The God of the OT vs. the Golden Calf

Bored in VernalBible, God, Mormon, prophets, religion, scripture 30 Comments

Avatar-BiVOT SS Lesson #14

Sometimes I have a hard time with the Jehovah of the Old Testament. I’m not always sure how much of the anger, retribution, and striking people dead for their sins came from Him, or from the interpretation of His will by the designated prophet.

Take the Golden Calf story in Exodus 32, covered in SS Lesson #14. When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the stone tablets in his hands and saw the people singing, dancing, and playing, he had a big fit. He threw the tablets down on the ground and broke them. He burnt the golden calf they had made and killed three thousand men. According to Joseph Smith, there went the ancient Hebrews’ chance to have the ordinances of the Melchizedek Priesthood!

I wonder what would have happened if Moses had been a little less vindictive on God’s behalf. I attempt to explore this scenario in the following poem:

Your Golden Calf — And Mine

With justice stern,
No Moses, I —
Descending from Mt. Sinai to decimate your golden calf.
I’m not a prophet, sir, I laugh!
But… tell me of your God, instead,
This gold you’ve shaped,
Your wine and bread.
How have you built it?
What appeals to you?
What myst’ries it reveals?
Perhaps I’ll tell you of my climb up Sinai,
How I saw divine phalanges shining in the sun,
The glory of an Holy One.
In safe discourse you’ll have me see
The glorious opportunity your idol sends,
To sing, to dance!
While I, thus taught, have equal chance.
This fraternal state we’re in tells you licentiousness and sin
Is not the best way (generally) to show
Religious ecstasy.
Unveiled: my God, an image too —
A mirror of my heart,
A true reflection of the judgment there.
If we’ll but fall in prostrate prayer,
Each others’ hearts will bleed to view —
The sacred within me and you.

Do you think it was necessary for the Old Testament Jehovah to strike so many people dead for their sins? The idolaters, the disobedient, the complainers, even the people who dwelt in the land of Canaan before the Israelites? Why was it important then, and why doesn’t God kill the covenant people who are disobedient today? How much of the violence of the Old Testament came from God, and how much can be attributed to the excesses of people who were acting in His name? Did Moses shape a “golden calf” too?

Comments 30

  1. I just listened to that section of the O.T. yesterday. I’ve been playing the O.T. in my car as a I drive, I’ve read it enough times that listening to it brings out something different.

    I was struck by the fact that Aaron makes the darn thing, yet doesn’t get blamed for it at all. Canaan I understand. Fertility cults with child sacrifice, child sex slaves, eunuchs in religious service, etc., it is about as toxic a mix as you can imagine. I can see God wiping out a culture based on pedophilia and exploitation.

    This incident? I wonder if harshness was the only tool that they would listen to? I understand why many early Christians decided that the God of the Old Testament was a deceiver who Christ came to save us from.

  2. I try hard to take the biblical text seriously but this is one area where I struggle, alot. I believe it was Margaret Barker who has written about the re-writing of the pentateuch following the Babylonian captivity circa 600BC. She argues that the texts were changed to emphasise a God who conquered enemies physically. I attribute some of these narratives to that kind of situation.

    Regardin God’s response to human sin, it is possible in my view to take the approach that God did this and he has subsequently changed because he realised it was a bad way to deal with us. Alternatively, I think we have to situate these actions within the culture violent retribution and collective accountability that seems to have been common in that time.

    Either way I am always shocked by Moses’ response to the people after this experience with the Divine. My experience has been that after such events I am filled with love, even for those whose beliefs and practices are different from my own. Moses shows a completely different response. It is almost like he feels his experience has been cheapened by the sins of the people, that this is a personal affront, and responds in a retributive way.

  3. Though Moses does go back up to God and tells God to blot his name out of the book of life if God can not forgive the people. The story does not need to end before Moses efforts at an atonement and just what Moses is willing to do and sacrifice.

  4. Stephen I think that is a really wonderful point. Is it possible that he had his own (and their sins) in mind when he did that?

