Why A Calf? The Deity Created By The Israelites When They Strayed
February 21, 2017 3:22 AM   Subscribe

Remember the Bible story of the Golden Calf? Moses left the Israelites unattended, and in his absence, they pooled their gold jewelry, melted it down, and made an idol, specifically in the shape of a calf. Moses returned to find them worshiping this Golden Calf.

This seems odd, considering the reputation for being a pragmatic people commonly attributed to the Jews, and the often pragmatic basis for the Jewish laws, and the fact that some of the scriptures have a pragmatic focus (Leviticus devotes a whole chapter to recognizing leprosy). Why a calf? And how could they believe that there was some supernatural power in a deity they themselves consciously created?
posted by bunky to Religion & Philosophy (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Probably reverting to beliefs picked up in Egypt, where Apis was worshipped.
posted by Segundus at 3:55 AM on February 21, 2017 [7 favorites]

They didn't create a deity, they created an icon -- a graven image -- to use in worshipping the deity.

Back in those days, there wasn't a whole lot of "there's only one god, the rest don't exist" -- gods were supernatural, but not all-powerful, and numerous 'local' deities all existed overlapping between tribes and regions and ethnicities. They didn't necessarily deny that the god of that town over there didn't exist, they just thought their local deity was more powerful or more beneficial than the one of that city over there. Segundus has a good suggestion, but also it may have just been a representative calf of an older Israelite god that the tribe reverted to because "hey, this guy has some tricks given him by a god and he got us out of slavery and all, but he's gone and things are pretty crappy so let's see if our old god is still taking calls."
posted by AzraelBrown at 4:12 AM on February 21, 2017 [12 favorites]

The bull was the symbol of a number of deities that came from non-Jewish religions around that area. They didn't think they were creating a new deity. Rather, worshiping the Golden Bull represented worshiping one of these other gods, i.e. someone other than YHWH.
posted by schroedinger at 4:16 AM on February 21, 2017 [4 favorites]

I know this one!

Okay, not really, since it's all interpretation and opinion - but here's my favorite explanation that rabbinic scholarship gives.

When all the Israelites were gathered at Sinai to receive the Torah, the passage says (Exodus 24:9-12) "Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel; and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness. And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He laid not His hand; and they beheld God, and did eat and drink. And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Come up to Me into the mount and be there; and I will give thee the tables of stone, and the law and the commandment, which I have written, that thou mayest teach them. And Moses rose up, and Joshua his minister; and Moses went up into the mount of God.

So everyone standing at the foot of Sinai had a vision of G-d, from the ground up. According to midrash (rabbinic tradition), everyone had a vision, but those who were more pious or more holy saw more than those who were not. So assuming both those things are true, then the bulk of the people would have seen the least, or just the feet of the Godhead.

So what did that look like? Well, from here, the rabbis point to the beginning verses in Ezeziel, (Ezekiel 1-12) describing the merkava (the "chariot" of G-d, in which he appeared to the prophet): I won't quote the whole thing, but at the bottom, we see: And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf's foot; and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass. So for the people who were already the least believing, if they only saw the lowest part, that would have been shining calfs' feet. From which it would be fairly easy to assume that for them the thinking was: okay, we saw a miracle, looked like a calf from what we can see, Moses hasn't come down yet and it's been a few weeks, let's pray to the thing we know we saw.

The easier answer is that there were many animal gods in the Egyptian pantheon, so they picked one. I just like the other one better. :)

To answer your second question, praying to an icon is not the same as imbuing the icon with holy power in and of itself - the assumption is always that that's the channel through which you reach the deity.
posted by Mchelly at 4:22 AM on February 21, 2017 [36 favorites]

A horned bovine head looks like a uterus and fallopian tubes.
posted by brujita at 6:35 AM on February 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think it's worth mentioning that in the text as we have it, Aaron clearly associates the calf with Yahweh. "When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, 'Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.'" It's possible that in an earlier version of this story, the Israelites straight-up abandoned Yahweh for some Egyptian god, but that's not the way Israelite idolatry usually worked, and what we have in the biblical account is a tale where Moses is gone for longer than expected and the people clamor for some visual focus to their faith, so Aaron makes a calf and calls it "Yahweh." So it's not so much that they believed the calf had power but that they accepted it as a representation of Yahweh, who does. (As an aside, one of the reasons that "Don't make a graven image" is one of the big ten commandments is because that is exactly the sort of thing that you might expect the Israelites to do, since every culture around them did. You don't make commandments to ban things that people aren't interested in doing.)

