The narrative of the “golden calf” stands as a paradigmatic tale of Israel’s skewed covenant with YHWH. Excluding the Priestly instruction of Exodus 25-31, this story in Exodus 32 follows immediately after the covenant-making in Exodus 2:43.
There is not even the space of a breath between covenant-making and covenant-breaking!
The breaking of the covenant in this story is because Israel yearns for and must have an immediately available God. Israel cannot tolerate the holiness of YHWH that marks God with freedom, the freedom to be absent, remote, or inaccessible. (n.b. Our all-to-ready eagerness to assure believers among us that God is ever present and on call is sobered by this narrative!).
Because the holy God of Sinai is not immediately available the God-maker, Aaron must get to work. Aaron is a priestly theological type, so he knows what to do. He knows how to “make” and “make available” a God who is able and willing to respond to Israel’s religious hunger. This narrative is about God-making that responds to the yearning of religious neediness.
All you need to make in order to make a god is a measure of the substance that is most valuable in the community, in this case gold. Along with gold, all you need is a mold that can shape the gold. The mold readily available to Aaron is a calf, well, better a “bull.” The “calf” is symbol and embodiment of virility and fertility, the strength, power, and capacity to generate new life! All you need to make a god is a little gold, a pattern of vitality and fertility that bespeaks self-sufficiency, and some imagination to see how a precious commodity can be made (formed) into a compelling, reassuring, ever present, ever available god.
This compelling, reassuring, ever present, ever available god is such a welcome alternative to the demanding, uncompromising, sometimes absent holy God of Sinai. Thus gold imagined into a bull is so attractive because it is divinized version of our own best, most powerful self in our generative capacity to make, order, govern, and control life on our own terms.
It is not for nothing that the image a gold-bull is the defining icon of Wall Street, the great venue of self-sufficient wealth, power, and control. Wall Street is the lens of wealth and power that controls the economy, that has for a long time mobilized cheap labor (through bondaging debt), and by market expansion and by deployment of troops has reached the extremes of the earth for ever greater wealth.
This passion for god-making is reiterated by our ready commoditization of the world, our reduction of all of life to a tradable commodity that issues in control.
The reiteration of the narrative in the Psalm declares:
They exchanged the glory of God
for the image of an ox that eats grass.
They forget God, their Savior,
who had done great things in Egypt (Psalm 106:20-21).
The calf/bull has become an “ox.” But that is all the same when it comes to “breeding” self-sufficiency. Israel (Aaron) traded God’s majestic glory for a mere creature that could be tamed and worked, a calf! Such a “trade” is only possible because of their wholesale forgetting. The Israelites forgot their narrative of emancipation. They could no longer remember their cruel slavery from which they had been rescued. They forgot because they had become safe and secure from all alarms. What we know is that affluence begets amnesia:
When your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied … Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth. But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth (Deuteronomy 8:13-18).
In a circumstance of security and property, it is easy and convenient to scuttle old memories of bondage, impotence, and despair and the inexplicable gift of emancipation. In amnesia one can then exult in self-sufficiency, incapable of remembering being vulnerable and having been given of new life. Thus the “forgetting” of Israel is not mere absent-mindedness. It is a willful act to expel memories that define our lives as other than as autonomous and self-made.
But of course such willful amnesia will not work. It will not work because self-sufficiency is unsustainable. In the most elemental ways we do not initiate our lives; we are on the receiving end of good gifts. For good reason, Paul can ask:
What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift? (I Corinthians 4:7)
It is all gift! It is all the gift of God. It all properly evokes gratitude that is expressed as neighborly generosity. When gifts are transposed into achievements, accomplishments, and possessions, however, gratitude evaporates, generosity vanishes, and neighbors become invisible.
It will not work! It did not take long for the holy God to notice the willful illusionary defiance of Israel via Aaron. Even from a distance the holy God can spot such perversity. It is a perversity that must have seemed to Aaron only a new celebrative religiosity. But God’s ways are not Aaron’s ways! God will have none of it. Karl Barth puts it succinctly:
Such was the breach of the covenant in Exodus 2 — man as the creator Dei, self-controlling and self-sufficient and self-defying man, the man of sis in this first form of pride (Church Dogmatics IV 1 432).
One can concluded that the “new normal” authorized by the golden bull of affluent successful self-sufficiency is the order of the day among us. After all, U.S. exceptionalism serves such a claim. White supremacy makes the same claim. An even more generic sense of entitlement reaches out to both conservatives and liberals.
Such prideful self-regard has no room for the holy God who refuses our self-congratulatory mood.
