This week’s parsha, Ki Tisa, tells of a pretty disturbing incident in our Torah: the creation of the golden calf. Just a quick recap, hundreds of thousands of Israelites are gathered at the base of Mount Sinai in the wilderness, and Moses has ascended to the top of the mountain where God is waiting to meet him. The people below cannot see anything except the clouds, lightning, and fire, and they can only hear the thunder. Apparently, it takes Moses a little too much time to get the revelation we are to receive as a people; in the meanwhile, some of the leaders below, including Moses’ own brother, Aaron, create a new god, a calf made from gold, and begin worshipping it and dancing around it. When Moses returns, he sees this ridiculous scene, thinking “how long have I been gone?” He destroys the calf, and God sends a plague to the people in punishment. There’s lots to talk about in this incident, including lessons of accountability, faith, and leadership. But I thought I’d touch on just a few textual issues we should keep an eye on when we read this parsha.
It is commonly thought among biblical scholars that the Golden Calf incident is an insert, that it is squeezed between the declaration of laws, as something to add in to spice up the story. If that’s the case, we need two things: one, the source of the story, and two, the way the editors made the story fit in the mega-narrative. Let’s start with the latter, as I think it’s more exciting. How, if the golden calf incident is an inserted story, did the editors make it look like it was part of the flow of the Torah? There were a few challenges in regards to the logistics of this task. The Israelites have been wandering through the wilderness before they arrive at Sinai, having left as slaves in Egypt. Slaves are those with very few possessions, and now they become nomads moving from camp to camp with only what they need to survive. So, the question regarding the golden calf incident we must ask is, where did they get all that gold? When the people ask Aaron to help create a new god, he says “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” Pretty fancy stuff for a group of former slaves! Everyone’s wearing gold earrings? That’s another good question. And this doesn’t quite add up, and the editors knew this. So, let’s see if we can unpack it and figure this out.
Right now, we’re in Exodus 32. If we rewind twenty chapters, we get to the scene in Exodus 12, wherein the Israelites are fleeing Egypt. We know the stories from Passover, that they are in such a hurry that they can’t let their bread rise. So they pack up all their livestock, and their unleavened bread-cakes and depart Egypt after 430 years in slavery. Seems like a good place to get some gold, yes? And as it happens, we have a wonderfully awkward insertion in Exodus 12: 31-37:
“He [Pharaoh] summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship Adonai as you said! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and begone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!” The Egyptians urged the people on, impatient to have them leave the country, for they said, “We shall all be dead.” So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders. The Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing. And Adonai had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians. The Israelites journeyed from Raamses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children.”
So first of all, we have to laugh at the fact that the text says that the Israelites are “borrowing” the gold and silver from the Egyptians on their way out. This isn’t borrowing, it’s stealing. On their way out, the Israelites apparently stole heaps of gold and silver from the Egyptians. So, this was the solution by the editors on how to make the gold appear twenty chapters later. The Israelites, like pirates of old, took the booty from their enemies, and fashioned earrings to wear throughout the many days in the wilderness as they journeyed to Mt. Sinai. Not the best, but I suppose it fulfills the need of the meta-narrative.
Our next question was that if the golden calf story was an insertion, where did the idea for the story come from? For that, we turn forward to the book of Judges, wherein we find the Israelites in the holy land, going from ruler to ruler, some good, some bad, including an Ishmaelite named Gideon. The text begins:
“Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us — you, your son, and your grandson as well; for you have saved us from the Midianites.” But Gideon replied, “I will not rule over you myself, nor shall my son rule over you; Adonai alone shall rule over you.” And Gideon said to them, “I have a request to make of you: Each of you give me the earring he received as booty.” (They had golden earrings, for they were Ishmaelites.) “Certainly!” they replied. And they spread out a cloth, and everyone threw onto it the earring he had received as booty. The weight of the golden earrings that he had requested came to 1,700 shekels of gold; this was in addition to the crescents and the pendants and the purple robes worn by the kings of Midian and in addition to the collars on the necks of their camels. Gideon made an ephod of this gold and set it up in his own town of Ophrah. There all Israel went astray after it, and it became a snare to Gideon and his household.”
Did we catch that? A ruler asks the people of Israel to toss in their golden earrings, which were stolen from the Midianites, and an idol was set up in the town, causing Israel to go astray. There are also pieces of this kind of narrative in First Kings, with Jereboam who creates two golden calves, and they create a festival, very similar to the cries for a party at the base of Sinai.
With that, our supposition that the golden calf narrative was added later is strengthened by the fact that we have some stories in the Tanakh that have pieces of it: the calf, the gold, where the gold comes from, the festival afterwards. Now, is it possible that the golden calf story came first and the Judges and Kings stories came after? Yes, of course. What throws us off is that those stories are perfectly set in their larger narratives, while the golden calf story seems like an awkward break. It appears that it just doesn’t belong there, to say nothing of the insert in Exodus 12 of Israelites grabbing gold from Egyptians on their way out, which just seems like a very lazy and silly way to get the golden calf story to make sense.
Like so many studies in Torah, we are left with more questions than answers. If our supposition is correct, why did the editors feel the need to put in the golden calf story? Why did we need a model of idol worship at the very moment we were to receive the Torah at Sinai? And was that story so important as to make Israelites appear as thieves on their way out of 400 years of slavery? And, of course, why do the Israelites keep building idols over and over again? What is the purpose of the Torah and the Tanakh showing us how many times we strayed from our God, and in such similar manners? These are good questions, and many of them do not have definitive answers. Rather, like so many moments of our torah, they should serve as points of departure. And so, I invite you all, after Shabbat tonight, and in the coming week, to sit down with a good bottle of wine, and continue the conversation with each other.