This week’s portion narrates the familiar episode of the molten calf. Moses is on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. His brother Aaron succumbs to the pressure of the people to craft an image, apparently to help assuage their anxiety over the absence and presumed uncertain fate of Moses.
The common interpretation is that the people have sinned in the creation and worship of an idol, in direct contradiction to the commandment noted earlier in Exodus 20:4 to make no graven images. But the text is more complex, and the nature of the transgression is imprecise.
In Exodus 32:1, the people demand that Aaron make for them “Elohim,” the Hebrew term commonly rendered as “God” but that grammatically can also mean “gods.” So one possibility is that the transgression is not the idolatry of images but the heresy of polytheism.
Another possibility surfaces in Aaron’s declaration in 32:4 after the presentation of the molten calf: “This is/these are your Elohim who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” We now add the complication of retroactively assigning the power of salvation to something other than YHVH, the God of Israel.
In his translation of and commentary on the Torah, Robert Alter suggests that “the gods [‘elohim’] are plural while the calf is singular because the ancient Near Eastern people were polytheists, not fetishists: the golden icon was conceived as the terrestrial throne or platform for the deity (singular or plural), having precisely the same function as the cherubim over the Ark” — a tangible representation of the platform on which the intangible deity (or deities) is (are) presumed to be seated.
In the popular mind, it is an easy conflation to make between, in this case, an invisible deity astride a molten calf and the calf being imagined as the representation of the actual deity or deities. Alter notes: “The Golden Calf is thus a kind of anti-Tabernacle or anti-Ark, meant for the same end of making the divine dwell among the people but doing it in a prohibited fashion.”
This dynamic — channeling a common religious impulse through a distinctive system of symbols — yields the insight that what religious traditions often share is a reflection of basic human needs. So as an example, illness often calls forth the hope for some sort of (divine) intervention that will yield healing. In some traditions, that impulse is expressed in a sacrificial quid-pro-quo — “If we offer these offerings to the gods they will be pleased and look favorably upon us.” In other traditions this same impulse yields petitionary prayer, while in others it may even yield rituals of expiation or purgation that seek to drive out demonic forces.
What one system deems acceptable may be anathema to another. What Alter points to is that the issue — how to bring the divine presence into the midst of the community — is an acceptable impulse. What is required is that the Israelites channel that impulse through their own distinct symbol system (the portable shrine and Ark with the cherubim).
Collective religious identity may thus be seen more as the sharing of a system of symbols than the sharing of a system of beliefs.