The lesson of the importance of patient, steadfast trust in God and God’s willingness to forgive, taught by the incident of the golden calf, is one of many lessons taught in the Torah (Exodus 32) and in the Qur’an (7:148-153). The lesson is universal, but the details in the Torah and the Qur’an differ, so that people of faith within the three religions of the Children of Abraham can learn some additional perspectives from each other’s religious tradition; and thus learn greater respect for each other.
Thus, I myself follow the words of the Qur’an that direct Muslims to say, “We have believed in Allah and in what was revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and in what was given to Moses and Jesus and to the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and we are Muslims [submitting] to Him.” (3:84) So, I believe that Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders should always try to harmonize differences between the Sacred Scriptures of Messengers Moses, David, Jesus and Muhammad, and avoid claiming that only one Holy Book (ours) can be true.
As a Reform Rabbi, I believe that Jewish spiritual leaders should modify Jewish tradition as social and historical circumstances change and develop. I also believe we should not make religion difficult for people to practice. These are lessons Prophet Muhammad taught 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century.
I decided to retell (adding some humor about Miriam and the cat Goddess) the narrative lesson of the golden cow/calf, combining details from both Islamic and Jewish sources, because I want to show how it is possible to see scriptural differences as complementary rather than contradictory.
This retelling of the golden calf/cow narrative has already appeared on three Islamic web sites, and on my web site also: Everyone was worried that something bad had happened to Moses. He had gone up on the right side of Mount Sinai more than 20 days ago to speak with God. He had not yet returned.
Each day when Moses didn’t return more people worried and got more upset. Aaron and Miriam urged people not to worry. Moses would surely return in a few days. The Children of Israel should be patient and faithful. But as the days passed and Moses didn’t return more and more people became scared and afraid.
Only a few months ago the Children of Israel had been slaves in Egypt. Now they were free. But when their great leader Moses did not come back from the top of Mount Sinai, many of them feared they had been left all alone in the desert.
Without Moses they felt abandoned by God. These fears began to spread to a large number of the Children of Israel. And then it happened. There was an Egyptian magician named As-Samiri, who along with many other non-Jews had left Egypt with the Jewish people.
As-Samiri started telling people that they should make an image of a God to lead them, since no one knew what had happened to that old man Moses. Actually, As-Samiri and a many of his people, including some Jews, had already asked Moses to make an image of a god to lead them, not long after the Children of Israel had safely crossed the sea of Reeds and entered Sinai’s desolate wilderness.
As-Samiri and his people said, “Oh Moses, make for us a god just as other people have gods”. Moses replied, “You are indeed people given to ignorance… shall I seek a god for you other than the one God, when He has exalted you above all other people.” (Qur’an 7:138) With these words Moses had silenced As-Samiri, but now with Moses missing, As-Samiri started urging the Children of Israel to force Prophet Aaron, the brother of Moses, to make a statue of a god so they could be safe and secure.
At first, very few people listened to As-Samiri or his friends. But after Moses had been gone for almost 30 days, more people began to agree with him. As-Samiri told people that in addition to the God of Abraham, who no one could see, people need another god that they could see.
“In Sumeria where my family came from, and in Egypt where we all lived, there are lots of paintings and statues of many different gods, both big and small. When you see a picture or a statue of a god, you can feel god is very close to you” As-Samiri said.
When Miriam the Prophet, the older sister of Moses and Aaron, heard what the Egyptian magician was saying she objected strongly. “The Ten Commandments forbid the Jewish people to make any statues or paintings of God. The Ten Commandments forbid us to have any God other than the God who freed us from slavery in Egypt.
God saved you from your enemy, Pharaoh and his army, and made a covenant with you through Moses, on the right side of Mount Sinai. Don’t even think about making an image of our God, or of any other god. There is no other god, and no one can be associated with the one God.”
One day a large crowd of people, led by As-Samiri and his friends, gathered around Prophet Aaron, and demanded that he either tell them when Moses would return, or make an image for them to revere.
At first, Aaron told the Israelites that the delay in Moses’ return was only a test of their trust in God. Aaron could not tell them when Moses would return because he did not know. More than 30 days had passed since Moses went up to the top of Mount Sinai.
Aaron would not lie to them. They just had to trust in God. Most of the Israelites accepted this; but not the group led by As-Samiri and his friends. Aaron was worried that if he openly refused to make the image, the Children of Israel would split into groups who would fight with each other. That could lead to a civil war, something that must be avoided.
If he rebuked them as directly as Miriam the Prophet had, they might rebel and follow the lead of As-Samiri and make a statue, and so disobey both God and His prophets. So Aaron decided to outwit them. He asked the people, “Which god do you want to select for the image?”
One man who had come to Egypt from the distant country of India, said they should make an image of Krishna who was a very handsome young man with blue eyes and blue skin. Another man who had come to Egypt from Greece said they should make an image of Apollo who was the divine son of the God Zeus. Since the Jewish people had lived all their lives in Egypt, they wanted an Egyptian God.
But when Aaron asked them which one of the several dozen Gods the Egyptians worshipped they wanted for their image, they began to argue among themselves. Some wanted to make an image of Bastet the cat Goddess, while others wanted Amon the ram God. Some wanted to worship Osiris the God of the underworld; some wanted his sister the Isis cow. who gave birth to the sacred Apis bull, and was the Goddess of magic and magicians like As-Samiri.
