Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Where to offer sacrifices?

Parshat Tzav

Last week we looked at who is a priest, capable of offering sacrifices to God.  We concluded that early in Judean and Israelite history the office was not exclusive to the descendents of Aharon (Aaron).  This week we'll look at where those sacrifices could be offered, and again we'll see that the centralization of offering sacrifices at a single location was also something that developed over time, and only became de facto law at a period in history when all the other ancient shrinal locations were conquered or destroyed.

Alternate Shrines

Last week, and in discussion of the golden calf, we noticed that there were two alternate shrines set up by Yeroboam at Dan and at Beth-el.  We also know from the Tanach that there was an important shrine at ShilohShmuel (Samuel) lived with Eli the priest in Shiloh, who explicitly offered sacrifices there (1 Sam 1:1-3). Shiloh was the original location of the ark (1 Sam 4:3-4). In addition to these locations, there were also priests in Nob that were slaughtered by Shaul (Saul, 1 Sam 22).

Throughout the book of Melachim (Kings), whenever the reign of a king is complete, the book's author passes judgment on the king, whether he was good or bad.  Most of the northern kings of Israel are depicted as bad, Judah is more of a mixed bag.  However, there is a very common complaint even about the good kings.  For example, here's the ruling on the king Yehoshaphat (Jehoshaphat, 1 Kings 22:43-44):
43 And he [Jehoshaphat] walked in all the way of Asa his father; he turned not aside from it, doing that which was right in the eyes of the LORD; 44 howbeit the high places (bamot) were not taken away; the people still sacrificed and offered in the high places.
This critique, that they didn't remove the bamot repeats itself often.  In fact only two kings are credited with having removed the bamotHizkiyahu (Hezekiah) and Yoshiyahu (Josiah).  After Hizkiyahu removed them they were reestablished by his son.  After Yoshiyahu removed them, there is no more mention of them in the rest of the book.

Before we move on, we should note that the alternate shrines, the ones outside of Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), had clear cultic significance, and historical roots.  Or at least they claimed that they had historical roots.  One of the purposes of various stories in Bereishit (Genesis) is to legitimizing the worship in these shrines.  For example, Yaakov (Jacob) builds an altar in Beth-el.  The temple at Beth-el probably claimed that they were worshiping at the very altar constructed by their ancestor.  Similarly, Avraham has associations with Elonei Mamre, the oak tree at Mamre.  This was probably also a cultic site of the past.


Centralization of power is one of the key goals of many rulers.  One of the ways to do this would be to declare that the temple in your city was the only one in which worship was permitted.  Then, pilgrimages to that temple would be required in order to satisfy religious practices.  However, it's really hard to convince people to give up the convenience of their local shrine and trek all the way to a far-away capital.  This is probably one of the reasons why the bamot were so pervasive.  Why travel to Yerushalayim when I can offer a sacrifice to curry favor with the divine right here?

Hizkiyahu's success at removing worship of the bamot comes coincident with the largest change in territory of the kingdom of Judah.  In his reign Sennacherib, destroyed the northern kingdom, wiping out the competing shrines at Dan, Beth-el, and Shiloh.  Later, Sennacherib turned his eye towards Judah, and while he didn't conquer Yerushalayim, he destroyed many of the other cities and donated them to his vassals.  It's pretty easy to convince everyone to worship at the temple in Yerushalayim when it's the only one left!

Yoshiyahu ruled over a kingdom far smaller than it was just one hundred years earlier.  However, even he wasn't able to convince everyone that Yerushalayim was the sole holy site suitable for worship.  2 Kings 17:24-41 describes the aftermath of the destruction of the northern kingdom.  Specifically it describes the Assyrians settling foreign people in the cities of Shomron.  However, there was one group that claimed that they were actually members of the northern kingdom of Israel, and were not resettled foreigners.  These were the Samaritans, and in fact they're still around today.  To Samaritans the holy site chosen by God for worship is not Yerushalayim but rather Har Gerizim.  Their version of the Torah specifically calls out that mountain as the place of worship.  And they still worship on that mountain today!  The schism between the Samaritans and the rest of the Jewish people would be very acrimonious throughout the second temple and talmudic eras.  Nevertheless, they remain a strong piece of evidence that not everyone accepted the temple as Yerushalayim as the only place to offer sacrifices.


