How could the Israelites have made the Golden Calf? They had just witnessed the most awe-inspiring, mind boggling miracles- the ten plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea and to cap it all God’s revelation to them on Mount Sinai. And yet here they were only a few weeks later making a golden calf and proclaiming: “these are your gods Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”
Many explanations have been put forward. Moses had been up the mountain for longer than they expected, so they assumed he was dead and sought a substitute for his leadership. Alternatively, the calf was made by the foreigners in their midst- they blamed the foreigners in those days too. Or they were so subsumed in their slave mentality that they could not deal with the idea of an unknown invisible deity; they needed a concrete representation.
But there is another, less obvious, possibility. It lies in their rather mysterious behaviour once the idol worshippers have been slain and God has announced that he will no longer lead the Israelites through the wilderness (a decree he later rescinds). The people, so we are told strip themselves of their ornaments (Exodus 33, 4-6). This is the first time that we have heard of these ornaments, and it is a little perplexing that they have them at all. After all, not only have they just thrown all their jewellery into a furnace to make the Golden Calf, they were also commanded to voluntarily donate gold, silver and bronze to make the tabernacle. How much jewellery could these ex-slaves have had, that they still had ornaments they could strip off?
The traditional answer is that these ornaments were given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, as a reward for their saying “All that God has spoken we will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24,7). By saying ‘we will do’ before ‘we will hear’ they are assumed to have agreed unconditionally to whatever they were commanded. Only after they had agreed, would they listen to what it was. This unconditional acceptance was considered so meritorious that six hundred thousand angels descended and gave each Israelite two crowns, one for ‘we will do’ and one for ‘we will hear’.
But is unconditional acceptance, before even knowing what is being accepted, such a good thing? Even with absolute faith in God, as the Israelites presumably had after the Sinai revelation, it cannot necessarily be good to agree to something without understanding what it means. At Sinai they were told to have no other gods and to not make idols. But when push came to shove, when they believed that Moses was dead and that they were left leaderless and stranded in the desert, they demonstrated that they hadn’t fully understood what it had meant when they agreed not to make idols.
Because the Israelites had assented to God’s commands without listening to what was required of them, and without understanding what this meant, they didn’t have the capacity to resist idolatry. Once they realised their error, they stripped themselves of the ornaments they had been given as a reward for their impetuous statement “we will do and we will hear”.
Rabbinic tradition regards “we will do and we will hear” as a virtue. The Golden Calf suggests that is not always the case. In our own time, in an age when truth falls prey to power, it is essential to listen and understand before assenting. “We will do and we will hear” may have been an appropriate response when the Israelites said it. It proved not to be appropriate even a few weeks later, let alone now.