Others wanted Isis’ son Horus, who appeared as a hawk, and was the ancestor of all the divine Pharaohs. They argued with each other for several days while Aaron kept hoping that Moses would return. But Moses still didn’t return.
As-Samiri said they should worship either the cow Goddess Isis or the cow Goddess Hathor, who was the Goddess of music, dancing, fertility and childbirth. Either Goddess could save them from dying in the desert, and if they made a cow idol each Goddess would think it was for her, and both would help them.
Many, but not most of the Children of Israel were very insecure because Moses had been gone for more than 37 days now, so they decided to follow As-Samiri’s direction. When they told Aaron they were going to make an image of Isis/Hathor, the cow Goddess, Aaron again tried to stop them by outwitting them. Aaron told them that the image would have to be made out of gold. Since a cow was very big they would need lots of gold.
They would have to collect all the gold earrings from all the men, all the women and all the children in the camp, so they would have enough gold to make a statue of a cow. Aaron was sure that most of the people would refuse to give up their gold earrings. And indeed, none of the woman, and very few of the men were willing to donate their gold jewelry to make a golden cow.
But there were about 3,000 men who did offer their gold rings to As-Samiri and his followers.
Two days later a dozen baskets filled with gold rings were brought to Aaron who was surprised and saddened. Now Aaron was trapped by his own words. He asked Miriam the Prophet for advice. She told him to tell the people that there was not enough gold to make a cow. There was not even enough gold to make a calf, or even half a calf. They should make a statue of Bastet, the cat goddess because they did have enough gold to make a cat.
Perhaps they would realize how stupid it was to select which God to worship based on how big a statue they were able to make. Aaron did not want to say this because he knew it would cause a violent division among the Children of Israel, and Moses would accuse him of dividing the people into enemy camps.
Also Aaron had no doubt that Moses would return very very soon, and when Moses did return he would strongly rebuke As-Samiri and all of the people who supported him. That would be a good lesson for the majority of the Children of Israel who did not want to make the idol. So Aaron told the people they could make a small calf and place it on top of a big stone base, but it would never be a God. It could not hear their prayers nor would the idol teach them how to be better people.
Aaron hoped that this would discourage them. But As-Samiri, the Egyptian magician, told his followers, “I have seen something you are unable to see” and he took a handful of something (they couldn’t see what it was), added it to the gold rings and cast the gold in a fire and formed it as the cow Goddess Isis/Hathor.
As-Samiri formed the statue hollow so it would look very big. Then As-Samiri secretly made hundreds of tiny pinholes in a line from its nose down its back to its tail. He could see the tiny holes but no one else could. As-Samiri knew that when the wind blew, the holes in the calf would make a mooing sound, and the people would be very impressed.
When the golden calf was done, Aaron felt very sad but he did not give up hope that Moses would soon return. Tomorrow would be 40 days since Moses went up to the top of Mount Sinai.
Aaron decided to stall for one more day by saying they would celebrate with the calf the next day. Early the next morning only about three thousand men, less than one out a hundred of all the Children of Israel, came to eat, drink, dance and even worship the golden calf.
As the men stood around watching to see what would happen, the wind blew and the calf made a mooing sound. “This is your God O Israel who brought you out of Egypt” shouted As-Samiri. “Bow down and worship Isis/Hathor.”
“Don’t do it!” shouted Aaron and his sister Miriam the Prophet, “This stupid statue is an idol.” Miriam stepped forward and punched the calf right on its nose. The calf split in half. ”Half a calf is better than that dead man Moses,” said As-Samiri. “Moses is never coming back, and his God has abandoned all of you.” (Exodus 33:22-25).
Just then Moses appeared on a cliff above them and told them that God would never abandon those who believe in Him. Sometimes they would have to wait a long time without losing faith, but God would never abandon the children of Abraham (Exodus 33:14, Deuteronomy 31:6 & Qur’an 47:31).
The promise of God lasts much longer than any statue of gold or silver. Their children’s children would read about this calf for more than 120 generations. Long after Isis, Hathor and all the other Gods of Egypt were forgotten, Jews, Christians and Muslims all around the world would read about Moses and the golden calf (Qur’an 38:17).
They would all learn the lesson that faithfulness requires Sabr; both trust and patience, because God will never abandon those who are faithful to Him (Qur’an 2:214 & 14:5).
The Qur’an refers to Prophet Abraham as a community or a nation: “Abraham was a nation/community [Ummah]; dutiful to God, a monotheist [hanif], not one of the polytheists.” (16:120) If Prophet Abraham is an Ummah then fighting between the descendants of Prophets Ishmael and Isaac is a civil war and should always be avoided.
If all Arabs and Jews can live up to the ideal that ‘the descendants of Abraham’s sons should never make war against each other’ is the will of God; we will help fulfill the 2700 year old vision of Prophet Isaiah: “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt, and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will join a three-party alliance with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing upon the heart. The LORD of Hosts will bless them saying, “Blessed be Egypt My people, Assyria My handiwork, and Israel My inheritance.”…(Isaiah 19:23-5)