While I was reading over the mass readings this morning I came across an article in my Study Bible about the Calf-god Ammon-Re, whose image the Israelites reproduced at the foot of mount Sinai. This idol is a particularly fascinating image, as its eyes represented the sun and the moon, and it was thought to be a helper to the Pharaohs. More significantly, as an image of the divine, it represented a god who delivers the poor, the helpless and the downtrodden. For a Hebrew people who had just come out of Egypt, the most natural act of praise would have been precisely to recognize their God as their deliverer by sacrificing their gold and precious possessions to create this idol dedicated to him. This they no doubt learnt from their culture (or rather, the Egyptian culture to which they, until recently, belonged). What is interesting to me is not the similarity between Ammon-Re and the God of the Bible, but the difference between them. ‘Ammon’ literally means hidden, and this name was given the god because, although he delivered the helpless, he would also never disclose his name. God, however, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, had revealed himself to Israel, disclosing to Moses his very name: ‘I am that I am‘. Perhaps this is the seminal significant difference. Of course the obvious differences include that Ammon-Re was finite and of human invention – but those things are much easier for us to recognize today after revelation had been brought to us through Israel. However, how might the Israelites have known better at the foot of the mountain before revelation had come to them? Pope Benedict has an interesting meditation on the implications for liturgy which this passage carries. This passage demonstrates that the people of Israel thought it best to worship God in the only way they knew how, instead of allowing God to show them how they ought to worship – and the same travesty continues to exist today when Christians change, malign or replace the Divine Liturgy.
I think one of the features that makes Israel’s sin more manifest is that they celebrated God by reproducing the image of a Golden Calf which, for them, was as much an ‘image to the unknown God’ as the idol on Mars Hill. The insult is precisely that after God had revealed his own name, and had taken Israel to himself with the promise of revealing himself to them in a peculiar way, they, instead of learning from him how they ought to worship him, decided to worship him as though he was related to them the same way he was related to any other people on earth.