The Ideological Basis of the Sin of the Golden Calf

  • Rav Amnon Bazak

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


The Ideological Basis of the Sin of the Golden Calf

By Rav Amnon Bazak


I. "A Miserable Bride"

The Gemara (Gittin 36b) records the words of Ula: "It is a miserable bride who prostitutes herself under the very wedding canopy," commenting on the verse – "While the King was still at His banquet, my nard gave forth its fragrance" (Shir Ha-Shirim 1:12). The reference in this verse, according to Rashi, is to the fact that Bnei Yisrael created and worshipped the golden calf while they stood at Sinai, in the presence of the Shekhina. Indeed, it is difficult to understand: after all the wonders and miracles that they witnessed in Egypt, after the splitting of the Red Sea and the level of faith – in God and in Moshe - which Israel attained as a result of that event, and especially after the climax of Sinai, where the entire nation experienced the "thunder and lightning," the awe of the revelation – how could they degenerate so quickly (while still standing at Sinai!) to the point of idolatry? How are we to explain the dramatic contrast between the command, "I am the Lord your God Who took you out of the land of Egypt," and the people's declaration regarding the golden calf, "This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt" (32:4)?

In this essay we shall attempt to present a concise answer to this question.


II. The Evidence from Sefer Yechezkel

To begin, we must refer to the wondrous visions of the prophet Yechezkel. Yechezkel was the only one of all the prophets of Israel who saw the "chariot" of the Holy One, "carrying" the Shekhina from one place to another.[1] This chariot is described in chapter 1 of Sefer Yechezkel in all its detailed structure, including four animals, with four faces, "wheels" beneath them and a firmament above, above the firmament – a throne, with "the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it... this was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God" (Yechezkel 1:26-28).[2]

While from chapter 1 it would appear that what Yechezkel saw was merely the THRONE of God, later on in the book it seems that he saw not only the throne but also a chariot, representing – more than anything else – the exile of the Shekhina. In chapter 10 we find a description of the terrible prophecy of God looking, from above the keruvim in the Beit Ha-Mikdash, towards the chariot carrying the Shekhina towards the east. Towards the end of the book, in chapter 43, we find a description of the return of the Shekhina, upon the same chariot, back to the Beit Ha-Mikdash, at the heart of the prophecy of redemption with which Sefer Yechezkel concludes.

For our purposes, attention should be paid to the description of the four-faced creatures that stand at the base of the chariot. In chapter 1 Yechezkel calls them "animals" ("chayot" – literally, "living things"), while in chapter 10 he calls them "keruvim" (cherubs). A comparison of the description in these two chapters of the creatures' four faces highlights one difference:

(1:10) "the face of a man... the face of a lion... THE FACE OF AN OX... the face of an eagle..."

(10:14) "THE FACE OF A KERUV... the face of a man... the face of a lion... the face of an eagle."

We learn a number of things from this comparison:

1. "Keruv" = ox. This fits in nicely with other linguistic evidence. For example, the verb for plowing in Aramaic is "kerava," since the ox is the classic plowing beast.

2. In chapter 10 the animals are called "keruvim," teaching us that the chariot of the Holy One rests upon four oxen that have four faces.

3. The departure of the Shekhina is in fact only a transition from one type of keruvim to another: from the keruvim permanently stationed in the Beit Ha-Mikdash ("And the glory of the God of Israel was raised above the keruv upon which it had rested, to the threshold of the house" – 9:3) to the "portable" keruvim which carry the Shekhina eastward ("And the glory of God went out from the threshold of the house, and stood over the keruvim" – 10:18). It is only after this transition that Yechezkel understands that the animals that he saw in chapter 1 are none other than keruvim-oxen, whose symbolic task is to carry the Shekhina from one place to another: "That was the animal that I saw beneath the God of Israel by the river Kevar [3], and I knew that they were keruvim" (10:20).


