Sacred Cows

When I was growing up, we used to watch the Dukes of Hazzard on Friday nights. Boss Hog was the commissioner of Hazzard County, Georgia.  He always wore white and was the wealthiest man in the county.  And he was always scheming to get more property, more power and more money.  He drove a triple white 1970 Cadillac DeVille convertible, with large bull horns for a hood ornament.  It was flashy and had to be handled ever so carefully. 

When we bought our Explorer 13 years ago, we needed a reliable vehicle that would get us around, and it was a pretty basic SUV that had no frills.  But it was bright red—and it was an Eddie Bauer.  The name alone was enough to give me second thoughts.  This car does say something about who I am and what I can afford.

I can depend on other things in life. I have a bank account.  I have running water, and a home to live in.  I live in a nice neighborhood.  We all have ways of relying on the things that give us stability.  Some people want to surround themselves with symbols and items of power, including artwork, luxury cars, large homes and impressive financial portfolios.  All of these are outward signs in our culture of influence, competence and prestige.   Some people may not look wealthy, but they have hefty bank accounts and investments in order to secure their future.  In some countries, your future is secure and your riches defined by the number of children you have. 

Some people have gained a lot of possessions in their lives, and others may not have as much.  But the question that comes to mind is: When everything is taken from you, who will you trust?  And reversely, when everything has been given to you, who do you trust?  I hope—that when you boil everything down to that question, that the answer would be: In God We Trust

The events that are leading up to the deliverance of the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, out of their bondage as slaves in ancient Egypt are often called The Plagues, or, as the text reads, ‘the Signs and Wonders’. There is a battle going on between Pharaoh and all the gods of Egypt—and Yahweh.  God is showing who he is to the entire nation, as he systematically sets the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob apart for his own. We pick up our story at the beginning of Exodus 9.   

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and speak to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, “Let My people go, that they may serve Me.”  Exodus 9:1

In ancient Egypt, people of various skin colors could claim an ethnicity as an Egyptian.  Ethnicity was all about allegiance to a group of people, and more importantly, about allegiance to a deity!  God is not on the side of Israel because they look different than other people, but because they were set apart as a family that worshiped Yahweh and had pledged their allegiance to him, all the way back to the time that Jacob and his sons entered Egypt.  God is setting apart people to form another kingdom, a heavenly minded empire, that will later include people from all different people groups!  God tells Moses later that these people are to be a kingdom of priests,[1] but Pharaoh wants to keep them so that they will serve him as slaves. 

Yahweh is not using these plagues simply to set free a people who are oppressed. In later years, God SENT an oppressor to Israel because they were disobedient.  A group of slaves becoming free people doesn’t explain why they were supposed to be released. 

If you’ve seen any movies or cartoons about this story, the quotable phrase that Moses uses is: ‘Let my People Go!’.  Some of you may remember the old song:  Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land; tell old Pharoah… “let my people go!” That’s a good line, but it’s only a partial quote.  There are other Bible verses that get misquoted, like: “Money is the root of all evil”, when it’s actually “the love of money is the root of all evil, or the root of all kinds of evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10).  The statement ‘Let my people go,’ is repeated all throughout the plagues.  Let’s look back at the plagues we’ve already encountered to find out why.

‘Let My people go THAT they may celebrate a feast to Me in the wilderness.’ Exodus 5:1 

Please, let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness THAT we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.  Ex 5:3 

Let My people go, THAT they may serve Me in the wilderness.  Ex 7:16 

Let My people go, THAT they may serve Me.  Ex 8:1 

Thus says the LORD, “Let My people go, THAT they may serve Me.”  Ex 8:20 

Let My people go, THAT they may serve Me.  Ex 9:1

The reason Pharaoh is supposed to let the people go, is SO THAT they may serve God.  The word ‘serve’ has to do with being subjects of a king, and even to serve as a priest by offering sacrifices.  The word serve is also ‘worship’ and it means to perform acts of worship to God.  The redemption of God’s people is for the purpose of worship.  What did worship look like?  Part of what it entailed was offering up sacrifices.

