The curious incident of the calf in the desert

The curious incident of the calf in the desert

Last week I introduced the idea that the first five books of the Bible were written by more than one writer. Generally it is thought there were at least four writers, and we met two of them in the telling of the two creation stories. The Yahwist, so called because she refers to God as Yahweh, is the older writer. The image I suggest is that of an elder telling a story around a campfire. She is the custodian of the folk tales of Israel. The Priestly writer is more formal in style and is interested not so much in origins as in making sure the people of Israel know the rules that are to govern their behaviour. It is these rules that make Israel distinct from the other nations of the ancient world. And foremost among them is the rule that they shall worship only one God.

Today we look at the book of Exodus. This is, scholars believe, an older collection of stories than Genesis, though they may have been written down later. Perhaps before we explore Exodus and its story of the founding of Israel, a story as central to the Jewish faith as the birth of Jesus is to Christianity, we should look at the overall structure of the Old Testament.

I’ve already mentioned one subdivision within the Old Testament; the first five books are called the Pentateuch and they have a particular significance in the story of Israel’s founding and in the establishment of all the rules that make for healthy human relationship in that ancient culture. Pentateuch is a Greek word meaning five scrolls or five books and it likely came to be applied to this part of the Bible around the time of the first translation of the Bible into Greek, two to three hundred years before the birth of Jesus.

The Hebrew term applied to these five books is Torah. It is one of those words that has multiple meanings and multiple applications, so context is important in discerning precisely what is meant. Generally it is translated as law. but its meaning is broader than that, you could almost say that Torah means the revelation of God’s desire for humankind. Sometimes it refers to the whole of the written scriptures. There is also an important notion of the unwritten Torah, which recognizes that the power of God to communicate with humankind is not limited to what may have been revealed in the past.

Jews do not refer to the Old Testament as the Old Testament and as I said last week they order the books quite differently. Their term is Tanakh which includes the first letters of the Hebrew words Torah, Neviim and Ketuvim, which translate as Law, Prophets and Writings. The latter is a collection of things that don’t quite fit into the other two categories.

The Old Testament of Christianity contains 39 books while the Tanakh has 35. The Old Testament arranges them differently, first by dividing four of them; Samuel, Kings and Chronicles become two part books and Ezra and Nehemiah, combined in the Tanakh become separate books in the Christian Old Testament. The most significant difference is the way in which the books of the prophets have shifted from the middle in the Tanakh to their location at the end of the Christian collection. This was done to serve the Christian theological purpose of treating the books of the prophets as an intentional foretelling of the coming of Jesus. We’ll talk more about the prophets next week.

That gives us some basic understanding of the structure of the Old Testament. It took centuries for the church, following the death of Jesus, to settle on which books to include and how to arrange them. It was not until the fifth century after Jesus’ death when St. Jerome gathered together Latin translations of the 39 books of the Old and the 27 books of the new to create the official or canonical version accepted by the church. Jerome’s Latin text, called the Vulgate, was the official Bible of the Western Church for close to 1,000 years.

Let me get back to Genesis and Exodus – the titles by the way come from the Vulgate and are the Latin words meaning Beginning and Departure. I want to spend a little more time with these two books that are the most formative part of the Torah.

Genesis begins with the creation, of the cosmos and of the earth and of all the creatures on it, including the first humans, Adam and Eve. There follows the story of the first murder, when their son Cain kills his brother Abel, the first of many “brother” stories in these first two books of the Bible.

There are then three stories that tell of how humankind falls into sin – which I understand to mean they fall away from God or abandon their relationship with God. We are told that in each instance God intervenes to prevent the total self-destruction of humankind. In the story of Noah God sends a great flood. In the story of Babel God divides the people into different language groups to stop them from building a tower that will reach to the heavens and enable humans to be like God. And in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah God destroys the cities that are worshipping other Gods and engaging in forbidden rituals.

These stories take us to the half way point in Genesis where we finally meet Abraham, the founder of Israel and of Islam, the Jewish and the Arabic peoples. Abraham is a nomad, a wanderer, a personification of the human journey in which at the end of life we come to the place God would have us be. In the story of the following five hundred or so years, his descendants almost disappear. They are driven out of the land of Canaan become slaves in Egypt, and from there they again become desert wanderers for forty years.

