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Shemot/Exodus 32:5 And Aharon saw and he built an altar before it; and Aharon cried [out] and said, "A feast to the L-rd tomorrow!"
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This verse comes from near the beginning of the almost incredible story of the golden calf, when Aharon - Moshe's own older brother and the future Kohen Gadol of Israel, who was left in charge of the Israelite camp while Moshe was up Mt. Sinai withHaShem - fashioned an image of a calf from the golden earrings the people had brought out of Egypt and allowed the people to worship it as if it were HaShem Himself. The verse starts with the verb , the 3ms prefix form of the root , to see, in a vav-conversive construction for past-tense sequential narrative action (as indeed are all four verbs in this verse), "and he saw". The unpointed hand-written text - - is ambiguous and could have come instead from the root , to fear, leading Richard Elliott Friedman to suggest that the meaning "And Aharon was afraid", might allow us to credit Aharon's behaviour as "a person who recognises that he has made a dangerous mistake and tries to turn it to something good."
The commentators and ancient sources are split as to what is going on here. Is Aharon trying to hold back a wave of idolatry, or is he leading and facilitating that wave? Our oldest source, the Midrash Rabbah puts these words in Aharon's mouth: "If they build it, one will bring a pebble, another a stone, and as a result their work will be completed at once; but if I build it myself, I shall dally over the work, and our master Moshe will [in the meantime] come down and destroy the objects of idol-worship; moreover, as I am building it, I shall build it to the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He" (Vayikra Rabbah 10:3). In other words, Aharon was playing for time, trying to put the people off until Moshe should return. The Sages say that this is shown by Aharon's declaration - Tomorrow, a feast to the L-rd! - because, "it is written, not 'A feast to the Golden Calf' but 'A feast to the Lord'". TheRalbag summarises: "He built the altar as another delaying tactic and to keep control of the situation."
Starting again from the verb , theRamban suggests that "Aharon saw them set on evil, intent on making the calf, and he arose and built an altar and proclaimed, 'Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Eternal,' so that they would bring offerings to the Proper Name of G-d upon the altar which he built to His Name, and that they should build altars to the shameful thing and that their intent in the offerings should be to none save the Eternal." He tries to support this by pointing out that in the next verse, the Torah only says that "Early next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being" (Shemot 32:6, NJPS); without saying that they were offered to the calf. Rabbi Hirsch says that Aharon "wanted to put up a barrier" and his declaration of a feast, on the next day, to HaShem was "an act of positive allegiance to G-d, the Only One." He supports this from the text by claiming that "the repetition of his name expresses that he did this act in opposition to the utterance of the people and in the full energy of his own personality."
Judah Halevi maintains that "the Children of Israel were not guilty of actual idolatry, but merely with wishing to facilitate their worship of G-d through material symbols. Their offence lay in the fashioning of an image which had been forbidden them and in attributing divine sanctity to the product of their own desires and hands without being commanded to do so by G-d." Is that pleading guilty to a lesser offence in the hope of a smaller sentence?
The Christian commentators notice the parallel between this account in Shemot 32 and the narrative in 1 Kings 12. In the latter, Jereboam I - the first king of the northern kingdom, Israel, that broke away from Solomon's son Reheboam - set up two golden calves, one at Bethel and one at Dan, lest the people continued to worship in Jerusalem and be turned against him. In both narratives, the phrase "This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!" (1 Kings 12:28, NJPS) is used to focus on the calf.1 Brevard Childs makes the interesting comment that "The fact that he could incorporate the calf in a Yahweh festival indicates that he did not understand it as blatant apostasy from Yahweh," suggesting that, "the author allows Aharon to remain in an awkward and compromising position which is not resolved, but only intensified by his own apology" later in Shemot 32:21-24.2 Thomas Dozeman sees that this text "separates Aharon from the people by presenting his perception of the golden calf, as compared to the people at the start of the block: "Come, make us a god who shall go before us" (v. 1, NJPS). In proclaiming a new festival for Yahweh, Aharon reflects Jereboam who institutes a new cultic festival to accompany the golden calves at Bethel and Dan.3 The enemy constantly sets up golden calves in our lives and urges us to worship them as the one who brought us out of Egypt.