We’ve noted before that Pharaoh tries to compromise after those pesky flies invade his space, and he makes a counteroffer to Moses, stating that, sure, they can offer their sacrifices, but they need to stay in Egypt.  That’s not going to fly.  God IS determined to free these people and set them apart SO THAT they will worship him.  And what would they be worshiping with?  Burnt offerings and sacrifices of—animals, of course. 

“For if you refuse to let them go and continue to hold them, behold, the hand of the LORD will come with a very severe pestilence on your livestock which are in the field, on the horses, on the donkeys, on the camels, on the herds, and on the flocks.”  Exodus 9:2-3

The setting is ripe for this plague.  The soil has had mounds of rotting frogs, which leads to flies, and the area becomes the breeding ground for infectious anthrax, which can strike the cattle in the fields.[2] There are ‘natural’ explanations as to why the water might turn to blood or look like blood, which brought the frogs and the flies and then the death of cattle.  But there is an order, a method, a plan; and God is behind it all.  It is orchestrated when and where he says.  The HOW it happened is not as important as the WHY it happened.  The theology here, is that behind all the plagues, there is one point:  God is God and Pharaoh is not!  In the plague of the gnats, or lice, the magicians recognized the finger of God at work.  Now the full hand of the Lord will come against Pharaoh and the Egyptians.[3] 

In the ancient world, diseases are described as the “hand” of destructive deities.[4]  In Akkadian, diseases are described as “the hand of Ishtar,” “the hand of Nergal,” etc.[5] Here, the hand of God is going to come against Pharaoh’s livestock.  Domesticated animals were treasured enormously.  Egyptians revered birds and livestock more than fish and amphibians.[6]  Livestock includes any kind of purchasable property…these are work animals, and those needed for transportation: horses, donkeys, and possibly camels.[7]  The word for livestock also encompasses sources of food, like cows, sheep, and goats.[8]  Livestock is a symbol of wealth. 

If we go back to Genesis, we read that “Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver and in gold”. (Genesis 13:2) Abram has a name change to Abraham, and eventually has his son, Isaac.  “And the LORD blessed [Isaac], and the man became rich, and continued to grow richer until he became very wealthy; for he had livestock–flocks and herds and a great household, so that the Philistines envied him.”  (Genesis 26:12-14) Later on, Isaac’s son Jacob acquired livestock from his uncle Laban.  And Jacob’s sons were out in the fields taking care of their herds when he sends Joseph out to find them, but he gets sold off to a caravan of merchants heading to Egypt.  When Jacob and his sons came to Egypt much later, Joseph tells them to mention to Pharaoh that they were keepers of livestock, because shepherds are loathsome to the Egyptians.  (Genesis 46:34). And that Pharaoh was the one who gave the land of Goshen to Jacob and his sons, and then turned over the care of his livestock to them.  (Genesis 47:6) Livestock is your bank account, your 401k, your future, and your security.  When the famine came to Egypt while Joseph was second in command: “Joseph said, “Give up your livestock, and I will give you food for your livestock, sinceyour money is gone.” So, they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses and the flocks and the herds and the donkeys; and he fed them with food in exchange for all their livestock that year.” (Genesis 47:16-17)

Livestock are not just cattle, but cattle were very important in this ancient society. Ancient cattle domestication and herding was prevalent in the region.  The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet that gets developed after this, is ‘aleph’, which came from the West Semitic word for ox, or bull.  The hieroglyph looks like an ox head.  Livestock was also connected to Egyptian worship!  Many gods were depicted as animals, but the Egyptians also had MANY sacred cows.

Hathor, Isis, Nut (Newt), and Bat (Baht) were goddesses who were often depicted as cows, with the horns of cows or with the ears of cows.   The cow came to symbolize the mother of the pharaoh, and also was a solar icon, as the sun was carried across the sky when Nut or Hathor was in cow form.

