In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete wraps up his series on Exodus with a deep dive into the significance of the tabernacle and a look at the context of the golden calf as he explores at the following questions:
- Why are the dimensions of the tabernacle so precise?
- Was the tabernacle an actual tent the Israelites carried around in the desert?
- How are the tabernacle and the temple related?
- What historical questions are brought up by the description of the tabernacle?
- How many tents did the Israelites have?
- How is Israel’s sanctuary an idealized cosmos?
- What is the connection between the tabernacle and the creation narrative in Genesis 1?
- How do the objects in the tabernacle reflect an ancient Near Eastern understanding of the gods?
- What does the lampstand in the tabernacle represent?
- How does the tabernacle follow a heavenly pattern?
- How is the tabernacle tradition continued on through Jesus?
- Why did the Israelites build a golden calf?
- What did the symbol of a calf represent in the ancient Near East?
- What does it mean that the golden calf story is connected to the story of Jeroboam?
- Why are Ugaritic texts important for our understanding of the Bible?
- What clues do we have about when Exodus was written?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pete Enns you can share.
- “Reading the Old Testament stories means getting used to God’s human-like portrayal.” @peteenns
- “The description of the tabernacle seems like a description of the temple but brought back to a much earlier period in the story.” @peteenns
- “Some scholars doubt that there ever was a tabernacle, that is was only a retrojection… of temple theology back into ancient times. ” @peteenns
- “The description of the tabernacle does have a lot in common with the description of other sanctuaries among some of Israel’s ancient neighbors.” @peteenns
- “If we look closely at this long, boring section of building a portable worship center in the wilderness, we will see some overlap between the description here of the tabernacle and God’s act of creating the cosmos.” @peteenns
- “You don’t just throw up a tent for God to dwell in… it has to reflect this higher, divine reality if God’s going to dwell there.” @peteenns
- “The Old Testament has a context in the ancient world and these symbols didn’t need to be unique for Israel in order to have meaning for the people, in fact they might have more meaning if these symbols are not unique.” @peteenns
Mentioned in This Episode
- Book: Creation and the Persistence of Evil
- Book: The Evolution of Adam
- Video: Paula White Claiming “Holy Ground”
- Book: The Bible Tells Me So
- Patreon: The Bible for Normal People
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Episode 110: Pete Ruins Exodus Part 6
In this final episode of the Dundee Award Winning series, Pete looks at the significance and symbolism of the tabernacle, which takes up a whopping 13 chapters, and the Golden Calf episode, which threatens to derail the entire plan—were it not for Moses’s quick intervention.
|Pete: 00:01|| You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People. The only God- ordained podcast on the internet. Serious talk about the sacred book. I’m Pete Enns. |
| Jared: 00:08 || And I’m Jared Byas. |
|Pete: 00:11|| Well normal people, here we are at the end of this series. I know man, we’ve covered a lot. So, hey listen, thanks for hanging in there – I’ve loved it, I hope you’ve loved it too. But anyway… Listen, we have a lot to cover today in today’s final episode so let’s get right into this. First, remember where we are in the story. The Israelites have been at Mount Sinai since Chapter 19, which means, uh, 21 of the 40 chapters of Exodus take place there and they’re on Mount Sinai for two reasons. The first is to receive the law (which we looked at in Episode 5) and they’ll receive a lot of laws from here on out. I mean, the book of Leviticus is the next book, but that’s a whole other issue and probably podcast series eventually. But, the second reason they’re on Mount Sinai is to receive instructions for building the place of worship, the tabernacle, which is a tent where the priests make sacrifices and offerings to God and other sorts of things. But that’s what worship basically was back then – sacrificing. And, uh, the tabernacle is Israel’s sacred space, unlike any other space and this is where God’s presence dwells among the Israelite’s. And later, when they’re in the land, the Israelite’s under Solomon will build a temple. It’s a permanent place of worship, at least it’s permanent until the Babylonians destroy it in 586 BC. But now that they’re wandering in the desert, and a portable sacred space, a worship center… Well, that’s obviously that’s the way to go, you don’t erect a permanent structure when you’re wandering. So – the last 16 chapters of Exodus (25-40) are dominated by this tabernacle. And, no matter how bored we might get reading this section, it’s worth noticing that the Israelites thought it deserved a lot of space. And these sixteen chapters fall into three parts, and I don’t think there’s a lot of debate about how to divide this whole section. But, the first section is the instructions for building the tabernacle and that’s in chapters 25-31. That’s followed by what seems like an interruption to the story, and that’s the rebellion in 32-34, the golden calf episode, which nearly led God to like, nix the whole plan. And then the third is the actual building of the tabernacle in 35-40. So, let’s just take all three of these sections and see what happens. |
