At the heart of paganism is confusing correlation with causality: the human mind is taught from a young age to see that what follows from something is likely because of that thing. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc may be a logical fallacy, but it is also how every human child learns.
And so are developed the faiths of Cargo Culters. Or Earth Worshippers. You see the storms or the ocean or the sailing ships as deities in themselves, instead of realizing there is ultimately something much more powerful – but abstract – behind those manifestations. Mankind naturally resists abstraction, especially when the evidence is so clearly in front of us!
I think this way of thinking might offer a novel explanation for an ancient question: why did the people stray at Sinai by making a molten calf? Why not a bull or a ram, or any other animal or representation of a natural force?
I think the text uses a play on words, a pun, to give us an answer!
The primary clue is found after the people make the calf. They say something both oddly specific and quite curious:
And they exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”
Why do they think it was a calf (the Hebrew is egel) that brought them out of Egypt? What possibly led them to this conclusion?
If we stick with the word for calf, egel, we can see that the text only uses it a few times before this moment.
The first time is when Abram is told in a dream-like prophecy that his descendants will descend to a foreign nation and serve there:
And [God] said to Abram, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth.
Where is the word egel found here? It is the first animal Abram brings at the beginning of this episode!
Came the reply, “Bring Me a three-year-old heifer (egelah), a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young bird.”
So there is a prophecy within the tradition of the people that they will come down and come back out, and it is connected, somehow, to an egel.
The trend continues! When Joseph retrieves his family, he does it with a very specific word: agalot, sharing the same root word as egel. Joseph instructs his brothers:
‘Do as follows: take from the land of Egypt wagons (agalot) for your children and your wives, and bring your father here.
The sons of Israel did so; Joseph gave them wagons (agalot) as Pharaoh had commanded, and he supplied them with provisions for the journey.
But when they recounted all that Joseph had said to them, and when he saw the wagons (agalot) that Joseph had sent to transport him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived. [Jacob may have been reminded of the egel prophecy]
So Jacob set out from Beer-sheba. The sons of Israel put their father Jacob and their children and their wives in the wagons (agalot) that Pharaoh had sent to transport him;
The descent to Egypt was symbolically marked with an egel, and agalot physically brought them down to Egypt! Which means that it is quite reasonably logical that the same deity that brought them down, connected to egel, was the very same deity that had promised to bring them back out – also connected, as per Abram’s prophecy, with an egel!
It is entirely logical from the perspective of a people who are quite reasonably looking for a physical explanation for a physical phenomenon. We know that people in general have a hard time grasping the concept of a non-corporeal deity – between pagan faiths and modern Western earth worship, paganism, idol worship, in one form or another is as popular as it was in the ancient world. So it makes sense that, given the links to egel within Genesis, that the people in Exodus reckoned that a molten egel was an honest representation of the deity who actually brought them down, and then brought them out again.