An amazing archaeological find, called the Narmur Palette is carved out of siltstone and contains some of the earliest hieroglyphic inscriptions ever found.  It was probably used for ritual use in a temple.  At the bottom of the Palette, the king is represented as a bull[9] vanquishing his foes, and the description that was commonly used was “Bull of his Mother”, with the Pharaoh being seen as the son of the cow goddess.  At the top, two bovine heads are shown, and could represent the goddess Bat or Hathor, or could represent the vigor of the king as a pair of bulls.

Apis was a bull god, a fertility figure,[10] and was thought to be the actual embodiment of the god,[11] Osiris.  There was only ONE Apis at a time—a sacred cow.  This bull was identified by specific sacred markings. IF it was confirmed as the incarnation of a god, it was housed in plush quarters, given only the best food, and provided with a harem of the best cows. The animal was highly revered and lived in luxury until it died, when it was buried with full honors in its own sarcophagus.[12]   Anyone who harmed the Apis bull would suffer severe consequences.[13]  The worship of this bull goes all the way back to the first dynasty in Egypt.

As early as 3100 BC the pharaoh was also depicted in the form of a bull. [14] A tomb painting of Amenhotep shows a bull tail running down his leg, which indicates his royal status and associates him with one of the most fearsome beasts of the ancient world.[15]  So, livestock is currency—it is connected to worship—and it is power.

“But the LORD will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt, so that nothing will die of all that belongs to the sons of Israel.”’ The LORD set a definite time, saying, “Tomorrow the LORD will do this thing in the land.” So the LORD did this thing on the next day, and all the livestock of Egypt died; but of the livestock of the sons of Israel, not one died.  Exodus 9:4-6

Don’t get hung up on the word ‘all’.  More Egyptian livestock does show up in the next chapter, and Pharaoh still has horses for his chariots later. These are [animals] in the field.[16]   A good translation would be “all sorts of Egyptian livestock died” or “Egyptian livestock died all over the place.”  Losing their livestock, while the Israelites kept theirs was a nationwide humiliation.[17]  Yahweh has attacked the nation where it hurts. Losing their livestock was an attack on their entire way of life, and their essence. 

We know what that kind of strike might feel like.  The attacks on September 11 were aimed at buildings that represented America’s financial power—the Twin Towers; and our military power—the Pentagon. They were aimed at hitting us where it hurt.  It was meant to assault who we are as a nation: our wealth, our symbols, our power.

Here’s another interesting note: We’ve already observed how the staff is regarded, not just as a shepherd’s tool, but as a powerful sign of authority and rule in Egypt.  This symbol appears in many places in Egyptian iconography.  The king was said to be the “herdsman of humanity”, and the crook—which was shaped to grab the neck of herd animals, is associated with the verb “to rule”. The Israelites were serving as slaves of Pharaoh.  In Egypt, the king ruled over his subjects and they were called “cattle of the god.”[18]  But YAHWEH is claiming these people as his own.  They are not simply cattle.  They are HIS people, who will worship and serve him.

Pharaoh sent, and behold, there was not even one of the livestock of Israel dead.  But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened (or heavy), and he did not let the people go.  Exodus 9:7

Again, Pharaoh’s heart becomes heavy.  A heavy heart means that his chances at the afterlife are getting slimmer and slimmer each time.  Pharaoh sends someone to inspect what happened to the livestock of the people of Israel.  NOT-EVEN-ONE of the livestock of Israel is dead.  No donkeys, no goats, no sheep, and NO CATTLE.  Remember, that livestock is related to worship, and God wants them to be freed SO THAT they will worship him in the desert.  Pharaoh isn’t willing to let them do that.  And in the end, HE is also going to lose his firstborn son—children that for the Israelites, would have been consecrated to the Lord.  Those children were spared by blood on the doorposts.  But that’s for another story.    