| So, ya know, let’s look first at the tabernacle. And we might as well start with some historical issues that are raised by this episode. It’s the kind of thing we do here in this podcast. Let’s talk about historical issues and scholarship and things like that. So, one thing is that scholars have had some questions about such an elaborate structure, portable or not, but such an elaborate structure in the wilderness. For one thing, where did they get the building materials from, not to mention the precious metals. It seems this structure is too elaborate for a wilderness wandering people. So, many scholars have concluded that the description of the tabernacle (that we find here in Exodus) is more fitting for the permanent structure, the temple. In other words, the description of the tabernacle seems like a description of the temple, but brought back into a much earlier period in the story. And we’ve seen this sort of thing in earlier episodes. For example, in Episode 4, in Exodus Chapter 15 – the song of Moses. Well, in that song, the temple makes an appearance too. This is just part of the writing of this story, as we’ve said before, it’s looking at a time gone by, but written from a later point of view. Now, some scholars doubt that there ever was a tabernacle, that it was only a retrojection, as they say, of temple theology back into ancient times. And, that’s not surprising as we’ve seen the entire story of the exodus has its share of historical problems, we looked at some of those in Episode 1 – like the plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, and a few other things. And the tabernacle doesn’t escape that same kind of scholarly assessment. But just as some scholars say the exodus never happened, others say, well something happened, but we don’t know exactly what. Well, in the same way that scholars say that, they say that also about the tabernacle. Right? Some say there never was a tabernacle, and others say, well, there was some sort of a portable sanctuary, but its description reflects a later reality. |
Ya know, the description of the tabernacle does have a lot in common with the description of other sanctuaries among some of Israel’s ancient neighbors. Yay archeology. But the question really is whether the description of the tabernacle is literally of a historical tabernacle, or of the temple brought back into the past. And I’m not sure really if there’s a way of ever coming to a firm historical conclusion on that question (I sort of doubt it) I’m just bringing it up because, again, that’s part of what this podcast does. We’re engaging biblical scholarship, and I’m sure you can guess that we’re just skimming the surface on this issue like we do on many others that involve complex kinds of arguments and data and things like that. Another kind of historical question is raised by the fact that there is a second tent in Exodus, and it’s called the ‘tent of meeting’. Now, on the one hand, throughout these chapters we see this portable sanctuary referred to as the tabernacle or the ‘tent of meeting.’ See, the two terms, they seem interchangeable in Exodus, and ya know, who really cares anyway? But, here’s why ya care. In Exodus 33:7, the ‘tent of meeting’ isn’t at all an alternate name for the tabernacle and here’s what the verse says. Listen, and just pick up the vibe here of this verse. It goes like this, “Now Moses used to take the tent and to pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp; he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp.” See, rather than a huge tent in the center of the camp where sacrifices are made (that’s the tabernacle) the tent of meeting here, in this verse, seems small enough for Moses to set up whenever he wanted, outside the camp where he would talk to God. In fact, Joshua and anyone really who wanted to consult God could have access to it, not just priests. So, here in chapter 33, the tent of meeting has a different purpose than the tabernacle. And, ugh, how do ya, what the heck, how do you explain that? Well, this is often explained… Again, we don’t know! At the end of the day we can’t say this is as sure as the sun rises in the morning, but this is often explained as a later writer, probably one with priestly connections, who combined the originally two separate tents into one, which is what we see everywhere else in the tabernacle section. See, this isn’t simply a matter of terminology, but of two tents with different functions, which raises historical questions. Ya know – were there actually two or was the less elaborate tent of meeting that we see in 33:7 the original one, and the tabernacle got the main headline because priests edited the final form of this story, and on and on. Anyway, who knows, but 33:7 certainly complicates matters. And these are the kind of things that tend to occupy Biblical scholars who mainly are interested in what happened.
