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The Jews and the Mosaic Law

By Isaac Leeser (1843).

Chapter 20

The Golden Calf.

We have thus endeavored to give clear and convincing arguments in favor of the beauty and necessity of that part of our law, frequently denounced as superstitious. — With how much injustice this charge has been made, I leave every candid man to decide, without even attempting to enlist his feelings, being sure, that his judgment must be in favor of our laws. If we now seriously reflect upon the nature of our religion, it must be admitted, that this, our religion, must promote devotion to God and peace among men. Can any thing more be asked, that these laws should effect? — That they were often violated by the very persons to whom they were given, we dare not even attempt to deny, for Moses himself has left us undoubted evidence of the fact. We shall therefore be met by the following objection: "If it be true that the Israelites received the law from God, in the manner related by Moses, how did it happen, that they so often transgressed and acted so contrary to that system, which is in fact so very beautiful?"

It is lamentable, but not the less true, that few men are taught wisdom by experience, and that the number of those is smaller still who are made good by mere precept alone, though their teacher be the wisest and most exalted. Even at the present day we generally find, that many a man, when in trouble, will promise any thing and every thing to be forgiven for the wrong he has done; but no sooner is he out of trouble, no sooner is he pardoned, than he again commences his old career, and commits anew the same follies which have occasioned him so much distress. This is the conduct from one man to the other, whom he, perhaps, may hope to deceive by outward appearance of reformation; yet even towards our Maker do we often act thus. In trouble, at the death of a friend or relative, we suddenly grow wonderfully pious, we seem strangely reformed, we view our former course of life with real or affected horror, as sinful and unbecoming mortals, who receive all they possess from God, and we determine to do better for the future. When the impression, however, is once weakened by time, when forgetfulness has taken off a little from the keen edge of our grief: we are our former selves again — God is forgotten — His law neglected — and our calamities are scarcely remembered — we make merry at what we then call trifles, and often pretend to be surprised at our own folly, for having been weak enough to be affected by occurrences, which were, to make the most of them, but natural.

Is not this a true picture of the conduct of most men? Where, in fact, is that man to be found, who is always mindful of passing events, and regulates his life by them?

Just so were our ancestors. They had been slaves in Egypt, their redemption was sudden, and we may say would have been unexpected at the moment it took place, if they had not been previously prepared for it by the plagues which befell their oppressors. After their redemption, we have seen that the law was given to them, and its precepts were contrary to almost every thing they had been accustomed to in Egypt. There was besides an immense number of persons in the camp, who were not Jews, (Exod. chap. xii. v.38) and whom we afterwards find (Numb. chap. xi. v.4,) not alone murmuring themselves, but exciting the Israelites also to rebellion. After the promulgation of the ten commandments Moses re-ascended the mount, and stayed there forty days and nights. The people, particularly the strangers, were not yet used to the rule of the divine law: they could yet hardly understand how God could be worshipped without symbolic idols, altars, sacrifices and priests; for idols had been interdicted, and they had not yet heard in what manner the sacrifices were to be offered, what kind of place for the worship of God they were to have; and as yet the first-born of the families were the priests, according to patriarchal custom. All this was new and strange to them, and when they saw that Moses stayed out longer than they expected, they became restive, and were probably afraid, as we may infer from their address to Aaron, that he had died upon Sinai; being therefore now without a leader, they desired a symbol of God, which might be carried before them as their ensign of war, for so it is said: "Rise, make us gods, which shall go before us." It is said in tradition, that they applied first to Hur, who, together with Aaron, had been left as governors during Moses's absence; he, however, refused, and was immediately slain by the infuriated mob. They then came to Aaron, who did all in his power to procure delay; he demanded the earrings and other ornaments of the women and children, hoping that they might refuse to part with them. But the men fearing delay, or perhaps discovering Aaron's unwillingness to obey them, immediately gave him their own ornaments. Aaron saw now no means but to comply with their demands, and at last a golden calf was made under his auspices. The calf, as is well known, was the deity of Egypt, and it is very probable that Aaron chose this image to remind his brethren how ineffectual the Egyptian gods had been to save their worshippers from destruction. But as soon as the strangers, who were Egyptians, saw their old god, they exclaimed to the Israelites: "These are thy gods, oh Israel, which have brought thee out from Egypt!" When men are once wavering, it is but a slight step to apostasy; once dissolve the bond by which we are bound, and we rush headlong forward, without once looking to see in what direction we proceed. Just so was it with a part of our ancestors; I say a part, for all did not sin: they had begun to doubt the truth of Moses's mission on account of his absence, and no sooner, therefore, had they an excuse for deviating from their duty, than they followed the way of error, and instead of adoring the all-powerful God, they worshipped "the image of a grass-eating ox." Aaron did not long remain unconscious of the fatal error he had committed in not sacrificing himself to their resentment, rather than yield to the unreasonable demands of the Israelites and strangers. He therefore built an altar before the calf, and exclaimed aloud before the assembled people: "Tomorrow is a feast in honor of the Eternal." The meaning can easily be discovered to be: "Do not, my deluded brethren, imagine that this calf is God, or a symbol of God, for He has told you that he is not to be represented by any living thing; by aught either in the heavens, the earth, or the water. Apis, Osiris, and the other idols you saw worshipped in Egypt, are not gods; for, if by them are understood the sun, moon, stars, and the creatures around you, then they are the creatures of our God, and ought, for this reason, not to be worshipped, for worship is due to the Creator alone, But, if they are supposed to be independent deities, and possessing power of themselves, then they have no existence at all, for nothing exists that is not derived from the God we adore. Wait therefore my brethren, and act not with precipitancy; wait until tomorrow, perhaps our beloved Moses may return, and tomorrow then shall be a day of feasting in honor of the Eternal our God, who is your King, Protector, and Redeemer, and whom alone you ought to worship!"

