(See AARON.) The Israelites "in Egypt" had served the Egyptian idols (Joshua 24:14), including the sacred living bulls Apis, Basis, and Mnevis, and sacred cows Isis and Athor; worshipped for their utility to man, and made symbols of the sun and Osiris. In fact Nature, not the personal Creator, God, was symbolized by the calf and worshipped. But Aaron's golden calf he expressly calls, "thy Elohim which brought thee up out of Egypt"; and the feast to it "a feast to Jehovah" (Exodus 32:4-8; Exodus 32:17-19). Israel too had just seen that "upon Egypt's gods Jehovah executed judgments" (Numbers 33:4). What they yearned for therefore was not the vanquished Egyptian idols, but some visible symbol of the unseen Jehovah; the cherubic emblem, the calf or ox, furnished this. So Psalm 106:20, "they changed their glory (i.e. God) into the similitude of an ox that eateth grass"; indeed the Egyptians used to offer a bottle of hay to Apis.
The rites of Mnevis' feast at Heliopolis, boisterous revelry, dancing, offerings, etc., which the Israelites were familiar with in Egypt, they transferred to Jehovah's calf image. Acts 7:40-41 marks this first stage of idolatry. The second more glaring stage surely followed: "God turned, and gave them up to worship the host of heaven" (Acts 7:42-43). Jeroboam's calves, which his exile in Egypt familiarized him with, and which he subsequently set up at Dan and Bethel similarly, were not set up to oppose Jehovah's worship, but to oppose His worship by Jeroboam's subjects at Jerusalem, lest they should thereby be alienated from him (1 Kings 12:26-29). It was notorious that it was Jehovah who delivered Israel out of Egypt; and, like Aaron, Jeroboam says of the calves, thereby identifying them with Jehovah, "Behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of Egypt."
Jehu's worship of the calves is markedly distinguished from the Baal worship of Ahab which he overthrew (2 Kings 10:18-29). Baal worship breaks the first commandment by having other gods besides Jehovah. The calf worship breaks the second by worshipping Jehovah with an image or symbol; Rome's sin in our days. Moreover, there was only one Apis, there were two calves answering to the two cherubim. Hence, this was the only idolatry into which Judah never fell. As having the original cherubim in the temple at Jerusalem, she did not need the copies at Dan and Bethel. The prophets of the calves regarded themselves as "prophets of Jehovah" (1 Kings 22:5-6).
Hosea denounces the calf worship, and calls Bethel Bethaven, the house of vanity, instead of the house of God (Hosea 8:5-6; Hosea 10:5-6). Kissing them was one mode of adoration (Hosea 13:2); contrast God's command," Kiss the Son, lest He be angry and ye perish" (Psalm 2:12). Tiglath Pileser carried away the calf at Daniel Shalmaneser, 10 years later, carried away that at Bethel (2 Kings 15:29; 2 Kings 17:6). In Hosea 14:2 we read "calves of our lips": instead of calves which we can no longer offer in our exile, we present praises of our lips; so Hebrews 13:15.
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