Lessons from Exodus – A Golden Bull Calf

Statue of Apis, Thirtieth dynasty of Egypt (Louvre)

Continuing reflections after reading Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution, who suggests that the Exodus story is the template for revolutionary movements throughout history. I think there are some lessons here for us today.

Lesson #3—“a golden bull calf”

The ragtag group of escapees arrived at Mt. Sinai where something monumental was about to happen, in spite of all their murmurings. Moses went up the mountain to consult with God; the people stayed in the valley and consulted with their dis-couragement. Moses brought back from his consultation a plan for a society conceived in promise and anticipated in ten brief articulated values. The people’s consultation produced a lavish symbol—a golden bull calf. Why a bull calf? Why golden?

The simple answer to “Why?” is that the statue was a symbol of the people’s desire to either return to or replicate Egypt. Apis was the Egyptian sacred bull representing strength and fertility and which eventually came to be perceived as the intermediary between humans and the higher ranking (and therefore more powerful) gods. It is important to remember that the God encountering Moses was so powerful (awesome, intimidating) that the mountain had to be fenced off to protect the people. The statue was made from the melted jewelry of the people. If they we going to hearken back to their time in Egypt, they wanted to remember the “best” that they had encountered—namely, the lavish richness of that land of milk and honey.  Moses brought a gift from God, opening the promise of a new future; the people, a fanaticized memory of their captivity, promising continued oppression.

“Make American Great Again,” emblazoned not on a golden statue but on a baseball cap is our contemporary equivalent of the Israelites’ golden bull calf. After all, baseball is as American as apple pie. One wonders if the measure for greatness in America was Major League Baseball before Jackie Robinson. Political slogans become golden calves—“repeal Obamacare” and “impeach Trump” being two of the most prominent at this time. The continuing controversy initiated by Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee during the National Anthem has produced two murmurings being forged into golden calves—respect for the flag and social justice. While both positions are based on societal values, I call them murmurings and golden calves because both are being used to batter others. Battering those you disagree with is not a basic value of American culture (even though it is an all-too-common practice). I am wondering how we can gird up our loins, put on our sandals, take up our walking sticks and march together toward the unfulfilled promises and possibilities that undergird the American dream. Any ideas?

Lessons from Exodus – “Milk & Honey”

I am reading Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution. He suggests that the Exodus story is the template for revolutionary movements throughout history. I think there are some lessons here for us today.

Lesson #1—“a land flowing with milk and honey”

Walzer notes that liberation always includes a promise. For the Israelites, the promise was “a land flowing with milk and honey.” [Exodus 3:8] What I had forgotten (or conveniently overlooked) was that the Israelites saw Egypt as a land of milk and honey—“ Isn’t it enough that you’ve brought us up from a land full of milk and honey to kill us in the desert so that you’d also dominate us” (Numbers 13:16, CEB). The difference was that the promise was for milk and honey without bondage and oppression.

The strange thing about revolutions is that the promise is eventually compromised and Egypt is replicated. Power and domination have been “the normalcy of civilization” [John Dominic Crossan]. Israel became oppressive Egypt; America became colonial England; the church became the money-changers in the Temple. “Wherever you live,” Walzer writes, “it is probably Egypt.”

The American political scene has been an oligarchy of millionaires (Democrats and Republicans), supported by billionaires and corporate interests, promising milk and honey to  blue-collar workers, but providing Egypt. My cynical self thinks that the President’s promise to “Make America Great Again” was understood as a promise of security through jobs and healthcare, as well as the ability to despise actively those whom you dislike. In reality it was a promise to the wealthy and to corporate interests to enhance wealth by removing governmental restrictions on corporate activity and providing tax benefits for those in the highest income brackets.

A Confusion of Images

 

Pillars of Creation: NASA (http://hubblesite.org/image/3474/category/33-emission-nebulae)

Just like a deer that craves streams of water, my whole being craves you, God.
My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God.
When will I come and see God’s face?[d]
My tears have been my food both day and night,
as people constantly questioned me,
“Where’s your God now?”
Psalm 42:1-3  [CEB]

 

 

Do I really long for God in such a passionate way? Is the collision of images that taunt me really God’s eternal disturbance of me [Karl Barth]?  The conventional picture of God the Supreme Ruler of the universe, Creator of all things is being disturbed by Gordon Kaufman’s counter-picture of God as serendipitous creativity. And then there is the Hubble Telescope’s beautiful image of the gaseous nebula called “the Pillars of Creation” where stars are still being formed.

God (or, at least, the predominant images of the conventional doctrinal, dogmatic God present in the church) contracts my horizons… restricting contributions to the well-being of all in society; shrinking rather than expanding the human spirit; booking me on flights to places that do not exist or to which I do not wish to go.

The Pillars of Creation draw me to vastly expanded horizons, take me to places beyond my reach / beyond my vision; open new possibilities and invite me to explore all that is possible—out there and in here.

One of the Pillars (one part of the gaseous nebula) presents as insistence and mystery which comes in the name of God. Perhaps! That insistence, that nudge, that call, that disturbance, that irruption draws me toward impossibility possibilities—life from death; community out of singularity; companionship instead of stark individuality; the common infused with mystery; and the exploration of compassion, peace, and tender justice as the normalcy of civilization.

So, here I am, here and now—horizons expanding, horizons contracting. Here I am, with visions of sugar plums (make that visions of God) dancing in my head. Here I am, enlightened and warmed by a star that had its birth in a gaseous nebula some billions of years ago. Here I am trying to make sense out of life—life that has persisted and evolved whether sense had been made or not.  Here I am—in humble arrogance and arrogant humility—casting my gaze on the Pillars of Creation and creating a constellation of meaning (Perhaps!) And life goes on as it has before me and as it will after me. That is awesome and humbling and wondrous and ordinary. Is that all there is, my friend? Well, that’s life! For me, that’s plenty!