Idolatry by John McCarroll

On top of the mountain, waiting for god, Moses the prophet sat, wrinkles like ancient scars carved into his worn face, a mask with withering and yellowed eyes. They were watering from dust, from sadness, from age, from 24 years of ceaseless wandering, they were leaking drop by drop his life into the hungry sands, which would never be satisfied, not even when they enveloped him fully, leaving him brown and brittle, grinning with death’s rictus for all eternity.

God was late. He shouldn’t be, but He was late. The prophet shifted his weight back onto his heels and mournfully chewed on a piece of bread. The searing heat of the day had dissipated, leaving the cool blue night, empty save for Moses and the mountain, both slowly growing colder.

Involuntarily, he thought of the Gods of his childhood. Strange half-remembered figures from ages ago, before the prophecy, before the plagues. Even now, the litanies remained inscribed upon his weary heart, growing dusty from disuse, but no less moving. There was a king, a rent apart king, held together with linen and frankincense and power, who would judge them all. There was the one who weighed your heart, the one with the bird’s face and the eyes of ice, callously calling out your sins. Beasts of terrible form danced through clouds of incense to staggering rhythms, languidly copulating with the shadows, spawning kings and demons with equal zeal. These were the Gods he saw with his eyes closed, these were the ones whose voices he shut out, whose deputy he had slain, who lay unburied at the bottom of the reed sea, noble eyes plucked out by the unclean scuttling beasts.

The new God, the God of his fathers, of Aaron, of the Israelites was late. No statues of this God, just a fire in a bush, a rain of toads, a swarm of locusts, all the terrible plagues and catastrophes of a two and a half decade ministry, as his people wearily limped towards the promised land, leaving a trail of their dead to rot or be consumed by the vultures that forever trailed them. Moses shuddered, thinking of the fate that awaited him. The cornerstone of the royal philosophy; you must be preserved to live forever. The new god never talked about forever.

With a jolt of white hot pain that lanced through his guts and set his body to trembling, the  prophecy began to manifest itself upon Moses.  The agony began low in his spine and quickly arced upwards from his tailbone to his skull, alternately tightening  and loosening his aged muscles . From deep in his chest something heaved, and he was thrown onto his back, grinding down into the sand and staring at the empty sky.

Soaked in his own urine, frozen and sweating in the night, the prophet screamed wordlessly as his body flopped and writhed like a broken puppet. Upon his lips a giant bubble of blood, like a scarlet pomegranate, grew larger and larger, ripening on his soundless screams and wetly glistening. With a soft pop, it exploded, sending thousands of tiny seeds into the night sky,  glittering rubies as a counterpoint to the winking diamonds of the night.

As darkness radiated inwards from his peripheral vision and his consciousness flickered and died, the prophet, Moses, began to forget exactly who it was that he was waiting for, as images of a burning bush melded with older, ancient portents of beasts, mountains, blood, thunder, and virility. He worshipped silently his God and Idols alike as his body convulsed in the sand, leaving imprints in the shifting ground like wrestling demons and or battling serpents.

Aaron of the House of Levi, high priest and rumored prophet, sighed and leaned forward, plucking a piece of lint from the robe he wore, a moldering treasure stolen from a sacked kingdom, years ago, when there were still kingdoms nearby to sack. Here in the desert, the robe was a curse, heavy and sweltering, the bottom ragged from dragging over countless miles of stinging grey sands. He never took it off. Moses had the gift, but no way to express it; his voice a menacing inarticulate moan, tongue chewed off long ago in a divine fit. Moses the ascetic, soaked in blood, ranting about vengeance and milk and honey, hardly needed the robe.

Aaron used to have the gift. Now he had the robe.  There had been a time when he had bested the gods of the oppressors. That had been years ago, and all he was left with was an empty voice, Moses’ tool.  When you had nothing of your own to say, it paid to look like a king, even a slowly decaying one.

Now, Moses was on the mountain, hearing the voice of God, and he was in his tent, breathing shallowly in his looted silks, bound tightly around his throat with a golden clasp shaped like a seashell, hearing the complaints of his people.

“Your Eminence,” began the priest, wilting under his master’s withering indifference,       “ we have a situation with, the-” he rethought his wording, “our people.”  He ran a hand over his shaved head nervously, “they want-”

Aaron cut him off with a sardonic snort, “-Food? Water? Gentile wives? Do they grow tired of the desert?”  Moses was the voice of God, and he was a bureaucrat, another hebrew slave scribe. Even after almost three decades, it rankled.

“No, excellency,” the younger priest said, reaching into his robe and revealing a miniature bronze trinket, a voluptuous woman with lapis lazuli eyes, “they want a god.” He placed the trinket on the ground with an unseemly amount of reverence, kissing the hand that had held it surreptitiously . Aaron noticed the gesture and wondered silently.

