The Golden Calf

by Daniel J. Ritter

Daniel J. Ritter, Ph.D., is a retired Air Force officer, a retired school teacher, a one-time foreign service officer and a part-time local politician.

The author granted use permission in May, 2001.


This essay seeks to reach, with a layman’s tools, a personal accommodation with a Bible that both repels him and attracts him.

The human race is a work in progress.  Man’s perception of his world changes with each generation.  What one generation knew to be right, another discovers to be wrong.  For a thousand years the Bible was a work in progress.  The world as perceived by Jeremiah is not the world as perceived by Ezra.  The muse that inspired the Book of Job is not the same muse that inspired the Book of Ruth.  The letter of Paul to the Romans projects God’s love more broadly than does the Canticle of Moses in Deuteronomy. Ecclesiastes limps toward the final Judgement while St. John in the Apocalypse celebrates an explosion of evil.  Isaiah I is not the same as Isaiah II.  In short, a multiplicity of voices enrich the Bible.  They do not all speak the same language, they don’t all convey the same message. This is the power of the Bible--but it is two thousand years old.  The message is out of context yet it dominates the popular perception of God, confuses Him with Yahweh.


In the Director’s Corner , p. 2, of the Anti-Defamation League newsletter of Jan. 1994, we have an example of such confusion.  Mr. Abraham Foxman, at the time national director of the ADL, wrote, “The Holocaust is a singular event.  It is not simply one example of genocide but a near successful attempt on the life of God’s chosen children and thus, on God himself.”  “Not simply one example of genocide”, the “Holocaust” has unique and sacred significance.  It transcends WW II and the millions upon millions of non-Jewish dead were collateral victims in an elemental struggle between the forces of darkness and “God’s chosen children”.   This astounding and obliquely offensive assertion requires no objective justification.  It is offered, to a sophisticated readership, as revealed truth; and, so it is.  It is the endlessly redundant message of the Old Testament.  Common sense and historical experience suggest that this message engenders an acute sense of self-awareness, if not arrogance, on the part of the purportedly chosen and stifled, yet potentially explosive, resentment on the part of the purportedly non-chosen.


The sad history of inter-tribal, international and ideological conflict attests to the power of the conviction of divine selection to arouse the ugliest passions.  For example, in his 2001 Passover sermon, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the Ultra-Orthodox Shas party, called upon God to annihilate all Arabs.  “Evil ones, damnable ones...May the Holy Name visit retribution on Arabs’ heads and cause their seed to be lost, and annihilate them, and cause them to be cast from the world”.  (The Times, London, Apr. 10, 2001)  As inflammatory as these remarks may be, as distressing to the vast majority of Jews as they may be, they can not be dismissed as the rantings of a deranged racist. The rabbi is on firm Biblical ground, his views accord with a literal and static conception of the Torah, the 5 books of Moses, the foundation of Judaism.  In fact, they are restrained if compared to Psalm 137:8,9.  They are, however, in conflict with many other psalms and contrary to a dynamic conception of the Bible in which our understanding of divinity evolves as God reveals Himself to man through the Holy Spirit.  The future of Judaism, of Christianity and of Islam hang between these two perceptions of God--static or dynamic, between whether there is a chosen people or people who choose God, whether the Promised Land is a place or a metaphor.  These are the basic parameters of our faith, they should unite us rather than divide us.


