A Positive Spin on the Golden Calf

Filippino Lippi, “Worship of the Golden Calf”

Spiritual Sunday

I so much enjoy Rabbi Jacob J. Staub’s thought-provoking poem about the golden calf, which I shared when the Exodus story appeared in the lectionary three years ago, that I am reposting the essay I wrote about it. To set up the poem, here’s the Biblical account (Exodus 32:1-14):

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!< The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Reprinted from Oct. 12, 2014

 I stumbled across an interesting interpretation of the story of the golden calf, which is one of today’s Episcopalian lectionary readings. The story itself is open to multiple readings, but in the midrash or interpretation of Reconstructionist Rabbi Jacob J. Staub, it represents a rebellion by the people of Israel against an overly doctrinaire and grim version of Judaism.

In this reading, Moses is a psychologically wounded man who wants to impose his narrow vision of Jahweh on the Israelites, which he does by licensing the priestly class to slaughter all those who disagree. (The book of Exodus says that 3000 people were killed.) Straub’s Moses sounds like Freud’s repressive patriarch in Moses and Monotheism, whom Freud imagines as a dictatorial leader that the Israelites rebelled against and killed—and then, experiencing Oedipal guilt, internalized as a stern and judgmental superego. (Freud’s account is more of a thought experiment than a convincing history.)

In Staub’s poem, I don’t recognize all the names in the third stanza but they seem to refer to a historical time when the Israelites worshipped multiple gods, some of whom were later explained away as different names for the One God (for instance, Adonai). “Ashira” may be Asherah, once believed to be the female consort of Jahweh. Apparently Judaism was not a strictly monotheistic religion until after the Babylonian exile, which was when the Book of Exodus was written. Historians place the historical Moses around 700 years earlier, which means the Exodus account may not be any closer to truth than Freud’s.

In any event, Straub imagines a free-flowing spirit that is chillingly repressed by priests. Moses himself ignores his wife Tzipporah and his sons. Straub wants Judaism to return to what he imagines are its more celebratory and less patriarchal roots. Our problem is not that we worship the golden calf, he says. It’s that we worship orthodoxy.

The Golden Calf

By Jacob J. Staub

From the valley below, the ebullient notes of celebrants, 
the beat of tambourines liberated after four hundred years of abuse.

Sing unto the One, 
Who smites the tyrant, 
Who hears the cries of the oppressed,
Who parts the Sea and plants the seeds for generations yet unborn.

Ana, pool your gold. Adonai, give it to God.
Hoshi’a, smelt it down. Na, cast the throne.
Ashira, link your arms. Ladonai, circle the fire.
Ki, spin into oblivion.
Ga’oh, let go, let go, let go.
Ga’ah, God is One, we are one.
With broken bodies of former slaves, we undulate, 
following the Source enthroned into the wilderness of promise.

And up over the ridge, the Levites wait, in formation,
swords on thighs, servants of the Lord, privileged 
to follow orders, to do as they are told.
A martial clan descended from the heroes of the Battle of Shechem,
they wear their forebears’ medals proudly.
They have been instructed in the proper use of herbs and oils,
in the dire consequences of disobedience, of initiative, of openheartedness.
In formation, they await the signal from Moses, down from the mountain,
to charge, to slay three thousand defenseless, spent from a night of celebration.

Moses claims that You love only him, 
that we were spared because he intervened,
that You do not like our offering.
Moses, who has never seen Your face—
not in the silent, steamy eyes of Tzipporah,
from whom he stays cloistered,
not in the bloody foreskins of his sons,
whom he ignores in the name of his holy work. 
Moses, who doesn’t touch.
Moses, who doesn’t dance.
Moses, the bridegroom of blood.

Guide him please, Holy One of Compassion.
We don’t need another Pharaoh to lead us into freedom.
Love him doubly, forgive him his wrath.
He was taken as an infant from his mother.
Only You know what befell the lad in the palace,
but below, all we see is his sweltering rage.
Otherwise, as You surely can foresee,
generations will mistake
fervent worship for idolatry.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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