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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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.

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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!

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A Holy Land Journal: “The Dead Sea is Dying”

“The Dead Sea is Dying”

The melting snows of Mount Hermon,
       far to the North in Lebanon,
              provide the fount of living waters
                      for the Jordan River
                      and the Sea of Galilee.

It was along these living waters
       that the Living Water came…
              to preach and teach and heal,

       to walk and talk and touch lives,
              to satisfy deep hunger and thirst…
                      “and he will guide them to springs of the water of life.”

If we do not drink deeply
       from Living Water,
              then we, like the melted snows of Hermon,
                      will flow eventually into the Dead Sea,
              and we, like Lot’s wife,

           will turn into pillars of salt.

Today the waters of the Sea of Galilee
       and of the Jordan River,

              still arising from Mt. Hermon’s fount,\
       are being diverted
to fields of agriculture…
              dates, bananas, citrus fruits,
              grains, avocados, grapes …
       and the Dead Sea is dying
              from lack of living water…
              its shorelines receding
                      under the oppressive heat
                      of the wilderness sun.

What happens when Living Water
       is diverted into the commerce of daily living?

Something must die
       in order for something else
       to come to life.

What part of me will die?
       What part of me will calcify
              and shrivel up
              under the gentle,
              yet relentless,
                      rays of the Son?

       What part of me
              do I want to hold back
              from the Living Waters?
       That very part of me that I grasp so vigorously
              resists life and
shrinks from Living Waters.

The message that was heralded
       along the Jordan

    almost two millenia ago…
              “Repent, and

        let living waters cleanse your soul,
                for the Kingdom is at hand”

That message yet peals forth
       until I hear and drink deeply
              from Living Waters…

    until I allow those living waters to be diverted
              into the commerce of my daily living…
              lest I become a stagnant basin
                      transforming living water into
              the brackish quagmire of oblivion.

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A Holy Land Journal: “Footprint in Stone”

“Footprint in Stone

I saw today

    what Pilgrims have seen
              since Queen Mother Helena in the 4th Century
                      the very rock from which Christ is presumed to have ascended to Heaven.

I listened today

    as Abed told us what Guides have repeated
              hundreds of thousands of times
                      that the rock bears the imprint of Christ’s feet.

My imagination is not great enough to see the footprint…
       my faith is not so fragile
as to demand proof so tangible.

All I see in a depression in the rock.

And yet I know
    that Christ’s footprint is upon this site …
              for this is an Islamic mosque
              and has been thus since the 13th Century.

Here, hundreds of years ago,
       a Moslem leader declared that this holy site,
              revered by Moslems and Christians alike
                     as the location of Jesus’ ascension,
       could be used for worship by Christians,
              even as it is used as a mosque for Islamic worship.

Moslems and Christians,
       worshipping the One God
              Allah… Yahweh…

             the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…

Could such an act of graciousness
       be any other than
       the footprint of God’s love in Christ?

Footprint on the rock?
       Of course!
       For we know that God is constantly
              making footprints
                      on the rock that is the human heart.

And when we see the footprints…
       we celebrate anew

       the miraculous wonder of Ascension!

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A Holy Land Journal: “Nativity”   


From Manger Square
       it is hard to tell
              where the birthplace of Hope is
It’s more a fortress than a church…
       more a church than a stable.

The Crusaders made sure that it would be difficult to enter…
       two entrances walled up,
       a third reduced in size
              so that each Pilgrim must bend over to enter
              through the four foot door…

Initially, it is not what you might expect
       The Church of the Nativity …
              44 columns with Corinthian capitals flanking the nave…
       Greeks, Romans, Armenians
              all jockeying for position…
       All this is but a covering
              for the Grotto of the Nativity,

       the cave that was a stable…

       the humble birthplace of the King of Kings.

We poured into the Grotto

    under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
              too many tourists,
             too many pilgrims,

    all seeking to find the very place
              where divinity and humanity were joined together
              at one time, at one place.

We jostled each other in the Grotto
       Germans, Americans, Koreans…
              each one trying to get a front row view…
while upstairs
       Romans, Greeks, Armenians

       jostle each other for pre-eminence.

We paused for our daily devotions
       here in the cave that was a stable for Bethlehem’s Inn.
              But where is the stable?
              Where is the cave?
       Altars, Candles, Censors,
       Panelled walls…

We can’t see the cave
       For all the trappings of Christianity.

20 centuries ago

    people jostled each other along the streets of Bethlehem
       too many people
              in a town too small.

Each person with their own regional accent…
       each complaining about ‘having’ to make this trip
              to satisfy governmental bureaucracy…
       many complaining about the accommodations…
       some distraught that they found no accommodations.

How could God choose such a spot

    crowded with jostling, complaining, ungrateful people

       as the birthplace of hope?

How could God choose such a spot

    teeming with the very banal stuff of everyday life
              for anointing the creation through the Anointed One?

May Nativity continue to be accompanied

    by jostling, complaining, ungrateful people
              so that it will include me!

May Nativity happen in each one of us
       again & again & again & again …
As we jostle one another,
              trying to find our way to Nativity,
       May God gently jostle our hearts
              into a rebirth of Hope!

