In Part 3 of this article, we examined the covenant scene in Exodus 24, pointing out along the way the place of this episode in the structure of the book as a whole. The entire second half of the book, chapters 19-40, involves the idea of the binding agreement (covenant) established between God and his people at Mt. Sinai. From the standpoint of the narrative of the Pentateuch (or, at least the Tetrateuch, Genesis–Numbers), this extends to encompass the entire book of Leviticus and the opening chapters of Numbers (up to 10:10)—all of which is set at Sinai.
Chapters 32-33 (+ 34:1-9) of the book of Exodus have a special place in this narrative structure, set between two blocks of legal material (instruction, Torah), 20:1-23:33; 25:1-31:17 and 34:10-40:15. At the same time, there have been numerous critical questions surrounding these passages, which continue to be studied and debated in earnest today. Because of the importance of Exod 32:1-34:9 in understanding the place of the Sinai covenant in early Israelite tradition, it is worth devoting an extended critical study to this passage. We may divide this study into the different areas of Biblical criticism:
- Textual Criticism
- Source Criticism
- Historical Criticism
- Exegetical analysis of the received Text
1. Textual Criticism
Generally speaking, the text of the Pentateuch is consistent and secure, as compared with other portions of Scripture. The numerous Dead Sea manuscripts tend to confirm the later Masoretic Text (MT), with a few notable exceptions, one of which is the ‘paleo-Hebrew’ manuscript from Qumran labeled 4QpaleoExodm. This (fragmentary) copy of the book of Exodus covers the material spanning from 6:25 to 37:16. The text of this manuscript differs from the MT at a number of points, where it tends to agree with the Samaritan Pentateuch (against the MT). The differences are relatively minor, but they are significant enough to allow us to regard the manuscript as representing a distinct recension, or version, of the text. It appears to be the recension which, with some adaptation, was used by the Samaritans in their version of the Pentateuch. There is a particular example from our passage (Exod 32-34):
The Masoretic Text (MT), following the BHS/Westminster critical editions, reads (in translation):
(YHWH speaking to Moses): “And now, bring rest to me [i.e. let me alone], and my anger [lit. nostril] will burn on [i.e. against] them and I will consume them, and I will make you to (be) a great nation!” And Moshe (trie)d to soften the face of YHWH his God, and said (to him), “For what [i.e. why], (O) YHWH, does your anger burn on your people…?”
Now, note the reading of 4QpaleoExodm, in agreement with the Samaritan text:
(YHWH speaking to Moses): “And now, bring rest to me [i.e. let me alone], and my anger [lit. nostril] will burn on [i.e. against] them and I will consume them, and I will make you to (be) a great nation!” And with Aharon YHWH was very angry, (enough) to destroy him, but Moshe interceded on behalf of Aharon. And Moshe (trie)d to soften the face of YHWH his God, and said (to him), “For what [i.e. why], (O) YHWH, does your anger burn on your people…?”
The portion in bold italics is not present in the MT. In such an instance, we must consider whether the longer text is original or represents an addition (interpolation). In this particular case, it is unlikely that the longer text is the result of an accident (copying mistake); nor can the shorter text be explained as an obvious mistake (omission). If, on the other hand, the change was at least partly intentional, then we must consider how or why it was made. The arguments cut both ways:
- The longer text could be explained by the fact that the shorter text, if original, does not really record any reaction by God against Aaron, nor punishment, for his specific role in the Golden Calf incident; scribes thus might have been inclined to add such a detail, whether from authentic tradition or as a pious invention.
- Scribes may also have been inclined to minimize Aaron’s role in the sin of the Golden Calf, and to eliminate specific details which cast him in too bad a light (esp. in comparison with Moses). This would be an argument in favor of the longer text.
It is not possible to make a definite determination on these grounds (though I tend to favor the shorter text at Exod 32:10-11a). In such cases, where there is corroborating evidence from Qumran to support either the Samaritan Pentateuch or the Greek Version(s), against the MT, we ought to give it serious consideration in our study.
2. Source Criticism
According to the common critical analysis of the Pentateuch (the so-called Documentary Hypothesis), Exodus 32-34 is a composite, made up of at least three distinct strands (or sources):
- The core narrative of 32:1-33:23, usually assigned to the “E” (Elohist) source
- The appearance of YHWH to Moses (34:1a, 2-13) and a parallel version of the Ten Commandments (34:14-28 [cp. 20:1-17]), assigned to the “J” (Jahwist/Yahwist) source
- A layer of editing and additional material, referred to as the “Priestly” (P) layer or source—31:18; [34:1b]; 34:29-35ff (to the end of the book).
