The Sinai traditions
There are two versions of the story of the reception of thetablets containing the Ten Commandments. The Golden Calf version hasbeen immortalized in Hollywood productions.
After the split occurred between Israel and Judah, Judahremained in possession of the Temple in Jerusalem and Israel was forced to substitute worship atBethel in the north. In the listing of the tribes of Israel in Judges, Judah is not mentioned,suggesting an early and separate existence for this tribe extending far back into history, andunexplained.
Jeroboam became King of Israel after the split and he wasworried about maintaining the national cohesion of his new Kingdom, particularly when peopleremained attached to their previous religious customs and the Temple in Jerusalem.
"'As it now stands,' he said to himself, 'the kingdom will revert to the house of David (in Judah). If these people go to sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem, it will revive their allegiance to the Kingof Judah.' After taking counsel about the matter, he made two golden calves and said to thepeople, 'You have gone to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods that brought you up fromEgypt.'" (1 Kings chapter 12 verse 26) "He alsoappointed priests who did not belong to the Levites." (1 Kings Chapter 12 verse 31)
Sacrifices and festivals were ordained for his new religiouscenters, one calf at Bethel, the other at Dan.
Another name for Israel in the north was 'Samaria'. Hoseatestified about the calves saying:
And again he refers to a custom of offering
"Samaria, your calf-god is loathsome! My anger burns against them! How long must they remainguilty? The calf was made in Israel; a craftsman made it and it is no god."
(Hosea Chapter 8 verse 5)
"human sacrifices and kissing the calves." (Hosea Chapter 13 verse 2)
No doubt the snouts of those two calves were polished andworn down from all those centuries of kissing. As well, one would think that when those twocalves brought the people out of Egypt, they must have been more mobile than they were atJeroboam's shrines. No doubt those calves were running around the camp and giving everyoneorders, and lifting their golden hooves to bless everyone. Based on the testimony of a disgustedand scandalized Hosea, Jeroboam did set up two calves.
The Golden Calf story is found in
"as for this Moses, we don't know what has become of him. Make us a god so we can say, 'hereare your gods (plural) who brought you up fromEgypt.' "
(Exodus Chapter 32 verse 1)
Aaron made a
'"here are your GODSthe exact words ascribed to Jeroboam in the book of Kings.
(plural), who brought you up from Egypt,'" (Exodus Chapter 32 verse 4)
The tradition in chapter twenty four presents an alternative to the so familiar Golden Calfaccount of Moses and the mountain. It appears to be either a conflation of conflicting sources orhas been heavily edited in an attempt to make it consistent with the second tradition of the tablets,the one everyone is so familiar with.
The tradition found in
"And he said to Moses, "Come up to YAHWEH, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventyof the elders of Israel, and worship afar off. Moses alone shall come near to YAHWEH; but theothers shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him." Moses came and told thepeople all the words of YAHWEH and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with onevoice, and said, "All the words which YAHWEH has spoken we will do."" (Exodus Chapter 24 verse 1)
However, a few verses later, bits and pieces from the earliertradition surface (it is characteristic of the bizarre editing of the Bible that scraps were not thrownout, but rather an attempt was made to submerge and 'harmonize' the various conflicting accounts). Note that it is a constant refrain in the Golden Calf tradition that no one must ever see God (including Moses) or they would die. This theological doctrine has no part in the alternative tradition in chapter twenty four.
"Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and theysaw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, likethe very heaven for clearness. And God's arm was not stretched out against the chief men of thepeople of Israel; they saw God; they ate and drank." (Exodus Chapter 24 verse 9)
In the famous Calf tradition even Moses was not allowed to see God, for,
"For no man shall see God and live." (Exodus Chapter 33 verse 20)
The alternative tradition forbids anyone from going up the mountain with Moses and then everyone went up the mountain with Moses.
"...worship afar off. Moses alone shall come near to YAHWEH; but theothers shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him."The conflict between this statement and the opening sentencesof the story is obvious and indicates that the introduction was a later editorial interpolation.
"Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and theysaw the God of Israel; ... they saw God; they ate and drank."
After visiting heaven and sitting down for lunch with God, Moses gotthe tablets containing the ten commandments for the first time. Later a tradition would beintroduced during the editorial process to allow the second version to be woven into the tale by concocting a connective fictional device which stated that Moses'dropped and broke' the first set, thus making 'a second trip up the mountain necessary' This is not a description of an historical event but is merely a product of the editing together of two disparate tablet traditions of Sinai, an attempt to weave them together into one unharmonious fictional narrative.
