Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Vayakheil (Exodus 35:1-40:38). The haftarah in the Sefardi tradition is 1 Kings 7:13-26. (The haftarah in the Ashkenazi tradition is 1 Kings 7:40-50.)
Both Moses’ tent sanctuary and Solomon’s temple have a place for priests to wash their hands and feet before they enter the holy building. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil, the master craftsman Betzaleil makes a simple but symbolic wash-basin. (See my blog post Pekudei: Basin of Mirrors.)
And he made the kiyor of bronze and its stand of bronze from the mirrors of the army of women who mobilized at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Exodus 38:8)
kiyor (כִּיִוֹר) = basin, laver.
Solomon’s temple has ten such basins, cast out of regular molten bronze rather than mirrors, perched on elaborate wheeled stands. But King Solomon also has his master bronze artisan cast a water container so huge it is called a sea.
Then he made the yam of cast metal, ten cubits from its [lower] rim up to its circular rim, five cubits high, and a measuring-line of thirty cubits around its circumference. (1 Kings 7:23)
yam (יָם) = sea; in Canaanite religion, the name of the god of the sea.
This tub of water would be more than 14 feet (4 meters) across and more than 7 feet (2 meters) high. Since it would be impossible to climb into for bathing, commentators have concluded it had an outlet like a spigot at the bottom, to pour water into a shallower container for washing.
And gourd ornaments were below its rim all around the circle, ten per cubit, encompassing the yam all around; two rows of the gourd ornaments, cast in one piece with it. It was standing on twelve oxen: three facing north and three facing west and three facing south and three facing east. And the yam was on top of them, and all of their hind parts were inward. (I Kings 7:24-25)
The most striking difference between the yam in front of Solomon’s temple and the kiyor in front of Moses’ tent sanctuary is that the yam rests on twelve bronze cows—probably life-size—instead of on an ordinary framework.
Moses discourages the molding of any real animals (as opposed to the keruvim, the composite fantasy animals whose wings are spread over the ark). He smashes and grinds up the golden calf that Aaron makes in the book of Exodus. In a passage after this week’s hafatarah, the first book of Kings criticizes King Jereboam of Israel for putting golden calves in temples at Dan and Bethel.
This may have been a reaction to cow-worship in other religions. The religion of the Hittites to the north included a pair of bulls who carried the weather god Teshub on their backs. To the south, Egyptians worshipped the bull as Apis, the avatar of the gods Ptah and Osiris, and the cow as the goddess Hathor.
Yet throughout the bible, the twelve bronze oxen supporting the yam in front of Solomon’s temple are treated as perfectly acceptable.
Is the huge tub of water in front of Solomon’s temple called the yam simply because it is so large, or does it evoke the Canaanite god named Yam? Are the twelve oxen simply decorative, or do they inspire awareness of bull and cow worship?
Throughout history, people have viewed symbols of the divine in two ways. Some people consider a symbolic object or building as a way to evoke the ineffable. Its beauty and impressiveness are like an arrow pointing to the divine, and its specific details (such as fruit, water, architecture that reaches toward the sky) allude to ideas about the divine.
Other people see symbolic things in a more concrete way. A god visits a building or enters a statue. Carrying out rituals in sacred buildings with sacred objects is essential for pleasing the god.
Either way, symbols are important—and often enduring. Even today, Mormons conduct baptisms and sealings in copies of the yam perched on twelve oxen.
One question remains, for King Solomon and for us today: Which symbols from other cultures and from the history of our own culture or religion can enhance our lives, and which symbols should be discarded?
Anyone want a bronze ox?