III. The Visions at Sinai and at the River Kevar, and their Relation to the Sin of the Calf

Let us return now to Bnei Yisrael, encamped in the wilderness of Sinai, at the foot of the mountain. At the end of parashat Mishpatim we read a second description of the assembly at Har Sinai (chapter 24), in which Bnei Yisrael experience a vision of God or, more accurately, of His throne:

"And they saw the God of Israel, and under His feet was a kind of paved work of sapphire stone, as clear as the heavens themselves." (Shemot 24:10)

This description is reminiscent of what we read in the first chapter of Yechezkel, where, above each of the animals that stood at the center of the chariot, there was a "firmament:"

"And above the firmament that was above their heads there was the appearance of sapphire stone, the likeness of a throne." (Yechezkel 1:26)

Thus Bnei Yisrael at Sinai merited a vision of God's throne – the same throne that rested upon four keruvim, among them four oxen. (See Ibn Ezra and Ramban, Shemot 24:10, who draw parallels between the succinct account in Shemot and the lengthy account in Yechezkel, showing how they both describe the same thing.)

This sheds a completely new light on the story of the golden calf. Bnei Yisrael had experienced a vision of God sitting upon the backs of oxen, as Moshe revealed to them in chapter 24. But now that Moshe had ascended the mountain and showed no signs of returning, Bnei Yisrael asked Aharon to bring the Shekhina back to them, so that it could continue to lead them. For this reason Aharon created for them a new "chariot," built along the lines of the chariot with which they were familiar:

"They made a calf in Chorev, and worshipped an image. And they exchanged their glory [4] for the likeness of an ox that eats grass." (Tehillim 106:19-20)

From Aharon's perspective, the construction of the golden calf was in no way intended to serve as an idol: he himself declares, "It is a festival FOR GOD tomorrow" (32:2). His sin lay in the artificial attempt to "bring down" the Shekhina on the back of a keruv/ox – a calf built in "do it yourself" style, instead of waiting for the Shekhina to decide on its own resting place.

However, from the point of view of the nation, it seems that Aharon's intention was misunderstood. In verse 4 it is still unclear exactly what the nation meant by the declaration, "These are your gods, O Israel, that have brought you up out of the land of Egypt." Were they pointing, at the time, towards the calf, or were they pointing ABOVE the calf, to the seat upon which the Shekhina was supposed to descend? Later, though, it becomes clear that at least the great majority of the nation, who remembered the keruvim and the throne from the vision of the revelation, became confused between the seat and what was upon it:

"They have turned aside quickly from the way that I commanded them; they have made themselves a molten calf and they have worshipped it and sacrificed to it and said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, which have brought you up out of the land of Egypt.'" (32:8)


IV. The Keruvim in the Mishkan

As we know, opinions are divided as to whether the command to build the mishkan preceded the sin of the golden calf or whether the chronological order of events was other than as described in the parshiot, and the command came only after the sin. Rashi maintains that "the Torah does not follow chronological order; the sin of the golden calf preceded the command to build the mishkan by a long time" (31:8). The Ramban, in contrast, believes that "the proper understanding is that Moshe commanded in all the work of the mishkan prior to the sin of the calf" (Vayikra 8:1). Many commentaries have addressed the spiritual significance of this debate: did God always intend to have Bnei Yisrael build the mishkan, or was it in some way a response to the sin of the golden calf? Either way, the connection between the golden calf and the mishkan is clear - in the mishkan we once again encounter the keruvim as the base of the seat of the Holy One:

"And I will meet with you there, and I will speak to you from above the covering, from between the two keruvim which are upon the ark of the testimony." (Shemot 25:21)

Thus we may say that although the sin of the golden calf arose, at its root, from a blurring of the tangible seat with its spiritual occupier, in the process of correcting this wrong God did not choose the "easy way" (even if we say that God's command to build the mishkan preceded the golden calf, since ultimately Moshe's command to the nation in this regard came only after the sin). God could have simply eliminated the keruvim from the mishkan altogether. However, He did not do so. Even after the sin, the nation is required to understand that a distinction must be drawn between the concepts of the throne and the King.