"YAHWEH said to Moses, "Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give youthe tables of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for theirinstruction." So Moses rose with his servant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain ofGod ... Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory ofYAHWEH settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and on the seventh day hecalled to Moses out of the midst of the cloud." (Exodus Chapter 24 verse 12 verse 15)
The story begins with a reference to 'no one seeing God,' amotif of the alternate tradition, and after having Moses meet God on 'the seventh day' (anallusion to the Sabbath) a reference to 'forty days' is included, once again in an attempt to'harmonize' the two conflicting versions of events by weaving together bits and pieces of eachtradition.
Exodus Chapter19 can be considered a prelude to Exodus Chapter32 and the Golden Calf incident. It is a doublet of the introduction to the otherversion of the Tablet story. In both Exodus Chapter 19 and Exodus Chapter24, God announced a covenant and the people replied,
"whatever God has said we will do."(Exodus Chapter 19 verse 8, Exodus Chapter 24 verse 3)
In the earlier version a big crowd then went up the mountainto eat and drink and see God. In the later version, in Exodus Chapter19, the people have to do some specially ordained purification rites. The mountainis strictly off limits, being far to holy.
"Do not even touch its base. Anyone who touches the mountain will be put to death. No onemust touch him; he must be stoned to death or shot; neither man or animal may be allowed tolive." (Exodus Chapter 19 verse 12)
Finally, several days later, the people were allowed to approachthe base of the mountain. God instructed Moses to warn the people solemnly that they would notsee God, or they would die. (ExodusChapter 19 verse 21) Then only Moses and Aaron were allowed to go any further. Even priestswere banned from the mountain. The people could not come up the mountain, and strict bounds wereset,
"for fear that God might break out against them."
(Exodus Chapter 19 verse 24)
As is so common in Exodus, the narrative is constantlyinterrupted by God giving long speeches about how lengthy rituals must be performed, how toproperly sacrifice an animal (as God had commanded those people when God brought them out ofEgypt, no doubt). Indeed, you will notice that every time God's mouth opens, the long ritualisticmonologue must go on for many chapters before any narrative can resume. This was done tojustify both later Levitical law and the state law of the ancient Hebrew theocratic autocracy bysuggesting Divine imprimatur. These conflicting narrative segments are woven togethersomewhat awkwardly, with the editors doing their best to reconcile the inconsistencies, anexercise, I should add, in futility, but they gamely made the attempt.
The people started giving whole offerings to the calf, and Godtold Moses to get down the mountain quickly for the people were worshiping a calf. God toldMoses,
"Leave me alone so that I can destroy these people and make a great nation spring from you." (Exodus Chapter 32 verse 11)
Moses managed to talk God out of doing this with a reminderof how embarrassing it would if the nations heard that God brought people out of Egypt and thenkilled them all. (Exodus Chapter 32 verse 11)
"So God thought better of the evil with which the people had been threatened ." (Exodus Chapter 32 verse 14)
When Moses reached the bottom of the mountain, he heardsinging and saw revelry around the calf, and he dropped the two tablets and they shattered. Heground up the calf and made 'bitter waters' out of it, which he forced the people to drink, and thenhe turned on Aaron. And God, we are told, was so angry that he could have just about killedAaron.
"Who is on God's side?" (Exodus Chapter 32 verse 26)Moses asked, and the Levites stood beside him. He then ordered them to
"kill your brother, friend, and neighbor." (Exodus Chapter 32 verse 27)
He then announced that this was the day of the institution of the Levitical priesthood because bykilling their brothers, friends, and neighbors,
"you have brought a blessing this day upon yourselves."
(Exodus Chapter 32 verse 29)
Moses went up the mountain a second time, and this is preceded by language mimicking that ofExodus Chapter 19, suggesting again an originalconnection between these two narrative segments.
"No one must go up the mountain with you. No one must be even seen anywhere near themountain, nor must flocks and herds graze within the sight of that mountain."
(Exodus Chapter 34 verse 3)
The Golden Calf story is an alternate tradition, and thematerial in Exodus Chapter 24 is contradictory. The former contains references to animal sacrifices, Levites, priestly rites of purification andablution, concerns about seeing God and dying, and most notably, a reference to a golden calf, allof which date the material to a time after the institution of Levitical law and placing the material ina time after the period of the divided Kingdoms. Aaron made one calf but then is made to say'gods' (plural) to repeat the words Jeroboam used when ordaining the calf idol religious centers.
How stupid could Jeroboam have been to make calves andthen use the very words that Aaron used to ordain the calf centers, when it was well known, eventhe motivating factor that the reason for the institution of the calf centers was because the peopleremained fiercely loyal to their previous traditions? Jeroboam said to himself, "they will kill me." Hecould not have then been stupid enough to make two calves, for then the people would have killedhim, if we assume that the calf stories were known in that day.
The story of the Golden Calf and the surrounding material isnot historical, but rather is a polemic. The readers who were contemporary with the parablewould have understood exactly what the point of the story was. The writer is posing a question,and answering it: what would Moses would have done, if he was alive to see those people kissingthe calves? That a group of priestly, discontented Levites wrote the story is also demonstrated bythe priestly concerns embedded in the narrative, as I noted above, and there is also an impliedthreat in that the people will 'drink bitter waters,' waters contaminated with ground up calfidol.