| Alright, so much for historical issues, now let’s look a bit at the symbolism of the tabernacle and boy does it have symbolic value. See, earlier, I used the term ‘sacred space’ to describe the tabernacle. It is indeed, and one way of glimpsing what that means (sacred space) is by seeing the tabernacle as a microcosm of creation. Of course, that sounds a bit abstract, but microcosm is a term used in biblical scholarship and it means that the tabernacle is a micro cosmos. Or another way of putting it, the tabernacle is a small, concrete, down to earth version of the cosmos as a whole. The cosmos where God dwells. Or an even better way of putting it, and here I’m channeling my teacher, Jon Levenson – Israel’s sanctuary, whether it’s the tabernacle or the temple is “an idealized cosmos.” Just listen to this. “It’s an idealized cosmos. It’s the world as it was meant to be. A powerful piece of the testimony to God the creator. A palace for the victorious king.” A lot going on there. It’s an idealized cosmos, the world as it was meant to be, a testimony to the creator God, it’s a palace for the victorious king. I mean, we’ll unpack some of that at least as we continue here, but all that means is that if we look closely as this long “boring” section about building a portable worship center in the wilderness, we will see some overlap between the description here of the tabernacle and God’s act of creating the cosmos because the tabernacle is a mini cosmos. And I think that tells us a lot about what the ancient Israelites thought about the sanctuary, how vital it was for them theologically. Now, of course, this microcosm idea is just one angle on the tabernacle, but it’s very important for grasping its significance and it’s the one angle I wanna focus on because it really gets at the big picture. And again, I keep saying this, but I’m gonna say it again. We, we’re just really skimming the surface. Actually, if you wanna read more, I do recommend my teacher Jon Levenson’s book, Creation and the Persistence of Evil. Very readable, but also very challenging. Especially chapter seven where he discusses this microcosm idea in more detail. |
OK, so let’s get really concrete here. How is the tabernacle a microcosm? Well first, in Exodus 25:9, Moses is commanded by God to build the tabernacle according to the “pattern” that God will give him. Well, what pattern is that? Well, good question. But it’s a pattern nonetheless. A heavenly pattern. See, you don’t just throw up a tent for God to dwell in, it has to be just so. It has to reflect this higher divine reality if God’s gonna dwell there, right? OK, so that’s one aspect, just to sort of warm things up and get us going. Second, careful readers for centuries, Jewish readers, have noticed that the phrase “the Lord said to Moses” in this tabernacle section, it occurs seven times in these chapters 25-31. Right? Those chapters that lay out the commands for building the tabernacle. “The Lord said to Moses.” The first six times we read “the Lord said to Moses” concerned the building of the tabernacle and its various furnishings. While the seventh time we read “the Lord said to Moses,” it concerns the command to keep the Sabbath. Now, it’s not rocket science to see that the six commands concerning the building of the tabernacle, followed by a seventh day of rest, all that parallels the six days where God built the cosmos followed by a seventh day of rest and those days are all preceded by “and God said.” See, that’s, it’s a big parallel. “The Lord said to Moses” seven times, and then “and God said” seven times in the creation story in Genesis 1. Now, just a side issue here — which is interesting but not central – building a sanctuary by a divine pattern and over seven days is actually not unique to Israel. The Sumerian King Gudea of Lagash — there’s a name for all you eager homeschoolers who want to give your kids ancient names — the Sumerian King Gudea of Lagash did something similar around 2200 BCE, as did the Ugaritic gods to honor the god Baal. Ugaritic is a language of Ugarit, which is an ancient culture from which we get a lot of information about Canaanite religion and that’s really important for understanding parts of the Old Testament. Anyway, the Ugaritic gods did this in honor of their god, Baal, and we get to know this god through the Old Testament, he’s all over the place. I’m just throwing that in there to remind us that the Old Testament has a context in the ancient world and the symbols didn’t need to be unique for Israel in order to have meaning for the people. In fact, they might have more meaning if the symbols were not unique. See, for the ancient Israelites, the cosmos is God’s sanctuary built in six days followed by rest. The tabernacle, likewise, is a mini version of that divine abode built in six stages followed by rest.