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A Holy Land Journal: “Qumran”



        a desolate community in a desolate wilderness
              a place to get away from the violence of the city.
       To escape urban violence into the desert
              is to face the violence within.

Jesus went into desolation
                   into the Judean Wilderness
                             to prepare his ministry.
       The Temptations came …
              the lure of worldly violence

           (disguised as wealth, power, status),
              and the experience of inner violence
                      (staying in control, having it your own way,
                       not paying the price).

Jesus was able to face the Temptation
       and say: “No!”
I face the Temptation
       and say: “I’d rather not, but tell me more!”

Our Biblical forebears heaped up a pile of stones
       to commemorate something special that happened.
Today Middle Easterners throw stones
       when they are angry.

Stones are so plentiful in the Middle East…
              and in our lives

    weapons for our violence and building blocks for our spirituality.

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A Holy Land Journal: “Stones”


Today I walked on cobble-stones from the Warsaw Ghetto
and my heart sank within me. Remembering the atrocities, I did not find cause to rejoice at
being a human being.

At the same time I recalled the strength of those who persevered in order that they might tell the stories and keep the remembrances alive. Both are part of me…
violence directed at other human beings and strength of character deep within.

I, too, would wall off
that which I do not understand and those whom I do not know. But when someone else tries to wall me off, the very fibers of my being resist for all they are worth; and I find deep inner strength that I never knew I had.

The stones are repeated again and again and again! The hugh limestone blocks from Solomon’s time that comprise the Western (Wailing) Wall also speak of violence and deep inner strength. Upon the Temple Mount I trembled in fear as I absorbed the pain and anguish of the violence of succeeding generations and empires that have desecrated the sacredness of this holy spot.

At the Wall I trembled in awe as I touched the cold stone and sensed the prayers of the ages and the sweep of history. Violence and reverence around me and within me.

The stone steps of the Via Dolorosa
lead one down and up along winding streets

from Gabbatha (the marble street in front of the Governor’s Palace) to the rocky scarp of Calvary (now hidden under the finery of the Church’s celebrations).

The footing is not as treacherous now
but the walk stretches our fiber violence heaped upon violence. In Truth, the harshness of the walk along Execution Alley is tempered by the tears of Pilgrims… touched at some deep spot within
as they repeat the journey that Christ made. The tears often come
as Pilgrims walk DOWN from Calvary It is as if their own spirits are crying out… “You can’t walk away from Calvary the only way back is through death and resurrection.”

The churches are filled with beautiful mosaics…

    and the beauty masks the violence of history
              churches built upon the rubble of mosques
              mosques erected over destroyed churches …
                      brothers in Abraham …
                                    to eradicate each other’s holy shrines and
                                    that the other will simply go away if their shrine is destroyed
                                    to face each other as brothers and
                                    let the way of God and of Father Abraham reign.

You can tear down the stones, but you cannot tear down the spirit that strives toward God.

In the Galilee

    the cities where Jesus taught
       are all gone now
              all piles of stone and rubble,
              waiting to be excavated and reconstructed.

These cities were destroyed many years ago…
       human violence visited upon one’s neighbors.
Even more recently
       Galilean cities have seen human violence…
              marauding Zionists
                      taking land
from native Palestinians…
                      destroying buildings,

           creating more rubble in a rubble-filled land,
                      dashing hope upon the rock piles.

And out of the rubble
       arises one like Elias Chacour
              who preaches and teaches…
                      NOT violence,

             but love and peace and neighborliness.

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A Holy Land Journal: “Jordan River”

“Jordan River”

The water was flowing abundantly …

RAIN falling gently from heaven, even as God’s grace falls upon us,
RIVER flowing mightily from the Galilee, offering its life to the world around it,
TEARS streaming from eyes of Pilgrims, renewed in faith, touched deeply within.

There was a gentle irony almost Semitic in nature as we held unbrellas over the head of the Pilgrim who was renewing her baptismal vows.

Were we protecting her from the rain? or was it
from the deep chaotic waters of creation that are “without form and void.” We hear the echoes of our ancestors whispering within: “See God and die!”

Does the rain baptize with less efficacy than the river? Is God’s life-giving rain less significant than the waters of the Jordan? And what about the tears? Can we be baptized by the briny water of our tears? or of Christ’s tears?

Waters upon waters
experience upon experience
grace upon grace

and a river runs through it!

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A Holy Land Journal: “Capernaum—Village of Compassion”

“Capernaum—Village of Compassion”

In the mist of the late afternoon

A rainbow placed its foot on the ancient village
that we now call Capernaum…
Kephar Nahum …
the village of Nahum

the village of Compassion.

God placed the foot of another rainbow on Kephar Nahum

so many years ago
for it was there that Jesus centered
his teaching ministry in the Galilee.

Rainbow over the Galilee
Sign of the Covenant
God’s promise of Compassion
Pointing toward Life
Touching down at Kephar Nahum
Village of Compassion.

Jesus Christ

Embodiment of Covenant
Incarnation of God’s promise

the Way, the Truth, and the Life
Teaching from Kephar Nahum
Village of Compassion.


And all is connected for this Pilgrim through the prismatic effect of rainbows gently touching the soil of our lives.

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