This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Beneath the bull

Exodus 32:1-34

In Aaron’s defense, the idea really wasn’t quite as stupid as it sounds.

The Israelites are scared. They have reason to be. They’re camped in the middle of a desert without a single day’s spare food. The armies of Egypt loom behind them. Hostile tribes prowl up ahead. The path to the future is uncertain, and the guy holding the map has apparently just fallen off it. Any leader with half a heart would be looking for some shred of comfort to offer them.

Aaron doesn’t intend to overthrow Yahweh or create some “competitor god.” All he really means to do is to give Yahweh something suitable to ride on. After all, it was common in the ancient world to depict your god standing or seated on top of a bull. With their giant horns and large, low-hanging “fruit,” bulls were an ideal symbol of strength, virility, military prowess and masculine authority. And of course the manifest virtues of the bull accrue to the one who is holding the reins.

Should anyone doubt the symbol’s enduring, cross-cultural resonance, they have only to ponder the iconic image of Wall Street’s Charging Bull — an 11-foot, 7000-lb. bronze emblem of aggression, power and financial dominance. Invisible, yet for that no less evident, is the image of the world’s greatest superpower, riding on its back.

If we’re honest — and why not be? — who doesn’t want a God like this, God the gold-bull rider, with the might and wealth of nations firmly pressed between his knees? This God can ride the bucking global currents without losing the reins. This God can dance with chaos and always come out unscathed. This God can grip and guide raw power directly toward our longed-for ends.

No, Aaron doesn’t mean to make a new god. He means to make a mount for the God he already has, a platform for the sort of strength and glory the people crave to be put on full display.

The original idolatry of the Israelites was not an idolatry of replacement but of representation. What the Israelites shaped from their molten-gold dreams was not an alternative to God but a distortion of God. Contrary to popular belief, idolatry is not the sin of the unreligious but the sin of the super-religious. It’s the trap of those who, in times of fear and uncertainty, go looking for the god they want and inevitably find him.

When God first delivered the Israelites from captivity in Egypt, on their way out the door the former slaves plundered their neighbor’s jewelry boxes (Ex. 20:35-36). At the time, it seemed like a minor point, scarcely worth noting between the raging plagues and dramatically parting seas. But now the prospect of Egyptian earrings melted into Israelite idols lends the story a new layer of dark irony:

The very object of which the people proclaim, “This is the God who brought you out of Egypt!” actually is Egypt, reconstituted.

Divinely delivered from the corruptive wealth and coercive power of Egypt, the Israelites have simply repurposed Egypt and mounted Yahweh on it. Far from obviously stupid, this is idolatry at its most diabolically subtle. Aaron calls the people together for the worship of Yahweh, seemingly without even recognizing Yahweh’s image has been co-opted.

The God of Israel will not be anybody’s gold-bull rider. God declines to play human games of power and dominance. Yahweh’s mission is to break slaves’ chains, not harness privilege and control. The problem with worship that puts God on the bull is that the bull invariably ends up riding God.

Crafty Moses demonstrates where rodeo-religion always ultimately leads: to the so-called “invincible” image ground up into dust. Those who construct idols in hopes of lassoing power must eventually drink of the fruits of their labor. And the taste will be bitter indeed.

Ancient gods rode on bulls. Jesus rode on a donkey. He wore no crown but a crown of thorns. What power he claimed was to heal and forgive. He spoke in the rhetoric not of coercion but of penetrating prophecy. He declined any kingdom but one “not of this world.” He died beneath the gold-bull’s hooves, beaten down in the name of loyalty to Rome — in the name of allegiance to Yahweh.

Yet when we drink the cup of this crushed God, the taste is sweetest life.

The most dangerous idols don’t have foreign names; they’re the thrones we build from hometown gold and mount our God upon. They’re generally not tucked away in a closet but displayed in full view, on the church’s main stage — the image of Empire reconstituted, baptized with holy water. Whatever name we speak or sing, there’s one true test of who we really worship: what is the God (god?) whom we call on riding — the gold-bull, or the donkey?

Meghan Good is teaching pastor at Trinity Mennonite Church in Glendale, Ariz. She writes at MudPieGod, where this first appeared. This post was written as part of The Story Lectionary Project.

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