The Golden Calf
WARNING: Contains Disturbing Imagery. Discretion is advised.
art by Kim Holm (@denungeherrholm)
“I want you to build me a masterpiece,” Aaron said with a strange glint in his eyes. Eli, the master mason and sculptor, thought it was mere enthusiasm or maybe divine inspiration from the brother of the prophet. But, in light of everything that happened thereafter, perhaps it was madness.
As Aaron described the commission, Eli grew confused and a little apprehensive. A calf, he thought. A calf cast in gold? Eli looked at the camp around them. Sure, sculptures cast in gold were possible back in Egypt - in fact Eli had made several golden idols for the two Pharaohs in his life - but here? In the middle of the desert? What gold could be found to create a golden chicken or cat, let alone a life-sized baby cow?
“I…I don’t understand,” Eli said finally, cutting Aaron off mid-sentence. “This sculpture…how can I make it? We have some gold coins and maybe some have jewelry they could part with. But the amount of gold to make this thing is far outside what we have. Even making it hollow, it’s still…”
“Not hollow,” Aaron interrupted quickly. “No, this must be a solid gold masterpiece. Greater than anything any Pharaoh could ever dream of! And don’t worry about the supplies. I will get all we need. Please, Eli. This has to be done.” Aaron cocked an eyebrow and held his hands out, palms up as if pleading.
“Alright,” Eli sighed. “I’ll do my best. It is in the name of God as you say. So I will try.” Aaron let out a bark of a laugh and hugged Eli tightly. After several thank you’s and firm handshakes, Aaron left and Eli went inside his tent to get to work.
It took Eli six days, working from sunrise to well past dusk, to make the calf sculpture. He managed to gather enough clay from the pool of water that the camp was situated beside. If he hadn’t been concerned with sapping the oasis all 3000 of them relied on and he had had his usual bank of clay along the Great Nile, the sculpture could have been much bigger and more detailed. But he had to conserve as much of it as possible and take great thought into each motion of his tools. And Aaron came each day at sunset and cheered at the builder’s progress. A couple times, the brother of the prophet seemed to almost squeal with delight. Eli’s tent was situated on the edge of camp and Aaron told him every night to keep the work secret and covered when not working on it.
“To keep profane eyes from seeing it,” Aaron had said at the end of each visit. “It must be seen only at the right time.” Eli didn’t think much about this request. In fact, it bolstered him a little to know he was making something so important. So, he worked hard to make it as perfect as possible. Finally, on the evening of the sixth day, Aaron returned. Two men were blindfolded beside him and each of them dragged two reed willow baskets behind them.The baskets made deep furrows in the sand. When they reached Eli’s side, and with a wide smile, Aaron took the covers off. Inside was a breath-taking amount of gold items. Jewelry made up most of it, but there were also small statues, and trinkets too. Coins filled the spaces in between.
“I can’t believe it,” Eli said. “But, why have so many given up such treasures?” He looked at a couple times, the gold dull with age that were obviously long passed down heirlooms.
“They know it is for a holy cause,” Aaron said, holding up a hand. The blindfolded men nodded blindly. “Use it all, all that is needed. I will come for it, this time tomorrow.” With that, the three men left Eli alone.
The casting process was the most laborious part of the whole task. Maybe by a miracle, he kept the fires hot enough and the final drop of gold fell into the mold at just past midday. Eli fell back and wiped at the sweat and grime on his face. It truly felt like he’d performed a miracle, but never would admit something so blasphemous. Eli went into his tent and grabbed a small cloth pouch. Exiting and going back to the fire at which his humble stew of a supper was simmering, he took a handful of the incense from the pouch and sprinkled them on the flames. The fire crackled as it accepted the thick powder and the smoke became filled with a sweet and earthy aroma. Eli bowed his head and said a prayer to God in thanks. At the end, he finally went into his tent and slept heavily.
It was well past dusk when Eli rose to check on the mold. Though night had fallen, the camp was filled with light. The tents between his and the center of camp obscured his view, but the flickering quality made him think they’d lit a bonfire. The music emanating from the camp made him a little excited to join in whatever festivities were going on.
“Good,” Eli muttered, checking the mold. The molten gold had cooled and he smiled as he touched the exposed circle of gold at the mold’s spout. He was just about to pry it open when a voice came from behind.
