The Golden Calf and the Tabernacle

Terumah By :  Stephen A. Geller Irma Cameron Milstein Professor Emeritus in Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages Posted On Feb 20, 2010 / 5770 | Main Commentary

Just before Parashat T’rumah begins, the divine Glory descends on Mount Sinai for six days, covering it with a cloud. On the seventh day God summons Moses, who enters the cloud, ascends the mountain and remains there for forty days and nights. The parashah itself begins with a divine command to take offerings (t’rumah) of precious metals, rare cloths, and other items to construct a mishkan, a tenting place (“tabernacle”) in the midst of Israel, together with all its sacred objects and vessels. God shows Moses exactly what is to be built according to a “model” (tabnit). The parashah then goes on to describe in detail the requirements of the Ark of the Covenant, the offering table, the menorah, the dimensions of the tent, the curtain door (parokhet) to the Holiest Place, the altar and courtyards. The next parashiyot, T’tzavveh and part of Ki Tissa, continue the commission, describing the eternal light, the priestly vestments, the dedication procedures, the incense altar, the laver and anointing oil, and some other matters. Later parashiyot, Va-yak·hel and P’kudei (Exodus 35–40), will describe in detail how Moses carried out the commission. This is one of the few places in the Bible where both detailed commands and their subsequent performance are stated fully. This is because the building of the shrine is a mela’kha, a commission corresponding to God’s mela’kha in creating the universe. Linking both Creation and shrine is the institution of the Sabbath, foreshadowed in Genesis 2:1–4 and juxtaposed to the detailed description of the Tabernacle in Exodus 31. The Rabbis understood the meaning of this juxtaposition, and the association of Sabbath, shrine, and Creation, when they derived the types of work that are forbidden on the Sabbath from the activities employed in building the mishkan. The point is that the erection of the shrine is a re-creation of the act of original cosmic creation. In this case, the actual work is to be done by the Israelites, following God’s blueprints. But if the Architect is divine, the construction staff, headed by Bezalel, who is also appointed by God, is human. The making of the Tabernacle is therefore a model instance of the principle that the book of Leviticus will state, in chapter 19, to be the essential divine command: “You must be holy as I am holy.” Humans are, on their own level, to imitate God. In this case, the creation of themishkan represents the humanization of God’s creation of the cosmos, even as it makes a place for the divine to dwell among humankind.

But there are many other things to be learned from the order of elements in the parashah and their relationship to other things in the context. Most important is that between the account of the divine commission, in Exodus 25–31, and its performance in Exodus 35–40, there is, in Exodus 32–4, a radically contrastive event, the making of the Golden Calf, and its aftermath. Very striking is the similarity between the initial command in T’rumah and the construction of the calf. In the case of the Tabernacle, the Israelites are requested (not commanded) by God to offer gold, silver, and bronze. The precious metals are to be offered by those whose heart moves them to donate. In the case of the calf, there is a similar offering, specifically of gold. But this offering is commanded, not recommended, by Aaron, and comes specifically from the earrings of the Israelites. The source is ironic, because the ear is symbolic of obedience, and by telling them to “tear off” (pirqu) their earrings, Aaron is telling Israel to abandon their allegiance to God. The irony is even greater: at the very moment that Moses is receiving laws about the shrine, cult, and priesthood, Aaron, the future high priest, is abetting apostasy. His later excuse that the calf just “came out” from the fire rings hollow. To be sure, modern scholarship suggests the possibility that Aaron’s intention may have been honorable: the calf may have been intended to be the pedestal for God’s Presence, like the cherubim over the ark. This may also have been the case with the two “calves” of Dan and Bethel set up later by Jeroboam (really, young bulls, an animal associated with Baal—many examples have been found from late Bronze Age Canaanite sites). But the narrative itself views the intention as blatantly idolatrous. Aaron presents his handiwork as “the gods (plural) who led you out of Egypt.”

Now, the source of the metallic offerings, both in the case of the Golden Calf and the Tabernacle, was the precious objects Israel took as spoils from the Egyptians when it left Egypt. There, too, there was an element of “offering,” because Exodus 12:36 states that God inclined the Egyptians to be generous with Israel, so that they “willingly” offered them their gold. No doubt they were by now happy to speed Israel on its way, at any cost. So the same items were put to two radically different ends, to make the abomination of idolatry and its counter, the sacred shrine and its vessels. The contrastive patterns established by the accounts of the Golden Calf and the building of the Tabernacle suggest that some important theological points are being made.

One of these involves the contrast between the nature of the events. The making of the Golden Calf was the result of blind fear and panic, resulting in hasty, clumsy actions. Unlike Bezalel, Aaron was no craftsman. One can imagine the ridiculously clumsy image he must have made. Afterwards the Israelites “rejoice,” but Cecil B. Demille may have been midrashically correct to depict it on the screen as an orgy. It seems to have consisted of little more than a loud, incoherent din, as Moses seems to say to Joshua when he hears the ruckus (Exod. 32:18). The images used present the whole event as an example of chaos. The contrast is with the sense of complete, controlled order in the command to build the mishkan. God is the Architect with the plan (tabnit), and Moses is to supervise the mela’kha with the staff appointed by God, headed by Bezalel. Admittedly, the repetition of the details of construction may prevent the narrative from being in any way dramatic in literary terms, unlike the lively, violent story of the calf, from its inception to the smashing of the tablets to the final punishment of the sinners and Moses’s impassioned intercession for Israel. But non-drama is precisely the point. The Tabernacle represents the created order that replaced chaos. The story of creation in Genesis 1 is also deliberately undramatic, taking the form of an ordered chronological list. The form reflects the meaning: divine ordering overcomes chaos. The building of the sacred space was a plan, carried out with deliberation. The initiative was divine and a definite hierarchy was established to achieve the aim: God–Moses–Bezalel–the offerings of the people. Yet, despite the sense of ordering, there was no compulsion. The fact that the chain begins with a vision of God gives it coherence, and made the people willing to comply. The Golden Calf, on the other hand, begins with democracy at its worst, a chaotic panicked mob that forces a weak leader into foolish, self-destructive action. The proverb says that, “When there is no vision the people get out of control” (be’en hazon yippara’ ‘am) (Prov. 29:18). The same unusual verb, para’, is used by Moses to describe what Aaron has done and its effect upon the people: “Moses saw that the people were out of control (parua’) because Aaron had let them get out of control (pera’o) (Exod. 32:25). Their chaotic looseness represents, in midrashic word play, a kind of spiritual resubjugation to par’oh, Pharaoh. Against such enslaving chaos, the sacred shrine is held up as a model of ordered, creative freedom.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.