Interestingly, the “E” source was so labeled based on its presumed preference for the divine name Elohim over Yahweh (YHWH). However, chapters 32-33 consistently use YHWH throughout, the only exception being in 32:16. In this instance, the critical theory is more properly based on the presence of “doublet” traditions (two ascents by Moses, two sets of tablets, two versions of the Decalogue, etc), as well as historical considerations (see below). Traditional-conservative commentators, while often respectful of these analyses based on the Documentary Hypothesis, tend to accept the text at face value, as a unified composition reflecting authentic historical tradition throughout. Even so, there are a number of apparent inconsistencies and peculiarities which require explanation. It is certainly possible to recognize the presence of various traditions which have been brought together in the narrative, without necessarily adopting the Documentary Hypothesis as a whole.
3. Historical Criticism
There are two aspects to what we call historical criticism: (1) analysis of the historical background of the text as we have it (including when it was authored, etc), and (2) consideration of the historicity of the events and traditions contained in the text. Both aspects have been somewhat controversial over the years, in the case of the Pentateuch, on the basis of two factors: (a) the detailed critical studies and hypotheses which indicate many different and varied traditions, and (b) the strong tradition identifying Moses as the effective author/source of the books. Students and scholars who adopt (or insist on) extreme positions regarding either of these two factors, in my view, end up distorting or neglecting important pieces of evidence related to the text. Let us briefly consider several critical approaches to Exod 32-34:
a. The blending of contrary or opposing traditions
Commentators who recognize different, distinct strands of tradition in the text, often claim that these are contrary or opposed to one another, in various ways. This may include:
- Different wording or formulation of a tradition, such as in the two “versions” of the Decalogue—20:1-17 (usually assigned to “P”) and 34:14-28 (“J”).
- Geographical distinctions—esp. interests of the Northern kingdom (Shechem, Bethel, Mushite priesthood), compared with those of the South (Jerusalem, the Temple, the Davidic legacy, Aaronid priesthood). The presumed source documents “E” and “J” are often thought to come from the North and South, respectively.
- Religious and theological differences—e.g., the northern Bethel cultus vs. that of the Jerusalem (Temple), cherub-throne (the Ark) vs. bull-throne, the position of the priestly lines of Aaron and Moses, specific traditions associated with the religious centers of Gilgal, Shiloh, Shechem, etc.
As just one example, it is often thought that the Golden Calf episode in chapter 32, along with Aaron’s involvement in the incident (vv. 1-5, 10-11 v.l., 21-24f), is intended as a (Northern) polemic against the religious establishment of Jeroboam (at the sites of Bethel and Dan, etc). There can be no doubt that an intentional parallel is at work. All one has to do is to consider the basic iconography (of the bull) and the words used to introduce it:
“These are your Gods, (O) Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (Exod 32:4, cf. also verse 8) “See, your Gods, (O) Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (1 Kings 12:28)
How should this parallel be explained? There are two main possibilities:
- The declaration in 1 Kings 12:28, and/or the golden bulls of Jeroboam’s religious establishment themselves, are meant to reflect the earlier Exodus tradition.
- The Exodus scene of the Golden Calf reflects the later development by Jeroboam, being projected back into the time of Moses and the Exodus. At the very least, one might say that the Exodus narrative has been shaped (its wording, etc) in light of the later history.
b. The tendency to include traditions with variant details
Apparent discrepancies in detail do not necessarily mean that traditions are unreliable or inaccurate. However one views the composition of the Pentateuch, the author/editor(s) of the books as they have come down to us has included many different traditions, and narratives, which seem to result in certain inconsistencies. Consider, for example, the shifts in setting and emphasis in chapters 32-34, which do not always flow smoothly in the text:
- The details surrounding the Golden Calf, including the fact that it seems to be understood as representing both distinct “gods” (i.e. separate from YHWH), and YHWH himself (his throne?)—32:1, 4, 5-6
- The different expressions of God’s anger, judgment, and the punishment of the people (with multiple intercessions by Moses), without a clear sense of how they relate to each other in the course of the narrative—(these will be discussed in the last section of this study [#4]). In particular, Aaron does not seem to face any definite punishment for his role in the Golden Calf incident (see above).
- The differing descriptions of what God says to Moses on the mountain, and how it relates to what Moses writes, and to what is written on the “two tablets” of stone—24:3-4; 31:18; 32:15-16; 34:1-5, 28-29, etc.
- In this regard, there are also some interesting repetitions in the sections of legal instruction (Torah)—examine the passages closely, 25:1-31:17; 34:10-35:3ff, as well as the earlier “book of the Covenant” (20:22-23:23).
- Certain apparent inconsistencies regarding where/how God appears to Moses, etc—chap. 19; 20:18ff; 24:1-18; 33:7ff, 17-23; 34:5ff, 29ff.