So how might God’s holiness undo such self-congratulatory life? Well, by rendering our self-sufficiency as penultimate and inadequate. Right now we are living with the failure of our most secure institutions as we watch the undoing of our taken-for-granted world. No one (certainly not this one!) would ever say that the virus is divine judgment. But then, the undoing of a world of recalcitrance is not likely to be direct or intrusive. The undoing is more likely to appear in an invisible but real pressure on our ordinary living. The outcome is our humbling that is not overcome by loud protest, phony piety, or illusionary posturing.
We have a time in which to be a humble, receptive people if we have courage enough to notice.
But this tale of sad humbling at the hand of the holy God has a swerve to it. The same Moses who is privy to God’s anger toward perverse Israel is the Moses who now speaks up to counter God’s self-satisfied intention to punish. As a result this is not simply a story of sin and judgment, though it is that. After the straight-forward simplicity of sin and judgment, the narrative is made more complex and more interesting by the response of Moses as a third party to the drama.
Moses interrupts what scholars call the “lawsuit” of indictment and sentence. Moses dares to question the appropriateness and wisdom God’s anger. This daring interruption by Moses is so deeply Jewish! It would not happen among conventional Christians, because conventional Christians are excessively pious and deferential. But Moses is resolutely Jewish in this moment of covenantal engagement. He knows that he can (and must!) address God and call God to account. He puts two questions to God:
Why be angry with this people that you have made and saved?
Why give ammunition to the Egyptians?
Bad idea to get angry with your own people whom you love! Bad idea to provide the Egyptians with evidence of failure toward your own historical project! The two questions of Moses remain unanswered as though YHWH needs time to ponder. Without waiting, Moses promptly issues three imperatives to God. Yes, imperatives!
Turn … from your anger;
Change … your mind;
Remember … the book of Genesis.
What a demand Moses makes to YHWH: Turn, change, remember! The exchange ends laconically without inflection:
And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people (Exodus 32:14).
Evidently YHWH takes the imperatives and the questions of Moses seriously. Moses prevailed! God is talked out of God’s immense anger!
I conclude that the accent of our interpretation is not on either the sin of Aaron or on the anger of God. What matters are the courage of Moses and the readiness of Moses to call God to account, to summon God back the matrix of promise.
The Psalm says, “Moses stood in the breach.” I am not sure I want to draw any practical learning from this account. If I did, however, it would be to insist that Moses (and his ilk after Moses) is not identified with the transgression of Aaron. We know better than that. Moses did not participate in the folly of Aaron. But we know as well that Moses is not identified with the holy wrath of YHWH. Moses himself displays no anger at the action of Aaron. Moses, rather, has a distinct and different role to play in this crisis of pride and humbling.
The ilk of Moses after him is to play a distinctive role in the drama of pride and humbling. We, after Moses, may do so with intense intercessions that summon God to God’s best most faithful self as did Moses. Beyond that, the work in the drama is to mediate life beyond pride (that has failed) and beyond humbling (that has been for the most part withheld). This move “beyond” is a bet on the future, a conviction that God and God’s people are meant to have together a better practice in a better circumstance.
Thus by the end of chapter 32, Moses bids God for forgiveness (v. 32). Our society is in great need of forgiveness that it cannot manufacture for itself, forgiveness for a brutal history, for its brazen racism, for its uncaring autonomy, for its assumption of elected privilege, and for its illusionary sufficiency. Of course! After that, however, at the end of the narrative God moves on:
But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; see, my angel shall go in front of you (v. 34).
The promise of God to Israel persists.
The mandate is to move to a new better place. The work of Moses, in light of this sad exchange, is to lead God’s people to “the land of promise.” The people dancing around the golden bull would have thought they had already arrived at the land promise (see v. 8). It is always so with those who have “arrived” or think they have arrived. But not so! Thus affluent self-sufficiency, safe and secure from all alarms, is not the land of promise. The land of promise is the place where the commandments of God are readily and gladly embraced, where God is loved above all else, where neighbors are loved like ourselves. That new land of wellbeing requires new imagination. It requires new attitudes. It requires new policies. It requires new practices. This is all the work of this third party who exercises courageous agency in the breach.
In chapter 34 the covenant is remade. It can be remade by God’s initiative because:
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities (Psalm 103:8-10; see Exodus 34:6).
This remaking of the covenant is the work of Moses. It is his hard work to negotiate, to coax both parties back to the covenant, to coax God back to generosity and to coax Israel back to responsibility. That is the good work of Moses. It is work that is not yet finished among us, work that is an urgent vocation.
Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.
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