Now, it is possible to understand exactly what's going on with the tabernacle in the desert.  We saw in a past week a piece of evidence that it is very unlikely that the tabernacle was a product of its time, and looked very much like it was written at a later date.  Now we'll describe why.  The purpose of describing the tabernacle was to retroject the idea that the only possible place of worship was at a single divinely designated site, with worship carried out by the divinely designated descendents of Aharon all the way back to the time of Aharon himself.  In this context, it's clear that worshiping at the bamot during the monarchial period was a grave sin. 

However, as with many of the retrojections, the story of the desert tabernacle with a sole place of worship makes little sense in the broad scheme of Israelite history.  Namely, the pre-monarchial period, some 400 or so years by the biblical account, doesn't have centralized worship.

In the biblical account, the tabernacle  loses importance as soon as the Israelites settled in the land.  In fact, the tabernacle is not mentioned at all in Shmuel through Melachim.  There is one key mention though of the ohel moed the "tent of meeting."  It appears when Shlomo (Solomon) is bringing stuff into the temple (1 Kings 8 4):
And they brought up the ark of the LORD, and the tent of meeting, and all the holy vessels that were in the Tent; even these did the priests and the Levites bring up.
This has led some scholars (specifically R.E. Friedman in Who Wrote the Bible) to hypothesize that the entire tabernacle actually existed, and was brought into Shlomo's temple in its entirety.  It is important to note that the author of Devarim (Deuteronomy) never mentions the mishkan (tabernacle) but he does mention the ohel moed.

The possibility I like here is that the ohel moed was an earlier conception of a central worship location, although not one with all the trappings of the mishkan.  This was later equated to the mishkan by the authors of P, who use both words to describe the structure built in the desert.  It is also equated explicitly by the author of Divrei Hayamim (Chronicles), in yet another one of those areas where the differences between Divrei Hayamim and Melachim mirror the differences between Devarim and Vayikra.  Specifically, the author of Divrei Hayamim adds into the narrative sentences like (1 Chr 6:17):
And they ministered with song before the tabernacle (mishkan) of the tent of meeting (ohel moed), until Solomon had built the house of the LORD in Jerusalem; and they took their station at their service according to their order.
 and it even fills in the gap of what happened to the mishkan during all those years (1 Chr 21:29):
For the tabernacle (mishkan) of the LORD, which Moses made in the wilderness, and the altar of burnt-offering, were at that time in the high place at Gibeon.
There is always a good reason to be skeptical when Divrei Hayamim inserts information into the text that doesn't appear in Melachim.  It almost always appears to have some ulterior motive.  In this case, it is trying to explicitly justify Shlomo's temple, by equating it back to the wilderness time.  While the passage of Melachim does mention the ohel moed it makes no mention about it having been used in the desert, or being synonymous with a mishkan.

Divine Claims

We see both last week and this week how the idea of claiming that your particular form of worship, your holy site and your appointed priests are the only appropriate ones is an element of Judaism just as much as it is a part of other religions worldwide.  Rival priestly factions fought over who had the right to offer sacrifices, and rival kingdoms fought over which site had God's chosen holy site.  It's only because the descendents of Aharon won the fight that they got to rewrite the story to indicate that that's the way it's always been.  Similarly, only because Yerushalayim was the last site left standing (besides the Samaritans), did its supporters get to rewrite the story about how it's the only holy site.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Who's a Kohen?

Parshat Vayikra

We open our third book of the Torah with a discussion on which group of people get the honor of serving God as the priests, or kohanim.  Of course, everyone already assumes they know the answer before we start.  The Kohanim are the descendents of Aharon (Aaron).  However, as we'll see this week, it's not actually that simple.