It often happened that good advice is not listened to, if men are predetermined to do wrong; and the same was the case with the Israelites. For they rose early on the following morning, and performed their unholy rites round the statue of the calf, and showed, by this conduct, how little they had corrected the evil habits they had contracted in Egypt; and gave a warning to all how dangerous bad company and bad example are, particularly to young persons, before their character is well formed.

While they had yet scarcely time to commence their horrid dance, Moses received the two tables of the covenant from the Most High, who then also told him that the Israelites had so soon departed from the way which He had pointed out to them. Moses, being bidden, descended from the mount, and at its foot he met his trusty servant Joshua, who had remained there ever since he had been upon Sinai. The mount yet blazed (Deut. chap. ix.) when Moses returned to the camp with the tablets in his hand, but he threw them down and broke them at the foot of Sinai, as soon as he had arrived at the camp, and had seen "the calf and the dancing." For he argued: the uncircumcised is not even permitted to taste the Passover-lamb, and thus he is disabled on account of the non-fulfillment of one commandment only from being in every respect a true Israelite; and can this people, who have a measure all become idolaters, be worthy of the whole law and those statutes, more dear than gold, and more costly than pearls?

But not in vain reproofs did Moses idle away the time which was of necessity to be devoted to action. The man of God stood in the gate of the camp, and exclaimed: "Who is for the Eternal come to me!" and they came, who had not forsaken their God, namely, the children of Levi; and they proved on that day their adherence to God at the risk of their lives. The small number of the Levites is well known; they were, in fact, the smallest tribe of Israel; yet did they singly brave the immense numbers of the other tribes, not to reckon the strange mob mixed with them. But the Levites did not regard numbers — they heeded not the ties of friendship, it was enough for them to know that on that day — so was the will of their God — they should strike for the glory of His holy name, and three thousand idolaters fell before the swords, which had never been unsheathed in vain. From this day, however, they became consecrated to the service of their God, and war was no longer to be their trade. The sword of destruction was henceforward taken out of their hands, and the book of the holy and life-giving law was put there in its stead: the teaching of this book, the attendance at the sacrifices, and the service at the temple, were entrusted to the Levites, as a reward for the willingness which they showed in the execution of a duty at all times painful to the heart that feels, and to the mind that is conscious of its own imperfections.

"But was not Moses's order to slay the idolaters cruel and unnecessary?" — That three thousand is a large number we are ready to confess; but we assert that it was not cruel, and that the destruction of this large number was called for by the most imperious necessity. Hitherto, it will be perceived, no punishment had been inflicted upon the Israelites, though they had frequently deserved it; because God had compassion for their weakness, and He pardoned them according to His great mercy. But when they had, at the time we are speaking of, altogether thrown off the yoke which they had voluntarily accepted to bear, it became absolutely necessary to teach them by acts, but not words, that on no account could the second commandment be transgressed with impunity; and they were made to feel that God, who is kind and delays his anger a long while, is sure to punish every disobedience against his will. And since it had thus become necessary to punish, was it not proper that all those who had been equally guilty and active in crime should be equally punished? — They, also, received a practical lesson, that a handful of men, when protected by God, are more powerful than great armies; as the Levites, confiding in God, overcame multitudes, who had but just chosen Apis as their god, who was unable to save them from the sword of the servants of the Eternal.