| OK, a third issue concerning the tabernacle as a microcosm concerns the Ark of the Covenant, which many of you know as a box basically, overlaid with gold and housed in that part of the tabernacle where the high priest enters. The most holy place, or also known as the holy of holies. This isn’t explicit in Exodus, ok, but just, it’s a very interesting possible connection here. In Psalm 80:1 and 99:1 for example, the Ark, this Ark of the Covenant, is thought of as the footstool for God’s throne. Now, if you remember the imagery of the Ark, maybe you’ve seen pictures of it, it’s a box, but there are two gold images of cherubim on top of the Ark — and cherubim are fierce angels, they’re not chubby little kids playing harps. And so, we read in the Old Testament that Yahweh, in these Psalms that I just mentioned, Yahweh is enthroned above, or maybe between the cherubim, which means his feet are on the Ark. OK, interesting Pete. Can you get on with this and sort of, maybe be done with this? What are you trying to say? Well, in other texts, like in Isaiah 66:1, the earth itself is God’s footstool, so which is it? Is God’s footstool the Ark, or is God’s footstool the earth? And the answer is, “yes, both.” See, God enthroned over the Ark and the tabernacle is a, again, a mini version of God being enthroned in the heavens with the earth as His footstool. And that’s a good example, I think, of how the tabernacle follows a heavenly pattern, as we saw earlier. |
The fourth thing that helps us see the tabernacle as a microcosm of creation is the lampstand, which is in the holy place. It’s not the most holy place which is where the high priest is. The holy place is one room sort of removed from that and that’s where the other priests may enter. And this also has these creation kinds of overtones. See, the lampstands function is to light the holy place from evening until morning, which on one level it echoes God’s presence with the Israelites as a pillar of fire by night as they left Egypt and in that sense — not to get off track here — but the smoke from the incense, which we read about in chapter 30, that might echo the pillar of cloud by day. But the lampstand has also been seen by biblical scholars as a symbol of the tree of life from the Garden of Eden. Especially given that the lampstand arms are buds and branches. That’s in 25:22. The point being that entering the sanctuary is like entering, and actually let’s say, returning to the Garden of Eden. That place from which Adam and Eve were banned by God and the way back is guarded by the two cherubim holding flaming swords, like those on the Ark of the Covenant. See, this symbolism is powerful. In the tabernacle, the curse is reversed, and Eden is regained. At least, Israel is given a glimpse of how it was all meant to be had things not gone so wrong in the first place. This is as close as you get back to Eden, by being in the tabernacle. You know, not to go into hyper speed here, but this imagery echoes throughout the Bible. The sanctuary is a symbolic Garden of Eden. In fact, so is the land of Canaan where God and God’s people are to dwell together in faithfulness to each other. But as Adam is expelled from the Garden of Eden, Israel is expelled from the land. That’s the exile. So, the sanctuary, Eden, Canaan — these are all sacred spaces, and their symbolisms, they overlap beautifully. If you’re interested, you know, I draw that out a bit more in chapter four of my book, the Evolution of Adam. Anyhow, the Eden imagery of the sanctuary symbolizes that, you know, when you enter it, the separation from Gods immediate presence in paradise is reversed. The people are restored to full communion with God, at least in principle. And to enter the Christian story a bit if I may, this is like how Jesus restores the people to full communion with God. That’s why it’s pretty huge that the opening of John’s gospel calls Jesus the tabernacle. You know, when he says, when the author of John says that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us”, well, dwelt in Greek is literally “tabernacle.” The Word became flesh — you know, Jesus — and tabernacled among us and we beheld His glory, the glory that in the Old Testament, resides in the sanctuary and also Jesus , ya know, claiming to be the temple in John 2 when He’s debating the Sadducees. The function of restoring communion, of reentering Eden and being in God’s presence, well in the Gospel this has moved from tents and buildings to God dwelling among us in human form. It’s said that John’s gospel portrays Jesus in His most exalted form, and, ya know, you ain’t kidding. There’s a lot of this stuff going on in John.
| || Well anyway, another microcosm element of the tabernacle — I think this is the fifth — is the bronze basin for washing, which is in the courtyard. We’re moving further out now, outside the holy place and outside the most holy place. Its purpose, the bronze basin, is for the priests to wash themselves before entering the tabernacle itself. It’s also called the bronze sea. And some suggest that “sea” has some important cosmic overtones. A number of creation myths in the ancient world, the watery chaos that’s present at the dawn of creation is vanquished by the victor god. Echoes of that myth are certainly present in Genesis 1 where God pushes back the deep, as this watery chaos is called in Genesis. And by pushing back this deep, this allows habitable space to appear like the sky and the earth. The chaotic, threatening deep, hostile to life, is defeated by Israel’s God so that the earth and sky may be inhabited. In that sense, this bronze sea is a symbol of this vanquished, chaotic, watery foe. Put on full display in the courtyard in the sanctuary of this victorious God, Yahweh. You know, I have to say I like this angle on the wash basin. I wish that Exodus were explicit in drawing out this connection. It’s not, but I’m throwing it out there too because, I mean others talk about it and I think it’s really, really interesting. |
| || OK, another possible connection, this is the sixth now, concerns the curtains the cover the most holy place. They’re made of blue, purple, and scarlet with cherubim, like, worked into them it says, which probably means woven into them cause they’re curtains. Just looking up, if you’re in the most holy place, just looking up is a reminder that the tabernacle is sacred space, an earthly representation of God’s dwelling where He sits in the heavens surrounded by adoring angels. |
| || OK, three more quick points, if I may, about seeing the tabernacle as a microcosm. This is seven, eight, and nine. |
Seven, briefly: The dimensions of the tabernacle are very precise and geometric. Look in most, any commentary Bibles will have pictures of the tabernacle. Some have observed that this very ordered nature of the tabernacle reflects the ordered nature of the cosmos in Genesis 1 where everything is carefully designed and executed.
