Sometimes it is good to read people whose theology you do not share.
I recently found an online version of an article I had read long ago. The first thing I noticed was that as a believer in some version of inerrancy the author, John N. Oswalt, was very defensive and reacted with some negative backlash toward biblical criticism.
But then, in the body of the article (John N. Oswalt, “The Golden Calves and the Egyptian Concept of Deity,” Evangelical Quarterly 45.1 (January-March 1973): 13-20 linked on this page), he made a very interesting proposal.
The problem he takes on is that of the Golden Calf, both in the Pentateuch story about how Aaron made a calf icon for the people to worship in the wilderness and the calf images at Bethel and Dan (1 Kings 12:28-29, Hosea 8:5, 13:2) in the Northern Kingdom.
Since he disliked biblical criticism, Oswalt took this as a straightforward historical account, with Jeroboam recalling a calf worship tradition that goes back to the time of Moses. Oswalt even suggested that the carved image (Judges 18:14, 18, 20) that the Danites stole from Micah’s house was a calf. The Danites worshipped this under the guidance of descendants of Moses (v. 30) for hundreds of years. This is possible.
The thing about the calf images that has puzzled many is that both in Exodus 32 and in 1 Kings 12 the calf god is said to have “brought you up out of Egypt.” So the calf god must have been associated with YHWH. A very influential way of understanding this was proposed by William Albright. Albright thought that the calves were meant to be pedestals upon which the invisible YWWH sat. Oswalt criticised this view. He also criticised the view that associates the calf images with Mesopotamian bull gods.
Oswalt proposed an Egyptian background for the calf worship.
In a very interesting passage, he said that the Egyptians came closer to monotheism than any other people except Israel. He was not talking about the worship of Aten at Amarna by Akhenaton, which is often called monotheism. He was talking about the thrust in Egyptian religion both before and after Amarna to integrate all divine attributes in the one imperial god, Amon-Re. Study of the hymns and prayers to Amon-Re, he says, show some startling similarities to YHWH. Apparently Oswalt wrote his Ph. D. dissertation about this.
But there was one decisive difference between Amon-Re and YHWH. The Egyptians could not make the break between Amon-Re and nature. They could not make the break between the creator and the created. In the hymns and prayers to Amon-Re at one moment he is
“the hidden, invisible, almighty God. But at precisely the same instant he is the life force so powerfully portrayed in the strength and sexual prowess of the Bull. He is the invisible God and he is the Bull.”
So the people Moses led out of Egypt might have seen no contradiction between the God revealed to Moses and the Bull god, Amon-Re. God could have been both the transcendent creator and immanent in the Bull. So this might explain how Moses could be up on the mountain communing with an invisible God while the people below understood themselves to be worshiping the visible image of the same God.
Oswalt pointed out that Jeroboam had spent years as an exile in Egypt before he led the rebellion and became king in Northern Israel. This gives us background to see why he would have seen nothing wrong with combining the calf cult with Yahweh worship.
The prophets (and Moses, according to Oswalt) were able to make the break between God and nature. To worship God as the Bull was to theologically and intellectually go back to slavery in Egypt.
Oswalt may have been on to something. To bring up something Oswalt never mentions, the father of Moses was named Amran (Exodus 6:20). This was probably derived from Amon-Re.
However, Oswalt gives the impression that the main value of his theory is that it cuts against the Documentary Hypothesis. I doubt that this opposition between his valuable insight from Egyptology and the insights of biblical criticism is really necessary.