32 The Golden Calf

<< Exodus 32: The Worship of the Golden Calf >>

And all the people brake off the golden earrings, which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.–Exodus xxxii. 3, 4.

THE scene which is related in the chapter before us is one which might fairly surpass belief, if we were not daily in the habit of seeing the astounding depths of forgetfulness of God into which human nature can sink.

Here were the Israelites, with Aaron at their head, when left but forty days without Moses, engaging in strange idolatry. The same people who had been delivered by Omnipotent Love; who had witnessed the wonders by which their bondage was broken; who had crossed the Red Sea on dry land; who were daily fed with manna, because no harvest could be found in the sterile wilderness; who had been left by Moses only that he might obtain for them still higher blessings; these very people, with Aaron at their head, were found worshipping a golden calf their own hand had made, and crying, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.

What an amazing revelation of human folly! How humbling it is to our fallen nature to find such disclosures of its weakness and its wickedness unveiling themselves before us, both in divine and human history. Let us learn from it to beware of ourselves, and to keep alive in ourselves those blessed lights of divine truth from the Holy Word which alone can guide us safely in the way that leadeth to life.

The selection of the calf as the object of Israels idolatry on this sad occasion reminds us that the worship of a bull had been long established at Memphis, the capital of Egypt. The Israelites had been habitual observers of this, and probably had joined in such worship during the centuries of their slavery.

Sir I. Gardener Wilkinson in his Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians states: Memphis was the place where Apis was kept, and where his worship was particularly observed. He was not merely looked upon as an emblem, but, as Pliny and Cicero say, was deemed a god by the Egyptians; and Strabo calls Apis, the same as Osiris.

The festival in honor of Aapis lasted seven days, on which occasion a large concourse of people assembled at Memphis. The priests then led the sacred bull in solemn procession, everyone coming forward from their houses to welcome him as he passed; and Pliny and Solinus affirm that children who smelt his breath were thought to be gifted with the power of predicting future events.

The figure of Apis-Osiris generally wears the globe of the sun, and the asp, the symbol of the divine majesty; which are also given to the bronze figures of this bull.

The sacred ox of Heliopolis was also dedicated to Osiris (the Egyptian symbol of the Word or Divine Wisdom), and honored by the Egyptians with a reverence next to that paid to Apis.

He further says, I have seen an instance of a bull, with the globe and feathers between its horns, standing on a monument built at the side of a, mountain, probably the Lydian range behind Memphis–and over it the name, Pthah-Sokari-Osiris, the God of the West: which was probably intended to represent Apis, in the character of that Deity.

A black bull, with a white crescent on his shoulder, or a white spot upon the shoulder, and others on the haunch, the nose, round the eye, and on its legs, carrying a dead body, covered with a red pall, is sometimes represented at the foot of a mummy-case, or on a board deposited in the tomb. This appears to be the Apis, in some office connected with Osiris, the ruler of Amenti (the spirit world).

These statements which relate to Egypt before the time of Israel in Egypt, and during its continuance, indicate the reason, probably, why the Israelites fell into this worship of the calf, when they once more became idolatrous. Their hearts were not estranged from their old idols. The prophet Ezekiel alludes to this when he says, They did not every man cast away the abominations of their eyes, neither did they forsake the idols of Egypt.–xx. 8.

And when we remember the golden calf which was afterwards set up in Bethel, by Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, and the widespread and long-continued idolatry to which it gave rise, we may perhaps doubt whether this calf-worship was not something ingrained in the sensual nature, both of the Egyptians and the Israelites, and to which they were betrayed continually when they ceased zealously to worship the glorious God of heaven, the One Almighty Creator.

All ages, and all nations have testified to the tendency in human nature to worship. It is irrepressible. Man must worship. When he sinks from a conception of the Adorable One, who is Love Itself and Wisdom Itself, he does not cease to worship, but he worships something more or less worthy in the creation; it may be of spiritual, it may be of natural creation. Almost every object in nature has been worshiped: from the sun to a serpent. Even atheism is but the enormous worship of self. Man must worship; he will worship. Whether he will worship the best or the vilest thing in the universe, depends upon his state in other respects. There is nothing viler than self in its native blackness; which they worship who defiantly refuse to acknowledge anything wiser than their own intellect, or better than their own lusts.

Here, however, the people adored a molten calf, and this as we have seen in imitation of Egyptian worship.

It will not be uninteresting or uninstructive to inquire how this peculiar worship originated among the Egyptians. That people, as all their remains testify, delighted in the delineation of truth by emblems, which in the works of God we call correspondences 1 and in the drawings of men we call representations. In this language the ox is the symbol of obedience. The steady character of that animal justifies the analogy, and explains its use, both in the hieroglyphics of Egypt and in the Word of God.

