In his fascinating study of idolatry, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008), G. K. Beale develops the thesis that the bible consistently argues, and demonstrates, that ‘what people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.’ That is to say, if one worships lifeless, deaf, and blind idols, then one becomes lifeless, (spiritually) deaf, and (spiritually) blind. Conversely, if one worships the living God, then one becomes the living reflected image of that God.
In this post, I’m interested in pursuing a thought that Beale develops in his third chapter, wherein he argues that Israel’s first act of idolatry after being liberated from Egypt — the worship of the golden calf, depicted in Ex 32 — becomes paradigmatic of how both Israel, and her idolatry, are described elsewhere in the Old Testament. What is fascinating about the thought developed by Beale is the way in which Israel is described as a rebellious and wild calf — precisely because she chose to worship a golden calf. Thus, Beale develops the following five points of comparison:
(1) “stiff necked” (Ex 32:9; 33:3, 5; 34:9) and would not obey, but (2) they were “let loose” because “Aaron had let them go loose” (Ex 32:25), (3) so that “they had quickly turned aside from the way,” (Ex 32:8) and they needed to be (4) “gathered together” again “in the gate” (Ex 32:26), (5) so that Moses could “lead the people” where “God had told him to go (Ex 32:34).
Thus, the people of Israel are depicted as ‘rebellious cows running wild’.
This becomes even more fascinating when one realises that, upon his descent from the mountain, Moses’ face is described as ‘horned.’ Now, as far as I know, the English translations of this passage — Ex 34: 29-35 — tend to favour the translation that Moses’ face “shone with glory” but the literal translation is that his face became horned — as Beale says, ‘it emanated a horned-like radiance’. Hence, what we see is a divine parody of the people’s idolatry, wherein God chooses to portray himself as a warrior bull figure to demonstrate that he is the truly glorious and powerful God — unlike the pathetic calf Israel has chosen to worship. This, then, helps explain why this made the people afraid, and why Moses’ face needed to be veiled — if his face had remained unveiled then people may have been gored and utterly destroyed and so, as Beale says, veiling appears to be an act of ‘mercy in the midst of judgment’. The revelation of God’s glory in the context of active idolatry, rather than finding its reflection in the people, ends up judging the people.
In the remainder of this chapter, Beale then goes on to demonstrate how this event is paradigmatic of later events of idolatry within Israel, and how Israel continues to be described as stiff-necked (like a rebellious calf) or like a cow that has turned aside from the way in which it is to go.
Now, what this automatically made me think of (even though Beale does not develop this connection) were Jesus’ words in Mt 11.28-30:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Now, in this passage, Jesus is probably alluding to Jeremiah 6.16 and following, which begins in this way:
Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, “We will not walk in it” (which then results in disaster for Israel and the bondage of exile).
Thus, we see the rebellious calf motif resurfacing in the language of being yoked and in the allusion to the need to walk in the proper way (which also calls to mind all of the times Jesus is described as on the way, or as calling people to the way, or as describing himself as the way). Once again, in Mt 11, Jesus is drawing on the image of idolatrous Israel as a rebellious calf and he is pleading with her to return because his yoke is easy and his burden light.
However, it appears that the motif has been further developed in Mt 11 because Jesus calls all who are ‘weary and carrying heavy burdens’. This is not the image of a wild calves running free through the fields, it is an image of bondage. The lesson then is this: calves that run wild will inevitably be captured by other powers, exploited, and worked, quite literally, to death. Or, to put this properly back into the context of idolatry, those who think they find freedom by running from God and God’s ways, are in fact running straight back into slavery to the horrendous powers of Egypt, Babylon, and Rome (and all other forces in the service of Sin and Death).
Consequently, true freedom is not found in being unyoked; rather, true freedom is found in being properly yoked.
This, then, takes me back to my last post on self-judgment and my own inability to be free. My conclusion is that there is a tension here that one must constantly negotiate. One the one hand, I am yoked because I am accountable to the judgment of Christ. However, on the other hand, I am free because I am bound to the judgment of Christ.