Why did the Children of Israel make the Golden calf? They had after all supposedly seen the miracles in Egypt, the miracles in the desert, the Sinai revelation, why would they possibly think a piece of metal that they had seen being made, could have done it all? Was it that they urged Aaron to make a Golden Calf just like the other symbols of kingship and power that the Egyptians, the Canaanites and the Mesopotamians all had? And what did they mean when they declared “These are your gods Israel who took you out of Egypt”? Did they really believe that?
One explanation is that they thought everything that happened to them since leaving Egypt was the work of Moses even if he claimed it was God. Moses and God were interchangeable. They could at least see Moses. Now he had disappeared up the mountain for longer than most humans could survive without supplies. They deeded a symbol of him. But if they had already been told that there should be no other gods why would they now make one? Maybe they were so used in Egypt to seeing animal representations as gods, all they were doing was returning to what was familiar. Or maybe they simply thought that symbols were only symbols or a much deeper reality.
This question continues, long after the wilderness. Throughout the period of the Judges and the Kings, the Children of Israel were constantly seduced by other gods. It wasn’t just that they were defeated and adopted the victor’s deities. They actively seemed to have been prone to idolatry. Why?
When you think of it, idolatry is no more than having a placebo or a symbol that relieves you of having to think for yourself. Like superstition it’s a way of dealing with the unknown. Hoping to have the answers regardless of one’s actions. But it always was more. Worshipping nature encouraged doing whatever came naturally, the easy pleasurable, indulgent. Imagine having a choice between an orgy and a religious service!
And that is precisely what happened. They made the idol. Aaron declared a festival to God the following day. They offered up sacrifices. Ate and drank. And then got up “LeSachek,” to play. Except “LeSachek” also has sexual connotations in the Bible. It indicates that they did indeed have a pagan style orgy. They wanted to throw off restraint. Control.
Monotheism, Torah, is demanding. It requires one to take responsibility and to think before acting. Most people don’t like being told what to do. And it’s the same today. Many Jews really worship money and doing what it is easy. Only a small percentage are willing to discipline themselves and their children to lead religious, ethical and controlled lives. It is human nature. And we are as human as everyone else.