Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Chung, Youn Ho, The Sin of the Calf: The Rise of the Bible's Negative Attitude Toward the Golden Calf (LHBOTS, 523; New York: T & T Clark, 2010). Pp. Xiii+242. Hardcover. US$130.00. ISBN 978-0-574-2590-4.

In The Sin of the Calf: The Rise of the Bible's Negative Attitude Toward the Golden Calf, Youn Ho Chung presents his Ph.D. dissertation, an examination of motives informing the negative stance toward the golden calf in the Bible. He proceeds exegetically and tradition-historically, positing a tradition that developed from a neutral attitude toward the calf that permitted its inclusion in Yahwistic worship, to an eschewal of the calf as symbolic of another god, to total rejection of the image syncretised with YHWH.

To summarize Chung's conclusions, which he builds through five chapters (see further below), the image early represented YHWH's throne chariot and originated as an alternate iconography in Bethel at the ark's removal. Later, an eighth century Elohist produced the first polemical narrative against the calf (Exodus 32), coupling the expression “make for us [foreign] gods” with the Yahwistic cultic formula, “These are your gods, which brought you up from the land of Egypt.” Thus, the Elohist fashioned a polemic against the image representing other gods, taking his polemic from his earlier contemporary, Hosea, who spoke against the “profound interfusion of Yahwism and Baalism” (p. 206). Later, working in the same critical framework, Dtr1 condemned the calf as another god (1 Kgs 14:9; 2 Kgs 17:16) to delegitimize the Bethel sanctuary in service to his centralization theology. Chung argues that as yet, no law existed prohibiting images and that it was Dtr2 who formulated such a tradition. Dtr2 reworked the Elohist's polemic (Deuteronomy 9–10) to condemn the image as representative of YHWH, produced Deut 4:1–40 as a condemnation of iconographic representation of YHWH, and crystallized the law against images, inserting it into the Elohist's Decalogue (p. 188). Dtr2's exilic polemic of “YHWH only” thus asserted the uniqueness of Israel's God who could not be represented in any iconographic form (pp. 197–202).

Chung's introduction briefly addresses background issues. He raises and dismisses theories of the calf representing a foreign god (Egyptian, Mesopotamian, or Canaanite), although unfortunately he deals inadequately with a possible Canaanite origin, barely providing a dismissal. He similarly introduces and dismisses possible sociological origins for the polemic, pleading for a new assessment of the calf's origin, which his work provides. He also includes a helpful discussion of aniconism, noting aniconic symbols and “sacred emptiness” were valid representations of YHWH in Israel. He concludes that Jeroboam's calves were such an aniconic symbol (p. 11), but yet he again does not address the possibility that the depiction was Canaanite in origin.

Although Chung articulates his study's objective well (p. 21), he is less clear on how he plans to execute the study. He raises four relevant questions to be addressed (pp. 14–20) but they are not addressed in order through the chapters. Moreover, some chapters address more than one of the questions, and yet Chung provides no rationale for this disjunctive approach. Additionally, he raises four general issues addressed in each chapter (p. 20), but again does not account for the rationale behind these questions. Finally, he lists three motives he seeks to uncover in the tradition of the calf. The plethora of avenues into his topic leaves it poorly elucidated. Much of how he proceeds must be gleaned from observing his argumentation throughout.

The second chapter examines the narrative of Jeroboam and the calves. Israel's demise is laid at Jeroboam's feet (rather than Ahab's), and Chung argues for an ulterior motive behind Jehoboam's condemnation. He engages in good close reading of 1 Kgs 12:26–13:10, showing literary linkages between the altar, calves, and Bethel that disclose a polemic against non-Jerusalemite worship. Chung concludes that the polemic imposes a later condemnation against the calves. He explores the rise of that polemic in the subsequent chapters.

In chapter 3 he analyses two texts: Exodus 32 and the alternate account of the golden calf in Deut 9:1–10:11. For the Exodus account he argues in very sketchy terms for literary continuity of the Elohist account with other E narratives, concluding that Exodus 32 is almost wholly Elohistic. From this he explores the tradition history of the calf image (pp. 50–58), proposing from a very slim text-base a reality of Bethel priests adopting the calf image into legitimate Yahwistic worship. Jeroboam drew his cult icons, and the cultic formula “these are your gods…” in both 1 Kings 12 and Exodus 32 arise out of this neutral tradition. Chung often refers to such a history as “possible,” but it becomes a conclusive fact in his theory.

For the parallel account in Deuteronomy Chung analyzes its compositional history in conversation with other scholars before presenting his understanding. He argues for two primary strands (L1, L2) in the narrative (later identified as Dtr1/2). He compares these to the parallel Exodus account to uncover the theological emphases of each concluding that while L1 (Dtr1) comports largely with the Elohist's attitude to the calf, L2 (Dtr2) does not. Rather, L2 presents a wholly negative aniconism which Chung centres in the exilic ethos. Chung's comparison of the Exodus and Deuteronomy accounts is detailed, but the conclusions are too quickly related to the schema he is crafting. His final concluding section has an odd and lengthy digression. Hebrew ṣîḥēq in Exod 32:6b and other terms of cultic practice are discussed at length. One wonders if Chung will argue that these terms describe the same practices as Hosea describes under other vocabulary but this is not spelled out, and the lengthy digression appears ill placed.

Chung's fourth chapter works exegetically with passages in Hosea that deal with the calf image (8:4–6; 10:1–8; 13:1–3). This section often disappoints; the discussion is at times stated in awkward or convoluted terms (p. 128) or draws determined conclusions from difficult and disputed texts (for instance, the “king of Samaria” [10:7] is unequivocally equated with Baal [pp. 131–32]), all as part of a polemic against Baal-YHWH syncretism. A second large section of the chapter examines the cultic practices of the calf cult (pp. 148–63) which ultimately concludes that though the terminology differs, Hosea and the Elohist describe the same phenomenon; here, the discussion of ṣîḥēq in Exod 32:6b comes again into play. One wonders, however, why the authors would use such different terminology if the practices were the same. Chung's argument does not convince.

Chung's penultimate chapter explores Deut 4:1–40 to argue Dtr2's crystallisation of the Decalogue's law prohibiting images. Most problematic in this chapter is his argument by which Dtr2 inserts the law into the Elohistic Decalogue: the relative dating of the two accounts, the insertion of the law into the Elohistic account by Dtr2, and the variant reading of the law suggesting different prohibitions, all hang on the presence of copulative waw in the Elohistic account and its absence in the Dtr2 version (pp. 187–91). The conclusions may be valid, but the matter is stated categorically (with no consideration of the possibility of memory or textual transmission errors accounting for the variant traditions regarding the waw). One waw seems a very slim basis for adding much later a whole verse to the Elohist tradition.

The final summative chapter clearly states Chung's theory which has grown in unwieldy fashion throughout. Chung's tradition history work is creative and broad, and he engages with the appropriate scripture passages to mount his argument. His project is very large, and perhaps the project's scope accounts for some of its shortcomings. At times, his argumentation moves too quickly to asserted conclusions and his exegetical work often does not consider alternate readings of acknowledged problematic texts. Whether or not one is convinced by Chung's understanding of the rise of the Bible's negative attitude toward the golden calf, his work discusses several key texts in tradition history that will engage scholars also working in these areas.

Lissa M. Wray Beal, Providence Theological Seminary