Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

Why the Jews Worshiped a Golden Calf


Yesterday, groggy from fasting, I read a draft of an essay for a friend. I hope I was helpful in giving some comments to him. I can go relatively easily without the food and maybe the water (from dawn to dark) but not without the coffee. His essay dealt in part with the issue of secondary causes and their role in God’s overseeing of creation — a favorite theme with advocates of theistic evolution. The following occurred to me only later, when I was marveling at the synchronicity of it all.

I was fasting because it was the 17th day of the month of Tammuz, a communal fast day beginning the period of three weeks of mourning that culminate in the observance of Tisha b’Av, the 9th day of the month of Av. More on that later, I hope. But for now a word on 17 Tammuz, and on secondary causes.
The fast commemorates a number of tragic events in Jewish history. One was the Israelites’ fashioning and worship of the Golden Calf. Now for the synchronicity. It just so happens (doesn’t it always?) that in reading this morning I came across an interesting tradition about the Golden Calf. A view in the Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin (63a), notes that but for a single letter in the text of the Torah, vav, signifying plurality at the end of a verb, God would have wiped the Jews out entirely in response to the provocation represented by the Calf.
The verse in question is Aaron’s command to the people, in reference to the Calf: “These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought [plural] thee up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4). The Jews weren’t so foolish as to think this particular gold statue had brought them up out of Egypt. Had they been so foolish, God would have decided to put an end to them. Instead, it represented the plurality of forces that the Jews required (so they thought) as intermediaries in their relationship with God. It was these forces, these “gods,” that the One God used to bring the Jews up out of Egypt.
According Maharsha (1555-1631), who comments on the Talmud, this means the Jews were harkening back to any early stage in man’s devolution from primordial monotheism. In Maimonides’ telling (Mishneh TorahLaws of Idolatry 1:1-2), it all began with Enosh:


During the times of Enosh, mankind made a great mistake, and the wise men of that generation gave thoughtless counsel. Enosh himself was one of those who erred.

Their mistake was as follows: They said God created stars and spheres with which to control the world. He placed them on high and treated them with honor, making them servants who minister before Him. Accordingly, it is fitting to praise and glorify them and to treat them with honor. [They perceived] this to be the will of God, blessed be He, that they magnify and honor those whom He magnified and honored, just as a king desires that the servants who stand before him be honored. Indeed, doing so is an expression of honor to the king.


After conceiving of this notion, they began to construct temples to the stars and offer sacrifices to them. They would praise and glorify them with words, and prostrate themselves before them, because by doing so, they would – according to their false conception – be fulfilling the will of God.

This was the essence of the worship of false gods, and this was the rationale of those who worshiped them. They would not say that there is no other god except for this star.

It was this stage — where people began to associate God with intermediary forces in nature and worship those forces, assuming that this would please God, since after all such forces are His creations too — that led to the later abandonment of God:

As the years passed, [God’s] glorious and awesome name was forgotten by the entire population. [It was no longer part of] their speech or thought, and they no longer knew Him. Thus, all the common people, the women, and the children would know only the image of wood or stone and the temples of stone to which they were trained from their childhood to bow down and serve, and in whose name they swore.


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes about the verse in Exodus that I quoted earlier: “they revealed their illusion that the efficacy of God Himself required the partnership of this intermediary” — namely, the “gods” represented by the Golden Calf. This fell short of literally worshipping another god, to the exclusion of the One God. But it was a tragic error nevertheless, so much so that three thousand plus years later, Jews still mourn and fast over it.
Theistic evolutionists who want to find a rationale to justify Darwinism as a doctrine compatible with Christianity or Judaism often whip out the concept of secondary or intermediate forces, seizing on the idea to justify the embrace of Darwinism. Why couldn’t natural selection be such a force?
There’s much to say on the subject, and this is not the place. My colleague John West’s recent dialogue with Catholic physicist Stephen M. Barr of First Things over at Evolution News & Views is relevant.
For now the point of interest lies in the Hebrew Bible’s warning that we must take care about not misunderstanding God’s relationship to the forces in nature that He employs. Jewish tradition takes for granted that God created such forces (in Maimonides’ phrase) “with which to control the world.” But in the traditional narrative, the generation of Enosh erred in focusing their attention on those forces, making a fetish of them, leading ultimately to a situation where most of the people in the world forgot about God and worshiped nature instead entirely to His exclusion.
That was the state of things when Abraham came on the scene with a mission to oppose idolatry. Rabbi Hirsch in his Torah commentary writes (on Exodus 6:3), “By the entrance of the ‘Abrahamitic Nation,’ the old ideas were to be reawakened, and mankind saved from the depressing effects of this materialism.”
The theistic evolutionary case for approving Darwinism is based on precisely the sort of erring fetishization of nature that got the generation that worshiped the Calf into such tragic trouble. The Jewish mission, in Rav Hirsch’s view, is precisely to reverse such errors.
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posted July 10, 2009 at 10:06 pm

The theistic evolutionary case for approving Darwinism is based on precisely the sort of erring fetishization of nature that got the generation that worshiped the Calf into such tragic trouble. The Jewish mission, in Rav Hirsch’s view, is precisely to reverse such errors.
Good grief! Does the Discovery Institute pay you to post anti-science nonsense in the middle of otherwise interesting postings about history of theology? Does Beliefnet know that you are not really posting about “recovering the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible” but maintaining a fight against the vast majority of believers who belong to church bodies that have finally come to terms with the discoveries of science?

