Image, Text and the Golden Calf

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Image, Text and the Golden Calf

By Rav Michael Hattin


Parashat Ki Tisa begins with preparations continuing apace for the awesome task of building the Mishkan. The blueprints for the precious vessels, the holy spaces and the priestly garments had been commanded to Moshe in the lengthy readings of the previous two weeks, and our Parasha opens with the mitzva of the half-shekel poll tax. All adult males are to contribute a half-shekel of silver towards the construction of the Mishkan, with the collected funds simultaneously serving as the vehicle for conducting a census of the people. The half-shekel contribution is introduced as a special measure for the particular task at hand, and is ultimately used for the casting of the silver sockets that support the wall planks of acacia wood (see 38:25-28). But the Torah's intent is to also indicate a number of eternal statutes - 1) whenever a census of the people is undertaken, a contributed object is to be used in place of actually counting them; 2) the half-shekel Temple tax is to be collected every year from all adult males among the people, and is to be utilized for the purchase of communal sacrifices as well as for the maintenance and repair of the physical plant.

The Parasha goes on to describe the bronze laver, the anointing oil and the incense, before introducing us to the chief artisan charged with carrying out the sacred work - Bezalel son of Uri, son of Chur, of the tribe of Yehuda. This able craftsman is to be assisted by a compatriot with less illustrious lineage - Aholiav son of Achisamach of the tribe of Dan - thus implying that the Mishkan is not the exclusive preserve of certain powerful and well-connected tribes, but rather the patrimony of all Israel. After an emphatic reference to the need to observe the Shabbat, even as the work of building the Mishkan unfolds, the Parasha reaches its central and most lengthy narrative: the episode of the golden calf.

The literary effect is of course dramatic in the extreme, for after the Mishkan narratives have been unleashed, creating a rare momentum of anticipation and hope, the whole textual edifice proverbially comes crashing down. Recall how the Torah broached the subject by abstractly describing vessels and spaces, then went on to delineate the priestly garments while speaking more concretely of investiture, and finally spelled out practical plans for the gathering of contributions and confidently introduced the chief artisans. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the entire endeavor was thrown into terrible disarray by Moshe's delay in descending from the mount and the people's disastrous reaction in fashioning a molten image.


The commentaries have discussed the transgression of the golden calf at length, and in their approach to the episode their explanations may be broadly broken down into two schools of thought. There are those, like Rashi (11th century, France) who make no apologies about the sins of the people: Israel succumbed to idolatry and their intention in fashioning the golden fetish was to replace the transcendent and invisible God with a tangible and concrete image. When they excitedly exclaimed that "These are your gods, Oh Israel, who brought you forth from the land of Egypt!" they committed the misdemeanor of polytheism. As Rashi puts it, "they desired many gods" (commentary to 32:1). And while Rashi maintains that the initial impetus for the fashioning of the idol came from the non-Israelite elements among the people - namely the "mixed multitude" (see Shemot 12:38) that had utilized the opportunity afforded by the post-plague collapse of the Egyptian state to themselves journey forth to freedom - he nevertheless maintains that Israel too was quickly swept up by their seductions to eagerly embrace the worship of the idol.

The Ramban (13th century, Spain), on the other hand, following the lead of Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi (12th century, Spain) and the Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain), maintains that the people of Israel were not initially interested in idolatry at all. Quite the contrary. Had they not just experienced the revelation of God's presence and the proclamation of His thundering Decalogue at Sinai? Is it conceivable that they could have so easily cast off the effects of that transformative event to now embrace coarse and vulgar idolatry? Rather, avers the Ramban, what the people sought during those anxious hours that ushered in the final stage of Moshe's absence (for God had called him to the summit of the mount some forty days earlier to receive His teachings and His tablets - see Shemot 24:12-18), was a replacement for the lawgiver himself. Fearing the worst when Moshe failed to return to them at what they believed to be the appointed time, the people suddenly felt leaderless and afraid. How would they traverse the inhospitable wilderness to the Promised Land without Moshe to guide them? Though they of course realized that in fact it was God's guidance that alone could guarantee their survival, they desired some sort of concrete symbol to serve as the focal point for God's providence, much as they believed that Moshe received ongoing Divine inspiration and then was capable of leading them. As the Ramban himself so trenchantly remarks: "what they desired was another Moshe!" (commentary to 32:1). In the end, their misguided efforts spawned more ominous developments, for the less refined among them quickly adopted the golden object as a god in its own right. It was they who were later charged with worshipping idolatry and then punished accordingly. Nevertheless, for the Ramban, the initial intentions of the ringleaders were not malevolent.