  5. BiV,

    Good post, nice poem and a really good question! It is apparent that this was a subset of people who did this, but a very large group of people. The odd part for me is that 3000 men (what about the women?) would stand around and wait to be killed. This is where the story kind of falls part for me.

    The “what about Aaron?” question is also a good one. And then Moses, after that violence says OK, you’ve sinned and I will go fix it? And the other weird part is that you move to the next chapter as if nothing had happened. There are a lot of incongruities there.

    Definitely, I have to think about this some more…..

  6. most of the “divine violence” in the OT is done by people. I also suspect as some scholars have indicated that we project our own violent nature onto God. They may not have crucified God in the OT but they certainly scapegoated him and used him to justify their wickedness. The later prophets, as well, seem to suggest that God never commanded much of what was done in his name. Is this the proper understanding of taking the name of God in vain?

  7. In the old testament, we have a culture that is pervasive in its wickedness and magic worldview, with people so backward and entrenched in that culture, that nothing short of constant prodding them and constant showing of signs, and constant threatening would get them to obey. They just didn’t “get it.” They were like naive children who had no true conversion to the God of Israel, but who were mesmerized by his signs that they interpreted as magic tricks. So he finally had to swear in his wrath that they could not enter into his rest, and had to kill them ALL off through 40 years in the wilderness until finally he could get their kids to be righteous enough to enter the promised land. Remember, they were no better than any other tribe just like them in the middle east. But they were Jehovah’s FAMILY, the family line that he was going to be born into. The family line that he had covenanted with their fathers to do certain things with. So, yes, he had to threaten them with death to get them to do what he had to have them do, to get them to obey. And he had to make examples out of some of them to prod the rest like cattle to get them to do what he commanded.

  8. “She argues that the texts were changed to emphasise a God who conquered enemies physically. I attribute some of these narratives to that kind of situation.” Very insightful. I tend to agree. If you read the OT as written by people who were “strangers in a strange land” (nomads essentially), the book is their national identity. In that light, we see that usurping others’ lands is also justified (if we are more righteous), and that God smites enemies (which is what all their neighbors believed as well). The real threat of their neighbors’ beliefs was that their neighbors were so much more powerful and wealthy – it would be easy for them to conclude that their God wasn’t as powerful. They were constantly being kicked from place to place. The narratives are pretty carefully crafted to turn both wins and losses into motivation to rally and consolidate their power; their very survival was at stake.

  9. I think ALL cultures create their images of God from their own cultural experience — including our own. Look at the differences between progressive and conservative views of the purposes and nature of God exposed just within the readership of this blog. Even the nature of “love” is a cultural construct.

    Doesn’t mean there’s no absolute truth; does mean God must have known we weren’t likely to get very close to figuring it out on our own.

  10. I think ALL cultures create their images of God from their own cultural experience — including our own.
    Good one, FireTag. This is the real point of my poem. It’s not really about Moses and the Golden Calf at all, but how our own culture perpetuates the same interactions.

  11. I’m on the fence “halting between two opinions” about this.

    On the one hand, there’s the possibility that maybe when you’re working with just another pack of savage desert nomads, God had to be “all things to all men” — to act, in part, like the terrifying Oriental despot desert nomads expected God to be, and only gradually move them towards understanding God’s true nature.

    On the other hand (and I’m leaning this way), much of what is recorded of “God” in the Old Testament was invented out of whole cloth by people who expected God to be a terrifying Oriental despot, and so made up the usual cautionary tales about God clobbering people who crossed him. Upon this heritage was later grafted the more humanistic Old Testament content about doing justly, loving mercy, “have I any pleasure that the wicked should die?” and so forth. In other words the philosophies of primitive men, mingled with scripture.

  12. #9 FT:

    “Doesn’t mean there’s no absolute truth; does mean God must have known we weren’t likely to get very close to figuring it out on our own.”

