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?

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