When 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 mold, 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.
7The 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 worshiped 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.” 11But 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 forever.’“ 14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Modern scholarship has largely concluded that Exodus 32 and its golden calf do not represent a moment of apostasy, the worship of another god: the Israelites are not “seeking a substitute for Yahweh … Yahweh is not being set aside” (Terrence E. Fretheim, Exodus in Interpretation, 281-282). Rather, the people here seek to make Yahweh manifest, to bring God’s presence to the people by their own initiative.
At the discovery of this attempt, Yahweh is furious: “now let me alone,” he commands Moses, “so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them” (Exodus 32:10). Manifesting the mercy of God, Moses intervenes on behalf of his people. Nevertheless, a few verses later, the very sight of this improper worship will likewise throw Moses into a rage. “As 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” (Exodus 32:19).
The significance of this destruction cannot be overstated. These tablets were “the work of God, … the writing was the writing of God” (Exodus 32:16). Yet Moses smashes these tablets, forged by the hand of God, marking the moment, as Walter Brueggeman writes, that the “covenant with Yahweh is abrogated” (Walter Brueggeman, Exodus in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 1, 932). The sign of the renewed covenant is destroyed and the restoration of the relationship will require a subsequent reinstantiation of the covenant (Exodus 34).
What precisely did the Israelites do that justifies such anger and the dissolution of the covenant? The answer is straightforward, they broke a central tenant of the covenant: “you shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4).
But this only pushes the question one level deeper. Why are the Israelites banned from creating images or idols of Yahweh? Such images were commonplace in ancient Near-Eastern religious worship. A number of alternatives have been proposed by modern scholars to account for this injunction: it compromises God’s absolute transcendence, it attempts to “fix God at a point in time,” it domesticates God, it makes of God an object, it attempts to “produce” God.
This constellation of explanations almost certainly explains the injunction to a large extent. But an additional detail may provide a certain clarity. The ancient Israelites were barred from producing images of God, because Yahweh had already produced such an image: humans.
In the first account of creation, we read that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). To be human is to manifest the image of God. To produce a golden calf is to substitute an idol for the particular role reserved for humankind. It is humans that are to carry the mark of our creator, to bear God’s image into the world.
To think Exodus 32 and its golden calf politically is to ask ourselves what images we have substituted for the human person. What idols obscure the image of God that manifests in the very face of the other? What idols have we cast?
Throughout the last week, it has become increasingly apparent that, in the United States, ours is not an image cast in gold, but an image cast in lead.
In the wake of last week’s Mandalay Bay shooting—just as in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting or the 2016 Pulse shooting—the “gun control” debate has circled predictably and ineffectually. Rather than addressing the concrete realities of gun violence, acknowledging the true costs of our secular piety, and highlighting the faces of those lost to the tragic violence—those very images of God—the debate has largely reified into its expected camps.
Nothing will be done, because there is no political will. Small steps might very well be taken—a ban on bump stocks perhaps? But the deeper issues, the tough, seemingly intractable issues—dangerously loose gun regulation, exceedingly poor mental health care, a culture of toxic, violent masculinity—on these we must remain silent and unmoved. We are instead compelled to stand—certainly not to kneel, not this week—piously before the image of the gun, cast in lead and forever unquestioned.
J. Leavitt Pearl is a PhD candidate at Duquesne University, and adjunct professor at St. Vincent College and Seton Hill College, currently completing a dissertation on the phenomenology and theology of the sexual body.