Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Golden Calf; or, Moses checks out God's ass

When we left off, God had just finished handing Moses the Ten Commandments, after spending a month or two describing exactly how to take care of them. The People have worked themselves into quite a panic, and their first thought is to make a golden calf and worship it. This has always confused me, since I was a child and first heard the story. What is going on in your mind where you think to make something yourself and then worship it? Surely you know it's not a god if you yourself have made it! It's not like it's a pre-existing god and they just made a statue of it so they had something to bow down to. As far as I can tell, they made it up and then started worshipping it.

But it's even worse than the version I had as a child, because once they've made it Aaron goes, "These are thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt."


Seriously, what are you thinking? You JUST made it. It didn't EXIST when you were leaving Egypt. Man, I am starting to see why God hates idols so much, they are clearly a very difficult habit to break.

So, yeah, God is pissed. In the kids' Bible I had, Moses just shouts at them and makes them drink Golden Calf Dust Water as punishment. We don't really get God's reaction, which unsurprisingly is to kill everyone. Moses talks him out of it by appealing to his sense of embarrassment: Those Egyptians are totally gonna talk smack about God if he annihilates all the people he went to such roundabout lengths to free.

Moses also reminds God of his promise to multiply the progeny of Abraham, which he still hasn't really made good on, and "Jehovah repented of the evil which he said he would do unto his people."(32:14) So God is a) capable of evil and b) capable of changing his mind. How is this an omniscient being of pure good again?

FUN FACT: The ten commandments are double sided! Now You Know!

Moses gets back to camp and witnesses the sin for himself, which really sets him off. So he calls for all the men still loyal to the Lord, and all the sons of Levi show up. Then they slaughter 3,000 of their kinsmen (you may recall their patriarch was somewhat fond of slaughter). I guess this can't be everybody else, because then only one of the twelve houses of Israel would remain? Also, I am really confused as to why the sons of Levi are doing so well for themselves, when on his deathbed Levi's father JacobIsrael cursed his progeny to be divided and scattered.

Hoping 3,000 lives will be enough, Moses begs God to forgive the surviving Israelites, which he does...kind of? He says he will blot out of his book any who have sinned against him. This seems to be everyone except for Moses, and maybe Moses' second-in-command Joshua, who I think was waiting for him by the Mount the whole time. It certainly does NOT include Aaron, God's High Priest, but Aaron doesn't get fired or anything. Aaron's defense to this point has been along the lines of, "Jeez, calm down. What happened was, the people said they wanted an idol, so I told them to make one without any argument or discouragement on my part whatsoever." Because I guess it's not his job as High Priest to give them any kind of moral guidance whatsoever.

The last line of Chapter 32 is "And Jehovah smote the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron made." So, yeah, that seems pretty definitive, but it can't possibly include everyone. This is where some detail would be nice, Exodus!

In Chapter 33, God visits the people and communes with Moses in a super special Tent, because everyone else is so stiffnecked that God's presence will kill them instantly. God and Moses chat like old chums, face to face, but Moses wants God to reveal to him all his glory; this kind of feels like a G-rated version of the myth of Semele. God thinks of an ingenious loophole, which basically amounts to "Okay, you close your eyes, and then I'll walk by and cover you with my hand so you don't see anything, and then you look up and check out my back as I leave." That's God for you-you hate to see him go, but love to watch him leave.


  1. Brilliant! Several lols!

    I love the description of people convincing themselves to worship a calf THEY JUST MADE!

    Also, nice bits about how God feels bad about the EVIL he was about to do!

  2. "Jehovah repented of the evil which he said he would do unto his people."

    If not using the original languages, you should check several translations to gather the nuances of the words used. The word translated here as "evil" can also be translated as "disaster" in the NIV (both 2011 and 1984) and the English Standard, "harm" in the NASV, "terrible disaster" in the New Living Translation.

    Also, the word "evil" can mean several things in English, e.g., hardship or dangerous, as in "evil times."

  3. Huh! I guess I never thought about the fact that they clearly knew the calf was something they'd JUST MADE. Maybe God was punishing idiocy??

  4. @Octavo Diva: That's an excellent point, and I completely agree. Unfortunately, I'm just trying to get through one edition at the moment, and I'm not really up to reading 3+ editions at once. When I encounter a passage I don't quite understand or one I feel I may not be interpreting correctly, I check out about half a dozen versions online. In this case, though, I did not bother to look up alternate translations of this passage.

    That being said, alternate translations don't have any effect on the issue I take with the passage. We still have God's mind being changed by the intercession of a man, which to my mind is a big enough problem on its own, and we have God about to do something bad. Granted, "evil" may not mean "morally incorrect" but rather something unfortunate or undesirable, i.e. a "necessary evil" like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. But this still raises the question, was God about to do something morally correct or not? If not, then "evil" is a totally appropriate term and the problem stands. If the destruction he planned would have been justified, why was Moses able to change his mind? Why didn't he perform the morally correct action? The only way out I can see is if the genocide of the Israelites were morally neutral, which I can hardly believe. That, or God was never going to do it in the first place and it was all an act for Moses' benefit. This would certainly be in keeping with God's role as an omniscient being guiding and governing flawed beings of Free Will, but every passage I look up has some variant of God changing his mind.

  5. @ A Heathen.

    I call this the problem of perfection, though I'm sure there's some theological term for it that I'm not familiar with. Anyway, when you posit a perfect being, at some point their attributes will come into conflict. In this case, God's perfect justice and his perfect mercy come into conflict.

    The only way the paradox can be resolved is if both perfect attributes are maintained at the same time. I know I'm jumping way ahead in the book, but the paradox is resolved in the suffering Savior. God's perfect justice is satisfied by a perfect substitute taking the full penalty, whereas his mercy is shown to the people whose lives he spared. Even though God "changed his mind," he maintained both his justice and his mercy by transferring the penalty for their sins to Christ. In this case, Moses pleaded with God and at his request God administered mercy.

    Jumping ahead once again, in the Psalms you'll run into some imprecatory psalms, in which the author prays to God administer justice to his enemies. It works both ways.

  6. I look forward to getting to those parts!