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posted July 11, 2009 at 1:16 am

OK, so we shouldn’t worship intermediate causes. I can buy that. So what does that have to do with theistic evolution? Are you saying that God never works through intermediate causes? In effect, are you saying that God works in the world only via miracles?
Of course, by definition miracles are vanishingly rare (“miracle” means “marvel” or “wonder” in Latin). 99.9%+ of the time God works through (gasp!) intermediate causes. If there is a problem with seeing Him as working through such causes in evolution, then I submit that there is a problem with seeing Him working through such causes in the ways in which most believers see Him as answering prayers, or for that matter ordering the cosmos.
Example: God, if He so chose, could heat the world miraculously by directly creating light and heat for Earth. Instead, He chose to do so by creating the sun. Does that mean we should worship the sun? Of course not. But is it a choice between worshiping the sun and asserting that it doesn’t really provide light and heat for Earth, since it’s God that does that directly? Don’t be ridiculous! Likewise, it’s absolutely absurd to set up some dichotomy by which either you believe God created species directly or you accept evolution and reject God. Come on! If this is your level of philosophizing, I see why you refuse to debate or discuss the philosophical issues!
In any case, I can, if nothing else, sort of admire the chutzpah (if not the soundness) of trying to use the account of the Golden Calf to argue against evolution! I guess those who believe in evolution are now idolaters, too?

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Brett in Oregon

posted July 11, 2009 at 2:05 am

I stand in awe of the beauty and fear the universe inspires in us! I can only describe it the same way when I’m in awe of GOD! The idea that a supermassive black hole is in the center of virtually every galaxy makes me tremble! All it does is consume things smaller than itself, even other black holes. I think that it has a natural purpose. I don’t know, do you? I can reason with the facts of the universe but I don’t undertand the heart or spirit of it. So if your G-d made this, what is the spiritual and/or ultimate significance? All your G-d says is that its good (or maybe bad now since the Garden of Eden) in the Torah and I don’t accecpt that answer. The universe could have started with collisions of other universes. This age of light ends in black holes and ultimatly supermassive blackholes that leads towards who-knows-where? New stars are being born: if this isn’t the age of Creation, when was it?
I think you fast for the wrong reasons since you misunderstand the facts.
You fast because Aaron, the brother of Moses, collected the gold and cast it into a fire to create a Golden Calf. And what happened because of this? Your G-d made the people drink gold dust and after, the sons of Levi, who sided with Moses, killed everyone else (Biblical version 3000 males not counting women, children, and probably slaves – why isn’t this in the movie with Charlton Heston?). But somehow Aaron survives this ordeal! Where is your G-d’s vengence against him? Oh, that right, he and his sons get to set up the Temple system that your G-d commanded before he caused the offense!
You fast because your G-d decends vengence to generations well beyond the one that caused the offences. Do you know which generation(s) perhaps caused the Holocaust? “The sins of the father…” I think there’s a formula somewhere in Genesis when Moses receives the 10 Commandments. And, just know there’s been about 80 – 100 generations since Jesus, or Yeshua, or Josh as I like to call him.
You fast because King Josiah of Judah “reinstituted” the worldview of a long lost scroll called the Torah, found by a high priest named Hilkiah, whom I suspect had ulterior motives involving cooked lamb and money for his generations involved with temple life. You fast because in circa 622 BCE Josiah put the Ark into the Temple again (last mention in the Bible), outlawed idolatry with his one-god movement, and had all the pagan priests executed! Notice that Josiah was more merciful to the idolator commoners than your G-d was to his people that he freed from bondage? He needed taxes to rebuild his temple! You fast because King Josiah possibly refreshed their minds of “tradition” or used “church and state” for his and Hilkiah’s aims.
And after great King Josiah’s death, the following Kings of Judah reinstituted pagan/Gentile worship.
I don’t think you understand us “theistic evolutionists”. I sure don’t understand you. I can comprehend you like the flat-earth theory – I just don’t understand you. I stand in awe of the universe like I stand in the awe of GOD but I can’t say for sure that the “Creator” is good like the Abrahmic faiths or evil like the Gnostic faiths. I believe something set this universe in motion – just don’t know if it was GOD or caused by GOD directly. I just know that there’s an ultimate meaning to all of this – just wish God would reveal it to me or someone in my lifetime and I recognize it.

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posted July 12, 2009 at 4:58 am

shaul levy, the “Discovery” Institute is all about politics, and politics makes strange bed fellows.

