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CALF-WORSHIP

Table of Contents
—Critical View:

Among the Hebrews, as among the other agricultural Semites, the bull was associated with deity in a sacred character (see Ox). The form in which this thought found expression in Israel was in their representation of Yhwh by an image of an ox or bull made of gold (compare I Kings xii. 28). In consequence of the costliness of the metal, the images were small, and from their size, rather than from the age of the animal regarded sacred, were called "calves." In the earlier time the images were carved out of wood (compare Moore, "Judges," pp. 375 et seq.); but with the increase of wealth it became the custom to make them of gold. These golden images were cast in molds, and consequently were called "molten images." They seem to have been in use in the old nomadic times, since they are mentioned in the twoCovenant Documents (Ex. xxxiv. 17; xx. 23), whereas the older practise of making images of wood persisted more as a private custom. In the Decalogue (Deut. v. 8.; Ex. xx. 4) the prohibition does not specify molten gods and those of silver and gold, but extends to all images representing Yhwh.

It has been often held (for example, by Renan and Maspero) that this calf-worship was derived from Egypt; but that view is now generally abandoned. The Egyptians worshiped the living animal, and not an image; and the prevalence of bull-worship among agricultural Semites sufficiently accounts for the origin. Among the Hebrews, the bull was a symbol of strength (compare Num. xxiii. 22, xxiv. 7).

Ex. xxxii. attributes the making of a golden calf to Aaron at Mount Sinai (see Calf, Golden). The critics assert that this is hardly possible; since the bull is the symbol of divinity only among settled agriculturists, and not among nomads such as the Israelites then were. The narrative in question is declared by them to be in reality a prophetic polemic against the calves of Jeroboam.

Jeroboam, in making the sanctuaries of Beth-el and Dan the recipients of his royal patronage, placed in them images of Yhwh made of gold in this calf form, the fame of which went far and wide (compare I Kings xii. 23; II Kings x. 29; II Chron. xi. 14, 15). The Deuteronomic author of Kings attributes the origination of these representations of Yhwh to Jeroboam, but this some critics question. Jeroboam, it has been assumed, simply revived an old custom; and it is probable that the silver image of Yhwh in the Temple of Micah (Judges xvii., xviii.) was in this form. Similar images were perhaps in the Temple at Gilgal (Amos v. 4 et seq.; Hos. iv. 15, ix. 15, xii. 11 [12]; compare G. A. Smith, "Book of Twelve Prophets," i. 37), and at Samaria (Hos. viii. 5), though Wellhausen and Nowack are of the opinion that "Samaria" is in this latter passage used for the whole kingdom and not for the city.

The prophets of the northern kingdom inveighed continually against the rites connected with these calf-shrines; and with the overthrow of that kingdom they disappear. There are no traces of this form of calf-worship in the southern kingdom; though the twelve oxen on which rested the great laver in the Temple of Solomon (I Kings vii. 25; II Kings xvi. 17; Jer. lii. 20) are regarded as evidence that there was some sacred character attached to the bull.

Bibliography:
  • Kuenen, Religion of Israel, i. 73-75, 235-236, 260-262, 545-547;
  • Baethgen, Beiträge zur Semitischen Religionsgeschichte, pp. 198 et seq.;
  • Robertson, Early Religion of Israel. ch. ix.;
  • Baudissin, Studien, etc., vol. i.;
  • König, Hauptprobleme, etc., pp. 55-58;
  • Dillmann, Alttestamentliche Theologie, pp. 98, 99, 166, 167;
  • Sayce, Hibbert Lectures, 1887, pp. 289 et seq.;
  • Jensen, Kosmologie der Babylonier, pp. 88 et seq.
J. Jr. G. A. B.
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