Both of these approaches have their limitations. While Rashi's explanation accords with the straightforward reading of the text, it forces us to impose a most difficult premise. Could the people have remained so unmoved by the Exodus and by the Revelation at Sinai, so utterly unconvinced concerning God's absoluteness and transcendence, even in the face of encounters with the Divine that must surely count as the most profound ever recorded in human history? And while the Ramban mitigates these difficulties by positing that the people did not initially succumb to idolatry at all but were only seeking a replacement for their dear but absent leader Moshe, his interpretation raises serious problems of its own. How could the people have thought that a lifeless, bovine image of gold could be their "leader?" In what sense did they believe that it would "guide" them through the wilderness to their destination? And why didn't the anxious throng simply ask Aharon to take the place of his brother, just as the elder prophet had been instrumental at the launch of the plagues (7:1-7), during the Exodus (12:1-3) and at Mount Sinai (19:24)? Hadn't Moshe himself appointed Aharon as a temporary leader in his place when he initially ascended Mount Sinai (24:14)?


Perhaps an alternate approach is in order. When we consider the episode from a textual standpoint, there appears to be an intentional and inverse parallel not between the calf and God, or else the calf and Moshe, but rather between the calf and the tablets themselves! The entire episode, for example, does not begin with the account of the people's panic, as one would have expected, but rather with a tenuous verse, easily left out from a literary standpoint, that detachedly discusses these tablets of stone:

When He finished speaking to him at Mount Sinai, He gave to Moshe the two tablets of testimony, tablets of stone written by the finger of God. The people saw that Moshe tarried in coming down from the mount, so the people gathered against Aharon and they said to him: "arise and fashion us a god that will go before us, for as this man Moshe we know not what has become of him!" Aharon said to them; "remove the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, sons and daughters, and bring them to me." All of the people removed the golden earrings and brought (them) to Aharon...(31:18-32:3).

The linkage is revisited when Moshe prepares to descend from the mountain, having been informed by God concerning the people's infidelity, and having already offered prayers on their behalf to avert His burning wrath:

Moshe turned and descended from the mountain, bearing in his hands the two tablets of testimony. They were tablets written on both sides, from this side and that side they were inscribed. The tablets were the work of the Lord, and the text was the Lord's writing, engraved upon the tablets. Yehoshua heard the people's outcry, and he said to Moshe "there is a sound of fighting in the camp!"...(32:15-17).

As above, the account of the people's transgression is preceded by a superfluous reference to the tablets, and as above, the reference places special emphasis upon the WRITING engraved upon the stone. The narrative goes on to describe Moshe's approach, for when he saw the calf and the merrymaking, "he became angry, and he cast the tablets down from his hand, and he smashed them at the feet of the mountain" (32:19). Here, once again, the calf and the tablets are textually and temporally locked in tight embrace, for it the SIGHT of the calf that prompts their destruction. Finally, after Moshe destroys the fetish, chastises Aharon, and punishes the perpetrators, he ascends to secure God's forgiveness. After much pleading and prayer, Moshe succeeds in restoring God's favor, a process that culminates in His charge to the lawgiver to "hew two other tablets of stone, and I shall write upon the tablets the very words that were on the first tablets that you shattered..." (34:1). In other words, the episode ends much as it began by associating the golden calf with the tablets, for the ultimate lifting of the transgression's calamitous effects is signified by none other than the preparation of new tablets.

Thus far, we have established an ongoing textual and episodic link between the golden calf and the tablets. The fashioning of the calf had been introduced by a superfluous mention of the tablets and its worship had then directly precipitated their destruction, while the subsequent obliteration of the molten image prompted their eventual restoration. Additionally, when the Torah described the tablets in these contexts, it never missed an opportunity to emphasize the unique writing engraved upon their surface, for not only had the letters been incised by God himself, but the words were curiously legible from both sides of the stone.

The seeming redundancy of all of this tablet talk should be noted, for we had already been informed long before the episode of the golden calf that the tablets were the special work of God and contained His words to the people. Recall that after the Revelation at Sinai that culminated in God's proclamation of the Decalogue, the Deity bid Moshe to ascend to the mount in order to receive "the tablets of stone, the instruction and the commands, that I have written to guide them" (24:12). This reference is from the BEGINNING of Moshe's forty day repair to the summit of Sinai, underscoring the fact that all of the subsequent references to the tablets must be emphatic rather than informationally necessary, serving to highlight something about their distinctiveness, in particular their WRITING, that stands in glaring contrast to their nemesis - the golden calf.