As for why it was a calf, you will not find a clear consensus among biblical scholars. There was a lot of bull and calf iconography in ancient near Eastern worship, so if you are going to make an idol, that's one of the popular options. If you have $100 lying around, you can get a lot of interesting background from The Sin of the Calf: The Rise of the Bible's Negative Attitude Toward the Golden Calf by Youn Ho Chung. A lot of it is available on Google books. Check out pages 47 and following for some very in-depth analysis.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:26 AM on February 21, 2017 [7 favorites]

Bovines are valued by a lot of cultures for their life sustaining qualities. Meat, milk, plow the crops. Think of Lascaux.

Water is another sustaining abstraction, or maize, for example, in Aztec culture.
posted by effluvia at 7:31 AM on February 21, 2017

Per my college class (which covered the Old Testament primarily as a historical document):

When those accounts of Exodus were recorded (or edited) the calves had a current political significance. See Kings where the kingdom of northern Israelites are trying to legitimize themselves by setting up worship despite not having access to the temple, and (accused of) using two golden calves to do it. Certain types of worship away from the temple undermined the priests, and these parts of the record were recorded by people very supportive of the priestly faction.

This does not contradict anything other posters have said, but telling the Exodus-calves and Kings-calves stories with the same language, and then making the Exodus story details show the calf worshippers to be blatantly heretical, illogical and idiotic serves to help attack this challenge to priestly authority. So it's supposed to a bit dumb, although worshipping idols isn't as dumb to them as it is to us. (It also opens the possibility the calf symbol was a "modern" non-Hebrew symbol readers would've known.)
posted by mark k at 7:33 AM on February 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: So it's supposed to a bit dumb, although worshipping idols isn't as dumb to them as it is to us.

I once gave a talk at my church about how wrong-headed I find this framing, because our culture is RIFE with just as many idols that people who call themselves “Christian” are desperate to worship instead. My list included:

-local sports team
-patriotism/American exceptionalism
-being thin (esp. for women)
-prosperity gospel
-just world fallacy
-political parties (ha ha jk, really mostly the one)
-pop culture icons
-financial stability/retirement plans
-"climate change isn't real"
-"foreigners are bad"
-"submission" of women/objectification of women

People who call themselves "Christians" put other people to death in the names of these idols. People sacrifice children to these idols. Here, and now. Lives are laid down on these altars every day, and people do so gladly.

One teacher I had talked about the role that the calf-god would have likely had in Egypt— a symbol of bounty/harvest/wealth that would have been as common in Egypt as, say, the national anthem and pledge of allegiance are in the US. So people who claim to worship the Abrahamic God do so until trouble comes, and then they scramble for other, backup, feel-good gods. The story of the golden calf isn’t supposed to be “lol people sure were superstitious back then.” It is supposed to be “you all do this, all the time, as soon as trouble strikes (and sometimes even when things are fine but you are bored).”

Also, to be fair to the calf-gang, they had just watched Moses walk up the mountain, and then the top of the mountain was engulfed in what looked like Michael Bay-esque fireballs. Trying to hedge their bets by calling on a different god isn’t coming out of nowhere, and many of them had spent decades watching prosperity and safety come to Egyptians who had worshiped the other god. But the story still frames it as a failure of faith.

Seeing the calf incident as silly or unrelatable spares us from the self-reflection it is supposed to inspire in us.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 7:59 AM on February 21, 2017 [12 favorites]

"When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, 'Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.'

Query, though, whether Aaron is trying to retrieve a bad situation here. "Yeah, this calf you're worshipping is...totally Yahweh! We'll have a big Yahweh party tomorrow!"

It seems as if the text is at least open to that interpretation.
posted by praemunire at 9:27 AM on February 21, 2017

Not in the original. The Israelites use variations on the word "Elohim", while Aaron is the one who uses YHVH.
posted by Mchelly at 9:32 AM on February 21, 2017

I have a educated-but-unsupported feeling that the Israelites themselves wouldn't have used the word "calf" (Hebrew: "egel") but "bull" (Hebrew: shor"). If you're living in an agricultural society, you have lots of cows, a number of castrated oxen for plowing and drawing wagons, but very few bulls. Bulls are aggressive and scary and have sharp horns that kill people; and you only need one bull to provide for the future generation. They're very precious things that you don't dare let walk around unescorted, not because you might lose the bull but because of what it might do. They're a bit like small-scale gods, really.

Conveniently, I just read this article that talks about the role of bulls in the Bible and Middle East, which might flesh (hah!) out the background: The Law of the Goring Ox: Is It Neutered?
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:52 AM on February 22, 2017

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