A Disagreement Between Sources

In previous weeks (here and here) we looked at the two of the four "sources", J and E, who appear to have been combined into the Torah we know today.  This week we'll look at the other two sources, P and D.  It turns out that J and E don't really make any important distinctions on who gets to be a priest, and since D is confined entirely to the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), it suffices to compare between the first four books (really, the middle three) and Devarim.

When we look at the first four books, the story is consistent. For example, at the beginning of this week's parsha (Lev 1:5)
And he shall kill the bullock before the LORD; and Aaron's sons, the priests, shall present the blood, and dash the blood round about against the altar that is at the door of the tent of meeting.
I won't belabor the point, and I doubt people will disagree with me, when I say that the Torah is really consistent in these books with identifying the priests as the sons of Aharon.

What about in Devarim?  Here we see language that is very different.  For example (Deut 17:9, the first occurance of the word Kohen) 
And thou shall come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days; and thou shalt inquire; and they shall declare unto thee the sentence of judgment.
The phrase, "the priests, the Levites" appears many more times, (Deut 17:18, 18:1, 24:8, 27:9, ) We also, see "the priests, the sons of Levi" twice (Deut. 21:4,  31:9).  There are two other occurrences of the word Kohen in Devarim (Deut. 19:17, 20:2), without any descriptor.  Needless to say, it never says, "The priests, the sons of Aharon," and just as importantly, the rest of the Torah never has either "the priests, the Levites" or "the priests, the sons of Levi."

Traditional explanation says that we should read, "The priests, the Levites" as something like, "the priests, who happen to be Levites," and that the fact this turn of phrase occurs only in Devarim and nowhere else is coincidental.  And, if you want to say, that it's just a turn of phrase that Moshe is using, and his specific to his vernacular, that does not hold up.  For example, Deut: 27:9, is clearly not spoken by Moshe:
And Moses and the priests the Levites spoke unto all Israel, saying: 'Keep silence, and hear, O Israel; this day thou art become a people unto the LORD thy God.
And even more so, when addressing Korach, the Levite who wanted to be a priests, Moshe makes a clear distinction (Num. 16:8-10).
8 And Moses said unto Korah: 'Hear now, ye sons of Levi: 9 is it but a small thing unto you, that the God of Israel hath separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the service of the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the congregation to minister unto them; 10 and that He hath brought thee near, and all thy brethren the sons of Levi with thee? and will ye seek the priesthood also?
Before, we delve further, I'll note that this is just one of the differences between Devarim and the rest of the Torah.  We'll get to some of the other differences later, and we'll probably devote at least one week to the topic exclusively when we get to Devarim itself.

In the rest of Tanach

The rest of Tanach also has inconsistencies in who serves as kohanimYehushua (Joshua) also refers to "the priests the Levites" (Josh 3:3, 8:33), and furthermore, has the kohanim carrying the ark (Josh 3:6), something that was traditionally the role of the non-kohen Levites, except of course for Devarim which has it also described as a task of the Kohanim (Deut 31:9).

