Deut. 9:6-21 - The Golden Calf
In today’s parashah, Moses reminds the Israelites, that they were a rebellious lot and he was their hero. 40 years previously, whilst Moses was up Mt Sinai, the stiff-necked Israelites had lost their faith, and had built and worshipped an idol, the infamous Golden Calf. Its difficult for both Moses and us to understand how these people could sin so outrageously. After all, they had personally experienced God, just a few days previously; God’s words were still ringing in their ears!
So Moses rushed down the mountain and smashed the tablets – which of course, made him the most flagrant lawbreaker of all time, as no-one else has broken all 10 commandments at once! Anyway, Moses rejected God’s offer to be the father of a new nation, and instead persuaded God to forgive the people. Moses was the heroic intermediary between the people and God.
But as George and Ira Gershwin, those ‘audacious’ Jews, wrote in Porgy and Bess: “It ain’t necessarily so. It ain’t necessarily so. The things that you’re li’ble to read in the Bible… it ain’t necessarily so”.
So let’s pick this Biblical story apart. The Israelites are described as stiff-necked, which means headstrong, obstinate, a people not able to change or accept criticism. You are literally stiff-necked, if you can’t or don’t look behind yourself and work out how your past actions have led you to where you are now.
But ever since Adam and Eve ate from that tree in Eden, being stiff-necked has been an intrinsic human trait. At Yom Kippur, we recite the Al Chet prayer, which states that all Jews are stiff-necked. And sometimes (e.g. when keeping to your principles), it’s better to be a stubborn bull, than a compliant sheep. Of course, God doesn’t like this independence. We read today that when they rebelled, God disowned the Israelites; they were suddenly Moses’s people who he brought out. God is like an exasperated parent, whose misbehaving kid, is suddenly the other parent’s child!
Whenever Moses’s values were offended, he quickly lost his temper & vented his frustration – killing an Egyptian taskmaster, or smashing tablets. In fact, Moses was the most stiff-necked Israelite of them all; things simply had to be done his way. And he often wasn’t successful; his threats to Pharaoh had simply hardened his heart. And so Moses failed to negotiate a successful exodus for the Jews from Egypt - or Jexit as it’s called in the Talmud!
Up Mount Sinai, Moses hadn’t eaten for 40 days and had a severe headache; the two tablets he had taken for it simply hadn’t worked! So, in his ‘righteous’ anger, he destroyed the most visible and precious present God ever gave us. The tablets were the Ketubah or marriage contract, which God wrote to His Israelite bride. Moses tore up this covenant, without going back to the people to see if this was what they now really wanted!
So why did Moses want ‘no deal’? It all comes back to the golden calf, which Moses thought was a replacement for God. But its fake news to imply that the Israelites were so stupid, as to worship something they’d just created. Biblical scholars now think that the calf was not a deity, but rather the pedestal of a throne, on which God was invisibly present. The calf was like the cherubs that were put in the Temple in Jerusalem; actual golden calves were in Jeroboam’s temples at Beth-el and Dan.
Back at Sinai, the people were lost and frightened. They had just experienced the terrifying revelation, with thunder and earthquakes. Moses had disappeared up the mountain and they felt abandoned. They had just come from Egypt which was full of physical symbols, and did what they thought was right. They used their precious gold to create an image, because they needed something tangible to hold onto. The calf was designed to replace the mediator Moses, rather than God. Moses had become an unhealthy object of reverence upon whom the recently enslaved people were dependent. They had agreed to enter a covenant, without being clear of its terms. The people just hadn’t yet been told how to worship an intangible deity. They had experienced the power of God in plagues and thunder, but didn’t know that God was also merciful and loving, nor had they yet heard the still, small, voice of God.
For sure, Moses had a clear vision of where he wanted to lead the people. But it wasn’t based on facts or a sensible emotional understanding of how to get people to change. Moses was compelling and charismatic. But people who argued against him were traitors; they were colluding with the enemy. He suppressed all opposition, killing thousands. He probably labelled dissent as ‘Project Fear’. It was indeed fear. The people feared the reckless way he was leading them into an unknown future, one in which they wandered homeless and friendless for forty years, facing shortages of food (and probably medicines!), internal divisions and external enemies.
Moses didn’t address the causes of their fear. He imposed his own extremist views and didn’t bring in other voices. True he heard God’s voice; but if today you hear God telling you to kill people, then you would be quickly locked up. For the exodus generation, Moses failed. Maybe he said ‘do or die’ to them. Well they didn’t really ‘do; but they did all die. His obstinacy, self-righteousness and ruthlessness condemned them all to suffer and perish in the desert and he failed to bring them to his Promised Land. They certainly didn’t get their country back!
The point of today’s story is to condemn thoughtless, religious idolatry. This occurs when we put rituals, beliefs, possessions or people on a plinth. A religious person is never satisfied, but is always straining intellectually and spiritually to help make the world a better place. Religion can guide us on this journey, but it is not the point of the journey. Being human and stiff-necked, sometimes we err and create a golden calf. Yet at other times we can slay a sacred cow. Like our ancestors, we too find it difficult to deal with an intangible God. But faith cannot come from someone telling me what to do, or think, or believe. It comes from me bravely striving to choose what is good, worthwhile and true.
24 August 2019