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kevin alber

posted July 12, 2009 at 5:40 am

i took issue with David over Meshianic Jews are not orthodox, it was my first reading of this blog and i went hard — but it is sad to see these posts attacking David so viciously every single post – so many the same posts even copied from other posts – get original.
@Brett from Oregon – you write nice stuff – but you are deciding why David fasts? Come on now – not cool – that is not up to you to know in your heart, you don’t know him and you’re judging why he fasts? You write great stuff, but i don’t think you want to make a bunch of malicious reasons why YOU THINK he fasts. That’s between him and Yah – suddenly now it’s your call? Wow. That’s not you.
BTW – not only is this fast because of the anniversary of Moses busting up the Original Ten – it is also the anniversary of the two major destructions of the Holy Site on Temple Mount – same day. Focus on being able to walk There again – focus on What Will Be – we all know we screwed up, every single one of us – Find Your Back as Jefferson Starship sings. It used to be free – not anymore, and shouldn’t be.
@Shaul Levy – if you have a problem with the Roman Catholic Church saying the destruction and greed of blind-capitalism means the Pope and (how is David tied this?)(and i am not Catholic but this is a no-brainer) are ‘lefties — then you are part of the problem in today’s world. Are you blind? Did you not notice what just happened? Did you not notice how blind capitalism just majorly messed up even the good folks caught in the middle? Greed is not right. Greed is not good. Gordon Gecko was right to a point, and wrong to a foundation.
And i wish everyone would stop going off on the Discovery Institute – FOX as in Fox Studios, Fox TV, Fox Media, Fox Faith (note that one) owns this site – not Discovery. Grow up.

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posted July 12, 2009 at 10:04 am

David, unlike many of your “chip on their shoulder” critics, I find your articles very insightful to the Judeo portion of my Judeo-Christian heritage and learn a lot from them, Keep up the good work of glorifying the Creator of heaven and earth.

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Gabriel Hanna

posted July 12, 2009 at 12:43 pm

The theistic evolutionary case for approving Darwinism is based on precisely the sort of erring fetishization of nature that got the generation that worshiped the Calf into such tragic trouble. The Jewish mission, in Rav Hirsch’s view, is precisely to reverse such errors.
So, what do we call attributing all of life to an unnamed “Designer” or “Designers”, if not idolatry?
Once again, your argument against theistic evolution applies just as closely to intelligent design. Either you are lying about what ID is, or you are lying about theistic evolution, but you are a liar no matter which. Just choose one.
Once again, you will fail to address this. You will make noises about the “compatibility” of ID with Creation, which of course theistic evolution exhibits as well.
You are a liar, Mr. Klinghoffer.

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posted July 12, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Phil said: David, unlike many of your “chip on their shoulder” critics, I find your articles very insightful to the Judeo portion of my Judeo-Christian heritage and learn a lot from them, Keep up the good work of glorifying the Creator of heaven and earth.
Strange. I thought David was mocking God by insisting on so many silly interpretations and rejecting evidence to the point that David is calling God a trickster god. I don’t see any chips on the shoulders of his critics, though plenty of them have come to the conclusion that David will continue to bear false witness as long is he is allowed a forum for it.

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posted July 12, 2009 at 1:13 pm

Gabriel Hanna –
Like the rest of the Wedge Document conspirators, David is an anti-evolution creationist who is part of a group that cannot decide whether to reject the Young Earth Creationists or Old Earth Creationists. They have decided for certain that they needed a new name for their religious doctrine of creationism because the term ‘creationism’ was so clearly a religious doctrine and there were people who considered themselves creationist who did not reject (theistic) evolution. By inventing the propaganda term “intelligent design” but refusing to do any scientific research at all to test their claims about it, they have shown their true colors.
I find it very interesting that he, like so many other radical religious people, spends so much of his time attacking competing doctrines like theistic evolution rather than spending any time trying to support his doctrine. I realize that it appears to outsiders that he might not be defending his claims because he has no ability to defend them, but I suppose he doesn’t believe that. It is fascinating from the sidelines to watch different groups of theists argue about who is right and who is wrong when none of them have any evidence at all to support their claims.

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Your Name

posted July 13, 2009 at 1:38 pm

This is just my push, my vote, if you will, for a bit more civility here. I try to read many views on many subjects, and NOT agreeing just comes with the territory, doesn’t it? Perhaps we could have a more in-depth discussion of the ideas if people toned down personal comments…
Just a thought.

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Gabriel Hanna

posted July 13, 2009 at 3:18 pm

Your name, David has on more than on occasion invited debate, then refused to participate. See his “Darwin and strip clubs” post.
He has no intention of honestly debating anyone. He cannot defend his statements, and he never acknowledges or answers his critics. He just repeats the assertions for a new audience.
He distorts quotes by ellipsis, making them sound as though they say the opposite of what they mean. He does not represent people’s views honestly and argues with straw men, which he triumphantly defeats. When his chicanery is pointed out he neither acknowledges or answers the charges.

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