Until recently, I had been troubled by Aaron and the Israelite people building a calf(s) while Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving the Covenant written upon the two tables of stone; and this immediately after God had spoken to the whole nation loudly from the mount—thundering out the Ten Commandments. How could they do this and believe that the calf(s) was God who took them out of Egypt?
I am reading a book: The Bible Among the Myths by John N. Oswalt. I have to say that this book is really opening my mind up to new ideas concerning ancient religious thought. In reality, monotheism and polytheism represent two irreconcilable worldviews. Before Mount Sinai, Israel had no reference for worshiping only one God. The worldview up to the time of their coming out of Egypt was one of continuity. God was everything and everything was God. There were various explanations of this, but by and large continuity was the worldview. If God was everything, we could make an image of anything and conclude that this was God and worship that image. Even we, according to polytheistic thought were a part of the gods, albeit an emanation, a kind of poor reflection of the gods. God was actually many gods or forces whose conflict produced everything that is. The universe was considered a part of these gods. It came from them and the world in which they existed.
That worldview reasoned that what we do here is also done there in the world of the gods and vise versa. So, when calamity occurs, it is because the gods are quarreling and fighting among themselves. On the other hand, if we act out in worship what we would like to see occur, this would cause the gods to do what we would like them to do. Therefore, we have the power, if acted out perfectly in religious practice, to manipulate the gods.
This is the only worldview that the Israelites understood. Just because they heard God thundering from the mount, didn’t change that understanding. They did only what they knew how to do—what they had been doing in Egypt or what they saw done there. They really believed the calf(s) was God—according to the worldview of continuity, i.e. god is everything and everything is god.
God broke into our world and took Israel out of Egypt. What he wanted to correct was the current worldview of continuity and change that into transcendence. That is to say, God is not the world and the world is not God. This is why erecting idols was so wrong. To erect an idol is to return to the worldview that God is that idol. This is why Moses was so upset when he returned from the mount. It wasn’t the idol per se. After all, when I show someone a picture of my grandchildren and tell them this is Maria and this is Jimmy, it is understood that the images are not really my grandchildren, but are images that show what they look like. This is not what Israel was doing. By erecting the calf(s), they were saying what they made—the idol—was truly the God that took them out of Egypt, and they “played” before him in a manner that would express what they wished him to do, just as they did or had seen done in Egypt. They thought they could manipulate the God.
If one were to read the Old Testament, it would become clearer that this is the idea that they struggled with throughout their history—could God be manipulated like the nations around them thought. It is difficult to admit one’s helplessness in times of trouble. One would like to be able to do something about it. The idea of a God who loved his creation and wanted to bless it was completely foreign to the ancient religions, and Israel struggled with this new concept throughout its pre-exilic history. Even today, it seems we would much rather be able to manipulate God—make agreements with him, make him an equal “partner” in our tasks, tithe and virtually “force” him to bless us etc. This is what was behind the king’s request in Micah 6:7-8. What shall I do in order to get God to do what I want? How can I manipulate God? What religious act can I perform, which would cause or force God to do what I want him to do?
In the end Moses tried to show Israel that God was not like that. We cannot force him to do anything. He is not like what we have been told in the world—they simply do not know him. So, at the end of the day we are left with trust or faith. Do we know this transcendent God enough to believe him and to trust that he really does have our best interests at heart and wants to bless us? This is the Gospel of the New Testament—God so loved the world…