What is the difference between a molten image of gold and tablets of stone? Both are composed of a heavy and ponderous material, lifeless in its own right, that is then impressed with some other significance. But while the former communicates its meaning through the medium of concrete and tangible imagery, by material representation of a person, animal or thing, the latter speaks through the abstraction called text. The message of a golden calf is immediate and obvious, for its eager worshippers need not exert any additional effort in comprehending its corporeal form or coarse symbolism, but tablets of text demand additional mental processing. That is to say that writing of any sort invites higher cognitive involvement, and when the subject matter of the text is complex or abstruse, conceptual rather than concrete, even greater effort must be expended in order to achieve comprehension.

Standing at the mountain and receiving the Torah, the people were stunned by God's WORDS, by His thundering COMMANDS uttered out of the thick cloud cover and impenetrable smoke that ominously swirled at Sinai's summit. Though their senses were inundated by an experience of the Divine that could only be described as overwhelming, the Torah is careful to point out, in Moshe's reminisce of the event some forty years later, that they saw NO image whatsoever of the Deity:

You drew near and stood at the base of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire until the very heart of heaven, darkness, cloud and thick fog. God spoke to you from the midst of the fire, but while you heard the sound of words, you saw no image, only a voice. He spoke to you His covenant that He commanded you to perform, the ten things, and He wrote them on two tablets of shall therefore be very careful for the sake of your souls, for you saw no representation on the day that God spoke to you at Chorev out of the midst of the fire! (Devarim 4:11-15).


What a strange God indeed, unlike any other worshipped in ancient times or most worshipped today, that had no image and no physical form whatsoever! At the moment of His much-anticipated revelation to humanity, He broke with every convention known to man, for He did not appear as a body or a thing but only was heard as a voice, communicating not through tangible images but rather through intangible words! And while the people of Israel listened intently, they could scarcely comprehend the significance of the matter! For while they surely did not doubt God's existence or else His immediacy, they struggled mightily with His incorporeality. The gods with which they were familiar all had bodies and concrete form, molten images of every beast imaginable, all of them readily comprehensible and easily approached. But this God was different, for He demanded of His adherents not superficial and shallow devotion, after the manner of idolatrous adoration, but rather involved thought and study of His laws! He addressed His people with WORDS, He gave them a TEXT, and He required not the blind allegiance of their hearts but the intellectual commitment of their minds.

His service was not about empty ritual and drunken debauchery, man's finite body and its instinctual drives, but rather about our higher potential, the soul and the mind that could be nourished only by attentiveness to His words, by the laws that could repair human society even as they transformed the recalcitrant human heart. His banner was not inscribed with icons and images, tactile forms of recumbent figures deep in contemplation or else saviors nailed to a cross, all of them mere representations readily comprehensible to the masses but correspondingly lacking any call to deeper study or devotion. Could then the transcendent, the absolute and the ultimate be described by lifeless metal or insensible wood, even as the former's glitter could capture the eye with all of its splendor, while the latter's depiction of grotesque torment could hold the heart of the faithful in sway? No, God's banner was inscribed instead with language, with a text whose very abstraction stressed the chasm between finite man and infinite God, driving home the fundamental message that while in some contexts a picture may indeed be worth a thousand words, in the context of the Divine it is worth none.


To commemorate the revelation of His presence, God prepared to present His people with tablets of stone, unadorned and unimpressive, in and of themselves of little aesthetic or material value, but incised with WORDS THAT IF DILLIGENTLY STUDIED AND THEN APPLIED COULD CHANGE THE WORLD. But as Moshe tarried, the people anxiously pondered their strange destiny, for when they stood at Sinai's feet they had (unwittingly?) agreed to champion in the world a God-idea that was not only revolutionary but peculiar in the extreme. Were they not themselves intimidated by a conception of the Deity that, while freeing the body from its base preoccupations with magic, superstition, and fear of capricious forces, would also obligate their minds to more constructive and complex pursuits? Anticipating Moshe's return bearing the tablets of text, the people approached Aharon and demanded in their place the fashioning of a molten image of gold. This was an emphatic statement on their part that they preferred a god that didn't demand so much mental and spiritual exertion, a god that could be appeased by trivial and trite formalities even as its empty ceremonial could numb their minds to the awesome and unsettling conception of a Creator and Liberator that was pure spirit, yet held utter sway over the material world. Aharon complied, and in complete contrast to the lengthy process of Moshe's forty day immersion in the intricacies of God's will and wisdom, the golden calf was fashioned almost instantaneously - a sure indication that the comprehension of ITS will would be correspondingly simple and straightforward.