“A god?” Aaron’s voice sounded hollow and tired, even to himself, “What of the God of our fathers? Who delivered us from our bondage, who-” He stopped abruptly. The priest looked far too young to have any memories of bondage, of the plagues, or of anything but sand, dust, and manna, the swarms of sand lice that, in times of need, the Israelites would eat.

The younger priest was resolute. “The Gentiles have their gods, they have Baal, and Ishtar, and Hubol, and thousands more-” he paused and swallowed rapidly, “all of whom are nothing but a mote in our Lord’s eye.”  He looked at Aaron, who slumped morosely in his chair, draped in faded silks embroidered with the names of another’s god. He looked tired beyond comprehension, faded and broken.

The priest rallied himself, muttering a prayer that he had heard from an Abyssinian raider they had killed in the desert. “Their Gods, High priest,” his voice settled into a rhythm of haranguing unconsciously adapted from a childhood of Aaron’s long sermons, “Their Gods can be known. They have idols, glittering colossi that inspire, while all we have is your brother, the mad prophet. They say we had Gods of stone and wood during our bondage. We now need a God of Gold, greater than all the other peoples of the world.”

Aaron raised an eyebrow and brushed some of the eternal dust out of his greying beard.    The young priest, encouraged by the signs of interest, continued louder and with obvious zeal.

“Excellency, they say that you too were a prophet, chosen by God. Moses is gone. It has been four days, and we all know that he was unwell. Glory to him, who led us out of our bondage.” The priest, shaking with enthusiasm, stepped closer to Aaron’s throne, “But what greater glory to you, excellency, for delivering us from our darkness. Give them a God-” he seemed to think for a moment, and then proudly continued; “Give us a God, excellency, and guide us from the desert in our hearts.”

The speech over, the young priest stood, hands spread in supplication, while Aaron sat silently. He remembered the idols, Yahweh Elohim, carved out of sand-blasted caravan wheels, his divine form roughened and unrecognizable, an insignificant deity compared to the unblinking wadjet hanging from the necks of each slave master, or of the granite-carved faces of ancient kings, Gods since birth.

Aaron remembered his miracle, his staff of wonders, swallowing up the trickery of the Pharaoh’s wizards and sooth-sayers, while his brother drooled and moaned in the corner, limbs of a poisoned spider. It had been twenty five years since his miracle, twenty five years of being a voice without heart, of smoke without fire. Heedless of the younger priest, who gazed at him curiously, then impatiently, and who finally left, walking backwards and bowing at the tent’s door, Aaron, High Priest of Yahweh and one-time prophet sat and thought.

For the next day, he moved like a dreamer, avoiding the other Israelites, Levites and commoners alike. He muttered to himself in Hebrew and Egyptian, quoting scriptures the others never knew existed, wrapped in his cloak of office slowly fading in the sun. The people began to whisper. If prophecy ran in the bloodline, might not madness?

That evening, as the ram’s horn was blown to declare the Sabbath and the fires were put out, Aaron led the chants, rituals from before the captivity, before his people became slaves. Wreathed in twilight with the rising moon illuminating him from behind, Aaron spoke to his people, his voice the voice of old, which had shouted at the wizards “Let my People Go,” which laughed and rejoiced as the king of the known world was swallowed by the brackish water. The voice,  which was, to the eldest among them, the voice of God itself.

“By many signs has our God, the God of our fathers, made Himself known to us.” Aaron trumpeted, letting his cloak of office fall from his shoulders and standing straight and unbowed before the people, “ He has called down the plagues, he has delivered us from servility and cringing. He is the one who made our grandfathers’ grandfathers out of dust and blood,  who slew the races of the wicked in forty days of floods, and he will lead us to a land, overflowing with milk and honey.”

The people cheered, sensing the sharp edge of portents and destiny cutting the night with the wind, flaying and invigorating their flesh.

“Tomorrow evening, when the day of rest is finished, my priests will gather a measure of gold from each among you.” The prophet’s voice keened above the rising desert wind, the cry of a hawk seizing a hare, “the fires will be stoked, and our hard-wrought treasure will shape our God, a golden Calf, eternally young and flush with His power, endowed with great curving horns and fierce hooves of  obsidian to crush and toss aside those who stand in our way.”

The wind lifted the heavy cloak from his feet and tossed it aside as the cheers of the chosen people resonated throughout the starlit dunes into the ceaseless night sky.