“Stop!” the voice commanded. Eli turned to see Aaron and four young men in long white robes. Aaron held up his hand. “Brother, my friend, do not reveal it just yet. Come.” He waved his hands and the young men stepped forward. They gathered around the mold, lashed the ropes they had around it, and team-lifted it up. The men groaned and the ropes cracked as they took on the weight and the mold hung just a few inches off the ground. Without saying a word, the men carried it away. Aaron put a hand on Eli’s shoulder. Though Aaron was younger than Eli - the builder’s beard was completely grey whereas Aaron’s was just starting to fade from black at the roots - Aaron looked at Eli with fatherly affection.
“Thank you,” Aaron said. “Now, come and join the celebration!” He led the builder through the camp. The light of the torches and bonfire, as well as the smells of various incense and cooked foods, grew more brilliant as they drew closer and entered the center of camp.
It was a festival. Music, laughter, singing and praises were as loud as could be. Platters of food and cups of water and wine were being passed around. Eli took a cup and sat quietly on the edge of the celebration. Even before his old age, he’d never been a fan of loud noise. As Aaron left him, he took a sip and the wine was good and strong, making his head and chest feel warm and light.
After some time, Aaron and the other young men exited a tent on the far side of the bonfire. The men carried a huge cloth-covered thing. A hush fell over the place as the men put down their load near the firepit and hurried away into the surrounding crowd. Aaron held up his arms wide and smiled.
“Brothers and sisters,” he yelled, “Children of the Almighty! We have come together in joyous celebration to give thanks and praise. Once, we were slaves. Beaten. Whipped. Starved. Murdered. All in the name of human vanity, cruelty, and in service of false idols and imperfect gods.” He paused, letting silence fill the air for a moment. “BUT NO MORE! We are Free! Thanks to the Almighty, we are free!” A roaring cheer erupted from everyone in the crowd and then all went silent when Aaron motioned for it. “And in thanks, in His honor, and as a symbol of praise, we present this!” Aaron grabbed the dark cloth and pulled it with a dramatic flourish. The crowd gasped as they saw the solid gold statue. The dancing quality of the light made it seem like the calf was actually breathing. It was better than Eli had expected to look. The calf was sculpted in a curled up sitting position with its head high. From the distance, it looked flawless to Eli. He grinned widely and sipped at his wine. Aaron held his arms wide again and began singing an old song of worship. On the next verse, the whole congregation of 3000 was singing and harmonizing.
The rest of the night was a blur to Eli. The combination of the strong wine, heavy incense smoke, and manic celebration clouded his memory and the next thing he knew, he was waking up with a splitting headache and queasy stomach. Bleary-eyed, Eli rose from the cot and his temples throbbed. He groaned and looked around. Well, he thought as his own belongings came into focus, at least I made it back here. Getting up, he stretched and groaned. The little light that peeked through the seams of his tent made him squint. Never in his life had he blacked out and lost his memory of a night.
“Strong wine,” he said, massaging his neck, and stepped outside.
The camp was bustling in the late morning sun. As Eli walked around, he saw several with squinting eyes and pained grimaces like his. He guessed they had woken up with similar headaches. Some were cleaning, picking up the remains of the night’s celebration, while others went about usual tasks. All seemed normal until he got to the center of camp. Where the bonfire had been was now a pit of burning, ashy coals. Several older women tended to small pots of boiling water or simmering pots of stews and teas. But what really made Eli stop and stare was the golden calf.
Around the statue were all sorts of trinkets, flowers, fine woven cloths, and plates of food and goblets of drink. Eli walked up to the display with amazement. It was beautiful, yes, a fine extravagance. But, in a way, it made Eli’s stomach uneasy. As he looked at it all, a hand fell on his shoulder.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” Aaron said with great pride. “A true testament. A symbol of our love.”
“I…I suppose,” Eli said as the wind picked up and smelt a faint smell of lingering incense on Aaron’s robes. “But is it not a little…much? Should not these resources and efforts go towards sustaining ourselves and honoring God? Not merely given as symbolic gifts?” Aaron’s arm went around Eli’s shoulders and Aaron laughed.
“There is no reason we can’t do both,” he said reassuringly, “You will understand in time.”
