There is hardly a more blatant case of idolatry recorded in scripture than the incident with the Golden Calf in Exodus 32. While Moses met with God on Mount Sinai, Aaron the future high priest and the nation of Israel took religious matters into their own sinful hands. Melting down the camp jewelry, Aaron fashioned a calf from the gold and proclaimed
Israel, these are your gods who brought you up from the land of Egypt! (32:4b)
Quite the miracle since the calf did not exist when Israel escaped Egypt through God’s mighty power.
The Golden Calf might not have been the first sacred cow, but it is emblematic of the breed. Dictionary.com defines sacred cow as
Likely, there is not a pastor or church leader reading these words who has not had to shepherd around a sacred cow, be it sleeping, grazing, or tottering on its last legs. Church folks and religious institutions are notorious for putting some things—be they physical items, programs, or locations—beyond the realm of serious inquiry or discussion.
“We can’t move that class. Sister Jones has been teaching there 40 years.”
“The Lord’s Supper table is a sacred cow around here because it was donated by a founding member. We just had it treated for termites.”
“We could never change _______, because too many people would be upset. Seems like it’s more important than souls.”
“The founder of our institution…”
The narrative of the Golden Calf provides at least eight insights about sacred cows.
Sacred cows reveal a lack of faith.
The idea for to make a false god was birthed during Moses’ lengthy stay on Sinai. “When the people saw Moses was delayed…[they said] we don’t know what has happened to him” (v. 1). They lacked faith both in Moses and in God that God’s will was being accomplished on the mountain. As a result, they took things into their own hands.
Sacred cows arise during weak leadership.
The scripture does not record Aaron making an argument against the request. He did not even call them to a week of round-the-clock prayer for Moses’ safety.
Rather, with apparently little thought or concern, he ambled down the switchback to Egyptian religion and took the nation with him.
Sacred cows are often the result of mob opinion.
Given Aaron’s lack of objection, it seems safe to believe his faith was also weak. But, he did not suggest the false god—the people did.
Sacred cows are often so-anointed when a crowd demands it.
Sacred cows enable false worship in the name of true worship.
“Aaron…built an altar in front of [the calf] and made an announcement: ‘There will be a festival to the Lord tomorrow” (v. 5).
For real? Aaron decided to mesh the false god into worship of the true God. It was a baptism of sorts; they could “baptize” the false god by incorporating it into true worship. But, a syncretic faith is not true faith. It is false.
Sacred cows are celebrated.
“Early the next morning they arose, offered burnt offerings, and presented fellowship offerings. The people sat down to eat and drink, and got up to party” (v. 6).
Such partying often takes places in churches where sacred cows—long dead and still—are celebrated and memorialized as if alive and vibrant.
Sacred cows distract from what God is doing elsewhere.
What was happening while Aaron was fashioning the calf and the people were enjoying Goldie the calf? God was delivering to Moses the words that would set the course of the nation for generations: the Law.
One of the most insidious facts about sacred cows is how they distract people from what God is doing or wants to do. Outreach/growth/community impact is stopped dead in the water (or pasture, if you prefer) because some sacred cow demands respect.
Sacred cows distort reality.
After God alerted Moses to the people’s rebellion, he rushed back to the camp. Aaron’s explanation is a classic middle-schooler’s lie: “they made me do it.”
“You yourself know the people are intent on evil.” (v. 22)
“They said to me…” (v. 23)
“When I threw [the gold] into the fire, out came this calf!” (v. 24)
Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, was rumored to have a “reality distortion field” around him, which caused other people to see things his way. Jobs had nothing on Aaron. Aaron said some things that were true, but his guilt over the calf caused him to distort to Moses the facts about really happened.
Sacred cows are idols.
It is crucial we never forget the bottom line: sacred cows are idols. They take the place of God. They do not lead us closer to him; they take us farther away. Whether it is the golden calf, Nebuchadnezzar’s 90-foot idol on the plain of Dura, or the 1987 championship softball trophy in the church’s lobby, an idol is an idol. They are all false gods.
Whether a program, a place, or a person, sacred cows have been exalted to a place of no critique, no reflection, no question—unless the questions have to do with keeping the divine bovine in its place of honor. While melting down your church’s particular sacred cow, grinding it to powder, and making the people drink it in water (v. 20) might be a stretch, calling for true worship instead of false worship is not.
Featured image is a clip from Nicolas Poussin’s The Adoration of the Golden Calf.