Ki Tissa: Heard But Not Seen

March 2, 2015 at 6:01 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa | 4 Comments
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah  (first posted 2015, revised 2020)

For 40 days at the top of Mount Sinai, Moses listens to God’s instructions on making a sanctuary and preparing priests for the new religion.  The last details are given in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (“When you bring up”).  Then we learn that the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai have given up and believe Moses is never coming back.

And the people saw that Moses took too long to come down from the mountain, and the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Get up!  Make for us elohim that will go in front of us, because this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what happened to him!”  (Exodus/Shemot 32:1)

elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = gods (the plural of eloha, אֱלוֹהַּ.); a god; God.

Moses is gone, and God’s pillar of cloud and fire, which led them from Egypt to Mount Sinai, has disappeared.  Who or what can lead them through the wilderness now?  When the Israelites ask Aaron to make them elohim, they are asking for an idol, an image of a god that carries some divine power or magic.

Gold calf, Temple of Baalat in Byblos

Gold calf from Temple of Baalat, Byblos

Aaron said to them: “Pull off the gold rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” And all the people pulled off the gold rings in their ears, and they brought them to Aaron.  He took [the gold] from their hand, and he shaped it in the mold, and he made it a calf of cast metal …  (Exodus 32:2-4)

Maybe Aaron forgot that in the Ten Commandments God had ordered: “You shall not make yourself a sculpted image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the water beneath the earth.  You shall not bow down to them nor serve them …  (Exodus 20:4-5)

The people at the foot of Mount Sinai immediately identify the gold calf Aaron makes with the god who made miracles in Egypt and led them out of slavery with a pillar of cloud and fire.

… and they said: “This is your elohim, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”  And Aaron saw, and he built an altar in front of it; and Aaron called out, and said: “A festival for God tomorrow!”  (Exodus 32:4-5)

Aaron uses God’s four-letter proper name, so at least he is not encouraging the people to worship any other god.  But he continues to behave as if God does not mind being worshiped through an idol.  The next day people bring offerings to burn in front of the golden calf and eat the remainder of the meat in a celebratory feast—the standard way to serve a god at that time.

By the end of this week’s Torah portion, the golden calf has been destroyed and its worshipers killed (though Aaron is excused).  But later in the Bible, King Jereboam calls for two gold calves.

The united kingdom of David and Solomon falls apart in the first book of Kings/Melachim when Solomon’s son Reheboam overworks and overtaxes the people.  Jereboam leads the revolt and secession of the north, and becomes the first ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel.  Jerusalem remains the capital of the southern part of the land, the kingdom of Judah.

King Jereboam consolidates his reign by means of two golden calves.

And the king took counsel and he made two gold calves, and he said to them: “Going up to Jerusalem is too much for you.  Here are your gods, Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt.”  And he placed one in Beit El and the other he gave to Dan.  (1 Kings 12:28-29)

The temples at Beit El (a central location) and Dan (far to the north) become the new centers of worship for the northern kingdom.  Although the ten northern tribes worship the God of Israel, the Bible denounces King Jereboam’s action.

And this thing was wrong.  But the people went into the presence of even the one in Dan.  (1 Kings 12:30)

Moses and Joshua Bowing before the Ark, by James Tissot, c. 1900

Yet this does not mean all sculptures are bad.  The temple in Jerusalem has its own sculpted images: the two gold-plated keruvim, hybrid winged creatures erected on either side of the ark by King Solomon, in imitation of the two keruvim that God tells Moses to hammer out of the gold lid of the ark in Exodus 25:18-20.1

Why would God find the keruvim acceptable, but not the golden calves?

 

*

Baal Hadad on bull throne, stele from Arslan Tash

Location, not throne

Modern commentator Robert Alter wrote that the Golden Calf was not intended to be inhabited by a deity, but rather to serve as the throne for a god—just  as Canaanite deities were often shown sitting or standing on a bull or calf.2

The ark with its keruvim is not a throne.  Later in the Bible, God acquires the title “Who Sits Above the Keruvim”.3  But the book of Exodus makes it clear that God manifests as a voice coming from the empty space between the keruvim.When God is enthroned above keruvim in the book of Ezekiel, the glory of God is hovering above the four-faced creatures next to the wheels with eyes in the prophet’s vision—quite different from the two keruvim framing the lid of the ark.

Imaginary, not actual

A sculpture of a calf falls into the category of “a sculpted image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below” which God forbids in the Ten Commandments.  But the keruvim do not represent any known animal on earth. Are they acceptable because they are mythical?  Or did the people in the Ancient Near East consider this hybrid guardian figures representations of angels in the heavens?

Commanded, not volunteered

In his book Kuzari, 12th-century commentator Judah Halevi argued that images were psychologically necessary for people in that era.  Until they reached Mount Sinai, the Israelites followed a visible pillar of cloud and fire.  After the pillar disappeared, they waited for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai with some other visible item.  Only after they concluded Moses would never return did they make an unauthorized image.5

The difference between the keruvim and the Golden Calf, according to Halevi and subsequent commentary by Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel, is that God ordered the keruvim.  God does not want people to use any items for worship that God has not authorized.

Heard, not seen

I think the underlying reason why golden calves are idols but keruvim are acceptable is while a number of people hear God’s voice in the Torah, nobody sees God’s form.  God’s glory (kavod, כָּבוֹד) appears as cloud or fire, not a physical creature.6  Even the pillar of cloud and fire that leads the people through the wilderness is called God’s messenger.  In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, God tells Moses:

You will not be able to see My face, because humankind may not see Me and live. (Exodus 33:20)

Only God’s creations can be seen, not God.  But God’s voice is heard by all the people in the revelation at Mount Sinai.  And throughout the Bible, God speaks to individual human beings.

The people in the Torah portion Ki Tissa err in expecting God to manifest as a visible shape, sitting astride the golden calf or standing on its back.  They want the reassurance of something they can see.  But God only manifests as a voice; God wants people to listen for divine direction.

In the Torah, God does not manifest on the solid and visible Golden Calf; God speaks from an invisible empty space between and above the keruvim.

Maybe God still speaks to us from out of nowhere—if we make empty spaces in our lives, and listen.

  1. See my post Terumah:  Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.
  2. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W. W. Norton & Company, 2008, p. 494.
  3. Isaiah 37:16.
  4. Exodus 25:22.
  5. Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Shemos, Mesorah Publications Ltd., 1994, p. 443-444.
  6. The only exception is when 74 selected people see God’s “feet” on a sapphire pavement after they have hiked halfway up Mount Sinai.  (Exodus 24:9-11)

4 Comments »

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  1. […] Moses is about to walk back down Mt. Sinai with the two stone tablets in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, when God warns him that the Israelites below have cast a golden calf and are worshiping it. (See my blog post Ki Tissa: Heard and Not Seen.) […]

  2. […] 3  Exodus/Shemot  32:1-6.  See my post Ki Tissa: Heard and Not Seen. […]

  3. Good day very nice web site!! Guy .. Excellent ..
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  4. […] Torah portion, is action-packed.  Out of all my earlier blog posts I chose to rework this one:  Ki Tissa: Heard But Not Seen.  It addresses the question of why God orders the Israelites to make a pair of golden keruvim for […]


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