And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses' anger burned hot . . . And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it upon the water, and made the people of Israel drink it.
-- Exodus 32: 19-20
Tough punishment, perhaps, but Moses' fury was understandable. Before he could even get the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai, his people had already broken No. 2: Thou shalt not make for thyself a graven image. Although idolatry had been forbidden under Hebrew law since the religion's birth, the Israelites' faith had wavered during their wanderings through the wilderness, and they had built themselves a golden calf like those worshiped by the Canaanites, who shared their ancestral homeland.
Calf worship comes up in other parts of the Bible as well, always derided as an example of paganism. But while scientists have unearthed a few examples of bovine idols, they have never found a calf that predates the Exodus, which scholars think took place between 1500 and 1200 B.C. Last week, though, a team of Harvard archaeologists announced they had done just that. During excavations in the ancient port city of Ashkelon, Rachel Stark, 20, a student volunteer, accidentally uncovered a statue of a calf inside a pottery container. Says Stark: "I didn't realize what I had found."
Her bosses did. Says Harvard's Lawrence Stager, the dig director: "I'm an old farm boy and recognized it as a bull calf immediately." Judging from the style of other pottery in the temple, he dates the figurine to about 1550 B.C. Because that is up to several hundred years before the escape from Egypt, Stager thinks the object might well have been a prototype for the calves mentioned in the Bible. It also supports the belief that the Israelites took some of their religious practices from other Canaanites.
The object's significance may be as much artistic as it is religious: incredibly well preserved, it is intact except for a missing left horn. Israeli archaeologists are in awe of its beauty. Says Avraham Biran, former director of the Israeli Department of Antiquities: "People will be copying this because it's so pretty, so delicately done. It's in a class by itself."
The calf is tiny -- only about 12 1/2 cm (5 in.) long -- and it is made of bronze, and possibly lead and silver as well, rather than gold. It may have been burnished to a golden color, says Stager. The calf was probably displayed emerging from the vessel in which it was discovered. He believes the idol was worshiped not for its inherent holiness but because it was associated with the Canaanite deity El, father of the gods, or his son Baal, god of storms.
The find was doubly lucky for Stager. Not only did his team make an important discovery but it did so during a visit by Leon Levy, a New York businessman who is the dig's financial backer. Levy's reaction was to extend funding for the project, which started five years ago, for a decade.
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