Sunday, September 27, 2020

Exodus 32.1-14: Why the Bull?

I appreciate the irony that the blog about art and faith seems compelled to write about the idolatry surrounding the Golden Calf every time the story shows up in the lectionary. I know, though, that idolatry isn't bound to follow art. And I think that the story says way more about human nature than it does about the nature of art. So, today...why the bull? 

It's probably not much of a mystery why Aaron made a calf (Exodus 32:1-14). Three different bull-worshipping cults were active in Egypt. The cult of Apis was the most prominent. Apis was worshipped in the region of Memphis, Egypt. Believed first to be manifestation of the god Ptah and later associated with Osiris, Apis bulls (real, live bulls) were identified by particular markings. The chosen bull lived out his life treated like a god. At their deaths, Apis bulls were buried like kings. Tombs of more than 60 animals have been found.

Follower of Filippino Lippi. The Worship of the Egyptian Bull God Apis. c. 1500. London: National Gallery.

It's easy to spot what is different in the version of the golden calf above, isn't it? Usually the calf is rigidly posed on an altar or plinth. It is sometimes draped with wreaths of flowers. See Poussin's version here. Here, like the cow that jumped over the moon, the creature is airborne, and not just suspended in midair. The artist has shown the animal twisting and turning, as if it has come to life above the dancing, celebrating people (who are clearly from Western Europe). It is a beautiful sunny day with a blue sky and puffy white clouds. This seems more nursery ornament than occasion for sin and idolatry. 

The construction of this golden statue was ostensibly to establish the "real" god of the people now that it appeared Moses and his God would not be coming back to lead them. The act has given the world not just a single story but also a seemingly timeless metaphor for idolatry. What was it that the calf represented that made it so much more attractive than any other option? I suspect it was the past. In Numbers 11:5 we hear the people remembering the good old days of Egypt: free fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onion, garlic. Wasn't it great in Egypt? Well, maybe. Except for the slavery part. 

Maybe this is a case where the people thought, well, better the devil you know... But it's still delusional. The good old days weren't good, leeks and onions aside. The people couldn't wait to get out of Egypt when Moses set it up. But now, they need something new and shiny to follow. It's the story of humanity, isn't it? Enthusiasm, boredom, seeking something new. Or in this case, something old all shined up to delude the people into thinking it is new...and in their best interests. But that's just bull. 

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...a multi-million dollar golden calf. 

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