Our modern ideals of composition would perhaps require a bit more clarity, harmonizing and smoothing out of details in these various episodes and traditions. The ancient author (and/or editor[s]) did not compose and shape the text in quite this way. We must consider that the apparent rough edges and inconsistencies are intentional, meant to bring out certain details and aspects of the narrative which might otherwise be overlooked.
c. The unifying structure of the narrative
A number of the discrepancies or inconsistencies mentioned above, however one chooses to judge them from the standpoint of source– and historical-criticism (see the discussion above), can be explained, in large measure, when one considers carefully the structure of the narrative as it has come down to us. In this regard, the “doublet” and repeating elements, far from being problematic, are actually vital to a proper understanding of the narrative. Consider the basic outline:
- Moses ascends Mount Sinai and receives instruction (Torah) from God, which includes material written down on two stone tablets (i.e. the covenant)—24:15-31:18
- The people violate the covenant and Moses descends—chaps. 32-33
- Moses re-ascends Mount Sinai and (again) receives instruction (Torah) from God, including that written down on two stone tablets (the covenant)—34:1-28
- Moses descends and the covenant with the people is re-established—34:29-35:1ff
The simplicity of this outline masks a richly-detailed structure of motifs and associations, particular points of emphasis, and the like. This is part of the uniquely inspired character of the text which cannot be reduced merely to questions of historicity.
4. Exegetical analysis of the Received Text
This wider view relates to the area of Biblical Criticism called literary criticism—analysis of the passage as part of a written text and literary document, examining its structure, points of emphasis, its themes, and the images and concepts which reflect the story and message with the author wishes to communicate.
In approaching Exodus 32-34 within the context of the second half of the book (chaps. 19-40), the first point to note is the way that narrative alternates with a record of legal material. The latter is more properly presented within the narrative framework as instruction (laws, regulations, precepts) which God (YHWH) gives to the people, through Moses. This is reflected in the Hebrew word (tôrâ, hr*ot) which traditionally is used to refer to this material, and which gives its name to the Pentateuch as a whole (Torah). We can see how this torah dominates the second half of the book, being recorded in four main sections, as indicated in the following outline (torah marked by asterisks):
- Introduction: The people at Mt. Sinai—Preparation for the appearance of YHWH (chap. 19)
—The role of Moses as intermediary between YHWH and the people (vv. 14-25)
- Part 1: The covenant is established at Sinai (20:1-24:11)
—The Decalogue*: YHWH speaks to the people (20:1-14)
—Moses functions as intermediary/representative for the people (20:15-23)
—The Book of the Covenant*: YHWH speaks to Moses (21:1-23:33)
—Ratification of the covenant (24:1-11)
- Part 2: The ceremonial/ritual dimension of the covenant (24:12-31:18)
—Moses ascends Sinai (24:12-18)
—Religious instruction*, regarding the Tabernacle, etc (25:1-31:17)
—The two tablets of the covenant (31:18)
- Intermediary: The covenant is abolished (chaps. 32-33)
—Moses descends Sinai
- Part 3: The covenant is re-established at Sinai (34:1-28)
—Moses ascends Sinai again (34:1-9)
—Second ‘Book of the Covenant’* (34:10-27)
—The two tablets of the covenant (34:28)
- Intermediary: The restored covenant (34:29-35)
—Moses descends Sinai
- Part 4: The ceremonial/ritual dimension of the covenant (chaps 35-39)
Religious instruction*, regarding the Tabernacle, etc
- Conclusion: The people at Sinai—Preparation for the presence of YHWH (chap. 40)
—Moses’ role of leadership in preparing the Tabernacles, etc (vv. 1-33)
There is a thematic symmetry to this structure, and to the character of the Torah, as it relates to the establishment of the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and his people:
- Establishment of the covenant—Moses ascends Mt. Sinai
- Theophany—Appearance of YHWH (chap. 20)
- The “Book of the Covenant” (21:1-33)
- Religious instruction—the Tabernacle (25:1-31:17)
- The two tablets of the covenant (31:18)
- Re-establishment of the covenant—Moses ascends Mt. Sinai
- Theophany—Appearance of YHWH (34:1-9)
- Second ‘Book of the Covenant’ (34:10-27)
- Religious instruction—the Tabernacle (35:1ff)
- The two tablets of the covenant (34:28)
The Torah itself may be summarized two ways, according to two fundamental aspects:
- The regulations and precepts which are to govern Israelite society, and their identity as God’s chosen people; and,
- As the terms of the binding agreement (covenant) between God and his people; in written form (the two tablets, etc) it provides the legal basis for the agreement. Transgression of the torah represents more than violation of a law or regulation; it means the violation of the agreement itself, which entailed very specific punishment, tied to the ritual image of cutting (dismembered animals, circumcision, sacrificial offering [with blood])—the one who violates the covenant will similarly be “cut off”.