As in other ideological confrontations, the extremists have a tactical advantage.  There is only one literal interpretation of the Bible and many allegorical interpretations. Furthermore, the fundamentalists in all sects are most numerous, most committed and most easily aroused.  They ignore evidence that the Bible is a compilation of often contradictory testimonies in various stylistic formats and insist it is God’s word, through divine inspiration, in every jot and tittle.  (Kabbalists find mystical significance in esoteric combinations of jots and tittles.)  The strategic advantage, however, belongs to the other side.  There are simply too many positions for the fundamentalists to defend.  Most of these positions have no real religious significance, they are myths which  had some cultural relevance 3,000 years ago, in a geocentric universe, and at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea.  (Myths are not necessarily “ahistorical” just as history is not “amythical”, but history does have, at some level, objective evidence. Both are abused in the service of dubious causes.)  In the course of defending these positions, the fundamentalists lose sight of the theological mountain.  For example, it is impossible to defend the Book of Genesis in detail; but, the  Biblical concept of life as purposeful, as related to some divine purpose, is eternally attractive.  That man is responsible for his own fall from grace, not necessarily in the Garden of Eden, elevates man among God’s creatures.   That the divinity is omnipotent and omniscient and will reward and punish man according to his just deserts, saves us from the arbitrary destiny of a fundamentally tragic or Manichean world.  These are the strongholds of our faith and they are unchallenged by scientific theory or scholarly research.  If we are to maintain the strongholds, however, we must abandon the vulnerable positions.  One of these, buttressed by extensive Biblical detail, periodically reinterpreted and reinforced by various claimants to divine selection, is the premise of a chosen people.  The problem begins with Noah, our righteous forebearer.


Following the Flood, according to the Bible, Noah built an altar and offered a holocaust unto Yahweh.  Yahweh then blessed Noah and his sons Jepheth, Ham and Shem.  The Gentiles, including his grandson, Ashkenaz, would descend from Jepheth. They disappeared into the northern mists.  From Ham would descend the Egyptians, the Canaanites and the peoples of the Upper Nile.  Shem’s descendents would inhabit the land between the Nile and the Euphrates and down the Arabian Peninsula.  With Noah, Yahweh made his covenant never again to destroy the world by flood and he placed a bow in the sky as a reminder.  From this high drama we descend abruptly to earth, to Noah in his tent and drunk on wine.  When Ham entered the tent, he saw his father naked; but, rather than cover him, he revealed his father’s shame to Jepheth and Shem.  They then backed into the tent and covered their father’s nakedness. Consequently, and somewhat inexplicably, Noah placed a curse through all generations on Ham’s eldest son, Canaan. Henceforth, Canaan would be a slave to Jepheth and Shem.  (Genesis 9:20-27)  In this unfortunate scene, as banal and incongruent as it seems, Noah enlists Yahweh to his service, he demotes the universal god of creation to a Hebrew god and, with suspicious foresight, introduces the irredeemable enemy.


This must be blasphemy.  What god could surrender his magnificence in the service of such a drunken curse?  No stretch of allegorical interpretation can accommodate this curse.  But there it is, in the Bible, in the first book of the Torah, along with many similar passages of dubious moral or theological value either literal or figurative.  These messages of hate and tribal zenophobia contaminate the message of love and piety found in the Prophets and in the New Testament.  They echo through the ages and poison our faith. How many wars have been  fought, how many people have suffered, how many minds have turned away from this god in disgust?  If it were just a remnant of a forgotten mythology, it would be hidden in some museum among other examples of tribal lore and man’s insatiable thirst for understanding.  For good or bad, the Bible is one of the pillars upon which we have built our civilization.  In so far as western civilization is dynamic, however, the Bible must also be dynamic if it is to remain relevant.


Fundamentalists  impose a level of credibility which defies common sense.  They might reply that the Bible is uncommon wisdom beyond the reach of common sense.  However, even within the limits of fundamental interpretation, the Bible is alive with conflicting myths from various sources and over different periods of time.  It stretches back and forth from Abraham to Christ, from the time of the Pharoahs to the Romans, with various Judaic and foreign dynasties in between.  Over these centuries there were enormous political, cultural and social changes.  1 Samuel, possibly the first book reduced to written form, probably by scribes dependent upon King David, exemplifies the often ambiguous perspective of the scribes.  It glorifies David, associates the worship of Yahweh with his house and in his city, portrays him as bereaved by the death of his rivals; but, 1 Samuel, chapter 8, warns of the tendency of kings to interpose themselves between the people and their god.  It foresees the tension that evolving political institutions, in this case a monarchy, will introduce between king and God and people.  (This warning echoes today in the State of Israel).  Genesis, the first book in the order sanctified by custom and chronology, draws from several traditions and combines scribal entries from the time of King Solomon, from the dual monarchy and from exile in Babylon.  It introduces the basic tenets of Judaism: one God, a Chosen People and a Promised Land.  The following four books, which are probably contemporaneous with some of the scribal entries in Genesis and which could most accurately be called the books of Ezra if Ezra had not attributed them to Yahweh speaking through a man called Moses, make the second and third tenets conditional upon the fulfillment of  Yahweh’s 613 laws.  In their mind-numbing attention to law and ritual, these books, along with Ezra, Nehemiah and Ezequal, reassert the authority of  the priests.  Threatened by other gods and other cultures, the priests built an impregnable wall around the faithful.  It was as hard to escape as it was to enter.  Within these walls, real for many centuries, time and human nature created space for interpretation and hypothetical application.  Paradoxically, Judaism flourished in the Talmud and the people, the law and ritual survived the destruction of David’s city.  With every generation, the Jews breathed new life into the Bible.