Aaron left and Eli sighed. He supposed it could be both. And besides, Aaron was the brother of Moses - second in command and now leading the people while the prophet was off doing God’s work. Eli looked up at the mountain nearby, the one Moses had headed towards nearly a fortnight ago. But still, he thought, it just doesn’t seem right…
Over the next month, things got stranger. Each night, the camp had communal supper and each person went to the calf statue, bowed their heads in prayer, then took a portion of their meager meals and threw them into the bonfire. For the first week or so, Eli participated in the procession, doing as the rest did. But with each time, that feeling in his stomach got stronger. The final time he went up, his hands were shaking too much and he couldn’t get himself to pray. After that night, Eli stayed by his tent, making his own meals, and didn’t emerge from his tent until morning.
He grew lonely - especially as the rest of the camp grew more raucous at their “golden calf parties” as he called them. At first they went on every seventh day, but by the end of the first month it was nearly every night. Still, he didn’t join in as the noise grew to scare him - at times it didn’t sound human or joyous. Eli stopped leaving his tent all together by the end and his stomach grew ever more uneasy.
It was on the last night before it all happened that Eli summoned up the courage to leave his tent. Well into the night, perhaps nearly dawn, the party had subsided. The camp was dimly lit, with only a few torches burning through the camp and the bonfire in the center burning low. As Eli gingerly walked through camp, he had to stifle gasps of astonishment. He passed by several groups of people in various states of undress, many fully naked, passed out on the ground with each other as lovers in a post-coital embrace. The whole camp smelled of incense, wine, and sweat. Eli ducked behind a tent when he was almost spotted by a pair of men having their way with an unconscious girl.
Eli’s head felt as if a fog was overtaking it. Confused, shocked, and afraid, he reached the center and hid just enough so he could see the men around the firepit but not be seen himself. They all were dressed in the same white robes Aaron wore everyday. Some had black stains on the sleeves like they’d been burned or covered in soot or ash. Aaron stood behind the calf statue, his arms raised wide. He had his head tilted back, eyes closed, and looked as if meditating. Eli watched as the eight other men, most barely out of their adolescence, walked up to the calf.
“Take this,” Aaron said aloud to the air, coming out of his trance and holding up a large knife. As each man came up to him, he presented it to them in turn and repeated, “Take this, and receive the priesthood of the Almighty.” Eli watched in horror as each man took the knife and ran the blade over their open palm. Their hands darkened with blood as it began to ooze out - the blood looking black in the dim light. They held their bleeding hands above the head of the calf statue’s head and let the blood drip onto the calf’s face. The final man in the procession - this one as old as Eli himself - stepped up and took the knife Aaron offered. The old man’s hands shook either from age, emotion, or possibly fear, and the knife cut deeper than the rest had. Blood poured fast from the wound and the old man swayed, struggling to keep his hand high. Aaron quickly grabbed hold of the old man’s wrist and held it firmly. After a lot of blood - too much it seemed - fell onto the calf, Aaron let go and the old man fell back. The other men quickly dashed forward and caught him before he could fall into the fire pit.
Eli watched Aaron and the other men leave the statue and go into a tent nearby. Two of the men held the old man up as they walked, the old man let out a tired moan. Eli quickly left and went back to his tent. Before turning in, he looked up at the mountain again. Clouds were quickly circling the peak and swirled around like a snake coiling around a mouse. As Eli turned away, a roll of distant thunder sounded and the builder prayed to God for safety.
The following day, the fortieth day since Moses had left them, Eli didn’t come out of his tent. From dawn until dusk, Eli prayed to God. He remained silent, only burning a bowl of incense as he prayed, and neither drank nor ate. Several times he broke down into heaving sobs. He couldn’t control himself and each time they blanketed him in an overwhelming fear. Finally, as dusk fell and the camp became alive with music and the noises of the festivals, Eli left his tent. Only pausing to grab a small torch, he didn’t look back but hurried away from camp and towards the mountain.
It took him an hour to find the path up from the base of the mountain. It was a long dried up riverbed. Faint sandaled footprints led up the path. The sky above was filled with rippling clouds and every so often cracks of thunder and lightning lit up the sky for a moment. With one final prayer, Eli began his trek up. The wind picked up as Eli reached the thick clouds covering the top half of the mountain. The wind made Eli’s torch flicker dangerously close to going out but it stayed lit and Eli kept walking. Soon, Eli heard the sound of approaching footsteps. From around the corner between a pair of boulders emerged Moses. The prophet’s face was weary, his hair and beard now a stark white, and he held two large tablets of carved stone under one arm.