The book of Shoftim also has curious statements about kohanim.  The story of Micha (Micah) in chapters 17 and 18 stands out.  This story may not be familiar to people so I'll describe it.  Micha wants to make a house of God and he does (Judg. 17:5)
And the man Micah had a house of God, and he made an ephod, and teraphim, and consecrated one of his sons, who became his priest.
However, Micha knew that he wasn't a real priest, he needed something better.  This is the neat part of the story, I'll quote in full (Judg 17:8-13)
7 And there was a young man out of Beth-lehem in Judah--in the family of Judah--who was a Levite, and he sojourned there. 8 And the man departed out of the city, out of Beth-lehem in Judah, to sojourn where he could find a place; and he came to the hill-country of Ephraim to the house of Micah, as he journeyed. 9 And Micah said unto him: 'Whence comest thou?' And he said unto him: 'I am a Levite of Beth-lehem in Judah, and I go to sojourn where I may find a place.' 10 And Micah said unto him: 'Dwell with me, and be unto me a father and a priest (kohen), and I will give thee ten pieces of silver by the year, and a suit of apparel, and thy victuals.' So the Levite went in. 11 And the Levite was content to dwell with the man; and the young man was unto him as one of his sons. 12 And Micah consecrated the Levite, and the young man became his priest, and was in the house of Micah. 13 Then said Micah: 'Now know I that the LORD will do me good, seeing I have a Levite as my priest (kohen).' 
But the story doesn't end there.  A bunch of people from Dan are relocating and they stop by Micha's house and essentially rob it.  They convince the Levite to come with them (Judg 15:20)
15 And they turned aside thither, and came to the house of the young man the Levite, even unto the house of Micah, and asked him of his welfare. 16 And the six hundred men girt with their weapons of war, who were of the children of Dan, stood by the entrance of the gate. 17 And the five men that went to spy out the land went up, and came in thither, and took the graven image, and the ephod, and the teraphim, and the molten image; and the priest stood by the entrance of the gate with the six hundred men girt with weapons of war. 18 And when these went into Micah's house, and fetched the graven image of the ephod, and the teraphim, and the molten image, the priest said unto them: 'What do ye?' 19 And they said unto him: 'Hold thy peace, lay thy hand upon thy mouth, and go with us, and be to us a father and a priest; is it better for thee to be priest unto the house of one man, or to be priest unto a tribe and a family in Israel?' 20 And the priest's heart was glad, and he took the ephod, and the teraphim, and the graven image, and went in the midst of the people. 
Then later, it describes the situation at the temple in Dan. Judg. 18:30:
And the children of Dan set up for themselves the graven image; and Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh, he and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the day of the captivity of the land.
To make things even more confusing, the Manasseh appears to have a small letter nun.  If you remove that letter, you get that the priest was the grandson of Moshe, who actually did have a child named Gershom.  Is this an indication that there was a group of priests located in Dan who traced their lineage to Moshe?

The same pattern in Devarim holds for the books of Yehushua through Melachim (Kings).  Priests are not mentioned in relation to the children of Aharon.  There are a couple mentions of Aharon in these books, but not with relationship to the kingship.  Pinchas (Phineas) is mentioned in Shoftim, (Judg 20:28) but with regard to leading an army.  Also, Aharon, is mentioned in a speech by Shmuel (Samuel, 1 Sam. 12:6-8) but only with respect to leaving Egypt.  The name Aharon is found nowhere in Melachim. In fact, when priests are appointed, there are no qualifications given as to their ancestry.

What About Divrei Hayamim?

In contrast to the books of Yehushua through Melachim, Divrei Hayamin (Chronicles) explicitly gives the ancestry of David's priests, and echos the first four books of the Torah regarding who can serve.  For example (1 Chr 6:33-34)
33 And their brethren the Levites were appointed for all the service of the tabernacle of the house of God. 34 But Aaron and his sons offered upon the altar of burnt-offering, and upon the altar of incense, for all the work of the most holy place, and to make atonement for Israel, according to all that Moses the servant of God had commanded.
 and (1 Chr 23:13-14)
13 The sons of Amram: Aaron and Moses; and Aaron was separated, that he should be sanctified as most holy, he and his sons for ever, to offer before the LORD, to minister unto Him, and to bless in His name for ever. 14 But as for Moses the man of God, his sons are named among the tribe of Levi.
 and explicitly regarding the priests that David appointed (1 Chr 24:3)
And David with Zadok of the sons of Eleazar, and Ahimelech of the sons of Ithamar, divided them according to their ordering in their service.
It is universally agreed that Divrei Hayamim was written after Melachim by religious and secular scholars alike.  In many places they are exactly the same text.  However, there are some differences.  It turns out, and this is a topic we'll explore fully later, that when they differ, the Divrei Hayamim version aligns with the first four books of the Torah (specifically, the P source, but usually these are topics that J and E don't discuss).  In contrast, Melachim aligns with Deuteronomy.  This case is no exception.  Divrei Hayamim had the same agenda as in the first four books.  Only the children of Aharon can be priests.  They rewrote the stories of Melachim and edited in these details to make sure that this was clear.