The calf was as he had said.  Standing as high as a man’s shoulder, with horns half again as tall. Its eyes were of lapis lazuli, its hooves were of obsidian, and it was carved intricately with the holy glyphs copied from the treasures of a host of people,  proudly crowned with the Ankh of eternal life. The people anointed it with oil, and celebrated its glory. They called it a miracle. They stayed for five months in the same valley, content with their God and their prophet, raiding the rich kingdoms to the south for their bread.

Dazzled by the heat radiating off the sand, eyes fixed on the wheeling hawk over the horizon, Ra, master of the winds, and blood dripping from his mouth, tongue again shredded by prophecy, Moses made his way down from the mountain. His feet were bare, his beard was grey and caked with filth, and his stomach was swollen and empty.  He sought neither food nor drink, but gulped greedily at the dew-fattened locusts that flew unerringly into his mouth. In his arms he carried two rough-hewn stone tablets with words that he couldn’t read or remember.

Over the thirst, over the weight, over the heat, he could hear the voices of the desert speak to him, unnamed and un-worshipped dune gods, dust gods, dry and dead gods, buried under a mile of sand. He thought of Hapi, from whose bosom flowed the mighty Nile, which had delivered him in a basket to the palace of the God-Kings. His king, his once brother,  rotting like a blasphemer at the bottom of the sea. Moses shook with fear. When his time came, would any god claim him? Who would preserve him for his eternity?

He trembled and fell into the sand, thrashing like a mule with a broken leg, then righted himself and followed the hawk towards his people. Inch by agonizing inch, with each step his head lolling onto his chest, bowing to each and every deity on his path, Moses tried to remember what message he was going to give, and from Who it came.

When he finally stumbled into the camp, the fires were stoked into infernos throwing dancing and twisting lights upon the people, gathered in a circle around the glittering calf.  On either side of the idol were captive desert people, slowly bleeding to death and tied to tent poles, while directly in front of the idol, a young woman with a painted face and high bosom spread her legs invitingly, the fire failing to illuminate the sanctum of her thighs. A slender priest stepped forward and mounted her, and the crowd chanted in turn with his thrusts the forbidden name of God, gradually gaining in intensity until the entwined figures lay spent and panting at the foot of the watching idol.

Into the silence, Aaron strode, bare chested and covered in red paint, blood, and wine. His every movement was silken and graceful, flush with power and adulation. The crowd roared their approval as Aaron casually slit the throat of one of the bound bedouins, blood soaking quickly into the sand without a trace.

Aaron began the litany, while Moses, from the outside of the circle unnoticed by all, began to feel the fires of prophecy within himself, like a wasp larvae tearing through the skin of a beetle, to emerge glistening and free, leaving the host to leak green ichor and die twitching. The two tablets he had carried from the mountain dropped and shattered, and neither he nor the Gods paid any heed.

With a wordless bellow, he thrashed  through the circle of worshippers, falling upon his knees in the shadow of the great calf, croaking a string of meaningless and mangled syllables. Eyes focused on the writings and arcane symbols on the idol, like whirlpools mixing the Gods of his childhood with the God of his fathers. Moses gave himself to the multitude of voices that raged in him, the powers that reigned over his princely heart .

Aaron recognized his brother with a sinking heart. He felt himself thrust aside. Something came over him, and he shuddered and began to speak in a deep voice, his brother’s voice. Bound and impotent,  he intoned Moses’ words to the crowd. I have returned. The people watched, stricken with silence, as the two communed, Aaron’s will submitting to his crazed brother.

Glory to our Elohim! The people cheered.

Moses moaned, Aaron spoke: Mine eyes are glad to see such a spectacle, our lord Triumphant, and strong. Yet, let us not forget the due of , they paused, the whole world seemed to pause, as Moses the prophet listened to the voices on the wind, hearing all the arcane prayers, holy or profane that careened through the spirit-haunted sky.  Osiris, lord of the Dead, Ra, who moves the Sun, Isis… they continued, naming the pantheon that had forever claimed part of the prophet’s soul, each name invoking greater and greater cheers from the god-starved Hebrews. From within the crowd, glittering idols, bone phalluses, animal-headed monsters, and sacred shapes passed forward, secret holies carried for 24 years on the sands. The idols were arranged by the Levite priests next to the calf, greatest among lords, Yahweh triumphant and generous.

From on the ground, staring up at the blood-splattered calf, Moses barked out one last order, duly translated by his brother, Let us celebrate our Gods, who will deliver us in this world and the next! His maddened and bloodshot eyes stared at the golden Ankh perched between the calf’s horns. He reached up for it, grasped at thin air and fell silent. Unconscious, he was carried by the priests to Aaron’s tent, as the celebration swirled and danced around the expressionless icons, sadly attended to by Aaron, one-time Prophet of Yahweh.

Read Part II now!

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