It is for this reason that the Torah consciously links the mention of the tablets and their unique Divinely-inscribed text to the fashioning and worship of the golden calf, for like matter and anti-matter, the two cannot abide together for long. The God of the text is inscrutable while immediate, asking us to utilize our minds and to nurture our moral will but refusing to be limited by our material constraints. He cannot be delineated by a form or an image and His interactions with the world can only be outlined by non-representational words. The gods of gold, in contrast, are nothing but form, for besides their coarse and vulgar materiality, there is no higher purpose, no moral demands and no allusions to more profound possibilities. With the gods of gold, what you see is what you get, and what you get is not very profound at all. How then could the God of text tolerate the worship of the gods of gold?


The narrative provides us with a number of literary devices to highlight this binary but inverse relationship between the golden calf and the stone tablets. Recall that when the people approach Aharon to fashion for them a god, he attempts to delay by requesting their golden earrings. But the eager masses unexpectedly comply immediately, and Aharon is forced to call their bluff:

He took it (the gold) from them and he fashioned it with a stylus (CheReT) and made it into a molten calf...(3:4).

The unusual "cheret" or stylus is a metal instrument that is used for carving or inscribing, and its only other Biblical usage is in the context of writing. Thus when God speaks to the 8th century BCE prophet Yeshayahu and tells him to inform the people of impending disaster, He says to him: "take a large scroll and write upon it with a common stylus ("cheret") 'plunder approaches speedily, pillage with haste'" (Yeshayahu 8:1). Indicating that Aharon utilizes a stylus to fashion the golden calf is not only the text providing us with an intriguing but otherwise irrelevant detail but also indicating the perverse inversion inherent in the process - the very instrument that man would have used to inscribe the tablets with God's laws is here transmogrified into an tool of corruption. Who could fail to hear the echo of the "cheret" in the very description of the tablets' text, for "the tablets were the work of the Lord, and the text was the Lord's writing, engraved ("ChaRooT") upon the tablets" (32:16). Though the grammatical roots are different, "cheret" ending with a "tet" and "charoot" with a "tav," the alliteration is unmistakable.

And conversely, when God bids Moshe to fashion the second set of tablets from stone, He invites the lawgiver to "hew for yourself two tablets of stone," where the verb for "hewing," the 2nd person imperative "PeSoL" is the same root that underlies every sculpted image or "pesel" in the Tanakh! Thus, the shallowness of the molten image is rejected by God, to be forcefully replaced once again with a second set of tablets. The conclusion is thus inescapable that the people's desire to have a golden calf is neither their attempt to deny God's existence nor even to replace Moshe, but rather the projection in material form of their desire to rewrite the rules of their engagement with the Divine. "Do not burden our minds with abstract text," they proclaim, "do not demand of us reflection and study! Do not enjoin upon us to develop a profound faith, or to labor mightily in the deliberation of life's complexities and in the resolution of its attendant moral ambiguities! Give us instead a god of gold, a simple and readily comprehensible explanation for everything, an ingenuous engagement with the world and a naive and superficial relationship with You, sans all of the spiritual baggage that profundity introduces! Rather, let 'these be your gods, oh Israel, who brought you forth from the land of Egypt!'"

God, of course, will have none of it, neither then nor now. While much of modern existence, popular culture, and our media-based consumer society champions the creed of the golden calf, stressing form over substance and fostering superficiality while decrying or denigrating spiritual depth, the noble story of the tablets persists. The word of God engraved upon them has been written eternally upon our hearts and inscribed upon our minds, even if the letters may sometimes seem very small and, to some of us, almost imperceptible. To follow the Torah is to connect with a tradition of intellectual study that is as relevant now as on the very day that the people of Israel stood at Sinai; it is to cleave to a heritage whose stress on learning and spiritual development is still unusual today, even among those in search of "enlightenment." The world gropes for transcendent meaning and for an encounter with the Divine, but refuses to accept that spiritual and intellectual depth, profound effort of the heart and of the mind, are necessary for their real acquisition. And although the challenges that face the adherents of the tablets of stone may have changed in terms of their externals, at their core they are not much different at all. There are still only two basic choices before us, two fundamentally different worldviews of God and of our relationship with Him and with His laws, and they can in no wise be reconciled. Let us therefore recall God's summons to Moshe, cast off intellectual sloth, and choose the more demanding but ultimately more rewarding approach: 'ascend the mountain towards Me and remain there. I shall give you the tablets of stone, the instruction and the commands, that I have written to guide them' (24:12).

Shabbat Shalom