The Golden Calf

By Rev David Moffat

Recent weeks have shown me, quite graphically, how adept humanity is at creating pathology out of any good thing. What exactly do I mean by that? Turning what is good and positive into something harmful. For example, there is a Japanese form of psychotherapy called Naikan, involving the rendering of useful service as a means to overcome mental disorder (Stephen & Robin Larsen, The Fashioning of Angels, p. 162); yet we can be absorbed in doing good for others as a means of avoiding our own inner work. Pam and I watched the film Spanglish a few days ago. One of the central characters proved herself quite efficient at doing just that, performing what she considered to be kind actions for people, without thought of consequences or the feelings of those involved. As a result, she caused pandemonium, and was left wondering why they didn’t feel some form of gratitude towards her. This chapter, Exodus 32, provides us with a pathology of religion.

In order to understand the basic problem here, we need to recognise the special relationship between the three central characters in the Exodus story: Jehovah, Moses and Aaron. One of the preliminary stories to the children of Israel’s flight from Egypt is found in Exodus chapters 3 and 4: Moses discovers the burning bush which is not consumed by the fire. Here Moses meets God, Jehovah, who gives him the commission to bring the people out of Egypt. Moses is understandably terrified and tries every trick in the book to wriggle out of doing the job. It culminates with Moses’ claim, “O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10) The drama continues:

So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses, and He said: “Is not Aaron the Levite your brother? I know that he can speak well. And look, he is also coming out to meet you. … Now you shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth. And I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and I will teach you what you shall do. So he shall be your spokesman to the people. And he himself shall be as a mouth for you, and you shall be to him as God.” (Exodus 4:14-16, emphasis mine)

So, we see that messages and commands were passed from Jehovah, their source, through Moses and on to Aaron who would relay them to the people. We should note that throughout the Exodus story (and here I would include the books Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), this chain would have operated. Very many times in the text it says, “Jehovah said” or “Moses said”, but for a message to reach the people it would have to pass along the line, at least at first. Another confirmation of this is found in Exodus chapter 34, where it is said that Moses had to wear a veil after speaking with the Lord, because the people were afraid of the glow of his face. In short, Moses was an important intermediary between themselves and the Lord, yet the children of Israel could not understand him and they needed another intermediary, Aaron.

The spiritual meaning of these three is simple. The Lord in His unknowable Divine Goodness gives us his messages through Divine Truth (represented by Moses), which is the form of that Goodness. But we have a hard time understanding Divine Truth too, in its spiritual form. It must descend to a natural level (Aaron). This is a picture of the Word and also the way the Lord flows into our lives with His guidance: from the Divine through the Spiritual world and on to the Natural (in the case of the Word, in the literal sense).

Now, in our story, Moses is on Mount Sinai, receiving the ten commandments. But the people are only aware of his absence from the camp: “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.” (Exodus 32:1) So, when they approach Aaron with this awareness, he has lost his connection with the Divine through the Spiritual. So, where does he derive his sense of direction, of right and wrong? From the people. He simply follows along, doing what he has been asked to do: to make gods. This is what happens to us in worship and in life. Whenever we loose the spiritual connection with God, we loose any direction other than that provided by our own desires.

Reading the Word provides us the most relevant example in religious terms. When we read the Bible without the guidance of true doctrine, without a true understanding of the nature of God, then we are led astray by our own ego. Why are there so many churches in the world? Because there are so many interpretations of what the Bible says. And what is amazing, is that vew few of those churches will admit to interpreting the Bible, believing that they possess God’s Truth Itself. But they are misguided, and we can be too, especially when we attempt to force our own understanding upon the Word instead of letting it speak to us. We see this illustrated in Aaron’s actions, constructing a golden calf to satisfy the will of the people.

Now, it is interesting to see that this is an attempt at true religion, just with the heart removed! “Then they rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings” (Exodus 32:6). On a natural level, they actually performed their worship “by the book” as it were. The only problem was the presence of the idol. The people focussed on the wrong thing! What follows in the remainder of verse 6 is interesting, “and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” It shows us what happens when the heart leaves our worship. It is driven by our own desires, and exists to please us. We do not necessarily deny God, but we worship the wrong thing. It might be our own doctrines, or it might be the means by which God works in the world. So it is with natural, external religion without the guidance of the internal. This is what the “golden calf” represents.

What is natural must always point to the Lord. Worshipped for its own sake, the natural is worthless. This is Karl Marx’s “Opiate of the masses.” It is easy to see how the Israelites could fall so easily into idolatry. Their religion had little external difference with the idolatrous practices of their neighbours. Their rules and regulations, their strict adherence to the law ensured that they could represent the connection to the spiritual kingdom of the Lord, but it took only a miniscule turn away from that adherence for them to fall away. Thus the penalties for error were so severe.

