In the thirtieth chapter of Exodus, the Lord gives Moses directions for the construction of the incense altar. Incense is to be burned every morning and evening when Aaron tends to the Tabernacle lamps.
Then the Lord instructs that when a census is taken of the Israelites, every male among them, aged 20 years and up, will pay a half-shekel tax. This is to prevent a plague from breaking out. Censuses, as we shall see, are a problem. Why? I'm not sure.
Verses 17 ff. tells how a basin should be made in which the priests will wash their feet and hands before entering the Tabernacle or approaching the altar. I think it is safe to assume that "feet" simply means "feet" here. Does this lend support to the notion that the priests went barefoot on the holy ground of the Tabernacle?
Verses 22 ff. give recipes for the anointing oil and incense to be used in the Tabernacle. Anyone who concocts these compounds for other uses is to be "cut off" from their people, whatever that means.
Chapter 31 is a short one. It assigns a pair of talented artisans named Bezalel and Oholiab to make the furnishings and vestments previously described.
Verses 12 ff. repeat the Sabbath command and specify the penalty for those who break it. They are to be "cut off from among the people" (v. 14). They are to be "put to death" (v. 15). So, that's what cut off means.
The chapter ends with a brief notice that God, as previously promised, gives Moses two stone tablets, inscribed with the Law, written in YHWH's own handwriting.
Here's the stituation at the start of Chapter 32. It wasn't entirely clear before, probably due to the composite nature of the text, but Moses and Joshua have gone up on Mt. Sinai with 70 of Israel's elders. They all saw YHWH. They ate and drank in his presence. The elder must then have gone back down the mountain. Joshua remained on the mountain, but Moses alone went into the presence of God in the thick darkness of the cloud. Moses is gone, talking with YHWH for some 40 days. (Forty is a significant number in the Bible. We already encountered it in the story of Noah).
I had always thought that Moses was first given the 10 Commandments on the mountain. Apparently not. It seems that God spoke those commandments in the hearing of all the people while Moses was at the base of the mountain (Exodus 19:25). Moses has also written them down. This is significant because it means the Israelites knew better than to worship idols.
But while Moses is away, the people get restless. They want a god they can see, one they can carry with them, maybe even manipulate for their own purposes. They want...dunh! dunh! dunh!...an idol.
Aaron obligingly gathers up their gold earrings and fashions them into a calf. "These are your gods," he tells the Israelites. And those gods apparently include YHWH as Aaron declares a feast to the Lord to begin the next day. And what a feast! It features eating, drinking, and what can only be described as revelry (Wink. Nudge. Say no more).
Up on the mountaintop, YHWH catches wind of all this and is not happy. The Lord tells Moses to go down from the mountain and leave him alone to destroy the people. "YHWH offers the whole covenant to Moses. "I'll make you a nation." But Moses isn't buying it. He calms YHWH down with an appeal to his reputation. "What will the nations say if you brought these people out into the desert only to kill them?"
Moses and Joshua go down the mountain. When they hear the sound of the (ahem) revelry Joshua thinks it is the sound of war. He would think that, being a man of war himself. Moses corrects him.
When Moses sees what's going on, he gets angry himself. He throws the stone tablets of the Law to the ground, smashing them, and ruining any chance we ever had of doing handwriting analysis on YHWH. He grinds the golden calf to powder, mixes it with water, and makes the people drink it. Yes, he's that angry.
Moses confronts his brother Aaron who makes excuses ("The people wanted an idol") and dissembles ("It practically made itself").
Then Moses calls his tribe, the Levites, together. He sends them through the camp with swords and they kill 3000 of the Israelites. Yes, he's that angry.
The next day Moses goes back up the mountain to try to further placate God. God sends a plague anyway. Yes, he's that angry.
The take away from this action-packed and violent episode is that, for the people who compiled Exodus at least, idolatry is a very bad thing. It will continue to be a problem in the narrative future.
What's so bad about idolatry? Is every artistic representation of God an idol? Or does it depend on how that representation is regarded?
It isn't every day I get to illustrate a blogpost with pictures from Chagall and Rembrandt!
Next: Exodus 33-35