The Levites were concerned with more than simply attackingthe new calf cult that had excluded them and left them jobless. The Levites in the north at Shilohwere dispossessed by Jeroboam and replaced by others. Thus, we have the Levites as the onlyones loyal to Moses in the story. However, a distinction is being made in the narrative byemploying the symbolism of Aaron as a 'failed Levite' and the one who was responsible foractually making the calf. The unflattering reference to Aaron in the story strengthens theconclusion that it was northern Levites who wrote this version of events, because it was acceptedthat the priesthood in the Jerusalem Temple was of 'Aaronite' descent. God, the northern Leviteswere suggesting, was just about mad enough to kill those temple priests.
According to 'orthodox' temple dogma of the day, only 'theAaronite' priesthood of the Jerusalem temple were true Levites, and this distinction, foundencoded in the Law books, excluded the northern Levites and disparaged their right to be calledpriests. 'True' Levites were linear descendants of Aaron and his sons, and this excluded thenorthern Levites of Shiloh. In the following passage you will notice how the genealogy of the priesthood narrows to focus on Aaron.
"Amram took to wife Jochebed his father's sister and she bore him Aaron and Moses, the years ofthe life of Amram being one hundred and thirty-seven years. Aaron took to wife Elisheba, thedaughter of Amminadab and the sister of Nahshon; and she bore him Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, andIthamar. Eleazar, Aaron's son, took to wife one of the daughters of Putiel; and she bore himPhinehas. These are the heads of the fathers' houses of the Levites by their families. These are theAaron and Moses to whom YAHWEH said: "Bring out the people of Israel from the land of Egyptby their hosts." (Exodus Chapter 6 verse 20)
Furthermore, the priesthood was inherited and followed strictfamily lines, it was to be like this 'forever,' and this permanently excluded outsiders.
"And you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall attend to their priesthood; but if anyone else comes near, he shall be put to death." (Numbers Chapter 3 verse 10)
"Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from amongthe people of Israel, to serve me as priests--Aaron and Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazarand Ithamar." (Exodus Chapter 28 verse 1)
"In the tent of meeting, outside the veil which is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shalltend it from evening to morning before YAHWEH. It shall be a statute for ever to be observedthroughout their generations by the people of Israel." (Exodus Chapter 27 verse 21)
"These are the garments which they shall make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a coat of checkerwork, a turban, and a girdle; they shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother and his sonsto serve me as priests." (Exodus Chapter 28 verse 4)
"And you shall put them upon Aaron your brother, and upon his sons with him, and shall anointthem and ordain them and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests; and they shall beupon Aaron, and upon his sons, when they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come nearthe altar to minister in the holy place; lest they bring guilt upon themselves and die. This shall be aperpetual statute for him and for his descendants after him ... and you shall gird them with girdlesand bind caps on them; and the priesthood shall be theirs forever. Thus you shall ordain Aaronand his sons." (Exodus Chapter 28 verse 41, Exodus Chapter 29 verse 9)
It should not come as a surprise that this theme is carried onin the priestly document of Leviticus, thus indicating that this book is closely connected with thesouthern Levites attached to the Jerusalem temple cult.
"The priest from among Aaron's sons, who is anointed to succeed him, shall offer it to YAHWEHas decreed forever." (Leviticus Chapter 6 verse 22)
It is made clear that this state of affairs is 'authoritative,'through the device of showing Moses participating in an elaborate ritual of ordination involvingelements of the cult sacrifices practiced in the temple.
"Then Moses presented the other ram, the ram of ordination; and Aaron and his sons laid theirhands on the head of the ram. And Moses killed it, and took some of its blood and put it on the tipof Aaron's right ear and on the thumb of his right hand and on the great toe of his right foot. ThenMoses took some of the anointing oil and of the blood which was on the altar, and sprinkled itupon Aaron and his garments, and also upon his sons and his sons' garments; so he consecratedAaron and his garments, and his sons and his sons' garments with him." (Leviticus Chapter 8 verses 22 and 30)
Again and again we are told that the priesthood is anhereditary office, and belongs exclusively to Aaron 'and his sons' forever.
"Outside the veil of the testimony, in the tent of meeting, Aaron shall keep it in order fromevening to morning before YAHWEH continually; it shall be a statute forever throughout yourgenerations ... Every Sabbath day Aaron shall set it in order before YAHWEH continually onbehalf of the people of Israel as a covenant forever. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons." (Leviticus Chapter 24 verses 3 and 8)
Not only is the death penalty called for if anyone other thanAaron and his sons 'approaches,' but the rules and regulations and prohibitions and taboossurrounding the rights, duties, and privileges attached to the priesthood are so severe that evenAaron and his sons are not safe, as is illustrated in the story of 'unauthorized ritual'. If even'legitimate' hereditary priests were under such solemn injunction, then it is implied that 'usurpers'(such as the 'illegitimate' northern Levites) certainly deserved death as well, as called for in thepriestly rules.
