Images of God: The Golden Calf

23 Feb 2010

The Law of Moses was especially pedantic in how it prohibited people from creating idols or images in any form that could be worshipped. This was tested at a very early stage, when the Israelites tried using a gold statue in their worship. The people felt the need for a visual image they could see representing their God. Similarly, people today create images to represent Jesus and other persons or objects of worship. Does God have the same attitude to the modern attempts as the ancient?

Over 3000 years ago, in Deuteronomy 4, Moses records how God spoke to the people of Israel at Mt Sinai. He is emphatic about how God chose not to reveal an image or likeness to the people in this the most personal of his encounters with the nation. Subsequent history was to show that people would very easily turn to making tangible, visual items to represent their God, so here it was stressed that there was no excuse for that,

Deut 4:11: You came near and stood under the mountain; and the mountain burned with fire to the heart of the sky, with darkness, cloud, and thick darkness. 12. Yahweh spoke to you out of the midst of the fire: you heard the voice of words, but you saw no form; only you heard a voice. ... 15. Take therefore good heed to yourselves; for you saw no manner of form on the day that Yahweh spoke to you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire. 16. Lest you corrupt yourselves, and make yourself an engraved image in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, WEB

Here Moses reminded the people that the very time that they were closest to God, there wasn't that visual image, and that any image they had would only serve to take them away from their God. He even went on to say that cloud and darkness prevented them from identifying with the sun or stars as a means of worshipping their God. Not only had God made many direct commandments that he didn't want people to create any images to represent his likeness, but didn't show any likeness to the people lest they have a starting point for their craftsmanship.

The Calf

However, at this very time, the people rose together to do what they should not have done. They were feeling nervous after a long absence of Moses, and proceeded to create an image to represent their God among themselves.

Exodus 32:1: When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don't know what has become of him." ... 4. He received what they handed him, and fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they said, "These are your gods, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt." 5. When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation, and said, "Tomorrow shall be a feast to Yahweh." WEB

A superficial reading would suggest the people turned completely from their God, to worship an idol. However, it was recorded that they attributed the calf as representing the God who bought them out of Egypt, the God of Abraham. Even the feast that was called, was to be a feast to Yahweh, the name of their God. They still recognised the same God in terms of his name and his actions, but were worshipping him though a false image. It was this false image that was to bring on the wrath of God.

The Lure of Images

So why is it the people of Israel wanted a physical image in front of them, despite the many assertions by their God that they should not create any? We can see that it was a means for the people to remember their God, and have him feel close to themselves. A visible image also makes a God more tangible, and something that can be approached more on human terms. An object that represents God can then be manipulated by human hands. Perhaps most of all, having the physical image relieves an element of need in the human mind. It relieves the need for the mind to search deeper to find a context in which to understand God. With the visual image in place, there's no longer a requirement to find an anchor in less tangible elements, such as character.

It's for many of the same reasons that we can imagine that God does not want his people to create images to worship him through. He doesn't necessarily want us to feel that we can control him. He may also want us to keep searching in our mind, rather than be satisfied with a simple visual identity.

Images of Jesus

With the appearance of Jesus on the Earth there came a visual form that people could relate to God. Perhaps it is with this in mind that he was to have “no form nor comeliness; and when we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.” (Isa 53:2) We may be tempted to create pictures or statues of Jesus, but given how such objects become part of the mind of worship, it would bring with it all the problems of the images to the Israelites. God made his desires in worship clear, and it excluded those sorts of images.

There are a number of parallels. Just as the calf wasn't an accurate visual representation of God, so modern images of Jesus aren't a true representation of his appearance. While people recognise Jesus through a name (which has itself been corrupted), the people of Israel also recognised their God via his name when worshipping through the calf. Similarly people identify Jesus through the acts that performed, as recorded in the Bible. So also, the people of Israel identified their God in the acts he had done in their midst. There remains little to differentiate the image of the golden calf at the time of Moses to images claimed to be of Jesus today. Even the crucifix, though not depicting a person, can still take that role of the visual image in worship that God abhors.

Some have argued that the presence of pictures, symbols or statues depicting Jesus or people close to him can attract the attention or blessing of God. Similarly, the Israelites would have argued that their representation of God in the calf would have attracted his blessing. However, it just isn't what God wanted. He doesn't want physical objects to be the things that satisfy us of his closeness.

2 Corinthians 4:18: we don't look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. WEB