The Non-Egyptian Origins of Israel's Golden Calf Worship
(Yahweh is the Golden Calf?)
21 June 2001
Revisions through 03 September 2009
Please click here for this website's most important article: Why the Bible Cannot be the Word of God. Please click here for my latest map (21 Nov. 2009) showing the site of Israel's "crossing of the Red Sea"
in the Exodus as being at Ras el Ballah (my Baal-zephon)
02 Oct. 2003 Update : Warning this article is now superceded by my article on the Egyptian Origins of the Golden Calf Story which concludes the biblical motifs may be preserving elements of the Hathor Cow-goddess Cult found in the Southern Sinai and Arabah.
I realize that some viewers may be confused. Why do I have in place two articles which seemingly "contradict" each other? The answer is that _I NOW understand_ that a "fusion" took place in the Early Iron II period of TWO different strands, one from north Syria (Haran) and Lower Mesopotamia (Ur of the Chaldees) which is Aramean and the other is Late Bronze Age and Early Iron I Canaanite recalling Egyptian Calf worship in the southern Sinai and Arabah, areas Israel wandered in according to the Exodus narratives. The Bible tells us Israel eventually intermarried with the Canaanites and worshipped their gods. I understand that Canaanite fathers and mothers taught their Israelite sons and daughters their Late Bronze Age and Early Iron I traditions of Calf worship in the Sinai and Arabah. The Iron IA invading Arameans who conquered Canaan via Transjordan also passed on their traditions of Mesopotamian Calf worship. So two different traditions were fused into one by Late Iron II times.
Please click on the following blue title with underlining for the new article:
The findings of biblical archaeology have challenged the Hebrew Bible's presentation of early Israel's origins, causing many Humanist scholars now to understand that there was no Exodus and no conquest of Canaan as presented in Holy Writ. The pottery forms of Early Iron I which have been identified as "proto-Israelite" by some scholars like Dever, do not show any Egyptianizing techniques or styles, the assemblages are directly drawn from Late Bronze Age Canaanite typologies, causing many to see Israel's origins as from within Canaan, not a military conquest by runaway slaves (who would have been exposed to 400 years of Egyptian pottery forms).
This of course, calls into question many assertions made in the Hebrew Bible in regards to explanations of how certain Israelite religious beliefs came into being. Humanists today are seeking explanations that sometimes turn out to be contrary to Holy Writ, but compatible with the archaeological record.
This brief article, utilizes archaeological findings to cast a light upon the origins of some Israelite traditions, and challenges the biblical portrayal of Israel's "Golden Calf Worship" as coming from Egypt. Instead, it will be argued that it is derived from Canaanite concepts, which in turn have modified earlier Syrian and Mesopotamian sources.
We are given to understand that Moses has requested permission for a "leave of absence" to go into the wilderness and make sacrifices to the Hebrew God. He explains to Pharaoh that the Egyptians would be offended by these sacrifices. As bulls are sacrified to God at Mount Sinai, one can appreciate Moses' comment that the Egyptians would "stone them" if they saw a bull (an animal they worshipped) being sacrificed:
"Then Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron, and said, "Go, sacrifice to your God within the land. But Moses said, "It would not be right to do so; for we shall sacrifice to the LORD our God offerings abominable to the Egyptians. If we sacrifice offerings abominable to the Egyptians before their eyes, will they not stone us ? We must go three day's journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the LORD our God and he will command us."
(Exodus 8: 25-27)
The Pentateuchal narrator understands that Israel has recently been released from a 400 year bondage in Egypt. She gathers at Mount Sinai to witness God's appearance as a great storm cloud full of thunder and lightning, then the cloud settles on the mountain and God manifests himself as a great fire within the cloud (Exodus 19: 9-19). Later, God calls Moses up to the mountain to receive the 10 commandments. Moses is gone some 40 days, in this interval an impatient nation has Aaron create a Golden Calf, and they worship it, calling it their god that has brought them up out of Egypt, thereby rejecting Yahweh (Exodus 32:1-6).
We are later informed that worship of the Golden Calf was reintroduced by Jeroboam who becomes the king of a divided nation, he ruling the northern part, called Israel. He sets up a Golden Calf at two sites, Dan and Bethel, and appoints a feast in their honor on the 15th day of the 8th month (1 Kings 12:28-33).
"So the king took counsel, and he said to the people, "You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan...And Jeroboam appointed a feast on the FIFTEENTH DAY of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices upon the altar; so he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he had made."