Priestly Propaganda

At this point it's pretty easy to construct a hypothesis to the origin of the idea that only Aharon's descendents could be priests.  Originally, the Levites had established themselves as a people with priestly access to the divine.  However, there were various different sects of Levites that were vying for power.  For example, the Levites in Dan that claimed descent (possibly) from Moshe.  At some point, one of the kings, possibly David, possibly someone later, appointed Levites who claimed descent from Aharon to the high priest position.  Those priests then went back and rewrote a new version of history, to indicate that they were always the priests directly chosen by God.  This rewriting probably occurred fairly late, in the Exilic period or just before.

One of the clues to how this occurred might be contained in Yehezkel (Ezekiel).  Yehezkel, is one of the later prophets, writing just prior to and during the exile.  He was a priest himself, and he spends a good chunk of his book describing priestly roles, sacrifices, ritual holiday services and other similar things.  Yehezkel mentions Zadok, the priest appointed by David, and traces the proper priestly lineage to him.  The verses in question, I will quote in full (Ezek 44:10-16):
10 But the Levites, that went far from Me, when Israel went astray, that went astray from Me after their idols, they shall bear their iniquity; 11 and they shall be ministers in My sanctuary, having charge at the gates of the house, and ministering in the house: they shall slay the burnt-offering and the sacrifice for the people, and they shall stand before them to minister unto them. 12 Because they ministered unto them before their idols, and became a stumbling block of iniquity unto the house of Israel; therefore have I lifted up My hand against them, saith the Lord GOD, and they shall bear their iniquity. 13 And they shall not come near unto Me, to minister unto Me in the priest's office, nor to come near to any of My holy things, unto the things that are most holy; but they shall bear their shame, and their abominations which they have committed. 14 And I will make them keepers of the charge of the house, for all the service thereof, and for all that shall be done therein. 15 But the priests the Levites, the sons of Zadok, that kept the charge of My sanctuary when the children of Israel went astray from Me, they shall come near to Me to minister unto Me; and they shall stand before Me to offer unto Me the fat and the blood, saith the Lord GOD; 16 they shall enter into My sanctuary, and they shall come near to My table, to minister unto Me, and they shall keep My charge.
Here, Yehezkel is describing when the duties of the priesthood fell onto a single lineage of Levites.  It was not, as the Torah states, at the time of the golden calf.  Rather it was fairly late into the monarchial period.  The divisions of labors that Yehezkel is describing mimic exactly those in the first four books of the Torah, and as in the changes made in Divrei Hayamim.

The conclusion is clear.  Sometime, probably just before or during the time Yehezkel is writing, the priests of the Zadok lineage claimed official solitary control of the priestly offices.  Then, probably during this time or afterwards, the authors of the relevant sections of the first four books of the Torah, retrojected that claim all the way back to Moshe and Aharon.  To complete the chain, the even later authors of Divrei Hayamim, went and invented a full lineage for Zadok describing him as a descendent of Aharon.  We would never have been able to figure out that this was a later lie, if it wasn't for all the earlier hints scattered throughout Devarim - Melachim that describe an entirely different set of events.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The "Original" Ten Commandments

 Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei

Instead of spending another week talking about the tabernacle construction, the topic of this weeks parshah.  I want to go back and discuss some of the hypothesis that explain a confusing set of verses in Exodus 34.  In the process we'll introduce several different authors to explain the odd chronology of events that we looked at last week.

J, E and P

I've briefly mentioned in the past, but I'll state clearly now, the ideas behind the Documentary Hypothesis (or DH).  DH attempts to explain some of the odd inconsistencies of the Torah, both from internal contradictions like we saw last week with the underwear, or with the story of Joseph in the pit, or the use of the names of God and other things like the doublet stories in Genesis.  The explanation is that the conflicting or duplicate stories were originally part of multiple documents, which were later combined.  The specific conventional theory is that J and E represent the two oldest documents, J from the southern kingdom of Judah, and E from the northern kingdom of Israel. These were then redacted into a JE document.  A later document P, so named because of an obsession with priestly ideas, was later redacted with JE into the document that comprises the first four books of the Torah.  (The fourth author D is confined to Deuteronomy, and we'll get to that later.)  A lesser form of DH, would attribute these contradictory elements to multiple traditions that may not have actually been written down.  This is similar to the ideas put forth by Cassuto.  Either one, the full DH, or one of the lesser forms like the supplement hypothesis, is sufficient for this exercise.