How patient is the ox, how steady, how perseveringly it plods on, either at the plough or the cart. There is nothing brilliant about it, but how useful it is. It is not superb, like the prancing charger, but how quietly serviceable it is in its work and in itself. It is, therefore, the symbol of that obedience to Christian daily duty which constitutes the first, the indispensable moral basis of the Christian character. Allusion was made to this when our Lord said, My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.–Matt. xi. 30.

It is this signification that appears when we read, Unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall.–Mal. iv. 2. To grow up as calves of the stall is to grow in goodness from the humble spirit of obedience.

When Ezekiel saw in vision the representation of the affections which are to accompany the Word of God, as four living creatures, he said the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calfs foot (Ez. l. 7), and one of the faces of these living creatures was the face of an ox on the left side.10.

It is the spirit of steady obedience, meant by the calfs foot, and that from clear purpose and intention to walk humbly with our God meant by the face of an ox, which alone can advance us in the regenerate life. There is a passage in the prophecy of Isaiah which is very striking when we remember the correspondence of the ox. Blessed are ye that sow beside all waters, that send forth the feet of the ox and the ass.–xxxii. 20. It is clear that to attain true blessedness we must sow the seeds of true principles, beside, or in harmony with, the heavenly waters of divine truth, and let the ox of obedience, and the ass of common-sense be taught and elevated by its sacred guidance, and thus our outer life be sanctified by union with the inner life of heaven.

The same lesson was taught in the curious hieroglyphic forms of Egypt, by the bull with the sun upon its head. God working in us, as the origin of all our goodness, even the lowest, was thus symbolized before the people. We are not obedient of ourselves, but from the Sun of heaven. Unless we attribute every good we have to the source of good, it is but as the morning dew, and will vanish away. The ox with the sun upon its head, is the true symbol of that sincere attention to every duty, which rejoices in faithfulness and usefulness, and rejoices also in disclaiming all thought of merit, in the heartfelt acknowledgment that every good we possess is from the mercy and grace of the Lord. This disposition of faithful obedience represented in its newness by the calf, and in its fullness by the ox, is of inestimable worth. Without it all other gifts are valueless, and even dangerous. It is upon a steady sense of duty that society reposes. Brilliant talents adorn life, but faithful duty is its base.

The quiet, good men, without a history, who do their daily work so well that they never provoke disturbance or remark, are they who smooth the path of life, and attend to its ever-recurring requirements virtuously, yet are little heard of, and too often little valued. Without them, however, society would be a wreck.

Their services, like those of the air we breathe, are conducted so quietly that we often forget how much we owe them. They who patiently feel the power of duty, and do steadily their part in the daily work of the world, are the worlds truest benefactors, if not the greatest. They are not gazelles, they climb no lofty height, but they abide in the divine meadows, and are the Great Shepherds useful ones. The Egyptian character was such that they valued highly obedience and science; the twin virtues in the lowest degree of the mind.

They admired obedience and practiced it. Their character was an embodiment of it. Hence they performed such immense works, as even now are the wonder of mankind. Look at the statues of the Egyptians, and see what quiet content, what patient satisfaction is expressed in every feature. Hence, it is said, Egypt is like a very fair heifer.–Jer. xlvi. 20.

In their best periods they delighted to represent this disposition of theirs, as heaven derived; hence their pictures, and their sculptures of the ox, surmounted by the sun. But in their degenerate days they lost sight not only of the origin of their virtues, but also of the meaning of their symbols, and began to adore as gods what they had formerly figured as emblems.

Thus originated calf-worship among the Egyptians, and from them among the sons of Israel.

The Israelites were men of the letter, and not of the spirit. Obedience was their highest righteousness, when they were good and, especially, obedience in external religion, in rites and ceremonies. They did not worship a living calf, but a molten calf they had made out of their earrings.

A real living calf would represent living obedience, in duties which live in the very nature of things. A molten, thus an artificial calf would represent artificial duties, such as those of their ritual, full of strange and curious ceremonies.

Rituals in religion are of value when they are regarded as means for the reception of higher graces, when the letter of divine service is subservient to the spirit, and the form is regarded as the means of attaining wisdom, purity, innocence, humility and peace. But when form is loved for its own sake, when ceremony is regarded above charity, when the means of grace are thought more of than grace itself, then ritualism is a molten calf to us, and we are crying out, These be thy gods, O Israel, who brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt.

