Ekev–Molten calf redux

Moreover, the Lord was angry enough with Aaron to have destroyed him; so I also interceded for Aaron at that time. (Deuteronomy 9:20)

The story of the molten calf is retold here in Deuteronomy 9, with some interesting differences. For one thing, we learn here of God’s anger specifically directed at Aaron, so that Moses has to intercede for him as well.

Ancient interpreters have long sought to shield Aaron from blame in this episode, so it intrigued me to see Jeffrey Tigay (in the JPS Torah commentary) take a similar line using the tools of modern scholarship: “Aaron’s intentions in making the calf were probably not idolatrous since he, at least, intended it only as the Lord’s pedestal.”  This is in keeping with what we know of ancient Near Eastern iconography, where a god in human form is represented at standing on a bull. It also means that the calf, on this understanding, is quite similar to the cherubim, the winged beasts that served as the throne of God on the ark of the covenant.

This raises some interesting questions, more questions than I have time to answer tonight.  Is one person’s pedestal another person’s idol? Or perhaps, what was once a pedestal becomes an idol as the form becomes fixed and inflexible over time. In this regard, it is significant that the Torah refers, not to a golden, but to a molten calf.

We don’t have lots of statuary, but we do have lots of words.  We should remember that even our truest thoughts about God, our most hard-won conceptions, are at best a pedestal, a warm-up act, a kind of straight man to the wordless zingers of the One.  As a penultimate exercise, theology, philosophy, spiritual reading, the great mystic texts . . .  these all have great value, but when we set them up as the Ultimate, we fall into idolatry.

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