Students of Scripture must always be conscious of what’s going on when a sacred text is being written. Those contemporary events not only motivate the author to write, but divine inspiration only kicks in when he or she addresses them. This is certainly the case in today’s Exodus reading. Though our Elohistic author is narrating a 1,300 BCE event, he actually has his eyes focused on something happening during the 8I century BCE - the period in which he composed today’s pericope.
One of the classic ways to depict the presence of gods in the ancient Middle East is to employ cherubs: mythological beings normally sporting a human head, wings of a large bird, and the body of a bull. (We’re quite familiar with its Egyptian lion-bodied variant: the sphinx.) People, including Jews, believed the gods not only used these hybrid creatures to travel place to place, but when stationary, they were enthroned on their backs. (Note how many of our psalms describe Yahweh “seated on the cherubim.”) Temples and shrines to Yahweh also displayed cherub statues to assure the faithful of Yahweh’s presence in those sacred places - like sanctuary lamps in Catholic churches. The Ark of the Covenant even had two cherubs on its top.
Just one problem with this practice: some people started to believe the cherubs actually were Yahweh!
Eighth century prophets, like Hosea, condemn the “calf of Samaria,” and warn about people “blowing kisses to calves.” Scholars agree these are derisive references to cherub (calf) worship in Israelite shrines.
This is one of the reasons biblical experts conclude our famous Genesis 32 golden calf narrative really has nothing to do with Israelites at the foot of Sinai worshipping an Egyptian calf-god. Rather, this prophetic narrative is rooted in the Israelite cherub-worship taking place during the period the text was composed.
I presume, with a little honesty, even we Christians can uncover cases of cherub-worship in our various denominations; practices or customs which probably originated with the best of intentions, for the best of reasons, but over the centuries developed into implicit idolatry. How often, for instance, are we Catholics more concerned for the word of church authority figures than we are for the risen Jesus’ word in our lives?
That’s why we’re constantly called to go back to our “Exodus beginnings;” to return to those people, situations, and frames of mind which originally gave us our faith.
The author of I Timothy does just that when he reminds his readers, “This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost.” Remember how Mark’s Jesus defended his ministry when his practice of associating with sinners was challenged? “Since when do the sick need a doctor? I came to call not the just, but sinners.”
Luke’s famous chapter 15 hammers away at the same basic truth. In three distinct parables, Jesus praises the person who goes after the lost instead of being content just to deal with the saved. Had the evangelist not presumed some in his community identified with the older brother’s strict justice frame of mind instead of the father’s prodigal generosity, he wouldn’t have included this parable in his three “lost stories” collection. It didn’t take long before Jesus’ followers began “worshipping” the good folk in their communities instead of employing those special individuals as a force to reach out to those who weren’t so good. Goodness was originally intended to be a means by which others could be helped, not as an end in itself.
Understanding what the Elohistic author actually intended 2,700 years ago, our faith is directed into areas many of us don’t care to visit. If our faith really is biblically based, we’re always on the lookout for golden calves in our church.