“Who’s there?” Moses asked, squinting at the flickering torchlight. The wind suddenly died down to an echoing silence around them. Moses asked again, “who’s there?”
“I’m sorry,” Eli cried, his voice cracked and hoarse. He fell to his knees, barley keeping hold of his torch. “I’m sorry, wise Moses. I’m Eli, son of Abraham. I’m…I’m a…builder and…and…” Eli couldn’t finish and instead broke down into tears. Moses came forward quickly and held out his free hand to Eli, placing it on the old man’s head. As if that had restored his will, Eli explained all between gasping sobs. He felt like the weight of his words, heavy in his stomach, as he waited for Moses’ reaction.
“P…pl…please forgive me for my role in this. I…I didn’t know. I…I thought I was -,” Eli tried to finish but Moses’ hand retracted and Eli braced for a strike. Instead, the crash of breaking stone made his eyes snap open and Eli looked up. Without a word, Moses ran down the path Eli had just been following, disappearing into the darkness. Eli grabbed the torch he’d dropped during his confession and rose to his feet. Before he went off to follow the prophet, he looked down at the broken tablets. The first line etched onto it read, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
Eli held the torch high to light his way but still almost crashed into several craggy boulders as he raced after Moses. How can he see, Eli thought. The holy man ran as if in daylight and Eli was only quick enough to see Moses’ dark silhouette disappear around bends in the path.
In less time it seemed than it took to leave, Moses and Eli reached the camp. Eli, years past the time he could run such a marathon, felt his heart in his throat and his mouth was dry. He wheezed for breath but still pushed himself to keep up with Moses - who had slowed down enough for the old man to walk in step with him. The center of camp was especially bright with a bonfire, larger than any other, roaring in the center. The music, chanting, and noises were unbearably loud to Eli’s ears. He and Moses stopped at the last row of tents before the camp opened up to the large crowded center and Eli’s heart nearly stopped.
Surrounding the bonfire that rose high above the peaks of the tents and into the night sky like the Great Pyramids they’d left behind in Egypt was three thousand people writhing and chanting to the drum beats played near the bonfire. Several men and women were sodomizing goats, pigs, and one with a camel while three others held it down. The animals’ squeals and cries melted into the cacophony of noise, but were terrible when they rose above it all. Wine was being drunk and spilled on all and the smoke of incense rose from small fire pits scattered in the crowd. But the worst part was at the far end where the statue of the golden calf stood on its raised altar.
The statue was red with blood. If he hadn’t built it himself, Eli would’ve easily mistaken it for a horrifyingly skinned animal. Standing behind and around it was Aaron and his priests. Their robes were stained crimson and clung wetly to their bodies. Around the statue was the source of all the blood: at least a dozen slaughtered animals laying at the base of the altar. The corpses of goats, pigs, and chickens laid there with their throats slit open and their bellies spilling their guts onto the ground as their blood pooled around. The offerings that had surrounded the altar in a magnificent and beautiful display of flowers and totems and food were now being crushed by the slaughtered sacrifices.
“God save us,” Moses said in a gasp as he and Eli watched two of Aaron’s priests raise a goat high above the bloodied calf. Its stomach and utters were full and distended with pregnancy and the poor thing thrashed widely for freedom. Aaron’s voice was lost in the noise, but he spoke as he lifted a long curved khopesh and sliced open the goat’s throat. Blood gushed out as Aaron spoke again and held the sword at the goat’s belly.
“STOP!” Moses’ voice rang out over the noise of the crowd like a thunderclap and almost all went instantly silent. Only the yelps of the raped animals and the gurgling of the dying she-goat went on. Taking their chance, the other animals rose and ran off. Two of the goats kicked their rapists in the head - rendering them unconscious - and the camel trampled its captors and several people around it before running away into the desert. All eyes turned to Moses, who stood tall and massive in his rage. “What has happened to you?”