(1 Kings 12:28-33 RSV)
Mercatante notes three bulls that were worshipped in ancient Egypt:
"Apis. Greek name for the Egyptian Hapi (Hape or Hap), the sacred bull of Memphis. It was said that Apis was born of a virgin cow that had been impregnated by the god Ptah. The CALF was recognized by certain signs, such as a peculiar white mark on its neck and rump that resembled a hawk's wings and a scarablike hump under its tongue. The BABY BULL was brought to Memphis where it each day it was let loose to roam in the courtyard of the temple for devotees to observe; his movements were believed to foretell the future...Originally Apis may have been a fertility god concerned with flocks and herds. At Memphis he became associated with Ptah, the god who fashioned the world, and with Osiris, the god who blessed kingdom the dead hoped to enter...In Egyptian art Apis was portrayed as a powerful animal with massive limbs and body. A triangular piece of silver was fixed on his forehead, and a disk and the uraeus were placed between his horns. Above his legs figures of vultures with outstretched wings were outlined, and on his back, also outlined, was a rectangular cloth with an ornamental diamond pattern. Other sacred bulls were Mnevis and Buchis."
(pp.12-13, "Apis." Anthony S. Mercatante. Who's Who in Egyptian Mythology. New York. Clarkson N. Potter Inc., 1978. ISBN 0-517-53446-0 pbk.)
"Buchis. A sacred bull worshipped at Hermonthis who was believed to be an incarnation of the warrior god Menthu. He was also called the "living soul of Ra," as well as the "bull of the mountains of sunrise and sunset."Buchis was black...and he was seen as the image of the sun shining in Tuat, the underworld. In Egyptian art Buchis wore a disk between his horns from which rose plumes and the uraeus. On his hindquarters was the sacred symbol of the vulture with outspread wings."
(p.25, "Buchis," Mercatante)
"Mnevis (Bull). Greek name for the Egyptian sacred bull Wer-mer worshipped at Heliopolis. He was believed to be the incarnation of the sun and was often portrayed as a bull with a disk and the uraeus between his horns."
(p.96, "Mnevis," Mercatante)
Some scholars have noted that the "Golden Calf" may be a "Young Bull" rather than a calf, Metzger and May make the following observation:
"The CALF, OR YOUNG BULL, was a symbol of fertility in the nature-religions of the ancient Near East."
(p.109. Note to Exodus 32:2-3. Herbert G. May & Bruce M. Metzger. The New Oxford Annotated Bible With the Apocrypha. Revised Standard Version. New York. Oxford University Press. 1977)
"Jeroboam intended the two CALVES of gold (REALLY BULLS) to represent the LORD...according to the Deuteronomic writer, this was very wrong, since the bull was also the symbol of Baal..."
(p.436, Note to 1 Kings 12: 25-33. May & Metzger)
In 1982 a bronze figurine of a horned bull was found at an Iron I sanctuary by archaeologists, located in Samaria. It is interesting to note that this figurine is not described as being a witness to Egypt's being the source of Israel's Golden Calf worship. The figurine does not display any Egyptianizing iconography, the sun disk and uraeus or vultures' wings over the shoulders and hindquarters. It is free of any Egyptian motifs.
"...the bronze figure of a bull dating to Iron Age I that was found east of Dothan at an open air shrine (?) (ilus. 142, Mazar, 1982) may represent the weather god (Hadad-Baal, Yahweh ?), even though since this is in the hill country of Samaria, one might also identify this as El (Coogan 1987 1 f.; Ahlstrom 1990; Curtis 1990, 27f.; note the mention of El-Berit at Shechem, Judges 8-9; for the metaphoric language describing El as a bull, see passages such as Numbers 23:22, 24 :8)."
(pp.118-9, Othmar Keel & Christoph Uehlinger. Gods, Goddesses ad Images of God in Ancient Israel. Minneapolis, Minnesota. Fortress Press. 1998. ISBN 0-8006-2789-X hdbk.)
If Egypt is not the source of Israel's Golden Calf worship, what place is? A possible clue is provided in the statement that Jeroboam set aside the 15th day of the 8th month as a special feast day in honor of the Golden Calf (1 Kings 12:32). From Mesopotamian myths it has been determined that the 15th day of the month was considered a holy day and to be observed in honor of the Moon god, it being the day of the full moon. Mesopotamian myths state that the moon god is called A CALF (Akkadian: amar).
