angels then began to proclaim: They forgot God, their savior, who had done great things in Egypt(Ps. 106:21).
What did Aaron do then? He said: Let the celebration be delayed until tomorrow, as it is said: And Aaron made procla­mation and said, Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord(Exod. 32:5). Whereupon the Holy Spirit called out: Hasten, descend, they have forgotten what I did for them. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: In this world they have sinned because of the evil inclination within them, but in the time ­to come, I will remove it from them, as is said: And I will take away the strong heart of your flesh(Exod. 36:26).
Pirke deRabbi Eliezer 44 (45)
When Israel received the commandments they forgot their God after forty days,
and they said to Aaron: The Egyptians carry  their god [in procession], they sing and uttered hymns before it, as they view it.  Make us a god like the gods of the Egyptians, and let us see it before us, as it is said, Up, make us a god (Ex. 32:1) .
They betook themselves to the one who carried out the words of Moses, (to) Aaron his brother, and Hur, the son of his sister. Whence (do we know) that Hur was the son of (Moses`) sister? Because it is said, And Caleb took unto him Ephrath, which bare him Hur (I Chron. 11:19). Why was Miriam`s name called Ephrath ? Because she was a daughter of the palace, a daughter of kings, one of the magnates of the generation; for every prince and great man who arose in Israel had his name called an Ephrathite as it is said, And Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, an Ephrathite (I Kings 11:26); and it says, And David was the son of that Ephrathite (1 Sam.17:12). Was he then an Ephrathite? Was he not of the tribe of Judah? But he was a nobleman, a son of kings, one of the magnates of the generation. But since Hur was of the tribe of Judah, and one of the magnates of the generation, he began to reprove Israel with harsh words, and the plunderers who were in Israel arose against him, and slew him.
Aaron arose and saw that Hur, the son of his sister was slain; and he built for them an altar, as it is said, and when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it (Ex. 32:5).
Aaron argued with himself, saying: If I say to Israel, Give me gold and silver, they will bring it immediately; but behold I will say to them, Give me the earrings of your wives, and of your sons, and forthwith the matter will fail, as it is said, And Aaron said to them, Break off the golden rings (ibid. 2). The women heard (this), but they were unwilling to give their earrings to their husbands; but they said to them: You desire to make a graven image and a molten image without any power in it to deliver. The Holy One, blessed be He, gave the women their reward in this world and in the world to come. What reward did He give them in this world? That they should observe the New Moons more stringently than the men; and what reward will He give then, in the world to come? They are destined to be renewed like the New Moons, as it is said, Who satisfies your years with good things; so that your youth is renewed like the eagle (Ps. 103: 5).
The men saw that the women would not consent to give their earrings to their husbands. What did they do? Until that hour the earrings were (also) in their own ears, after the fashion of the Egyptians, and after the fashion of the Arabs. They broke off their earrings which were in their own ears, and they gave (them) to Aaron, as it is said, And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears (Ex. 32: 8). "Which were in the ears of their wives" is not written here, but which were in their ears. Aaron found among the earrings one plate of gold upon which the Holy Name was written, and engraven thereon was the figure of a calf, and that (plate) alone did he cast into the fiery furnaces as it is said, So they gave it me and I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf (ibid. 24). It is not written here, "And I cast them in," but And I cast it in the fire, and there came out this calf. The calf came out lowing, and the Israelites saw it, and they went astray after it.
Rabbi Judah said: Sammael entered into it, and he was lowing to mislead Israel, as it is said, The ox knows his owner" (Isa1:8).
The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, Israel has forgotten the might of My power, which I wrought for them in Egypt and at the Reed Sea, and they have made an idol for themselves. He said to Moses, Go, get yourslf down from your greatness. Moses spoke before the Holy One, blessed be He, Sovereign of all the worlds. While Israel had not yet sinned before You, You called them "My people," as it is said, And I will bring forth my hosts, my people (Ex. 7:4). Now that they have sinned before You, You say to me, Go, get yourself down, for your people have corrupted themselves" (ibid. 32:7). They are Your people, and Your inheritance, as it is said, Yet they are Your people and Your inheritance (Deut. 9:29).
