A little Shock about the Golden Calf

18 March 2010 Thursday of the 4th Week of Lent
Exodus 32, 7-14; Psalm 106; John 5, 31-47

We always had a view on the Golden Calf, the one idol created by the Israelites which Aaron, the brother of Moses tolerated. We knew that Moses broke the tablets of stone when he went down the mountain and saw feasting and dancing in honor of the bull. Perhaps, let’s see what other experts had to say about this event.

John F. Craghan who wrote about the book of Exodus in the Collegeville Bible Commentary tells us that “not a few scholars are convinced that a real event stands behind the story of the Golden Calf and that it occurred during the wilderness experience.” He said that the Golden Calf was not the central issue. We knew that there were groups that opposed Moses and the symbol of the ark of the covenant. That opposition were under the leadership of Aaron, and since they had broken allegiance with Moses, they wanted another figure to symbolize divine presence.

Craghan wrote: “The Golden Calf does not violate the prescription of the Ten Commandments regarding false images (Ex 20, 4-5). That prohibition concerns the PERSON of Yahweh, whereas the Golden Calf (a young bull) looks to an ATTRIBUTE of Yahweh—strength. Such bulls served as supports for Yahweh’s throne (see cherubim in Exodus 25, 10-22). Israel’s history, however, shows that the people did not always distinguish between the deity and the deity’s attribute and so identified the young bull with Yahweh (Hos 13, 2).”

So if the Golden Calf was not the focus, what was the point? At this stage in the Exodus, the Israelites began to see themselves as covenantal people. They believe that their existence was seen in the covenant that they entered with Yahweh. And therefore, the sin was not so much about the Golden Calf per se, but the desire of the people to get rid of Moses, who represents Yahweh. By rejecting Moses whom Yahweh chose, they rejected Yahweh whom he represented. Therefore, the sin as they say was apostasy, and not idolatry.

Yahweh was furious and planned to wipe out the people. He wanted to begin anew (vv. 7-10). But here was something significant: Moses interceded for the Israelites. He became a mediator in winning forgiveness which eventually ended with a renewal of the covenant. He argued that by wiping out the Israelites, Yahweh’s promises to the patriarchs would not be fulfilled. The people of Egypt would ridicule the God of Israel who brought the people to the desert, only to let them die there. And by doing so, it was a mistake for the people to have followed a lesser god who did not follow through His plans. Yahweh then allowed Moses to win the argument.

Therefore, Yahweh forgave the Israelites and restored the covenant. The readings today tells us of a pattern significant in our Lenten observance. There are elements which we can reflect on with regards to our relationship with the Lord. First, we can look at our sins. Generally these are the times when we break off from our relationship with the Lord. Second, we can look at the consequences of our sins. We experience this as ‘punishments’ of the God who is ‘furious’ about what we have done. We feel the guilt that gnaws our souls. Third, we decide to repent and return to the God who waits for us, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son. Finally, we can reflect on the graces we have received as a product of our return, and how our relationship has been renewed, restored and deepened.

In addition, the Israelites believed in the role of intercessions in one’s relationship with God, just as Moses became a mediator during their time in the desert. Here we see why many of us Catholics appeal to mediators. It is both acceptable to have a saint whom you seek to represent you or you don’t have one.

To me, what is important in today’s reflection is this: God revealed himself to us, through a particular people whom He loved. But He chose to reveal His heart of forgiveness through a sinful people. We should therefore be accepting of people, warts and all. If God is called a refuge of sinners, we do not have reason NOT to become one.

After all, we all have broken and rejected the Lord.

And those of you who feel that you haven’t, by all means, go and pick up stones of different sizes and throw them at us.

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