17 February 2014

And out came this calf!

Exodus 32 tells the story of the golden calf.

When Moses takes so long to come down from Mt Sinai (where he'd gone to get the law and meet with God), the people come to Aaron, asking that he make gods for them since they don't know what has become of this Moses. Aaron requests their gold, takes it, forms a mold and casts an image of a calf, which the people declare to be their (new) gods. Aaron then builds an altar before it and proclaims the next day to be a festival to the LORD. Moses returns to their revel, warned of what was happening by the LORD's anger against the people. (For those interested in deep theological discussions: Before Moses returns, the Moses implores the LORD not to destroy the people of Israel, and the text itself raises the difficult but fascinating question of whether and how the LORD can change his mind).

Moses was livid when he saw the calf and the dancing. The following is verses 21-24 as they appear in the NRSV: Moses said to Aaron, ‘What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?’ And Aaron said, ‘Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. They said to me, “Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So I said to them, “Whoever has gold, take it off”; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!’

Reading the text this time, it is the words "out came this calf" that struck me. They sound ridiculous - like Aaron is trying to claim that it was not his fault (does this remind anyone of Genesis 3?). The text certainly tells a different story, noting in the last verse of the chapter that "the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf—the one that Aaron made."

At the same time, the very ridiculous-ness of it made me want to see if perhaps it was not quite as obvious as I had first thought. Aaron does not appear to know how to deal with the people (elsewhere in the text it indictes that the people were running wild under Aaron's (lack of) leadership). When Moses is gone so long, and the people approach him, he is faced with a potential disaster/mutiny. Calling for gold was a potential solution or, at least a postponement of this. His creating a calf might not even be seen as blasphemous - he could have been creating a throne (i.e., dwelling place, like a tabernacle) for the LORD. It was not Aaron, but the people who claimed the calf as their god. Aaron even tried to turn the focus back to the true God, by declaring a feast to the LORD.

Reading the text closely, it becomes less strange that Aaron uses the words, 'out came this calf.' He was certainly involved in its creation, but there is much more to the story. The link to Genesis 3 thus seems helpful, especially the desire to shift blame. The text leaves room for evil and Satan to have played a role. The people's lack of trust and sin, as Aaron points out and the last verse of the text confirms, is certainly to blame. Yet, Aaron, despite whatever good intentions he might have had, is hardly as innocent as he tries to make himself sound. It is a bit disconcerting to see Aaron not as the sinful creator of the calf but as essentailly good, seeing as many of us Christians would see ourselves not as full of sin, like the people, but instead as being generally well-intentioned, like Aaron.

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