Leick on the Sumerian moon-god being likened to a YOUNG CALF:
"Nanna's epithets are ashimbabbar, 'the luminous', an allusion to the bright light of the moon; AMAR, 'CALF,' also AMAR.ban.da.den.lil.a, 'YOUNG CALF of Enlil,' ma.gur, 'boat.' Both references are allusions to the crescent shape of the YOUNG MOON, either recalling horns or the slender reed-boats of the marshes.
The moon-god in many cultures has associations with fertility; probably inspired by the menstrual cycle. In Sumer he was closely linked with the fertility of animals, especially cattle (the shape of the crescent moon is likened to horns). One hymn declares '(you) make the breed bull and the good bull mount (the cow) for you, he makes the good seed flow for you'...Nanna was also called Su'en (later contracted to Sin). In some texts, Su'en referred to the crescent, NANNA TO THE FULL MOON, and Ashimbabbar to the young waxing moon, but this was not consistently adhered to."
(pp.125-6, "Nanna(r), Sumerian Moon-god." Gwendolyn Leick. A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Mythology. London & New York. Routledge. 1991, 1998. ISBN 0-415-19811-9 pbk.)
In Canaanite myths preserved at Ugarit ( ca. 14th-13th century BCE), we learn that Baal Hadad (Adad) could take on the form of a bull. He was the god of thunderstorms and rains. In one myth he mounted his sister, Anat, who taking on the form of a cow, later gave birth to a bull calf. The myths note that storm clouds were called ADAD'S CALVES. I find it interesting that God made himself manifest to the nation at Mount Sinai in the form a great storm cloud full of thunder and lighting. Had a Ugaritic Canaanite been at Sinai, he would have understood the storm cloud to be ADAD'S CALF. Is there a relationship here between a GOLDEN CALF being made at Sinai and God's appearance as a storm cloud ? The Ugaritic myths call the supreme god Bull-El and make him the father of the gods and of mankind. His son Baal-Adad can take on the form of a bull, and his sister Anat can take on the form of a cow. The calf they produce is associated with storm clouds. I am of the persuasion that it is Canaanite religious beliefs dating from Late Bronze Age times (14-13th centuries BCE), that lies behind Iron Age I (ca. 1200-1000 BCE) Israel's worship of the Golden Calf, not a 400 or 200 year captivity in Egypt and worship of Egyptian bulls.
"Storm clouds were called Adad's `bull calves'."
(p.111, "Ishkur/Adad," Jeremy Black & Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia- An Illustrated Dictionary. Austin, Texas. University of Texas Press. 1992 ISBN 0-292-70794-0 pbk.)
"Adad. His name is probably etymologically connected with Arabic hadda 'to break' and haddat, 'thunder.'
(p.1, "Adad," Gwendolyn Leick)
"In ancient Babylonia a particular day of distinctive character was known as Shabattu (Shapattu), a name plainly identical with the Hebrew Shabbat. It was designated specifically as the 'day of the quieting of the heart.' The precise meaning of this expression is uncertain, but at least the concept of relaxation is implicit therein."
(p.135, Vol. 4, "J. Morgenstern, "Sabbath." George A. Buttrick, Editor. The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville. Abingdon Press. 1962.)
"Moon worship flourished wherever Mesopotamian culture spread, and even after its demise, it survived at places like Harran."
It is worth noting that Abraham is alleged to have settled for a time at Haran/Harran, a center of Moon worship, before moving on to Canaan, and Israel is accused of worshipping the Moon.
"In the end Enlil met Adad and addressed him: 'O first among thy brothers, thou BULL OF THE HEAVENS...
(p. 41, Stephen Herbert Langdon. The Mythology of All Races, Semitic. Vol.5. Boston. Marshall Jones Company 1931)
Langdon on Yahweh/Yaw being a moon-god or storm-god:
"Some have argued that the god Yaw was a moon-god but the sources both Aramaic and Hebrew indicate his identity with the rain and thunder god, Adad."
(p. 41, Langdon)
I suspect that to a degree, Yahweh-Elohim is a fusion of both, i.e., Moon and Rain/Thunder gods.
Jeroboam set up two golden calves, one at Bethel, the other at Dan, telling the people they were their gods, echoing the very words of Aaron at Mount Sinai (who, although making only ONE golden calf, proclaimed it to be Israel's gods).
"And he received the gold at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made a molten calf; and said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out the land of Egypt !"
(Exodus 32:4, RSV)
"So the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, "You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan."