To engage in religious worship, to a vast number of minds, is a delightful exercise. It is pleasant to sing, to pray, to join in a religious procession, and to enjoy the privileges of divine worship in general. These sacred pleasures are as golden earrings to the soul. When justice and charity are regarded as the spirit of piety, then piety itself is divinely beautiful. Religions ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. But when ritual is regarded for its own sake, without any reference to internal graces, when piety is without true charity, when religion has no regard to enlightenment of justice, then worship even becomes an idol, sacred service degenerates into superstition, the incense of prayers that should go up to heaven is mere smoke that hangs about the earth.

Prayer is blessed when it deepens our humility, sweetens our disposition and strengthens in us the spirit of justice. Praise is beautiful when it flows from an adoring heart. When we approach the King of heaven and earth, and sing praises with the heart and with the understanding also, our sympathies with all that is pure, elevated and holy are expanded.

But worship without charity, without justice and without heart is entirely worthless. Who can hear the droning whine of perfunctory devotion, however embellished by correct intonation, and enriched by music, and not turn away in sadness of heart. Where worship is only this, where there is nothing to encourage the soul to inward communion with the Lord, to struggle against all that is mean, low, impure and selfish, it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. The substitution of ritual for regeneration, of letter for spirit, of form for essence, of solemn trifles in ceremony for battling against sin, was the great tendency of the Jewish character.

Stiff in the letter, lax in the design.

It was this idolatry of the sensuous portion of religion that was represented in the idolatry of the Golden Calf. The earrings of gold represented the pleasant things of external obedience to the love of God. The services of divine worship, when presented in the beauties of holiness, are such spiritual earrings. They belong to obedience–the ear, but rather to its decorations than to its essential work. This is self-denial, and an earnest performance of our just duties for the public good.

When worship is made the chief thing, and virtue, wisdom, charity, and a heavenly temper are lightly esteemed, then we are mentally worshipping a golden calf.

Then ceremony leads her bigots forth,
Prepared to fight for shadows of no worth:
While truths on which eternal things depend,
Find not, or hardly find, a single friend;
As soldiers watch the signal of command,
They learn to bow, to kneel, to sit, to stand;
Happy to fill religions sacred place,
With hollow form, and gesture, and grimace.

In the middle ages this sin of ancient Israel was repeated on a far more extensive scale. Then droning priests were multiplied whose whole life was a compound of idleness, and the grimaces of devotion.

They would engage in wearing gorgeous and frequently changing dresses, repeating unintelligible prayers, lighting candles in profusion, making ostentatious processions, while being quite oblivious to the just laws dictated by love to God and love to man. Envy, hatred, covetousness, lust and passion were all undisturbed in the soul, but this theatrical man-millinery was exalted, and they cried again, These be thy gods, O Israel, that brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt.

It is impossible to read the accounts which appear from time to time in the public papers of this country of ministers introducing into the churches lighted candles in the day-time, crucifixes, varied vestments, and multiplied forms, even though they are aware that bitter animosity will be the result, without once, more observing the tendency to the idolatry of the Golden Calf. The people went to Baron when Moses was away in the mountain, and moved him to make for them this Golden Calf.

Aaron without Moses represents religion without the Divine Law.

The people going to Aaron and inducing him to make the object of their idolatry represents the process by which religion is corrupted. The degeneracy of a, degraded people, operating on an obsequious priesthood, really no better than themselves, induce them to give a prominence to such parts of religion as do not cross their evil loves, and make these all in all. A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means: and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof?–Jer. v. 30, 31.

The end of idolatry thus instituted by the Israelites and Aaron was the indignation of Moses, the breaking of the tables of the covenant, the slaying of three thousand men, and the ultimate rejection of the Jewish nation, when the Lord came into the world, from their incapability of forming part of a spiritual church.

The result of the idolatry of the form over the essence of religion, of ceremony over love, mercy, and faith, always leads to that making of the commandments of God of none effect by our traditions, which was represented by the breaking of the tables. The further result is the full destruction of spiritual life, represented by the slaying of brother, companion, and neighbor to the extent of three thousand men, and ultimately there is an utter rejection of all who persist in this blind and vicious course.

The priest whose office is with zeal sincere
To watch the fountain and preserve it clear,
Carelessly nods and sleeps upon the brink
While others poison what the flock must drink:
Or, waking at the call of lust alone,
Infuses lies and errors of his own;
His unsuspecting sheep believe it pure;
And, tainted by the very means of cure,
Catch from each other a contagious spot,
The foul forerunner of a general rot.

How deeply important it is then that we should unceasingly watch ourselves, and pray to the Lord for His light and strength; above all things to put on charity; to struggle against our inward evils; to make, by His Holy Spirits guidance, a new heart and a new spirit, that He Himself may warrant our everlasting peace by the gracious words, The kingdom of God is within you.

Author: Jonathan Bayley — From Egypt to Canaan (1869)