"And you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall attend to their priesthood; but if anyone else comes near, he shall be put to death." (Numbers Chapter 3 verse 10)
"Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer, and put fire in it, and laidincense on it, and offered unholy fire before YAHWEH, such as he had not commanded them.And fire came forth from the presence of YAHWEH and devoured them, and they died before theLORD." (Leviticus Chapter 10 verse 1)
There is no such thing as a trivial infraction under the priestlycode, and every rule was permanent and unalterable, having been of 'divine origin.' The theme ispicked up again and the point driven home in the story of the 'unauthorized goat sacrifice'
"Now Moses diligently inquired about the goat of the sin offering, and behold, it was burned! Andhe was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron who were left." (Exodus Chapter 10 verse 16)
No doubt they barely escaped with their necks intact, whichis remarkable, when you consider that their two brothers were burned alive by God for a similarinfraction of priestly regulations.
When the Aaronite mythology is compared to the myth of the Golden Calf, it becomes obvious that there are two competing psuedo-histories which purport to describe theordination of the priesthood. In the version favored by the southern Jerusalem priesthood (as onewould expect) the priesthood was a divinely ordained office, it was hereditary, and it wasinstituted officially by Moses, following explicit instructions from God and, according to 'the divinely ordained' rules and regulations, any interloper would be punished by death. We are expected to believe that this was notbecause the Jerusalem priesthood had a vested interest in protecting their hereditary rights, but ratherthat God was very, very strict about sacrificing those goats and so on and only a trainedprofessional could possibly know all the intricate details and so save their lives. Any 'layman'who approached would have to put to death 'for fear that YAHWEH might break out against thepeople,' so ferocious was God in these matters of having goats sacrificed at just the right time andfollowing exactly the divine methodology.
In the alternative tradition, found in the story of theGolden Calf, the Levitical priesthood was awarded based on 'merit.' On the day that the (proxiesfor the northern) Levites 'killed their brothers, friends, and neighbors' they 'brought a blessing onthemselves' and were appointed to the priesthood. No mention was made of 'hereditary rights', andAaron is portrayed in the most unfavorable light. The northern Levites were expressing theirhatred of the calf cult in the most extreme terms (they wanted to kill their brothers, friends, andneighbors, and sarcastically suggested that God would richly reward them for doing so). Themeaning of the polemic would not have been lost on their contemporaries who also would havepicked up on the sarcasm.
Not only is this version an alternative myth of the origins ofthe priesthood, one more favorable to the northern Levites not attached to the southern templecult, aspersions are also cast on the legitimacy of the claims of the priests in the Jerusalem temple,through the device of casting aspersions on the character of Aaron. First we are told that 'Aaron'was an unfit candidate for the priesthood, and showed it by allowing lax conduct among thepeople, even helping them to make the calf. Indeed the Golden Calf was Aaron's suggestion. Hethen offered a lame excuse when confronted by Moses. Political and religious commentary isbeing made here on events that were contemporary to the time of the Northern Levites, and onthe much hated novel calf cult that had put them out of work, and they are also getting in theirdigs at the priests in the Jerusalem temple cult.
"And Aaron said, "Let not the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are seton evil ... Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, totheir shame among their enemies) ... And YAHWEH sent a plague upon the people, as punishmentfor the calf which Aaron made." (Exodus Chapter 32 verses 22, 25, and 35)
The bible is a complex web of traditions and not a cohesivewhole. In at least some cases it is possible to untangle the various threads and identify specificauthors working with a specific agenda. The example of the Golden Calf story is one such threadthat can be pulled out, and the evidence strongly suggests that the story was written by Levites, inparticular Northern Levites, during the time of the divided Kingdoms. It is their version of eventsthat has become 'official' so that through countless movies and story books everyone is familiarwith 'the story of Exodus' and the Golden Calf, but few people are familiar with just howcomplex these traditions really are, or that there are really multiple versions of events, and thisstory of the Ten Commandments and Sinai is just one of many examples of the same sort of thing.
As for history in all this, there is certainly 'history' in the Bible, but it is the history of social divisions and political and religious feuds, and not at all the 'official' story of the Exodus, or anything else for that matter. Spot cannot both have four legs and three. Either he ismissing a leg or he isn't. When presented with multiple visions and versions of events, thequestion of historicity arises. The Calf Idol version of the tablet story is polemical and intended asa response to Jeroboam's new calf idol religion, written by jobless and disgruntled northernLevites, who had been put out of a job by those two calves.