Eighth, in Exodus 31:1-3, God calls these two dudes named Bezalel and Oholiab to manage the construction of the tabernacle. These fellows are filled with God’s Spirit, and, among other things, also they’re filled with wisdom, hokmah in Hebrew, which is usually translated here as “ability” or “skill.” According to Proverbs 8, however, wisdom is with God at creation. Just hang with this chain here that I’m trying to build. Wisdom is with God at creation. In fact, wisdom itself,
[background music begins]
or I should say wisdom herself cause she’s personified as a woman in Proverbs, wisdom herself isn’t actually created but just is with God while God creates.
|24:39||[Producers Group Endorsement]|
|25:45|| See, if wisdom is with God at the creation of the cosmos, it’s no wonder, then, that the building of the microcosm of creation likewise requires the presence of wisdom to pull it off. |
OK then finally — oh, finally – in chapter 40 when the tabernacle is completed, we see echoes of Genesis once again, specifically of Genesis of 1:31 – 2:4. This concludes this first creation story of Genesis 1. Genesis 1:31 – 2:4 when the creation was completed. So, we see in Exodus 39 and Exodus, uh, well, specifically Exodus 39:32 — if you’re taking notes — and 40:33. We read that the tabernacle was finished or was completed. The Hebrew word is kalah, which is also how the completion of the cosmos is described in Genesis 2:1. And also, the completion of the tabernacle was followed by a blessing from Moses and we read this in Exodus 39:42-43. Just as the work of the creation, once completed, is followed by a blessing from God in Genesis 2:3. See, it really just seemed like the tabernacle is a big deal – and it is! And in Christian theology, the function of the Old Testament sanctuaries, tabernacle, and temple, are tied to Jesus and it is in Christ that God’s full presence dwells, as John says. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 3 and 6, Paul makes the rather unexpected claim that God’s Spirit dwells in the church. And Paul means there both corporately, that’s in 1 Corinthians 3, in other words the church as a whole, the church in Corinth as a whole, and then the individuals that make it up, and that’s 1 Corinthians 6. Being united with Christ in whom the Spirit of God dwells means that followers of Jesus also house the Spirit, so to speak.
| OK, I could go on and on about that, but I would be remiss if we didn’t take a few minutes talking about an incident that nearly derailed everything and that’s the golden calf episode in chapters 32-34, which is placed, as we said before, right in between the instructions for building the tabernacle and the actual building of it. I make that point because this act of rebellion, ugh, fashioning and then worshiping an idol. OK, this happens after only the instructions for the tabernacle are given. Nothing’s been built yet. See, this incident raises the question of whether it’s ever going to be built or whether God will simply be done with them, and of course, He isn’t done with them. As you read this story in chapters 32-34, Moses does some damage control and he convinces God not to strike them down even though He really wants to. In fact, remember that Sabbath, we looked at this before, Sabbath is the seventh, let’s say, segment of the previous section where the building instructions were given for the tabernacle, and this ends in chapter 31, and then comes the golden calf story in 32-34. Well, the next section, the first section that begins the section that talks about the actual building of the tabernacle, well, that begins in chapter 35 with the celebration of the Sabbath. You see, the action picks up after the rebellion where we were before the rebellion, before the golden calf episode. I’m making a point of this, because first of all it was hammered home to me in graduate school as a Gentile who doesn’t pay attention to these kinds of things, but I’m making this point because, you know, some Christian interpreters have read the golden calf story as an indication of the failure of Judaism: “See, this is where laws and commands get you. Judaism doesn’t work. No sooner do they get a command that they just disobey it. Law is useless, it doesn’t get you anywhere.” But Israel’s disobedience here doesn’t derail the plan, that’s the point. Despite the rebellion, the story picks up where it left off, in essence without losing a beat. Hmm. I think that’s pretty cool. The Sabbath, the day of rest, that’s where we continue when the story of building the tabernacle commences. |
Now see, some see the golden calf story as a retelling of the Adam story. This is very interesting, like it’s a second fall. Disobedience and the threat of God’s punishment are in the Adam story and in the golden calf story. But whereas Adam is expelled from the land, this story, well, it continues. Unlike the story of Adam, these Israelites are not driven from God’s presence, even though God really wanted to do that, we’ll see that in a second. The sanctuary will be built, and they will be allowed to enter to God’s presence.