(1 Kings 12: 28-29)
Eislen, Lewis and Downey mention in passing, a potsherd found in Samaria inscribed Egeliah, which means in Hebrew "bull-calf of Yah." If Jeroboam is assocating a bull-calf with Yah rather than with Baal, then perhaps this association harkens back to the Ugaritic myths (13th century BCE) which portray the supreme god, El or Bull-El as the father of the gods and of mankind? Bull-El dotingly gives his "son" (who would be a bull-calf, as El is a Bull) Yam (Hebrew Yam meaning "Sea") a new name when he proclaims him ruler of the earth in opposition to Baal (Baal-Hadad), Yam's new name is YAW ! Perhaps the Samaritan postherd then, preserves a link to the golden calf or Egeliah, as Ugaritic Yaw (Yam), son of Bull-El, and El has been conflated with Yaw later by the Hebrews in the 9th-6th centuries BCE as Yahweh-Elohim?
Eislen, Lewis and Downey:
"The name Egeliah ("bull-calf of Yah") on a potsherd from Samaria shows how far reaching was the sin of Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin."
(p. 119. F.C. Eiselen, Edwin Lewis, & D.G. Downey. The Abingdon Bible Commentary. Garden City, New York. Doubleday & Company. 1929, reprint, 1957)
Hallo on the 15th day of the month being called Shapattu by the Sumerians:
"...the terms for the individual lunar phases were translated into Akkadian and appear together in the Old Babylonian Atrahasis epic as arhu, sebutu u SHAPATTU, 'the first, seventh, and FIFTEENTH days of the month."
(pp. 318-319, William W. Hallo, "New Moons and Sabbaths: A Case-Study in the Contrastive Approach." Frederick E. Greenspahn, Editor. Essential Papers on Israel and the Ancient Near East. New York. New York University Press. 1991)
Jeroboam established the FIFTEENTH DAY of the 8th month as a special feast day in honor of the Golden Calf. We have noted that this day is the day of the Full Moon, which was called in Sumerian SHAPATTU, translated into Akkadian as 'the day of the quieting of the heart,' and that in Sumerian belief, the Full Moon was called Nanna, who is also called a YOUNG CALF. The bible condemns Israel and Judah for worshipping the Sun, Moon, Stars, as well as the Baals, and Baal Hadad/Adad could take the appearance of a bull and sire children called Adad's Calves, who are storm clouds, the very form Yahweh-Elohim assumed at Mount Sinai. A potsherd from Samaria is inscribed Egeliah, "the bull-calf of Yah," suggesting it is NOT an Egyptian god being honored by Jeroboam like Apis, Buchis or Mnevis, nor a Syrian god like Baal-hadad, but Yahweh himself.
Ugaritic myths call the supreme god "Bull-El" thus I suspect that Israel's Golden Calf worship is a reflection of a true historical kernel, Canaanite and Mesopotamian Calf worship, it isn't Egyptian at all. The Sabbath is held by some scholars to be related to SHAPATTU, the FIFTEENTH DAY, when the moon is full, and called Nanna THE YOUNG CALF! So, Sabbath if derived from Shapattu, suggests to me that ancient Israel originally worshipped the Moon and possessed a Lunar calendar. Calf worship is then, to my understanding, a form of Sumerian lunar worship combined with Canaanite motifs of Baal-Hadad, the mighty 'bull of heaven' who impregnates his sister Anat, called in Egyptian 19th dynasty texts, "THE QUEEN OF HEAVEN"! So, it is the "The Queen of Heaven" who gives birth to the bull-calf which becomes the storm cloud filled with thunder and lightnings, the very form Yahweh-Elohim took on in manifesting himself at Mount Sinai to his people!
A silver plated bronze figurine of bull-calf has been found in a temple deposit at Ashkelon, ca. 2000-1500 BCE. As Baal-Hadad was honored as a diety controlling waters and ships at sea, the Ashkelon por city's temple may have been dedicated to him. This research, if correct in its suppositions, suggests that Yahweh-Elohim as presented in the bible is but an amalgum of earlier gods and myths, reformatted and sanitized for a later age. He supplants the Queen of Heaven, Anat, who gave birth to the calf that became the storm cloud which brings not only the terrifying thunder and lightning, but also, the life-giving rain. Yahweh-Elohim is a fusion of Bull-El, Yaw/Yam and Baal-Hadad. The closest Egyptian association from the Southern Sinai, is that Hathor the cow-goddess and sky-goddess, gave birth every morning to Horus as the Sun which was called a Calf, but no Calves have been found in the Egyptian temples of Serabit el Khadim and Timna (said temples being dedicated to Hathor), cf. my article titled, "Exodus Memories of Southern Sinai, Connecting the Archaeological Evidence to the Biblical Narratives."