    Yes, absolutely. The relativist’s argument is “equally intelligent and honorable people have diverse views about what is truth; therefore, truth is difficult to ascertain, therefore, there is no absolute truth.” The initial conclusion follows logically from the premise; the third conclusion is illogical.

  13. #8, HG: “The narratives are pretty carefully crafted to turn both wins and losses into motivation to rally and consolidate their power; their very survival was at stake.”

    We see the same thing today. A person pays tithing instead of buying food, and sometime afterwards receives an unexpected windfall? An obvious fulfillment of the promise of blessings being poured out from heaven. A person does the same thing, and gets evicted, has her credit rating drop into the 500’s, has a miscarriage, and loses her job? “Whom God loveth, he chasteneth.” Win-win for the religion.

  14. #13 Thomas

    I agree with this. It’s extended into everything. Someone is sick and gets a blessing. If they get better, it is a “healing” or a miracle. If they don’t get better, it wasn’t God’s will that they got better.

  15. “yes, maybe that is simply the nature of scripture, twisting everything back to a rally to turn to God.”

    That little morsel sure tasted cynical.

    I think a lot of the Old Testament was recorded and re-recorded by scribes throwing in their own interpretations. I also get the impression that the oriental mind was a lot more poetic than the typical western mind, so 3000 people being killed might have just been thirty. I don’t think we should discount the Old Testament entirely, but much of it clearly faulty. I’d really like to see what Nephi had written on his plates.

    Loved your stuff, BiV, as usual.

  16. God never does anything that is not right or just. If he struck down someone, they probably will end up in a better place than if they went on and on and did something worse.

  17. It’s great to find a forum of believers who are open-minded enough to question some of the incongruities of the Bible, as I have for years. Although I personally feel that many of these stories can’t be taken literally, or at least as perfect reflections of God’s divine will, I nevertheless feel that biblical violence is something to take seriously. Since Christ, God has commanded us to love our enemies, and to forgive the sinner. But in the Old Testament, we were commanded to hate our enemies, and stone the sinners. Do these commandments really come from the same God?

    It is tempting for many, especially more liberally minded Christians, to simply dismiss much of the difficult, violent parts of the Old Testament as uninspired. However, I feel that there is virtue in trying to stretch our minds around a God that is capable of commanding something like mass slaughter of men, women, and children. This is dangerous territory, because if unthinking, blind-believers buy too much into this view of God, something like Mountain Meadows happens. But if open-minded, knowledge-seeking Christians can try to stretch their minds around a God of such violence, I think it informs much of what we see in the world around us: a world filled for many, with unimaginable suffering and horror. In a world with such suffering, and so much that is difficult to understand, we ask: Why would a loving God allow this to happen? However, when we accept a God that includes both His violent Old Testament persona, and his New Testament benevolence, we get a portrait of a God who is very deep, and hard to understand. Thus when terrible, incongruous things happen in the world around us, it makes more sense that our deep, mysterious God would allow it to happen. “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in Him” Job said. We know that God is a God of love, we feel it from the Spirit, but we also feel God in the earthquake, and in the terror: a God far greater and deeper than anyone could possibly imagine. A God with a love that both kills, and caresses.

  18. Love the poem. Great job! Went back and read it a few times.

    I have a hard time reconcilling my God with the depictions in the OT. The idea that subsequent scholars beefed up the violence to scare people into obedience is one that I hadn’t considered til now but it certainly has merit.

    I also agree with the theory that there may have been a tendency by some to rationalise or excuse their violence by attributing it to God via their very human involvement. Especially if they were considered to be ‘chosen’ or in a position of spiritual leadership. When killing ‘in the name of God’ becomes something far more directly attributed.

  19. Awesome post BiV. Loved the poem.

    I used to struggle with this sort of thing. But I realized it is because I insist on forcing reality onto the narrative. Once I suspend reality, I can see the narrative for what it was designed – to illustrate a god that the culture was painting, or to otherwise make a point.

    For me, this is similar to watching a movie like “August Rush.” I have to work diligently to suspend reality, but once I do, I can glean a beautiful message from it and appreciate it. I really think that much of scripture is like this. So many try to glean doctrines, rules, and/or practices from scriptures that may have been meant for a completely different purpose.