OK, so basically what happens then in this golden calf story, and here it is. Moses is up on the mountain getting the law written on the tablets, but God tells him to go down, and pretty much get down there right away because the people are worshipping a calf. So, God wants to be done with them and basically, ya know, kill them all. So, Moses convinces God to change his mind and not to go all medieval on the Israelites. But when Moses comes down with Joshua who is waiting part of the way down the mountain, when they come down, Moses sees what’s going on and he smashes the tablets. OK, that’s chapter 32 and things are a bit touchy for the next two chapters, but Moses does damage control which results in him carving out a new set of tablets, which leads to a renewal of the covenant between God and Israel. And then at the end, Moses’ face is transformed from having been in God’s presence. It’s glowing, so much in fact, Moses has to veil his face when he’s around the people. Bottom line, the crisis is averted, and the story continues.
Now, as you can imagine, there’s a lot going on here in this section, but as I always say – I just want to focus on a few things. Things that I think are worth knowing that might add some oomph to your own reading of this story. So first, let’s talk about the actual making of this golden calf. While Moses is away, the Israelites play. So, they do what you would expect — now here’s the important part — they do what you would expect people of the time to do. To build a symbolic representation of God’s presence with them, here in the form of a calf, a very common symbol of the divine because it indicates strength and fertility. OK, but, note what verse 4 says. This is the thing I want to get to here. Verse 4 of chapter 32. The people look at the calf and they say — now this is what they say — they look at the calf and they say, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt’. Why say ‘these are your gods’ when only one calf is made? Well, I’m glad you asked. See, this same phrase occurs later in the Bible. After Solomon, David’s son, after Solomon dies the nation of Israel tragically divides into two, the north and south. The south, Judah, is where Jerusalem and the temple are. The north, now, has no shrine and so their king, Jeroboam, he erects two golden calves at the northern and southern boundaries of the northern kingdom. Specifically, in the town of Dan in the north and Bethel in the south. And after Jeroboam erects these calves, he says to the people, and this is in 1 Kings 12:28, he says, “Behold” (or “here are”) “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” See, the plural makes sense for Jeroboam, but not for the golden calf episode and this has led scholars to the rather common conclusion that these two stories are connected. And namely, they’re connected this way, and again, we’ve seen before what I’m about to say here. The golden calf story was written with the Jeroboam story in mind. In other words, the Jeroboam incident of making two calves is, which 1 Kings seriously frowns upon, it’s written into the story from olden times, the golden calf episode. Why? Well, in order to thoroughly condemn Jeroboam’s act. That’s a lot, which is sort of dumb here. Ya know, basically, well, Jeroboam, he’s as bad as those rebellious people back in Aaron’s day and just to solidify the connection we’re going to allude to Jeroboam’s act when we edit this story of the golden calf with Moses and Aaron. So, as we’ve seen a number of times in this series, a story about a way back time was written in light of much later events. The Exodus story here and elsewhere reflects the period of Israel’s monarchy, in this case the divided monarchy. We’re seeing here another factoid that sheds some light on when Exodus was written and why it looks the way that it does.
| || OK, so much for the making of the calf, second, and briefly, I don’t think that the Israelites here are worshipping another god as if they’re saying a god of another nation rescued them from Egypt. That makes really no sense, even with this heinous act of rebellion it just makes no sense logically. Rather, they are worshipping their God Yahweh, but in a manner in which Yahweh does not want to be worshipped, by means of a created idol. In other words, the Israelites are breaking the second commandment – don’t make any idols, and not the first commandment – don’t worship other gods. And we touch on this in an earlier episode, but to repeat, see, the first commandment is about the exclusive worship of Yahweh – you shall have no other Gods before Me. The second is about how this Yahweh is to be worshipped, not the way the gods of other nations are worshipped with idols. And not to go too deep into this, but, well, there’s some evidence from the ancient Near Eastern world that might help us here with this incident. It’s possible that the calf does not represent specifically a god at all, but is something like a throne, or better, a platform that God stands on. You see the difference. You see, the calf maybe isn’t actually representative of the god, but still the calf as a platform means that God is present there. Anyway, in either case that’s the big deal with this calf. It’s claiming the divine presence when God isn’t present. God is in His holy mountain, He’s not there present with them. |
Now side note, and not to get overly political here, um, although the Bible is political. But see, as I’m speaking these words, just recently a famous prosperity gospel preacher has been tagged as the President’s spiritual advisor, Paula White. She said, and maybe you’ve seen this viral video, but she said that wherever she is, God is also present, where she stands is holy ground. I’m like, lady, read the Bible. You don’t want to go there. You don’t want to claim God’s presence when that might not be the case. Especially personified in yourself, it’s almost like you’re a golden calf. Huh, anyway.