Archaeologists have found a stele showing a god standing above a young bull, hurling lightning bolts, whom they have identified as Baal-Hadad, the god of Thunder and Lightning. Thus some have suggested that the bronze bull found in Samaria within an Iron I context is but a "pedestal" for an invisible Yahweh to stand/ride upon as in the Baal-Hadad stele. Numerous examples are attested of bronze bulls in Late Bronze Age Canaan, Phoenicia and Syria, yet no examples exist for the Sinai. In a few cases some of these bronze bull figurines have gold gilt work, mirroring the Bible's notion of a Golden Calf being created by Israel within a Late Bronze Age context (the Exodus being dated ca. 1446 BCE, cf. 1 Kings 6:1, 480 years elapsing between Solomon's fourth year and the Exodus).
Archaeology, then does attest to the Bible's notion of cast figurine bulls being worshipped in Canaan in Late Bronze Age times (1560-1200 BCE), as well as Iron I (1200-1000 BCE). The potsherd found in Samaria inscribed egel-iah, "bull-calf of Yah," suggests to me that it is associated with Yahweh, its is his symbol, his animal, not some Egyptian god. Perhaps egel-iah is but another way of saying that YAHWEH IS THE GOLDEN CALF?
I suspect, then that the Pentateuchal narrator has correctly preserved the notion that Israel worshiped the Calf not as a pedestal for Yahweh to stand upon, but that they worshipped the calf AS A GOD, and that YAHWEH IS THE GOLDEN CALF. I note that in the Ugaritic myths Baal assumes at times the form of a Bull, that is, the Bull is not his pedestal, its him! The bull he stands upon is but his animal manifestation. Ergo, egel-iah is Yahweh's manifestation as a Calf.
Although Baal (Baal-Hadad) is portrayed as being "bull" when he impregnates Anat in the form of a "cow," the following verse is important because it likens the dead Baal to being a "calf. " Was the calf worshipped at Dan and Bethel, Baal as the calf Anat searched for? Or is Egeliah, "the bull-calf of Yah," in competition with Baal the bull-calf for the hearts and minds of israel?
"...Anat goes in search of Baal ('like the heart of a cow for her calf...so was the heart of Anat after Baal)."
(p.22, "Baal-myths," Leick)
"Inanna...'Lady of Heaven'...She is munus.zi 'The Woman,' u.sun.zi.an.na 'the exalted COW OF HEAVEN', who provides life and sustenance.
(pp. 86-7, "Inanna," Leick)
"Anat...she shares many characteristics with the Mesopotamian Ishtar. In Ugaritic myths she is the daughter of El and sister of Baal whom she always supports and with whom she has a sexual relationship, only after having transformed herself into a cow; he mounts her as a bull, and she gives birth to a BULL-CALF."
(p.17, "Anat," Piotr Bienkowski & Alan Millard, Editors. Dictionary of the Ancient Near East. Philadelphia. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2000. ISBN 0-8122-3557-6 hdbk.)
"The title "Queen of Heaven" is applied in an Egyptian inscription from the 19th Dynasty at Beth-shan to 'Antit", the Canaanite fertility-goddess Anat, who is termed "Queen of Heaven and Mistress of the gods."
(p. 975, Vol. 3, J. Gray, "The Queen of Heaven," Arthur G. Buttrick, Editor. The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. 1962)
"...Ishtar, the goddess of love and fertility, who was identified with the Venus star and is actually entitled "Mistress of Heaven" in the Amarna tablets."
(p. 975, Vol. 3. Gray, "Queen of Heaven")
The Sumerian Inanna was assimilated to the Semitic Ishtar according to scholars. Inanna was called "First Daughter of the Moon," Nanna the moon-god being her father. Ishtar was associated with the Venus star. Thus an amalgum made the "Queen of Heaven" not only "the Great Cow of Heaven" but also the fierce warrior goddess associated with the Venus star. Most likely Anat is a reflex of Inanna and Ishtar, she being a cow that gives birth to a bull calf of Adad's and she is also a ferocious warrior like Ishtar. It is interesting that the Jews stationed at Elephantine ca. 430 BCE still worshipped a goddess called Anat-Yahu (Anat-Yahweh), perhaps Anat-Yahu was a vestige of the "Queen of Heaven cult" and its associated Calf worship?