“What has…” Aaron yelled in manic amusement. “What -? What happened to you? You left us! You abandoned us! Yahweh abandoned us! What -,” Aaron fell into a fit of dry laughter, then composed himself. “Brothers and sisters,” he called to the mass of people, “Heed not what this liar, this false prophet, says. As I have said, he abandoned us, giving promises he would return for us. But what does he have to show for it? What great wisdom and divine power does he wield?” Aaron paused as if expecting an answer, then addressed Moses again. “You see, brother? You carry no love, no care over us. So we carry none for you.” Aaron raised the khopesh again, staring directly at Moses as he spoke. “I give this life, symbol of birth and plenty, in the name of –.”
His words were cut off by a crack of thunder and from the dark, swirling clouds above a bolt of lightning struck into the center of the great bonfire. In a flash as bright as daylight, the fire exploded. Flames and burning logs and cinders flew out in all directions. Those closest to the fire pit fell back and were engulfed in flames. Those burning screamed horribly as they burned.
Aaron and his priests had been knocked back by the explosion and the men dropped the now dead goat. It landed on the pile of other dead animals and the fires and coals began to cook and burn the flesh. The priests didn’t get back up, but Aaron did. Hid face was a mask of rage - teeth bared and half of his face glistening from a deep and blistering burn. Smoke rose as his hair and beard smoldered. Moses stood still, unflinching and untouched by the explosion, and stared down the mad-eyed Aaron.
“I trusted you, brother,” Moses said. His voice was calm but carrying over the din of crying and screams. “Trusted you to protect these people - our people - and give them guidance. But this?” Moses gestured to the crowd. The screams died away and the worst of the flames died down, leaving the camp darker than ever.
“I have given them guidance. I have given them truth,” Aaron snarled. “I have shown them the true god of our people and they –,” he meant to go on, but stopped as light began to emanate from the statue in front of him. It was beginning to glow a pale golden color and getting slowly brighter. With wild excitement, Aaron waved his arms and cheered. “Brothers and sisters! See! See this miracle our true god has done! His power is great! His power…”
Eli, the builder of the golden calf and a great many other beautiful things, stopped paying attention to the madman’s speech and focused on the statue. The thing was glowing, and its light was getting more brilliant by the second. It shifted from the yellow of gold to a dull red, then slowly brighter to orange. At this stage, the blood on the statue began to boil and evaporate with a foul stench. Now Eli knew what was happening. The calf’s metal was getting increasingly hotter as if in a forge and Eli didn’t want to see what would happen when it reached its brightest, hottest white.
As the statue’s glow shifted to a yellowish-white and the air became thick and heavy with heat, Aaron screamed about miracles and truth. Eli darted to the nearest hiding place: a rock the size of a camel’s body and just big enough to let the old man crouch behind it. He curled his body into as small a ball as his old age would allow and shut his eyes. Aaron’s words became a fever pitch and the light from the calf shone like daylight through Eli’s eyelids. Another deafening crack of thunder sounded and a second, larger bolt of lightning came down and struck the statue of burning metal.
Though he couldn’t see it, Eli could hear the chaos of the explosion. 3000 screams roared for a few seconds, then all fell into an abrupt silence that left the old man’s ears ringing. He kept his eyes closed, like a small boy hoping that as long as he kept his eyes shut the bad thing wasn’t happening. It wasn’t until a hand took hold of his elbow did he look. Moses was beside him, still untouched, and brought Eli to his feet.
The sky was clear now, the last of the clouds dissipating, and the light of the moon and stars showed the carnage around them. All 3000 of the worshippers of the Golden Calf lay dead. Some laid with their heads only masses of wet, smoking flesh, while others had their chests only gaping holes in their torsos. Those who were nearests the statue were only masses of scorched flesh - unrecognizable as human. And in the center of every wound were large chunks of dully glowing metal. Steam and smoke rose from the bodies as the blood the metal laid in simmered as the metal cooled.
It was the end of the Cult of the Golden Calf - and it seemed to Eli to be the end of the Hebrew people. The camp was destroyed and only he and Moses were left. Moses never spoke a word about the event afterwards, But Eli supposed the prophet had been protected by God as God performed his deadly miracle. The two of them gathered some supplies and began to venture into the desert again. For three days, they walked until they found the family of Levi - Levi himself, and his fourteen sons and their wives. They’d left the “camp of the golden idol” as they called it, recognizing it as the cult of a false god and wished nothing to do with them. And so, Eli, the family, and Moses ventured on, led by the true god of their people.