The golden calf (Exodus 32)

In art and legend gods were frequently represented by animals thought to symbolize the attributes of a particular deity. In the overall religious experience of the ancient Near East, for example, bulls and bull calves were associated with strength, virility and kingship. The bull was regarded as the earthy form of representation of the heavenly god, embodying physical strength and the procreative power found in nature.

Several religious cults in Egypt (that of Apis being the most prominent) worshiped the bull and calf. Deification of a live, “sacred” bull was initiated during the First Egyptian Dynasty and continued throughout ancient Egypt’s long history. Bull cults of the Nile delta, which existed at the same time and location as the Israelite’s sojourn in Egypt, were dedicated to Horus, the “god of heaven”.

The Canaanites also venerated bulls. El, the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon (officially recognized list of gods), was referred to as the “heavenly bull”. Baal, the storm god, was likewise associated with the bull on account of that animal’s fertility. Artistic traditions from Canaan depict gods as riding on bulls, which had become living pedestals emblematic of kingship and power over nature.

The golden calf was Israel’s first foray into syncretism, the combining of faith in the one true God with pagan traditions. In taking this step, God’s chosen people exchanged His glory – the true, manifest presence of God – for the image of a bull – a false representation of God’s presence (Psalm 106:19-20). The Israelites had tragically fallen prey to cultural influences from Egypt (from which they had departed) and Canaan (where they would settle). God’s people were unwittingly associating their od with he gods of the nations.

It is important to recognize, as hinted above, that the Israelites believed they were acting with piety. Everything they saw in the world around them suggested that God would find such idol-worshiping both acceptable and pleasing. His people were in their own minds attempting to honour Him by representing Him as the chief of the gods. But the reality was that they were compromising His uniqueness and incomparability – a trend that would continue to haunt them until after their eventual return from Babylonian captivity. God’s nature cannot be represented by inanimate objects or by anything else in all creation (Deuteronomy 4:15, Isaiah 46:5-9). The cry of the exodus deliverance, “Who among the gods is like You, O Lord?” (Exodus 15:11), would be belied again and again bu idolatry – Israel’s colossal stumbling block.


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