So, when everything is taken from you, will you trust in God? For Pharaoh, that answer is no.  He will not bend his knee to this foreign God.  He will not admit that the gods of Egypt are powerless.  The people of Egypt AND Israel are learning—that God is God, and Pharaoh is not.  Yahweh is showing his blessing on the slaves of Pharaoh; and their wealth, their security, their belongings are spared.  The question for THEM is: when everything is given to them—will they trust in Yahweh? I would dare say that after God has spared their horses, sheep, goats, and cattle—that the people in Goshen are feeling pretty good. I think they would probably be able to state: In God We Trust.  ‘We are ready to worship Yahweh’. 

God is bringing out a people in order to worship him.  They are coming out of Egypt, but Egypt also has to be brought out of them.  Old habits die hard.  These people will have to learn to trust in God for their food, their water, their safety, and their future!  When they leave Egypt, they were supposed to offer up sacrifices in the wilderness, right?  That was the point reiterated over and over again to Pharaoh.  Well, I looked and looked, but there was nothing mentioned about that in their first bits of traveling in the wilderness, which took much longer than three days.  I finally read the section in Exodus where Moses goes up on the mountain.  God eventually gives him instructions for HOW the people are to worship, what the tabernacle is supposed to look like, and what the priests will do.   He gives specific instructions on HOW to offer up livestock to the Lord: for bulls, rams, lambs in Exodus 29-30.  

Yahweh is laying the foundation for worship.  One of the 10 commandments, that the people have already given their assent to by Exodus 30, is ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’  Now, Israelites assume that other gods exist! That’s the theology of Exodus!  There is a cosmic battle between the gods of Egypt, with Pharaoh as their representative, and Yahweh, the god of slaves, who is represented by Moses.[19] Which God are they going to trust?  The people declared in the desert:  IN GOD WE TRUST

But Moses takes too long coming back from his pow wow with God, and they get a bit impatient, and so they have Aaron build something for them—a what?  A GOLDEN CALF.  A calf is livestock: it’s a young bull.  Making a calf, or young bull, was like making seat or pedestal that the god can ride on top of.  It didn’t necessarily represent the god.[20]  It basically like offering Yahweh a new car to ride on—a Cadillac with bull horns.  And this creation of a young bull is fashioned from their gold rings.  So, they created a representation of wealth with their wealth and worshipped it.

The Psalmist writes: They made a calf in Horeb and worshiped a molten image. Thus they exchanged their glory for the image of an ox that eats grass.  They forgot God their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt…Psalm 106:19-21

God HAD done great things.  But the only thing these people of Israel know about right now, and for the past 400 years, is the pagan practices of Egypt.  So they create a golden calf.  This episode in Exodus gives us something relevant to think about in terms of our worship and our wealth.  Pharaoh, even as everything was taken from him, refused to put his trust in Yahweh.  The people of Israel, even as everything was given to them, did not fully trust in Yahweh.  Whatever you might think you own in regard to currency, or stability, or security, the question is: When everything is taken from you, who will you trust?  When everything is given to you, who do you trust?   

What are the things we rely on, put our stock in, surround ourselves with?  What are the things that make us feel secure and stable?  This story is a warning against putting stock in any of our sacred cows.  God calls his people to worship him, and to worship him only. Just like the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we are surrounded by the practices of a world that does not endorse one God.  There are things we have grown up with and we buy into: concepts and practices that are comfortable. We can be tied to certain religious practices, or music that we are devoted to more than to God.  We can buy our guns, stock up on toilet paper, and buy gold.  But what happens when the stock market crashes, the retirement fund is gone, and a plague sweeps across your nation? Can we say: In God we Trust. In Egypt, God systematically removes ALL the gods that the people have known—all the idols, all the worship practices, so that they will see them for what they are–empty. 

