From a paper due tomorrow:
The narrative of the golden calf, spanning chapter 32 to 34, is placed spot in the middle of the instructions concerning the tabernacle, and its being built. This “intrusion” of the calf narrative “is thus seen to be powerful, and as such it becomes a sort of commentary on the text”1.
1) The instructions for the tabernacle conclude with instructions for the sabbath, and the construction of the tabernacle begins on the sabbath. As Dumbrell notes, “the concept of rest becomes increasingly significant as the biblical goal of redemption is seen as rest in God’s presence.”1 Just as the tabernacle is to be the locus of God’s presence, so it “was conceived to initiate a new era in the life of the community of Israel” and the rites performed within it “thereafter [affording] every Israelite the possibility of spiritual renewal and moral regeneration.”2 God’s presence is a foretaste of a restored creation.
Yet, the golden calf is manufactured after a protracted absence of Moses from the camp. While the cloud of God’s presence is visible to the people of Israel (19:9), it is Moses’ absence that they are worried about, “as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” (32:1) Access to Yahweh is cut off, and so they make Aaron produce “gods” for them. After obliging, Aaron then declares a “feast to Yahweh.” (32:5) The command to make a calf is a more subtle idolatry than simply a whoring after new gods and a rejection of Yahweh. As I will argue it is the demand to have this God immediately accessible on their own terms.
2) Yahweh is above all gods, and is holy and inapproachable. Indeed, when the elders, along with Moses and Aaron, ascend the mountain after ratifying the covenant they see, “the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.” (24:10) Because of this all the people are vocally commanded to “not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above…for I Yahweh your God am a jealous God.” (20:4-5) More specifically, Moses is given as the first section of covenant law that “you shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.” (20:23) Media used in worship is not the problem, chapters 25-31 are devoted to it. The problem is that the people in making the golden calf, have “[associated] the manufactured image with the God who brought them out of Egypt.” The “object emblematic of the divine presence” that they demanded of Aaron, “was precisely what the Tabernacle was meant to fulfill”3, rather than a mute idol. Sarna, along with Cassuto understand the golden calf not as the object of worship, but the footstool for the invisible God, Yahweh, which the Israelites presumptuously supply for themselves. In this picture, “the calf serves the same purpose as [the cherubim] do.”4 However much syncretism may be present here, the Israelites are not content to loyally wait on Yahweh for his instructions for worship.
3) Just as the Passover was celebrated with a meal, so after the covenant was ratified, the elders, Moses and Aaron “beheld God, and ate and drank.” (Ex 24:11) The covenant ratification is celebrated by a feast in God’s presence. This fellowship sets the pattern for the many festivals celebrating God’s continued loyalty to the covenant. Yet the feast Aaron declares ironically is contrasted to all other feasts that precede it. Rather than sealing and celebrating the covenant in the presence of Yahweh, they have egregiously broken the covenant in the presence of a god of their own making. It is this feast to which Paul makes reference, in order to warn the Corinthians.
1N. Sarna, Exploring Exodus (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), 215
1W. J. Dumbrell The Faith of Isreal (Grand Rapids, MI: 1988), 37
2N. Sarna, Exploring Exodus (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), 214
3N. Sarna Exploring Exodus (New York: Schoken Bookd, 1986), 217
4So U. Cassuto Commentary On Exodus, (Jerusalem; Magnes Press, 1997), 407, and N. Sarna, Exploring Exodus (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), 210, 218ff.