To prove more fully to the Israelites the utter weakness of their idol, Moses reduced the whole to powder, which he mixed with water, and gave it them to drink. — When idolatry had thus been eradicated in one day, Moses announced that he would go again upon the mount Sinai, to pray to God, and ask forgiveness for their transgression. — He did go, and remained there forty days and forty nights, without food or drink, and lived happy in receiving the word of God, and in obtaining the pardon of the erring Israelites. Though he was told that their destruction should be the means of his elevation, yet did he not desire greatness for himself which must have been attended by the destruction of others; and he asked to be blotted out of the book which God had written, (i.e. Moses offered himself as a sacrifice, even so far that his name might be altogether forgotten,) only that the Israelites might be preserved and forgiven. But God would not accept Moses as a sacrifice, thus teaching the world that one man never can be sacrificed, that any other man or even a whole community might escape without punishment, but the sinning person himself, and none other in his stead, is to die. (See Exod. chap. 32.) Although God would not forgive the Israelites, and punish his messenger in place of them, He nevertheless pardoned them upon Moses's intercession; but He also made known to them, that all ornaments must be laid aside, that those things which had induced them to sin should be no longer a temptation in their way to make them swerve from their adherence to God a second time. The people mourned, and obeyed the commandment, and showed us by so doing, that whenever we wish to repent seriously, we must abstract ourselves as much as possible from the affairs of this world and its allurements, and place before ourselves in the strongest light the power of God, his kindness, and his mercy.

Moses was after this ordered to prepare two tables like those he had broken; he therefore descended from Sinai, and made them as he had been commanded. He again ascended, and stayed a third time forty days and nights upon the mount; at the expiration of which period he returned to the camp and deposited the tables, which were inscribed with the Decalogue, in a wooden ark. (Deut. x.)

Moses now made known to the Israelites, that he had received the commands of God to build Him a temple, where He should be worshipped, and that the expenses of the building were to be defrayed by voluntary contributions. The people had now an opportunity of showing if they had truly repented of their former folly — and they did prove their sincerity; whatever was wanting, gold, silver, precious stones, in short all which had been demanded was cheerfully given, and even more than was actually needed was brought to the workmen, so that at length Moses was obliged to proclaim: "That no one should bring any more contributions for the service of the holy tabernacle." — The workmen, who were selected from all Israel, and had knowledge to do all kinds of work for the holy service, made all things necessary exactly after the model which God had shown to Moses; and when all was finished they received the blessing of their great teacher, who wished them the grace of God and his future protection! Moses then set up the tabernacle, and the glory of God filled it, and the pillar of light shone upon it brightly every night; and the admiring Israelites were thus convinced that God was amongst them continually, to protect them, and to shield them from all danger.

As the Israelites were drawing near the land of their destination, they desired that spies should be sent, to see which road they ought to take, and what cities they should come to. The spies were sent, but like other travellers, ten out of twelve (the number sent) magnified real dangers, and invented others which had no existence. The whole congregation rose in rebellion against the messenger and the anointed of the Lord; and the mob would have attempted to stone them but for the timely interference of Caleb and Joshua, two of the spies. — All lamented the fate that awaited them; they feared to enter the land which had been promised them as an inheritance, and they proposed returning to Egypt, where they had been slaves. This conduct was highly offensive to the Deity, who, in consequence, bid Moses to tell the people, that all over the age of twenty should die in the wilderness, where they should wander for forty years; but that their children, or all those under twenty years old, should enter the land, which had been promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and the farther they should not advance against their enemies, but return towards the Red Sea. — O strange inconsistency! As soon as they had heard their doom, and the injunction to return, and after ten of the spies had died, they were all willing to go, and even tumultuously demanded to be led forward. In vain did Moses entreat them to desist, for that they would be surely beaten by their enemies; they, however, did go forward, and suffered what Moses had foretold. They wandered then for forty years, sustained solely by the providence of God; and thus was a people raised up, free from all admixture of evil, for all the bad men died by degrees, as related in the fourth book of Moses; and those whom Joshua led over the Jordan were all worthy of being the people of that God in whose name they went forward against their enemies, and by whose aid they obtained possession of their inheritance.

