Thursday, March 11, 2010

Old and new interpretations of the golden calf story

Briefly, the ancient interpreters read the Golden Calf story this way:

After becoming concerned (via the instigation of Janes and Jambres) that Moshe would not return from Sinai, the people went to Hur and demanded a new leader. Hur said no, and was killed. When Aaron saw this he feared not only for his life, but also that the people would commit the unpardonable sin of murdering a priest,so he decided to stall. First, he told the people to go and collect gold from their wives, expecting the women would be reluctant to part with their jewelry. When this maneuver failed, he took the gold and tried to stall again by wrapping it in a cloth. Michah, a villain from the days of slavery,  took the bundle of gold and threw it onto a fire, together with a magical plate that had been used previously to raise the bones of Joseph from the Nile. Miraculously, a living, breathing, golden calf emerged from the fire. When Aaron saw this, he tried to stall again by building an alter and declaring that the next day would be a feast. Next morning, the people woke up early and reveled in front of the calf, committing all acts of debauchery. 

For several centuries this, with or without minor variations, was the official story of the golden calf. Its still taught today in Orthodox Jewish schools.

Modern interpreters approach the story differently, with their interpretation informed by the absence of some core assumptions. Most importantly, they do not assume that the story is the revealed word of God, nor do they assume that the books were written in the chronological order traditionally assigned to them.

According to some modern interpreters the golden calf story was written during the era of Israelite kings and it is really a disguised attack on Jeroboam and Aaron's descendants. They bolster this claim with the following observations:

(1) When the calf is ready, the people declare: "These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt!" This, say the modern interpreters, is an odd thing for witnesses of the Exodus to say. They also note that these words are precisely what Jeroboam said five centuries later when he established golden claves in Dan and Bethel (I Kings 12:2‑33)

(2) Aaron and Jeroboam both had sons who died under unusual circumstances. Aaron's sons were called Nadav and Avihu; Jereboam's sons are Nadav and Aviya. Scholars say Avihu and Aviya are the same name, and in any case the similarities can't be a coincidence.

In the light of these observations (and many others) some modern interpreters propose that a  Levite wrote the golden calf story for the purpose of discrediting the Aaronid priesthood. As made clear in  1 Kings 12:31 Jeroboam didn't permit Levities to serve in his temples; the honor was reserved for Aaronids. According to this approach, the golden calf story was really written to discredit Jeroboam's calves and to discredit the Aaronid priests who served them.

A second modern interpretation is slightly different. This view proposes that the golden calf story was originally written (perhaps by an Aaronid priest) to justify Jeroboam's calves which, at first (the theory goes) were meant to serve the same purpose as the cherubim served in the southern Temple. Just as the people brought material to Moshe for the purpose of building the tabernacle and its utensils (including the cherubim), they also brought gold to Aaron for a similar purpose. When Aaron says the calf "came out of the fire" he's saying that it was created with God's assistance, and His blessing. Later,when Jeroboam's calves were worshiped as idols, their origin story was altered to show that they were really created in sin. This updated version of the legend is what we inherited in Exodus.

My View? I have no idea, and certainly would not wish for anyone to say I'm 100 percent behind either set of interpretations.

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