The books of the Prophets Amos, Hosea, Isaiah 1 and Jeremiah, written as powerful enemies pressed upon the disintegrating Judaic mini-kingdoms, foretold impending doom because Israel, through its kings, had turned its back on God.  The militant theocracy of post-exilic Judaism was engulfed by Greek culture and Roman power.  By the time of Jesus, an Idumean convert dynasty ruled by Roman sufferance and Judaic society was in turmoil.  Sadducees, Pharasees, Essenes, Zealots, each convinced of its inerrant version and/or interpretation of the holy books, added to the malaise and divided the people along sectarian lines.  Jesus rose above these divisions and proclaimed a New Testament.  He extended God’s love to all people and reduced the 613 laws to two: love God and love thy neighbor.  The New Testament lives as long as this message resonates.


While Christians find the nexus between the New and the Old Testaments in Jesus, the idea of a new and old testament, or of one Bible suggesting a fulfillment in Jesus, is offensive to many Jews.  They do not accept the New Testament and they do not ask Christians to adopt the Old Testament, nor Yahweh, nor Jehovah by a different transcription.  Although Christian and Moslem reverence for the Old Testament serves to validate the biblical premise, there are Jews who resent the intrusion of non-Jews. Yahweh is their god, his covenant is with them, they are his chosen people, the Old Testament is their story and they do not welcome converts.  Jacob’s sons, with dubious ethical sensitivity, encouraged the Sechemites to circumcise themselves and then annihilated them three days later.  This Yahweh of the Torah does not want his children defiled by the heathen.  Although such acts of treachery make them “stink in the land”.  (Genesis 34:30)


Christians and Moslems join the biblical story with the New Testament or with the Koran. As far as the Jews are concerned, these are apocryphal books.  The period of prophecy and revelation ended long before Jesus or Mohammad.  Consequently, they are false prophets and certainly, in the case of Jesus, not the Messiah.  (This term is a good example of the difficult voyage that words make over the centuries and across language barriers.)   In fact, the concept of a messiah is beyond the Torah and only intimated in periods of despair when the Jews await a leader to lead them not to eternal life but back to the Promised Land.  From this perspective, Christians, and to a lesser extent Moslems, are at best mistaken and at worst apostates.  Their shift in focus from this life to the next, from a specific people chosen by God to a god for all people, contradicts the basic premise of the Old Testament.  By implication, Jesus and Mohammed renounce Noah’s terrible curse and affirm that God’s chosen people are all those who believe in Him.  This seems to be a simple concept but it has proven to be just the opposite.  There is little value in being chosen unless others are not chosen.


Let us return to the glorious God of creation.  We catch glimpses of Him throughout the Bible and in other sacred texts..  Such a god, by definition, is beyond human understanding, beyond doctrinal argument and far beyond national or ethnic boundaries. By His fruits we know Him.  We taste of these fruits through the prophets, through the messiahs.  We know the true ones because they lead us away from evil and discord.  Such a god might reveal himself over the generations and in accordance with the realization of human potential.  This is no revolutionary creed; I think that modern man, whether Jew, Moslem or Christian, is already a believer.  He is simply restrained by biblical baggage. The challenge we face is to renounce the baggage without renouncing our affective allegiances.  Renunciation may be too strong a word.  There is no need to renounce the Bible, but we do have an obligation to look upon it from a broader perspective than did the scribes of  ancient Judea.  The Bible, as the recorded search for God, must remain open to the voices of the Holy Spirit.