OK, third thing about the golden calf story. The Israelites are having a party down there, and this is no subdued worship service. A lot of loud singing and dancing. It’s a very bad idea for a few reasons, apart from the golden calf itself. See, note that in verse 6, they sacrifice and then they sit down to eat and drink. This is chapter 32 verse 6. They sacrifice and then they sit down to eat and drink. Remember way back in 5:1, chapter 5 verse 1, Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh, and they say, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.’” See, the loud party with eating and drinking is a distorted version of that festival celebration. It’s an alternate covenant meal, as some put it. God’s deliverance of the Israelites was to have been celebrated by sacrifices and dining, but the Israelites have perverted it by jumping the gun. The problem here isn’t the breaking of the second commandment, not just that, but also perverting this celebratory meal with God by invoking God’s presence through a calf, but again, God is not present here in this meal.
Furthermore, I think this is number four, though it’s connected to the previous thing. The loud noise that’s heard in the camp below, is as Moses said, the sound of revelers. And he says this in 32:18, as does the narrator back in verse 6, so it appears twice. See, the issue here is that the Hebrew word, the word is sahaq, has sexual overtones. For example, in the story where Potiphar’s wife accuses Joseph of trying to rape her in Genesis 39:14 & 17, that same word is used. Though, really side note, there in the Joseph story it’s typically translated more innocently like he insulted me. Anyway, the point is that, to add fire to the flame, there seems to be something of an orgy going on. It’s quite a mess. Alternative covenant meal indeed.
And so, this is where Moses smashes the tablets, and this is the fifth point. And then he burns the calf, grinds it to powder, scatters it on the water and makes the Israelites drink it, which is weird, but maybe not to them. See, as commentaries explain it, this seems to be some sort of a ritual. Pulverizing the calf and scattering it implies, first of all, total annihilation. You know, we actually have an example of this from ancient Ugarit, I mentioned them earlier, where the goddess, her name is Anat, she takes the god Mot and burns him, pulverizes him, and scatters the dust in the field. Interesting. OK, so hold that thought. In Numbers 5, lot of math here folks, I’m sorry, but hey, it’s the Bible, right? But, in Numbers 5:12-31 we see a story, frankly even weirder, where a woman suspected of adulty is made to drink a concoction of water and dust to determine her guilt or innocence. So, go read that yourself if you want to. So, see, perhaps pulverizing the calf and making people drink it is for the purpose of totally annihilating this god, this false god, this idol, and also for finding out who is responsible – who the guilty parties are. But, ya know, sometimes the Bible is just not there where you need it. The text doesn’t go at all into this or explain it. The writer just assumes that we get what’s going on. And how rude of him not to know we’d be reading this millennia later with no idea of what is happening. Oh well.
A sixth point. Everyone here is rather upset, not least of whom is God. And already before Moses comes down from the mountain, God tells Moses He intends to consume the lot of them, by fire. He’s not going to eat them, but by fire. At this point Moses intervenes and frankly he calms God down and he gets God to change God’s mind. And Moses does this by appealing to the honor and shame code that dominates not only the Bible but ancient and many modern cultures as well, though not so much our western culture. Moses’ argument amounts to this, ‘but, what will the Egyptians think of You if You just took us out to the wilderness only to kill us? You don’t want to look bad, do You?’ Well, you see, the argument worked and Yahweh, as we read, “changed His mind” and this is in 32:14. Now, some translators have that Yahweh relented, and the word can also mean that Yahweh repented but, ya know, it doesn’t really matter. If you take a step back, we’ll see that none of that wordsmithing makes a hill of beans worth of difference. It’s clear that God was angry and intended to do something and Moses talked Him out of it. And side issue, I like these side issues. Side issue, reading the Old Testament stories means getting used to God’s human like portrayal. Anthropomorphisms as they’re called. And a good place to see this human-like God is early in Genesis from the Adam and Eve story all the way through the Tower of Babel story. If you’re ever interested, just read those stories and take note of everywhere God is described in not really God-like ways but more human-like ways. Anywho, Moses calms God down, but after Moses comes down from the mountain, he stands at the gate of the camp and challenges these Israelites. He goes, ‘Who is on the Lord’s side’? And what happens? Well, the sons of Levi, you know the priestly tribe, they gather around him. And just when you think maybe nothing super bad is going to happen after all, God says through Moses to tell these Levites to go throughout the camp killing people, and by the days end the body count reaches 3,000. And then we don’t read, you know, “gee Levites, I know this was rough, but it had to be done. Thanks for