THE WORSHIP OF YAHWEH AS A BULL
In the artistry of primitive religions the gods were depicted with definite characteristics that set them apart as deities. Hindu gods were distinguished by their sky-blue skins and multiple appendages. Egyptian gods were animal-headed, and they grasped the ankh, or crux ansata, symbolic of immortality. Medieval artists distinguished Christ and the saints by means of halos.* As for ancient Near Eastern deities, they were characteristically horned. From the time of Sumer down to the eclipse of the Ugaritic pantheon, the heads of divinities bore the horns of either bulls or rams.
When the Hebrews invaded Canaan they lived for centuries alongside native worshipers of the mighty bull god, Baal. And as time passed, it was inevitable that Yahweh should come to resemble His chief antagonist in the minds of the people. This melding of faiths was accurately described by the novelist James Michener:
In fact, when the average citizen...prostrated himself before Yahweh he could scarcely have explained which god he was worshiping, for El had passed into Baal and he into El-Shaddaiy and all into Yahweh...**
It was explicitly stated in the Book of Numbers that God (Elohim) had “the horns of the wild ox” (24:8 RSV).*** And His throne was guarded by human-headed bulls called cherubim. In fact, bulls were set up as golden images of Yahweh in the two rival temples of the ten northern tribes of Israel (1 Ki. 12:28-29). And while it is true that this was scandalous in the eyes of the southern Judćans, who made no molten images of God, it is beyond question that they also carried this bull-god conception in their minds.
*The halo, aureola, or nimbus was developed from the Hellenic convention of placing a sunburst crown on the statues of deities - as with the spiked crown of the Statue of Liberty.
**The Source by James A. Michener, Random House, 1965, p. 205
***The “wild ox” intended here is, in fact, the primeval beast known as the aurochs, a giant-sized, untamed bison that was deemed more dangerous than a lion in ancient times.
This situation was well described in a novel by Gladys Schmitt:
A household image stood upon a pedestal opposite the bed - Yahweh in the shape of an angry bull rearing in rage against a host of unseen enemies, hewn roughly and in visionary fury from porous reddish stone. (David) gazed in wonderment at the image. Such things were forbidden in Judah, nor was it considered any excuse for them that they were beautiful or reverend with age.
And suddenly he felt the presence of the God of hosts, the great body of the Warrior, covered with dragon scales and blowing the hot breath of the bull. The God of Battles was with him, panting for blood.*
No greater zealot for Yahweh’s integrity can be found in the Old Testament than the prophet Amos. And yet, all the evidence shows that Amos tolerated the worship of his God in the form of a golden bull.** This rough Judćan preacher burst into the rival temple at Bethel and railed against everything evil in the northern kingdom, but he never directly attacked the cult of bull worship. The following allusions show that the bull image must have been acceptable to Amos.
...in the house*** of their God they drink the wine of those who have been fined. Yet I (Yahweh) destroyed the Amorite before them... (2:8b-9a)
Even though you offer me (Yahweh as the golden Bull) your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them (because of your unjust treatment of the poor - not because of the bull image). (5:22)
I saw Yahweh standing beside the altar... (9:1)****
The golden calf of the Exodus has been thought by some to have represented the Egyptian god Ptah incarnate in the sacred bull, Apis. But the Zondervan Bible Dictionary takes another view:
*David The King by Gladys Schmitt, Dial Press, 1946, pp. 96, 263
**Actually, Yahweh as a Bull is no more offensive than Christ as a Lamb or the Holy Spirit as a Dove.
***Note that the “house” was the temple that enshrined the golden bull.
****Note that the Deity is seen standing beside His bull statue.
Aaron made a golden image of a male calf in order that the people might worship Jehovah under this form (Exod. 32:4). It is very unlikely that the Golden Calf was a representation of an Egyptian deity. The feast held in connection with this worship was “a feast of Jehovah” (Exod. 32:5).
After the division of the kingdom, Jeroboam set up two golden calves in his kingdom, one at Bethel and one at Dan (1 Ki. 12:29) because he feared that his people might desert him if they continued to worship in Jerusalem. He was not trying to make heathenism the state religion, for the bull images were undoubtedly supposed to represent Jehovah. In time, these images, at first recognized as symbols, came to be regarded as common idols (1 Kings 12:30, Hosea 12:11).
The historian Will Durant has elaborated further:
As they first entered the historic scene the Jews were nomad Bedouins who feared the djinns of the air, and worshiped rocks, cattle, sheep, and the spirits of caves and hills. The cult of the bull, the sheep, and the lamb was not neglected; Moses could never quite win his flock from the adoration of the Golden Calf, for the Egyptian worship of the bull was still fresh in their memories, and Yahweh was for a long time symbolized in that ferocious vegetarian.*
The Bible scholar Harry Emerson Fosdick has also explained:
...even in the central temple at Jerusalem...grew up the worship of Yahweh under the likeness of bulls, such as Jeroboam set up at Dan and Bethel. The story of Aaron and the golden calf in all probability was written in this later age to help understand the polluting identification of Yahweh’s worship with the adoration of bulls.**
*Our Oriental Heritage by Will Durant, Simon and Schuster, 1954, p. 309.
**A Guide To Understanding The Bible by Harry Emerson Fosdick, Harper ChapelBooks, 1965, p. 16
In keeping with this idea, one may compare the two rival accounts of the Decalogue given in Exodus, chapters 20 and 34. The Exodus 20 version, from Israel, denounced “other gods” and “graven (stone) images.” But the Judćan version in Exodus 34 was explicitly directed against “molten gods,” doubtless in reference to the metalic bulls of Bethel and Dan.
The archćologist William F. Albright confirmed this view.
...the erection of a “golden calf” at Dan...refers to an attempted return by the Israelites of Moses’ time to the ancient practice of representing the chief divinity in the form of a storm-god standing on a young bull...though we do not know whether or not the figure of the god standing on the young bull was supposed to be visible or invisible. The latter was true later. In view of the archaism of Exodus 32 and Jeroboam’s obvious intention, over 350 years later, to restore pre-Solomonic faith and practice rather than to create a new paganism, it is much safer to assume that the Israelites did not erect a visible image (of Yahweh atop the bull) at either Bethel or Dan.*
Now, it should be noted that whenever a god was shown standing on a bull as his totem animal, he often incorporated the horns and tail of the animal with his his otherwise human features. Thus, he remained himself a bull god. In fact, the chief god of Babylon, who was identified with both the bull and the dragon, carried the meaningful name Marduk, which signified “Young Sun Bull.”
Finally, bull gods were always associated with cow goddesses as their consorts. And thus, Baal’s mistress was the bovine deity Anath. So, it is significant that when the old god of Canaan, Baal, was dethroned by a new King of heaven, Yahweh, it was natural to some of the Hebrews that Yahweh should acquire the harem of the vanquished.
*Yahweh And The Gods Of Canaan by William Foxwell Albright, Doubleday, 1968, p. 197
Evidence for this wife-stealing in heaven comes from documents attributed to a Jewish military garrison at Elephantine in Egypt. These old records, written about 500 B.C. bear witness to the fact that the soldiers had built for themselves a temple for their God, Yahu (Yahweh), and for the goddess Anath-yahu. Thus, they had married Yahweh to Baal’s former wife, the cow goddess of Canaan!