Just as the lines drawn on a map to separate nations are in reality superficial blemishes on the land.  Occasionally in conformity with some geological inconformity but more often not.  Just as currencies and languages and political ambitions are superimposed within these notional boundaries; so too have religious allegiances been superimposed upon man’s memories.  These cultural differences divide us but they also give our lives special meaning.  Are the Scots prepared to ignore Hadrian’s wall?  Are the French eager to speak English?  Are Catholics indifferent to the beauty and promise of Mass?  Have the laws of Moses ceased to unite the living with the dead and the yet unborn?  Are the Buddhists disposed to accept just one chance at Nirvana?  No, but an ever increasing number of individuals, in an ever increasing number of places, are less dogmatically committed, more tolerant and more inclined to separate themselves from the bombast of the past.


In so far as Jews, Moslems and Christians share the Old Testament, they confront the same challenge; but, in so as Judaism restricts itself to the Torah, with extensive commentary and exegesis, it faces the greater challenge.  A step, a leap perhaps, in the right direction might be the “dedeification” of the Bible.  Such a step, obviously, confronts the issue of faith but failure to take it corrodes faith itself.  The god of Joshua simply can not be the god of Isaiah.  The sectarian parochialism of Ezra can not be reconciled with the concept of a universal god.  The very process by which the kernel of Mesopotamian myth tumbles down to us through the ages, in the mouths of innumerable bards, in the various dialects of  wandering clans, over the centuries of exile and servitude and into the hands of a pious yet jealous elite as the arbiters of divine purpose, to then be endlessly transcribed and translated, carries the number of divine intermediaries beyond any rational definition of divine inspiration..  At about the same time as the Aramaic Bible but in a different place, Plato lamented the tyranny of the written word, the death of living myth and the cold grip of dogma.


In the fog of ancient myth, before either priests or law, the Hebrews of Exodus were a heterogeneous and rebellious lot.  They may have emerged after forty years in the desert as an alliance of warrior tribes in thrall to a warrior god; but, in spite of the many reported manifestations of Yahweh’s power and favor, they began assailed by doubt and fear.  For example, after Yahweh had laid nine plagues upon the Egyptians and killed their first born while sparing the Hebrew children, after he had disposed the victims to joyfully give their movable wealth to the departing Hebrews, after he had parted the Red Sea and closed it upon the Pharoah’s chariots, after he had dropped  bread from the heavens and drawn water from rocks, after he had defeated the Amalekites through Moses' uplifted hands, after he had descended from Mount Sinai in fire and smoke, after he had commanded the Hebrews to have no gods before him and to make for themselves no idols, just three months and forty days after all this, while Moses was on Mount Sinai legislating with the Lord, the Hebrews feared that they had been abandoned.  Aaron, from whom would descend the high-priests of Isreal, instructed them to bring him the gold they had carried out of Egypt and he made a golden calf for them to worship.  When Moses came down from the mountain, he found Yahweh’s people debasing themselves before the golden idol. (Exodus 32:1-6)  As the Bible says, this was a stiff necked people; but, doubt is part of faith just as sin is part of forgiveness.


This abbreviated recital of incidents as recorded in Exodus makes my point.  By worshiping a golden calf, the ancient Hebrews may have offended Yahweh but they affirmed their faith in the concept of a divine power.  We Christians do not deny God because we portray him as man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Neither Jews nor Christians deny God because they cherish the Bible.  For many of us, however, the Bible has become our golden calf.  It has become an obstacle, a diversion, on the path toward ultimate union with God.  Whereas the golden calf reduced God to the dimensions of a plastic image, a static Bible confines the perception of God to a time far remote from our own.  Let us see the Bible as a book, as a great book, as two great books, but not as God. It is the height of presumption to suggest that the Old Testament premise is God’s premise.  Unless our God is everybody’s God, He is just another god but with a capital “G”.