This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:
Victims of the golden calf worship: a soup kitchen in Greece
The Golden Calf
32When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’2Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’3So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron.4He took the gold from them, formed it in a mould,* and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.’6They rose early the next day, and offered burnt-offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
7 The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely;8they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’9The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’
11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?12Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.” ’14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant* in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back.16The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets.17When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, ‘There is a noise of war in the camp.’18But he said,
‘It is not the sound made by victors,
or the sound made by losers;
it is the sound of revellers that I hear.’
19As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain.20He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.
I have written an earlier blog on this passage (emmock’s blog 107). Recently I was reminded of a much greater piece of writing on this topic by Thomas Mann, the author of “Death in Venice”, “Buddenbrooks” and “Joseph and His Brothers”, the last of which Mann was just finishing in 1943, when he was asked by an Austrian publisher to contribute a story to an anthology of stories celebrating the Ten Commandments as the basis of the kind of civilisation the Nazis were trying to destroy. Mann, a convinced democratic socialist and exile from the Nazi state, was happy to oblige. The result was his short novel of less than 100 pages, just retranslated (2010) ito English by Marion Faber and Stephen Lehmann, under the title “The Tables of the Law.” In it Mann tells the story of Moses the creator of Israel as a nation, taught by the invisible God Yahweh how to be a truly human society. Moses leads a confused rabble of slaves into the desert and proceeds to force them to grow up, ultimately confronting them in fury when they dance round a golden calf, with such success the ten laws are written not merely in stone but into the very flesh of the people, “so that anyone who breaks them will shrink back from himself and his heart shall turn cold.” To be a real civilisation is to have a passionate adherence to commands which the adherents will break but never reject. Mann has Moses prophesy: “Accursed be he who erects a calf and says,’this is your God. Do all these things to honour him and circle round this piece of junk in your depraved dance!’ He will be very strong, he will sit upon a golden chair and be taken for the wisest amomg men, because he knows that the strivings of the human heart are wicked from youth onwards. But that will be all that he knows, and whoever knows only that is as stupid as the night, and it would be better for him if he were never born. He knows nothing of the covenant betwen God and mankind, which no one can breach, neither man nor God: for it is inviolable. Blood will flow in streams because of his black stupidity.”
Mann’s story is about Israel but it is a universal story because every community and nation on earth needs to be fashioned by a passion for justice if it is to be more than a rabble however powerful or wealthy. Those who encourage neglect of God’s justice, from whatever motive, will encourage worship of the golden calf – Aaron’s behaviour reminds us that people can do this while calling it a festival of the Lord-and will cause bloodshed through their blind stupidity. We have all seen episodes in our own societies where people demonstrate their depravity by “dancing round a piece of junk.” Those who value humanity will do well to learn from Moses and his invisible God.