Exodus 32:1-14 October 13, 2002
Why would anyone want to worship a cow? I have seen a Golden Calf. At the Iowa State Fair, a sculptor is chosen annually to make a butter cow out of 600 pounds of butter. (That is enough for 19,200 slices of toast!). As an Iowa native, I have a fondness for cows. I like the placid nature of cows and their gentleness. Maybe we could see cows as the contemplatives of the animal kingdom. We would attach few qualities of the bovine to the divine, but I can’t imagine seeing God as a cow. Cows are sacred in India, the favorite animal of Lord Krisha, and a symbol of milk and abundance. But cows take so much land and resources they are becoming a hazard. Cows don’t strike me as great symbols of the sacred; only farm subsidies are sacrosanct.
So, it seems odd that the Israelites in the wilderness, whom God had delivered, crossed the Red Sea, and ate manna and quail, would make a calf out of gold to be their God. Moses has been gone for days, and I guess a congregation can do strange things when a pastor is away. In verses 2-6, under Aaron’s woeful leadership, the community tries to create a golden god that is tangible to them. There are several conflicting interpretations of Aaron’s actions and intentions. Some scholars, focusing on Aaron’s proclamation of a festival for Yahweh, declare that he thought this golden calf a harmless help, a crowd-pleasing gesture to help them feel more secure.
It is difficult to give Aaron the benefit of the doubt, however. Calling for a “Festival to Yahweh” might have been a nice gesture — Was Aaron really surprised when, after all the sacrifices were offered and the people’s bellies were filled, the people “rose up to revel?” –the NRSV’s discreet way of saying a wild, sexual, cultic orgy broke out. Imagine Moses’s surprise when he returned from communing with God on the mountaintop. Welcome home, Moses!
This behavior is what many of the Canaanite religions, who worshiped cows, did regularly. Now I think I can understand their attraction to a cow god. I can’t imagine a cow god calling people to the rigorous ethical standards of the 10 Commandments. This is why the Bible is so strict on worshiping handmade idols. Anything we can make will never command the awe and respect to challenge us to live courageous moral lives. When we are in control of the image of God, we can then make God into anything we want. We can limit God to a symbol of what we want to do. There’s an old saying that God created humanity and then we returned the favor.
Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama wrote after WWII that the God in Exodus radically differs from the gods of imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. He writes, “The gods rubber-stamped whatever the Japanese militarist government wanted to do. May we send our imperial army to China? The gods responded quickly, “Yes.” May we annex Korea to Japan? The gods replied immediately, “Go ahead!” For the 50 years preceding 1945, Japan was quite a religious nation!
Kayama said it should give us pause that some of the greatest theologians in the world in the 1930s lived in Germany, yet most did not see what was happening around them and either supported the Nazi regime or were silent. They allowed Swastikas into their sanctuary.
We may think it is pretty stupid to worship a cow and even more foolish to worship an authoritarian government, but it is a temptation for all of us to serve something less than the living God.
In the Forward of the book “Escape From Freedom,” Erich Fromm writes something that challenges all of us to the core. He said, “Humanity worships power, money, the nation; while paying lip service to the teachings of the great spiritual leaders, those of the Buddha, the prophets, Jesus and Mohammad, and has transformed those teachings into a jungle of superstition and idol worship. (Escape from Freedom, Forward II)
Fromm implies that religion can never get out of its own way. We are doomed to keep making God in the image we want. Even if God is real and filled with love and wisdom, we can never overcome our desire to control God for our purposes. I hope Fromm is wrong, but I concede he is often correct. Any of us are vulnerable to putting other things in the place of God. We have all had our moments of dancing around the Golden Calf, making God in our image.
I am distraught that the place we call the Holy Land is the most conflicted and deadly place on earth. The three great Abrahamic religions that have nurtured civilization are killing each other, trying to control this tiny strip of land. I acknowledge that complex economic, geopolitical, cultural, and even climate change issues drive this conflagration. It isn’t just about religion. At the same time, this barbarism is happening at our sacred fulcrum. Religion is often making it worse, not better. It’s easy to blame the religious extremists. Orthodox Jews are relentlessly gobbling up the West Bank and gaining power in the Israeli government to deny Palestinian rights. Radical Islam inflames Hamas and Hezbollah to inhuman acts of terror. The United States’ support for Israel is encouraged by apocalyptic Christian groups who don’t necessarily care about Israelis but about Israel as the site of biblical end-times prophecies. The situation makes my head hurt, and my heart ache. I have given up trying to decide who has the moral high ground. Bombs have blown up the high ground.
I was up at 5:00 AM reading the Sunday editorials, and I am disheartened. Much of the commentary is putting a fig leaf on a great humanitarian disaster that will soon occur in Gaza. There is some hand-wringing about laws of war and protecting civilians. But where is the line between justified use of violence in self-defense and vengeance? If no one knows, it is sure to be crossed.
I looked at the NY Times and Washington Post articles, and not one religious leader is included in the commentary. All our denominations have statements on this war, most carefully nuanced to respect the humanity of people on all sides and to create movement towards a durable peace. The mostly unified voice of our Middle East offices of Christian denominations is that leadership on all sides has failed to produce peace, and this coming humanitarian disaster will only increase the cycle of violence. Many of the statements point to the lessons of our war on terror, noting how little we accomplished invading Afghanistan and Iraq.
These statements are not a part of the news. News media want a straightforward narrative of good and evil so we know which side to cheer. Religious leaders are saying that all sides are caught in an immoral cycle of violence that won’t end without repentance and change. That message doesn’t resonate.
To quote John Lennon, “Some people say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” Other nations embroiled in centuries of violence have chosen the way of peace. Today, the United States, Germany, and Japan are allies. I spent a sabbatical in Northern Ireland in 2002, studying peacemaking and visiting with peace groups helping overcome the troubles. Peace did not start at the top with the leadership. Peace started in the neighborhoods of Belfast with people sick and tired of violence.
I visited a convent where I heard this story. One day, a nun heard a knock at the door and was surprised to find a small group of Catholic and Protestant mothers. They were sick and tired of their sons fighting and being beaten up every day after school. The tension point was a door in the wall that separated the two neighborhoods. The children had to pass through this door to get to their school, leading to the fights. What could we do? A small group of nuns bought a house next to the doorway, took residence, and became a bridge for peace, a place of dialog. The first voices to condemn violence and affirm common humanity came from this slow patient work. Mothers protecting their children were the real heroes when political leaders finally caught up to them.
There won’t be a solution to violence while we allow hatred to flourish. If the mindset is that people who are on the other side are not my tribe; they are the evil ones, and we are good, then the killing will go on and on. We must all begin to see the world has become small enough that we are all in this together. And finding our common humanity is what all our three great religions should be experts at doing. We should know if we follow Moses, Mohammad, or Jesus. If we can’t figure out how to work for peace and reduce hatred, I can see why people wonder what is helpful in religion. We might as well be worshiping a golden calf made by the finest human craftsmen. We know there is a better way to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.