Moses took the tables (of the law), and he descended, and the tables carried their own weight and Moses with them; but when they beheld the calf and the dances, the writing fled from off the tables and they became heavy in his hands, and Moses was not able to carry himself and the tables, and he cast them from his hand, and they were broken beneath the mount, as it is said, And Moses` anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and broke them beneath the mount
 (Ex. 32:19).
Moses said to Aaron, What have you done to this people? You have made them unruly, like a woman who is unchecked owing to immorality. He said to Moses, I saw what they did to Hur, and I feared very greatly.
Rabbi said: All the princes were not associated in the affair of the calf, as it is said, And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand (ibid. 24:11). The word `atsile means the" princes," therefore they were accounted worthy to gaze upon the glory of the Shekhinah, as it is said, And they saw the God of Israel (ibid. 10).
Rabbi Judah said: The tribe of Levi also did not associate itself in the affair of the calf, as it is said, Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, Whoever is on the Lord`s side (let him come) unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him (ibid. 32:26). Moses saw that the tribe of Levi was with him. He became strengthened with his might, and he burnt the calf with fire and powdered it, like the dust of the earth and he cast its dust upon the face of the waters, as it is said, And he took the calf which they had made (ibid. 20). He made Israel drink the water with the dust of the calf. Everyone who had kissed the calf with all his heart, his upper lip and his bones became golden, and the tribe of Levi slew him until there fell of Israel about three thousand men, as it is said, And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses (ibid. 28).
The Holy One, blessed be He, sent five angels to destroy Israel. (The angels were) Wrath, Anger, Temper, Destruc­tion, and Glow of Anger. Moses heard, and he went to invoke Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the Cave of Machpelah, and he said: If you are of the children of the world to come, stand before me in this hour, for behold your children are given over like sheep to the slaughter. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob stood there before him. Moses spoke before the Holy One, blessed be He (saying): Sovereign of all the worlds! Did You not swear to these (forefathers) thus to increase their seed like the stars of the heaven, as it is said, Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by yourself, and said unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven (ibid. 13).
By the merit of the three patriarchs, the three angels, Wrath, Anger, and Temper, were restrained from (doing harm to) Israel. But two (angels) remained. Moses spoke before the Holy One, blessed be He: Sovereign of all the universe! For the sake of the oath which You did swear unto them, keep back (the angel) Destruction from Israel, as it is said, To whom You swore by your own self (ibid.); and Destruction was kept back from Israel, as it is said, But He, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed (them) not (Ps. 78:88). Moses spoke before the Holy One, blessed be He: Sovereign of all worlds! For the sake of Your great and holy Name, which You did make known unto me, hold back from Israel (the angel called) Glow of Anger, (as it is said,) Turn away from Your fierce anger (Ex. 32:12). What did Moses do? He dug in the earth in the possession of Gad, as (though for the foundation of) a large dwelling, and he buried "Fierce Anger" in the earth, like a man who is bound in the prison. Every time Israel sins it arises and opens its mouth to bite with its spirit, and to destroy Israel. Moses pronounced against it the (divine) Name, and brought it down beneath the earth. Therefore is its name called Peor (the one who opens). When Moses died, what did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He put his burial-place opposite to it. Every time Israel sins it opens its mouth to bite with its spirit, and to destroy Israel, but (when) it sees the burial-place of Moses opposite to it, it returns backward, as it is said, And he buried him in the valley, in the land of Moab, over against the house of Peor (Deut. 34:6).
Rashi on Exodus 32:6
they arose early - Satan roused them so that they would sin.
to make merry Heb. לְצַחֵק. In this word, there is a connotation of sexual immorality, as it is said, to have pleasure with me (Gen. 39:17), and bloodshed, as it is said, Let the boys get up now and play (וִישַׂחִקוּ) before us (II Sam. 2:14). Here too, Hur was slain.
Radak on I Kings 12:30
A sin - for originally, Jeroboam did not intend [the golden calves] for idolatrous worship, but for the worship of the Lord, but only afterwards did they become a sin, when they were seen as divine. This led to the worship of foreign gods, in the manner of all the other nations. Therefore Scripture says, This thing became a sin.