putting up with it.” No, instead, and this is in 32:29, [large sigh] they’re praised. Moses says, “Today you have ordained yourselves for service to God.” See, they proved their worth to be priests and in doing so brought upon themselves a blessing. Now, we won’t get into the whole divine violence issue here. It’s too big, too complicated, and I’ve got a lot of blog posts on that if you’re interested, and I talk about it a bit also early on in The Bible Tells Me So, but it’s a real issue, you know, where people struggle with this stuff all the time. In this context, I mean, we can sort of work with what we have here immediately. In this context, this violence can be explained, sort of, within the logic of the story. See, it’s a punishment that matches the seriousness of Israel’s alternate covenant celebration. See, their act, in the logic of the story, their act was in effect an undoing of the entire Exodus story up to that point. Well, why do I say that? Well, remember that delightful pun we looked at in the first episode. The Israelites were delivered from Egyptian slavery, so they could be slaves of God. That word in Hebrew, as you no doubt remember because you’re such astute listeners, that word in Hebrew is ‘abad. And it means both to be enslaved and to worship. See, the purpose for which Israel was delivered from Egyptian ‘abad, enslavement, is so that they will be instead ‘abad to God Yahweh, which means to worship Yahweh. See, this is precisely what the golden calf story is about. It’s not like an ‘oopsie’ moment, its Israel’s false worship is in effect a potential eraser of this entire episode because they’re not worshiping God. Which is why God says to Moses, basically, ya know, “Step aside, let Me consume them all in fire and I’ll start over again with you.” And so, ya know, three cheers for Moses for stepping in and saying, “yeah, you see Lord, the whole Exodus story is threatened by Israel’s rebellion, but, if You go through with this, You too Yahweh, are putting the story at risk by putting into question the reputation you built up with the Egyptians.” In other words, wiping out the Israelites won’t solve the problem, but simply exacerbate it by wiping out God’s reputation. I mean, think about that. That’s a very clever argument by Moses in this story.
| ||Well anyway, listen, we need to bring this to a close. A lot more happens in these chapters of course. But, the long and short of it is that the new tablets are made, the covenant is renewed, and perhaps, most importantly, the tabernacle project continues unhindered. And as you saw earlier, these chapters 32-34, are framed by the Sabbath command at the end of chapter 31, and the Sabbath celebration beginning at the top of chapter 35. The action picks up right where it left off, crisis averted, and the tabernacle is completed. The portable sanctuary, the symbol of the Garden of Eden and of God’s immediate presence with God’s people. And all this sets the stage for Israel eventually entering Canaan, which is also seen as, as I said, sacred space where only purity can dwell, and impure elements like the Canaanites are vomited out as we read in Leviticus for example. And where the temple would be erected under Solomon. But, ya know, can’t do that now. All that is for perhaps another series one day, and I’ll see about that. I’ve got a lot of other ideas, by the way, for my solo podcast for season four, but, at this point nothing is written on stone tablets, ha ha.|
| || [End of recorded material] |
|49:07|| [Music begins] |
|Pete: 49:08|| Hey folks, again, let’s bring this to a close. Thank you for being with me during this series. I had tons of fun. I hope you did too, and that this has been helpful. Just as a reminder, that we here at the Bible for Normal People are currently in a campaign to increase our patrons on Patreon to help us fund some initiatives, the first of which is transcribing all of our podcast episodes. All three seasons going back, and from here on out. People have been asking for that. And so, our goal is to hit 1,611 patrons by the end of 2019. Right around the corner folks. Why 1,611? Well, because 1611, that’s the year the King James Bible, the Bible that Moses, Jesus, and Paul used was published. [Sigh] And please don’t email me telling me that’s not true, cause it’s just a joke. OK. You can become a patron for as little as $1 a month by going to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, and folks, thanks again for your support and for downloading and listening to this series, and for everything you do. So, thanks so much, and we’ll see you next time. |
|50:18|| [Music continues] |
| [Outtakes] |
|Pete: 50:26|| I have to start over again, I’m sorry. After Israel died. After Solomon dies. My mouth is just so tired David, I don’t know why. I’m not sleeping, that’s why, OK. |
|50:33|| [Beep] |
|Pete: 50:34|| Which is why God says to Mosec, Moses, basically, I have to start that sentence again Dave, I’m sorry. Which is why God says to Mosec. [Sigh] I can’t say the word Moses. I’ll try it again. |
|50:45|| [Beep] |
|Pete: 50:46|| Chapters thirty-two to twenty, rather thirty-two, oh gosh. |
|50:49|| [Beep] |
|Pete: 50:50|| Do you hear that? Mic had a scratchy litter box. David, this is my life in a nutshell. Give it a second. |
[Cat scratching in litter box]
Hey cat, ya done? A couple seconds…a couple seconds…
OK, the cat left, alright. Haha, we’re just about done, what a pain.