Walter Brueggemann sees Aharon "authorising and constituting a full alternative liturgical practice". but points out that "the elements of this new practice around these newly cast gods is not incongruent with the intention of the earlier text. In terms of form, Aharon does what Moshe has authorised: an altar has been authorised (20:24), and burnt offerings and offerings of well-being are permitted, exactly the ones offered here (20:24). The festival has been the aim of the liberation from the beginning, and the celebration in eating and drinking seems to replicate the awesome act at the mountain (24:11)."4 In other words, although the object of the worship has changed, the ritual actions remain the same and the idea of the calf representing HaShem remains in at least Aharon's mind. Terence Fretheim agrees, noting that, "Yahweh is not being set aside. At least this is what Aharon understands by the 'feast to Yahweh'. Aharon's proclamation to that effect suggests the people also so view the matter. The people also proceed to engage in acts of worship that are appropriate, indeed reserved for Yahweh."5 Peter Enns is less sympathetic: "By building a calf and reciting what was earlier said in 20:2, Israel is fashioning a new, false religion according to the pattern of what G-d had revealed to them ... Throughout Exodus we read the refrain that Israel is to leave Egypt to hold a festival to the L-rd. That festival is the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. But the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai turn it into something else."6
The people's original request is for a new leader, a new messenger who will go before them and lead them to the land of Israel, the land G-d has promised them. The problem, however sympathetically the calf incident is viewed, is, according to Fretheim, "a failure to properly acknowledge Yahweh's role. Hence the messenger of G-d has been elevated to a status alongside Yahweh in the allegiance of the people." Now see where Fretheim takes this, because this is critical for us today: "The confusion of G-d with the messenger is not an uncommon problem for communities of faith. Time after time people have lifted up those who speak and lead for G-d and given them virtual divine status. They give their primary allegiance to the messenger, sing their praises of the messenger, and ascribe to the messenger what only G-d can do. It is a serious, if often subtle, form of idolatry. It can also be a problem for the messenger, who might subtly encourage or unknowingly submit to such kinds of thinking."7
Here's the question we need to ask ourselves: how often do we worship something else other than - perhaps close to - the L-rd, perhaps even thinking it is the L-rd? Do we have an issue with images - crucifixes, with or without a figure, crosses, statues, stained-glass windows, texts or even words - that draw us away from our total focus on the L-rd? This isn't a mandate or a call for a destructive purge; it is a challenge to think carefully about out practice and our focus. People too be a problem if we ascribe too much power and authority to men; beware healing ministries, prophets and leaders who sweep an auditorium with their eyes and the audience swoons and faints in waves. Even simple church leaders can be put on pedestals by their congregations, who become unable to think or act without sanction or approval from the pastor.
However much he may have tried to draw the people back to HaShem, Aharon made a golden image and the people fell away from the L-rd by worshipping it. The Messianic Jewish tradition has been exactly that for many people. We must take care lest even unwittingly we make an image or allow people to make us into an image that gets in the way of the true relationship that G-d demands of and offers to His people.
1. - Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), page 559.
2. - Ibid, 566.
3. - Thomas B. Dozeman, Exodus, Eerdmans Critical Commentaries, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns, 2009), page 703-704.
4. - Walter Brueggemann, "Exodus," in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), pages 472-473.
5. - Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 281.
6. - Peter Enns, Exodus, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), page 571.
7. - Fretheim, page 282-283.
Further Study: Hosea 8:11-14; Acts 7:41-42; 1 Corinthians 10:6-13
Application: How can you avoid worshiping an image rather than the One True G-d? Would you recognise an image in your life if you saw one? How can we be true to Yeshua and faithfully present Him and Him only to the world?
Comment - 03:50 17Feb19 B: This reminded me of something the Lord told me: Beware of seeking all the right things instead of The One Who makes all things right.
Comment - 04:43 17Feb19 Paul Saputra: Great teaching. Blessed. More than sharing "who is".
Comment - 10:35 19Feb19 Ruth: Wow. How relevant is that message for today. It infiltrates our churches through music as well as personalities. In view of the recent ceremony between the Pope and Imam witnessed by leaders from many religions including Christianity it is more and more blatant. We could go on and on with different examples but as you challenge, check our own lives. God hates mixture.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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