What are your sacred cows?   What would it look like for you to put those to death, to offer them up to God?  Maybe there is fear that is making you stock up on things or build security for your future, and you’ve put more trust in that than in who God is. Maybe you talk more about Jesus than you actually serve him or love others.  Maybe you need to give God back a portion of your wealth to release the grip of idolatry in your life.  You may be putting too much trust in the government; either the one that is running the show now, or the power that was previously in office.  And you need to be reminded that: God is God and the government is not.  Maybe it seems like God is taking a long time to answer you about something, and you’ve begun incorporating practices that look just like other religions in the meantime, to try and find answers and peace, and you need to just stop—and turn back to the practice and worship of God alone. Satan tried to tempt Jesus with idol worship—offering him wealth and power. Jesus replied: ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’[21]

We have our own currency imprinted with the words ‘In God we Trust’, and yet, there is a huge temptation to make that very same dollar become the thing we trust in, to store it up, and give us the idea that we are somehow secure.  In the 1920’s, cast iron banks were made by the AC Williams Company in the shape of cows.[22]   Our tendency is to revert back to what we own that makes us feel secure, wealthy, and in control, isn’t it?  It may be that Egypt isn’t quite out of us yet.

We’re at a time in history when it’s more important than ever to get back to the basics of what worshiping God is all about.  People are leaving the church in droves.  Coming to a building once a week to hear a sermon and sing some songs didn’t mean anything to them.  They’re right!  That isn’t what it’s all about.  But being God’s people DOES mean something!  We gather together because Jesus was the livestock, the lamb, that was offered up on the cross in order to buy us back from Satan’s grip.  He calls together a people to worship him, and named us: the church. Some of what worship entails is hearing the Word and obeying it; living out the practices of God’s kingdom values in our homes, in our relationships and in our neighborhoods; singing songs that honor his name above any other; and letting go of a tight grip on our wealth by giving it to be used for God’s kingdom. 

When everything is taken from you, who will you trust? When everything is given to you, who do you trust?   Can you say, like Job: The LORD has given and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.”  Job 1:21 

We have the privilege of being called GOD’S people.  He is ABLE to provide for our needs.  He is worthy of our worship.  I hope we can declare THAT with certainty, as we experience the power of the almighty God at work in our lives, and as we grow and mature in the faith. 

In God we Trust

Prayer: Almighty God, you have done such great things for us.  Holy is your name!  In the name and in the spirit of Jesus we offer you our praise, we offer you our hearts, we offer you our money, and we offer you our lives!  Accept us and our offering so that all people would know of the riches of your love and may worship you, too.  Amen. 


[1] Exodus 19:6

[2] Nahum M. Sarna, Exodus, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991, 44. 

[3] Peter Enns, Exodus: The NIV Application Commentary, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000, 215.

[4] Mark S. Smith, Exodus, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2011, 43. 

[5] Sarna, Exodus, 44. 

[6] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2006, 222. 

[7] Carol Meyers, Exodus, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 84. 

[8] James K. Bruckner, Exodus, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008, 87.

[9] https://www.thoughtco.com/narmer-palette-early-period-ancient-egypt-171919

[10] Tony Merida, Exodus, Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2014, 60.

[11] https://ancientegyptonline.co.uk/bullcult/

[12] John Walton, Victor Matthews and Mark Chavalas, the IVP Biblc Background Commentary, Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2000, 83.

[13] https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA22920

[14] https://ancientegyptonline.co.uk/bullcult/

[15] Bill T. Arnold and Brent A. Strawn, The World around the Old Testament, 194.

[16] Hort, Greta, The plagues of Egypt, Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, 69 no 1-4 1957, 84-103, 100.

[17] Stuart, 222. 

[18] http://www.electrummagazine.com/2014/06/egyptian-kingship-and-animal-husbandry/

[19] Peter Enns, Exodus for Normal People, Pennsylvania: The Bible for Normal People, 2021, 109.

[20] Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, 167…article on the golden calf.

[21] Luke 4:8

[22] https://www.mcall.com/news/mc-xpm-1990-07-01-2764128-story.html

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