I have not thought it necessary to explain every one of the rebellious actions of the Israelites in the wilderness; but I just extracted these two to show that the unwillingness of our ancestors to obey the will of their God does not prove that He never revealed himself to them; and I hope that it has been clearly demonstrated, that their rebellious disposition may have been altogether owing to the weakness of human nature; and secondly, to the peculiar circumstances under which they found themselves. Besides, it must be well remembered, that our law was not given to us to force our compliance; far from it, — God gave us the laws, known as the Mosaic, as a rule to regulate ourselves by in our intercourse with one another, and for our conduct towards Him; and we have seen that He made his will known to us with a view to teach us how to distinguish between right and wrong, because our reason, unaided, does not guide us correctly. But having once pointed out "what is right" and "what is wrong," He gave us the choice, either to obey his will, which is "to do good," or to disobey it, which is "to do evil." (Deut. chap. xxx.) He, however, at the same time tells us the consequences of our choosing the one or the other; namely, that by obedience to His will we shall be made happy — by disobedience unhappy; or rather, in the words of the holy book, we have the choice between doing good and live, and doing evil and die. God advises us, however, to choose "life," for it is more pleasing to Him to reward the virtuous than punish the wicked. (See above, commentary on the Decal. chap. xiii.) Then, again, it must be borne in mind, that all the laws, as has been already said, were no less new to the Israelites than to any other nation; and it took, therefore, in the natural course of things, some considerable time to make them perfectly acquainted with the divine ordinances. If Moses now had not recorded their frequent apostasies, but had only given the history of a people, all the time they were under his guidance, acting obediently to God, and with deference towards himself, we should have been very much inclined to doubt the veracity of the narrative, for then some wiseacre might have said with some show of reason: "It is impossible that among three millions of people there should arise no dissatisfaction with a self-constituted ruler, who was one of their number, and had therefore no right to command his equals. He had, besides, promised them to bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey; but, instead of doing this, he keeps them for the space of forty years in a frightful wilderness, where not even fresh water is to be found." Such a nation of saints indeed would with justice have been considered an improbability, not to say an impossibility, unless we should believe that their nature had been changed! This, however, would virtually have changed their freedom of action, and of course such a hypothesis is utterly fallacious, it being not only contrary to revelation, but also to common reason. — The Israelites had been so long slaves under idolatrous masters, that they were not altogether free from the influence of the Egyptians amongst them; and as Moses had been absent a long while, they became alarmed, and they required another leader in the place of Moses, whom they either supposed dead, or what is worse, that having once attained his object by depriving the king of Egypt, who was his personal enemy, of their services, he had left them to their fate, under a pretence of going to receive new laws for their government, finding himself unable to keep the promises he had made them. We have seen with how much cunning the designing strangers took advantage of this feeling among the Israelites, and the consequent apostasy of the latter, the adherence of the tribe of Levi to God, and the subsequent punishment of the idolaters. From this affair, and the other murmurings and backslidings of the Israelites, it will appear that Moses conceals nothing that happened to him and the people under his charge; he also tells us that his government was not acquiesced in by all, but that he was perpetually assailed by riotous meetings, and grieved very frequently by the obstinacy of a people to whom he was so devoted as to offer his own life a sacrifice for their welfare. We have thus the strongest evidence of the truth of what he says regarding the history of the Israelites, since he is at no pains to conceal any thing which might induce some to believe that this dissatisfaction was deserved by him. — To sum up the whole in a few words: human nature was not changed; propensities to err were not removed; and although the Israelites had a rule to go by, yet could they not so soon forget old and deep-rooted habits; force, therefore, and persuasion, were both necessary to make them remember the new law; and thus were we already very early taught by practical lessons, "that no good goes unrewarded, and no evil unpunished."

I do not wish to palliate the sins of our forefathers, but only to show that their sinning is no evidence that they did not receive the law; besides, let it be considered, that although they sinned, their transgressions were not more numerous than those of the best men living at any time and in any country, if we take into consideration the length of time of which Moses speaks, and their former state; and though no such crimes, as they were guilty of, may be now committed, let it be observed, that the world has many other failings which our ancestors had not; further, that the sins of the fathers tended greatly to confirm the children more strongly in the law of God, since they saw how much evil springs from disobedience, and how many blessings flow from a cheerful submission to the will of God!

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