  20. Henry, thank you for that sentence, I approach the feeling in my more faithful moments. I’m pretty sure death and the cessation of earthly life is not nearly the big deal we make it out to be. If we are believers, we must concede that God’s decision to take someone to the other side of human existence could very well be even more merciful than keeping them here. There are other aspects to this, however– we still have the question of why God punished sinners so clearly and immediately in the OT and not now, for example.

    LandandSea: A God with a love that both kills, and caresses.
    Gives me shivers! Thank you for a very thoughtful comment.

    All: this is a great discussion, and one for which there are no easy answers.

  21. LandandSea:

    I agree with you completely. I once phrased it as:

    “…a God so compassionate as to mourn the death of cancer cells, so terrible that He destroys galaxies for purposes of a greater good, and so just that He treats cancer cells, galactic clusters, and all things between or beyond with the same incomprehensible dis/com-passion. To this God, creatures like us are simultaneously less than nothing – and more than anything.

    There is no safe distance to follow such a God. He’s not playing by our rules, but by His own.”

  22. Martin: “That little morsel sure tasted cynical.” As my 7-yr old daughter says “I can smell the sarcasm!” But I was being totally serious in my comment.

  23. #18 and #22:
    I see I’m not the only poet on this thread!
    I love those beautiful thoughts. But it is uncomfortable to follow a God like this. It’s fine when we are asked/feel led to do things we don’t understand when they are morally acceptable. But what about when they seem cruel, harsh, unconscionable, amoral?

  24. #24: “It’s fine when we are asked/feel led to do things we don’t understand when they are morally acceptable. But what about when they seem cruel, harsh, unconscionable, amoral?”

    Yes. This is why I have less problem with God sending down fire and brimstone to annihilate thousands of the wicked, than with God allegedly telling somebody to kill one single man. The former doesn’t carry the possibility of human error.

    Probably the vast majority of times people believed God willed that they kill one of their fellow beings, they were wrong. We hesitate to execute murderers based on the slightest theoretical possibility we might kill an innocent man. Why would a God with any sense ordain a method of killing off his enemies (i.e., contracting the hits out to people of fallible judgment) when that method involves so much collateral damage?

    If God wants a man dead, he can do it himself.

  25. BiV:

    The possibility of being asked by God to do something we find morally unacceptable is a real, IMO, but extreme situation. We manage to rationalize doing morally unacceptable things on our own so often as to make such genuine commands way down in the noise level.

    I am more concerned about using a belief about God’s love as a subconscious security blanket: Jesus loves me, so bad things can’t happen. We are an extraordinarily secure society by world current and historical standards, and we make a God of security in our own image. Then when bad things happen on a personal or societal level — because no human society has EVER been that secure — our conception of God has to change radically, or our faith is torn away.

    I wrote about this more in this post.

  26. “If God wants a man dead, he can do it himself.” Tell that to Nephi! Of course, God’s been using this method to retire church presidents for 150 years. His preferred weapon seems to be the heart attack, but in many cases, the symptoms are unspecified or called “natural causes” or “old age.” Sounds suspicious.

  27. It’s fine when we are asked/feel led to do things we don’t understand when they are morally acceptable. But what about when they seem cruel, harsh, unconscionable, amoral?

    Back in my devout days, someone once asked me if I would be willing to do what Nephi did, and kill in cold blood at God’s command. I said no, because if I thought that God was telling me to kill someone, I would assume I was insane and hallucinating that command, so I wouldn’t do it. The only way God could get me to kill someone would be to actually make me insane first, and then I might be crazy enough to kill someone at his command.

  28. FireTag, that was a great post! I’m glad you persevered and got the right link up there! I remember Susan Skoor telling the story you mentioned at Sunstone. It was very tragic. I admire what she has made of it, and I appreciate the things you had to say in your post about the God of nature. Interesting things to ponder.

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