A convention of the Hebrew way of speaking is that emphasis or importance is indicated by repetition. So if something is important it will be repeated one or more times in different ways. Knowing that helps us to understand the significance of the two stories of the Promised Land; first the story of Abraham coming to the land of Canaan and then 500 years later Moses leading the people back to the same place. The second story, complete with divine commands and God’s intervention reinforces the first, giving it greater credibility and importance through the retelling.

To recap a bit here, the structure of these stories, the way they link with each other, tells us something about God’s intention for humankind that is a broader message than what we hear when we listen to them as separate tales about an ancient people. At their heart these stories tell us that in order for humankind to prosper we need to live together in community with each other and to do so requires a balance between behaviours that meet our own desires and behaviours that serve the good of the group. Too much focus on our own ends and the result is anarchy. Too much focus on the group and individuals suffer, through slavery or tyranny or both. The land of milk and honey, the Promised Land is not so much a place as it is a way of living that balances individual and community.

Which brings us to the stories we heard today. Bari told the children the familiar account of Moses coming down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments. If we read forward in the next couple of chapters we discover that God did not stop at ten. In fact Leviticus and Numbers, the next two books of the Pentateuch are full of rules. Jewish tradition says that God gave Israel 613 rules to live by – and you thought following Ten Commandments was tough. There are rules about what to eat and how to cut your hair and how to plant crops and how to weave fabric and on and on. The number 613, by the way was thought to be the number of bones in the human body.

Humankind quickly discovered, however, that Ten Commandments, or even 613, were not enough to cover all situations. They also discovered that the rules given were not as clear as they might at first seem to be. For instance the 6th commandment “thou shalt not kill” does at first reading seem clear enough. But in fact the word we translate as “kill” is better translated as “murder” and that word may only have applied to killing fellow Hebrews. Another point of unclarity arises when we consider that the commandment doesn’t make any allowance for killing in cases of self-defense, or to protect an innocent third person.

For purposes of today’s sermon my point is not so much that it can be difficult to know for sure what the Bible says, but that if we are to understand the roots of our faith we have an obligation to constantly visit and revisit familiar texts to deepen our understanding and to discern how they apply in our world which is very different from the one in which they were written.

OK, so I haven’t mentioned the Golden Calf yet and we’re almost out of time. When you listened to that story did you notice anything weird?

In verse 20, immediately after Moses comes down from the mountain and sees the people dancing and the golden calf, he throws down the tablets with the commandments and then, this is the weird part, he burns the calf and grinds up the gold and mixes it with water and has them drink it.

Why would he do that? The conventional interpretation is that this is a form of punishment, which is a reasonable assumption given that other punishments follow, but I think there’s another way to look at this.

Remember our priestly and Yahwist authors? The actual details about the creation of the calf and even the drinking of the ash of gold seem to be the work of the Yahwist. They represent an older story that has been incorporated into the Book of Exodus, but one that the priests could not leave alone in its simplicity and mystery – they had to retell it in a way that served their own objectives, which is why they added several verses describing the slaying of friends, siblings and neighbours.

We usually interpret these events as the people engaging in blasphemy by worshipping a calf of gold, but Aaron, the chief priest and Moses’ brother, the one who formed the calf does not call on the people to worship the calf, rather he seems to be calling on them to offer their gold to Yahweh as a sacrifice, for he says “let us hold a festival to Yahweh.”

This still leaves the question of why Moses made them drink the gold. My own view is that it is not a punishment but a symbolic way of showing that God does not want traditional sacrifices of animals or precious metal. God wants us to dedicate ourselves to God; we are to be the sacrifices – we are the gold so to speak. And by saying we are sacrifices I am not suggesting we burn ourselves on a holy fire, but that we commit ourselves to lives of discipleship, seeking to be worthy children of the God who created us.

This concludes what I will say about the Pentateuch, the five books that provide the story of the origin of Israel and prescribe how the people are to live as a nation in discipleship to God. Next week we pick up speed considerably and zoom ahead to read from one of the books of what is called the prophetic literature. We will encounter the prophet Jeremiah and consider a little bit of this different type of Biblical literature and how we are to understand it for our own time.

Rev. Dr. John Burton reserves all rights © 2019.
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Texts: Exodus 20: 1-21 and Exodus 32: 1-6, 15-29