The nation still needs tangible symbols that express the presence of the metaphysical Shekhina, but their limits are clear: the keruvim are there, but the nation is not permitted to view them. The only person who is permitted to see the keruvim, one day in the year, is none other than Aharon, the Kohen Gadol (Vayikra 16)! It is specifically Aharon who, despite his sin (which we discussed above), knows how to distinguish between the seat and the One whose Presence is above the seat; it is he who is able to enter the Kodesh Kodashim fearlessly, with the knowledge that he himself understands that the most important focus is "above the covering, from between the two keruvim."


V. Yeravam's Sin

But it turns out that there are no perfect solutions. Many generations, it seems, internalized the message of the sin of the golden calf, but Yeravam ben Nevat led Israel astray once again. Yeravam rebelled against Shlomo's son Rechavam and split the Israelite kingdom in two, taking control of the Northern Kingdom. In Melakhim I 12:25-33, we read of how Yeravam feared that since Rechavam ruled over Jerusalem and the Beit Ha-mikdash, when the nation came "to bring sacrifices in God's house in Jerusalem, the heart of the nation would thereby be brought back to their master, to Rechavam king of Yehuda, and they will kill me." In other words, Yeravam feared that Rechavam's control of the religious center in Jerusalem, which served both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms (Yisrael and Yehuda), would undermine Yeravam's own authority in the Northern Kingdom. He therefore decided to create two golden calves within the borders of the Northern Kingdom – one in Dan (on the northern border) and the other in Beit El (on the southern border of his kingdom), and then he declared once again, "Behold – your gods, O Israel, that have brought you up out of the land of Egypt."

There is a profound conceptual background to Yeravam's deed. The nation had already become accustomed to the idea that God dwells between two keruvim, and so for Yeravam a single golden calf would not suffice; he needed two. He could therefore claim that he was simply "broadening the area" in which the Shekhina rested: instead of the Shekhina resting between the two keruvim in the Beit Ha-mikdash, it would rest (from now on) between the two calves in the north and the south – in other words, throughout the borders of Israel. In this way Yeravam would attain his real objective: the nation would cease to view Jerusalem and the Temple as the resting place of the Shekhina; they would perceive the whole of the land of Israel as the "place that God had chosen to rest His Name there." Here, too, it is quite possible that as he declared, "Behold, your gods, O Israel, that have brought you up out of the land of Egypt," Yeravam was not necessarily pointing at the calves themselves, but rather at the space between them.

But what happened to Aharon at the time of the sin of the golden calf also happened to Yeravam with regard to his two calves: "And this thing became a sin" (verse 30). The nation once again became confused between the symbolic calves themselves and that which they were meant to symbolize. Once again they made exactly the same mistake, and instead of serving God – even in an misguided way – they soon ended up worshipping the calves themselves: "to sacrifice to the calves that he had made" (verse 32). Thus Yeravam himself sinned, and he also led all of Israel astray after him.

The blurring of the means and the end, the tangible and the abstract, the symbolic and the essential, stands at the root of Israel's sins throughout Tanakh. This finds expression in the distorted attitude towards the Temple and the sacrifices, towards the king and the kingship, and towards the different ways of understanding Divine service. But ultimately, promises the prophet, on the day that will come upon "everyone that is proud and lofty, and upon everyone that is lifted up, to be brought low," and the Kingship of the Holy One will be revealed to the entire world, then all the inhabitants of the world will understand that all the works of mortal man have no real value, "for in what should he be accounted?" and "God alone will be exalted on that day" (see Yishayahu, chapter 2).


(Translated by Kaeren Fish)


[1] It should be noted that the term "chariot" never actually appears in Sefer Yechezkel, although it describes well the nature of his vision. The expression "chariot" is used by Chazal in many places, e.g. Mishna Chagiga 2:1.

[2] Yechezkel is careful to avoid anthropomorphic descriptions of God, emphasizing many qualifying phrases: "the appearance of," "the likeness of," "the glory of God." This stands in contrast to Yishayahu, who in his inaugural prophecy declares, "And I beheld the Lord sitting on a high and lofty throne" (6:1).

[3] Yechezkel's first vision took place on the banks of the River Kevar (see 1:1). Note the play on words: "KeVaR," "KeRuV," "meRKaVa."

[4] Chazal explain that the verse actually means, "They exchanged MY glory for the likeness of an ox," but was written euphemistically.




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