Friday, July 5, 2013

The commandments of the golden calf

Most of the Old Testament doesn't make a lot of sense if one tries to read it as "history." The Exodus story in particular is full of logical holes, and one of the biggest is the story of the golden calf. God works numerous horrifying but impressive wonders, gets his people out of Egypt, and guides them across the desert with a pillar of fire by night, and a cloud of smoke by day. Moses uses the power of God to part the Red Sea, and the Israelites pass safely through, while Pharaoh's soldiers are drowned. God provides them with miraculously fresh water, manna, and quail as they travel. They see lightning and hear thunder at the top of Mount Sinai, and are given the commandments of God via Moses.

And then, after all that, when Moses is gone from them for a little while, they immediately forget about God and demand that Aaron fashion them a golden calf... and then they worship it.

Um... what? How dumb are these people, anyway? They've seen God do wonders that would convince pretty much any atheist that God was real. They've had God marching through the desert beside them, in the guise of a pillar of fire. God has given them food out of nothing, and water out of rocks. And yet they turn around and worship a silly little golden calf. How could anyone be so stupid as to disbelieve at that point? It makes no sense.

Well, it makes no sense if read literally. The Hebrews would have to be dumb as stumps not to recognize that Yahweh existed, if the story of Exodus were literally true. When you've been escorted through the desert by a pillar of fire, and fed by the hand of God, you don't suddenly begin to worship an inanimate object. The obvious answer to this conundrum is that these miracles grew in the retelling, as stories usually do, and seem much more incredible in the final written version than they really were to the Hebrews. (That's assuming the Exodus ever actually happened at all-- there is no archaeological evidence of a large group of people passing through this region, and a group this size tramping around for forty years would surely leave behind massive evidence.)

Read less literally, this is more reasonably interpreted as the story of two different priesthoods battling for supremacy. Perhaps a small group of Hebrews left Egypt and wandered around, and some of these events actually happened, in less supernatural form, but there was a religious divide. It would hardly be surprising if some of the Hebrews still followed the religion of their forebears, while others had picked up Egyptian traditions after several hundred years. Bull worship was common among cultures of this time and place, so this could easily be a religion some of the Hebrews had learned from the Egyptians.

Had the golden calf side won, all those miracles would probably be attributed to his glittery goodness and held up as proof of his power, and the Hebrews would have abided by whatever commandments the golden calf (or more accurately his priesthood) declared to be law. But because Yahweh's priests won, the Old Testament claims all those miracles for him, and his commandments (or rather his priests' commandments) became the law. This scenario makes far more sense to me than the rather silly notion that all these stories should be taken as literal truth.

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