As Aaron tells the story, the Israelites were evil-hearted from the start. They didn't know what had happened to Moses, and they wanted Aaron to make some gods to go before them, so Aaron told them to take off all their jewelry, which he threw into the fire and -- Voila! -- out came a statue of a calf. That was apparently a god the Israelites could relate to and worship for a few weeks before they got distracted by something else.
Well, Moses was so angry that he broke the stone tablets he had spent so much time carving, melted down the golden idol, ground the gold into powder, scattered it in the water supply and made the Israelites drink it. Then he ordered the Levites to kill 3,000 of their fellow Jews. That's less than 1% of the total Israelite population as the Bible records it, but it's still a hell of a violent streak. Back in Genesis, Jacob had this to say about Levi and his descendants:
Moses was apparently more comfortable with their genetic propensity for violence."their swords are weapons of violence.
Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly,
for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.
Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel!
I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel."
The story is illustrative of a big issue, obviously. We want something concrete to believe in. Even when we believe we know the divine on some level, we still want something tangible. People (both in and out of the church) worship all sorts of things: money or the accumulation of personal possessions, fame or acknowledgment, physical pleasure, power over other people, political favor -- the list could go on and on. Very few people sincerely worship an intangible, invisible force that epitomizes unconditional love for all, which is how the Christian god is often portrayed. Even the Israelite god in Exodus was closer to a Greek deity with human emotions and weaknesses, as we'll see in just a moment.
First, though, let's consider what worshiping external things really says about us psychologically. The idea of worship literally means that one is attributing worth to something. To worship a thing is to proclaim its worthiness. And when we truly worship something, a part of us is committed to the belief that whatever we're worshiping is worthy of our total effort, adoration, gratitude -- the fullness of who we are. It's why some people who worship success become workaholics and why some people who worship fame do incredibly stupid things just for the attention it will garner. Our perception isn't always healthy. It can't be completely healthy when we are looking outside of ourselves for a target to which we can attribute value.
We are terribly uncomfortable with the idea that we ourselves are worthy of anything, that we have value. It's a bit of a burden for some people. If you are worth something, then you have to live up to that somehow. If you have value, then you have to maintain that value. As if you have to keep proving your worthiness to yourself, and potentially to everybody else. So we look to something outside of ourselves so we don't have to look inward and potentially face the fear that we are, at the end of the day, valueless. That we do not even approach worthiness. Much better to find something tangible that we can target. Money. Titles. Golden calf.
What's very interesting about the Exodus story is that God tells Moses that he needs to take those people away. They need to get on the road, and God will send an angel ahead of them to clear their enemies away. If the Israelites wait around, God may not be able to control his anger at this whole idolatry business, and he just may destroy them all. And God can't travel with them, because he is so angry that he'd just kill them en route. But when Moses pleads with him, God changes his tune rather quickly. Actually, Moses' pleading comes across as a bit manipulative and demanding, but the point is that it doesn't ultimately matter what Moses or the Israelites do, the divine presence won't abandon them.
This suggests a deep truth about the character of the divine: It cannot be separated from us. Even when we have acted in ways that betray that divine nature within us, when we have pursued things that do not lead us to satisfaction or happiness or peace, there is no chance that we will be abandoned by our divine nature. We cannot ultimately blot it out or eradicate it. The divine is a part of who we are, even if we decide to use some external imagery to relate to it.
People who recognize that there is nothing earthly that is truly worth that level of devotion sometimes find solace in the concept that there is something bigger, something beyond our complete perception, watching over us and guiding us. That there is someone who has taken care of all our mistakes -- covered over our unworthiness. Certainly that figure is worthy. That person is valuable enough to be worshiped. That person surpasses all that any human being could hope to be, especially us. And thus the stories and the beliefs and the mythology is born. Because we crave some source of meaning, and we are too afraid to look within to find it.
We build golden calves and mythologies because we crave some source of meaning, and we are too afraid to look within to find it.
Stop being afraid to look within yourself. There is nothing you need to do to have value. You simply are valuable. You are worthy of your highest level of commitment because you are you. The divine is a part of who you are, inseparable and yet deep enough to run the risk of being overlooked. There is no amount of money or fame or drugs or charity or sermons or political action or Communion that can truly overshadow the profound value and worthiness of being you. You are worth your best effort. You do not need to use any adornments to shield yourself from any ugly truth about who you are. That fear is a lie. You are worthy. Period.