The story of the golden calf shows us perhaps the first Biblical example of religious extremism, even terrorism (the Levites indiscriminately killing over 3000 people: Exodus 32:25-29). It is easy for us to think that God commands such violence, but this is not so. It was allowed because a people were unable to conceive of God as anything other than angry and vengeful. This was a time when religious extremism was the only way to preserve the tenuous link with the spiritual. We no longer need this extremism, thanks to the Lord’s work in the world. But we still see it, in religiously motivated terrorism, in legalistic religions, including the fundamentalists, who maintain a strict legal code of ethics, despite their avowed doctrine of salvation by faith alone. And many Christian still live by the belief that there are those who are in, and those who are out. Such beliefs belie their inherent naturalism.

To underline this difference even more clearly, we see the two distinct reactions of God. The first, is God’s heart of the salvation of every person. “Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molded calf, and worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!'” (Exodus 32:7,8) He sends Moses back into the camp to set things right. And indeed everything that happens from that point onwards (even the nastier stuff) is to the end that the people as a whole might be saved. It is actually incarnational, reflecting the Lord’s purpose and ministry on earth. The Lord provides that merely external worship can be of service to lead to heaven and eternal happiness.

The second reaction is quite different: “I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people! Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation.” (Exodus 32:9,10) We must admit that this second statement represents an appearance, which we derive from the letter of the Word when we are separated from a true understanding of the Lord. If this is the only way we can relate to the Divine, He provides it for us.

Now it might seem that I have been talking about religion to this point. Well, in one sense I have, but not exclusively. This story has relevance to our daily “secular” life too, although I have to say we need to see that “all religion has relation to life” and the two cannot truly be separated as the world “secular” is sometimes used to suggest. These passages from the teachings of the New Church are highly instructive:

Nothing natural exists which does not have its cause [in the spiritual]. Natural forms are effects and cannot appears as causes, let alone causes of causes or first origins. Instead they take the form they do from the use they perform in the place where they belong. (Arcana Caelestia, paragraph 2991)

A life of Christian goodness is what composes heaven, not a life of natural goodness. (Arcana Caelestia, paragraph 7197)

Worship of the golden calf represents the misplaced belief that causes are to be found in the natural world. Difficult as it is for us to see (we have trouble relating to the spiritual, just as the children of Israel found Moses threatening), nothing in the natural world can be attributed with causing anything. Take, for example, the politics of the playground. Little Johnny hits Sam. Sam hits him back, and when the teacher asks, “Why did you hit Johnny?”, he responds, “Because he hit me.” That is not strictly true: actually he wanted to hit Johnny. Every situation offers us a choice, but its easier to blame our circumstances than it is to face the reality of our own intentions. Of course, it is difficult for children to learn this lesson. Indeed, many adults still live their lives as though this circumstance or that action demands or even compels such and such a response. But when we blame our actions on what he/she does to me, my illness or my circumstances, we fall for the same trap as the Israelites and worship the golden calf of a natural life disconnected from the spiritual. Intriguingly, we see Aaron do just this, his explanation of his actions (“And I said to them, `Whoever has any gold, let them break it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I cast it into the fire, and this calf came out.” [Exodus 32:24]) is quite different from the description of the actual events (Exodus 32:4).

There’s another way we do this too. We imagine that doing certain things will make up for our own deeper insecurities. I return to the woman in Spanglish who insists on doing what she calls good things for everyone, to quieten her abysmal self esteem. She imagines that if she acts in this way, she will feel better about herself, it will somehow solve her problem. But it never works. Even if she does something which is appreciated by others, the “fix” lasts only so long, and she is bound to repeat the pattern of behaviour. The same can be said of any action which we imagine will solve our spiritual problems: overwork, overspending, acting the martyr, drugs or alcohol. This is the beginning of an addiction: using natural things to “cure” (or “medicate” to use Terrance Real’s term – see I don’t want to talk about it) deeper problems.

What, then, is the solution? What will lead us to happiness? Our Moses must reconnect with the camp. Any real change can only come about by addressing causes – which exist in the spiritual. I have to face the monster of my own intentions and desires. I have to do the inner work of spiritual growth, whatever that entails. It might be simple reflection for some, what Swedenborg calls “repentance” or it may involve some form of counselling. What matters is that we address the causes (which exist in the spiritual realm of our lives) and in that way we will find some peace in the natural world of effects despite our circumstances.

Returning to the playground, we can see that if it were not for the intervention of the teacher, Johnny and Sam would continue to hit each other. The only difference which is likely to occur in this scenario is one of escalation. It is unfortunate that our world’s political leaders seem to behave in just this manner. This is no path to peace or happiness. The only solution is for one or both parties to make the commitment to peace, to examine their own intentions and make positive changes there. Once the change occurs in spirit it flows down into nature, not before.

[Following the address, we spoke again about Naikan, referred to in the introduction. If useful actions for others cannot change us, why does Naikan work? This is because it can divert the attention away from our own problems and disorders, which can tend to overwhelm anyone. It focusses upon a good outside of oneself. It provides us with a new perspective and offers the possibility of change. But it is not an answer in itself, and it should never be used to mask the problem or avoid the work. The same is true of depression medication. Just because it makes us feel better (TEMPORARILY!), doesn’t mean we don’t have to do the work. There are many other things which do just the same: playing pleasant music, using incense and other aromas or introducing light into our environment, are just a few examples. They will help us feel better, but they can never substitute for performing the spiritual work.]