Any attempt to understand and interpret the legal material in the book of Exodus, without keeping this connection with the covenant clearly in view, will be doomed to failure. It is absolutely essential to the thematic structure and message of the book. You may wish to review our study of the covenant episodes in Genesis 15, 17, and Exodus 24, in Parts 1, 2, and 3. Indeed, it is the idea of the covenant, or binding agreement (Heb. tyr!B=, b§rî¾), which governs the intermediate scenes in chapters 32-33—the episode of the Golden Calf, and its aftermath, marking abrogation of the covenant. Let us examine briefly these chapters, along with the following chap. 34, in light of this overriding theme. Several aspects come to the fore:
- The tension involved in Moses as the leader/representative of the people
- The identity of Israel as God’s people, which is central to the covenant
- The violation and abrogation of the covenant, and what this entails
1. Moses as the people’s representative
Problematic from the beginning is the people’s dependence on Moses as their representative, serving as an intermediary before God. It is they who request that God speak to Moses, and no longer directly to them (20:16-18), and it is thus only Moses who ascends all the way up the mountain to the place where God’s presence is (24:12-18). This sets the stage for the Golden Calf episode (32:1). The people feared to hear God’s voice, and now they begin to fear what may have happened to their leader and representative. During the 40 days and nights when Moses is on the mountain, the people are without contact with God; implicit in this condition is that it becomes a time of testing. Indeed, this provides the psychological basis for their violation of the covenant (vv. 2ff)—they seek a tangible sign of God’s presence, which, inadvertently, it would seem, leads to idolatry and the worship of “other” gods.
The Calf itself, in its historical context and background, almost certainly is to be understood as representing the seat (or throne) of God’s presence, much like the winged figures of the golden Ark. It is, however, a fine line between the creation of such images, and a perversion of true worship. This is a theme which runs through virtually the entire Old Testament, and helps to explain the centrality of the first command(s) in the Decalogue (20:3-5a, see also 34:17). It is the command in 20:4-5 which is violated initially; but the declaration in 32:3 (“These are your gods…”, also v. 8) effectively results in a violation of the first command in 20:3 as well. The words of YHWH in v. 8 reflect his anger over how quickly the agreement was violated, and with the very first words of the Torah.
2. The identity of Israel as God’s people
Verse 10 introduces the idea that God will destroy the people—death/destruction being the punishment for violating the covenant. He intends to start over with Moses, replacing Abraham and his descendants (see the covenant episodes in Gen 15 and 17, etc). Violation of the covenant essentially invalidates this identity of a people belonging to God, who submit to his authority and have established a reciprocal relationship with him. Indeed, in verse 7, God refers to them as Moses‘ people (“your people”, see above on Moses as the people’s representative), no longer referring to them as his own people (v. 9). Moses, however, intercedes for them with God (i.e. the other side of his role as intermediary), requesting that YHWH continue to regard them as His people (vv. 11ff), and this identity seems to be restored, at least in part, in verse 14. There it is stated that YHWH ‘relaxed’ himself over the “evil” (i.e. punishment, destruction) which he was going to do to “His people”. This theme, and the tension involved with it, continues into chapter 33.
3. The violation and abolishment of the Covenant
Even though God may have decided to soften the punishment against the people, the agreement established with them has been invalidated and is over. The breaking of the tablets (v. 19) makes this absolutely clear, according to ancient Near Eastern tradition and practice; e.g., see the Akkadian expression “break the tablet” (tuppam —epû). Still, it is a lesser punishment which is to be administered, in several stages:
- The people drink water containing powder from the Golden Calf after it was burned down (v. 20). This is presumably for a ritual ordeal to identify the guilty (see the parallel in Num 5:12-31).
- Once the guilty are identified, they are “consecrated” for destruction and are put to death (vv. 27-29)
- Apparently, there is also a punishment inflicted on the people through disease (v. 35), though this is stated very briefly, and the exact relation to the events described in the prior verses is uncertain.
Thus, it is not the people as a whole who receive the punishment of (immediate) death/destruction, but only the specific individuals who are guilty. This important religious principle, which would come up again at various points in the Old Testament, is emphasized in Moses’ second encounter with God (vv. 33-34).
The invalidation of God’s agreement (covenant) with Israel suddenly leaves the narrative at an impasse. The dramatic tension of the scene becomes even more evident in chapter 33, where all the themes from the Golden Calf episode are developed in a unique way, drawing perhaps from a separate line of tradition. In Part 5, we will be continuing this thematic and exegetical examination of the powerful narrative of Exod 32-34. In particular, close attention will be paid to the dialogue between Moses and YHWH, and how this relates to the covenant theme of the narrative.