In this section of the Torah, from the beginning of the encampment at Sinai/Horeb, to the construction of the tabernacle there are three different authors contributing.  The text surrouding Sinai itself is a mishmash of J and E and has some contentious splitting, so we'll ignore it for now.  We're more interested in the overall story.  We'll start with one version of the story, the one attributed to E.  It begins at Exod 20:18, with the description of the mountain and continues all the way through the legal Hammurabi-like laws.  It continues with the first half of Exod 24 where Moshe (Moses) consecrates the people, and Moshe, Aharon (Aaron) and 70 other people all go up to have a meal with God (Exod 24:11).  After which, Moshe goes alone up the mountain, and there's a break in the E story at Exod 24:15.  We rejoin the story in Exod. 32 and 33 which is the golden calf episode discussed last week and the subsequent aftermath with God revealing himself to Moses.  After that, the E story is completely done.

The J story is shorter.  There are some parts of Exod 19 with the Sinai story.  It picks up at Exod 25 with Moshe warning the people not to try to approach the mountain.  Note that this occurs after Moshe and seventy elders all went up the mountain and had a meal.  It then jumps to Exod 34 with God instructing Moshe to make two tablets.  (Note that in J there is no golden calf, or breaking of the first tablets, so there's some redaction comments to smooth the transition.)  In Exod. 34 God reveals himself again to Moshe, and gives him the tablets with the ten commandments, a different set of commandments, that are specifically referred to as the ten commandments in Exod 34:28.  This is the entirety of the J story.

The P story is probably not a standalone story, but was likely a supplement to the JE story (or perhaps just he E story.) [1].  It includes the commandments about the tabernacle, and the story about Moshe's wearing a mask because his face became disfigured (Exod 34:29-35), and the description of the Sabbath in Exod 35.

The 10 commandments of J (and E)

The 10 commandments in J are written in Exod 34:14-26.  They are the following:

  1. Do not worship any other God (Exod 34:14-16)
  2. Do not make molten images (Exod 34:17)
  3. Observe the festival of Pesach (Passover) (Exod 34:18) [2]
  4. Consecrate every firstborn (Exod 34:19-20)
  5. Observe the Sabbath (Exod 34:20)
  6. Observe Sukkot (Exod 34:22)
  7. Appear before God three times a year (Exod 34:23-24)
  8. Do not offer blood of sacrifice on leavened bread (Exod 34:25)
  9. Bring first fruits to God (Exod 34:26a)
  10. Do not cook a kid in its mother's milk (Exod 34:26b) [3]
These differ significantly from the commandments in Exod 20, the ten commandments we are more familiar with.  Only the first two, and the commandments to observe the Sabbath are the same between them.  They represent a possibly older set of commandments concerned predominantly with sacrificial and laws of proper worship.  Some of these laws are repetitive in the laws of the E account written a few chapters earlier.  In fact, E has a section, amidst it's many laws, which has a bunch of very similar laws to those in J written in Exod 23, which has:
  • Observe the Sabbath (Exod 23:12)
  • Do not mention other gods (Exod 23:13)
  • Keep the three festivals (Exod 23:14-16)
  • Appear before God three times (Exod 23:17)
  • Do not offer blood sacrifices on leavened bread (Exod 23:18)
  • Bring first fruits to God (Exod 23:19a)
  • Do not cook a kid in its mother's milk (Exod 23:19b)
Some of the words also appear in exactly the same language, especially the last 3.  It is clear that these laws were cultic laws that were central to both forms of the text.  It remains to people who wish to argue that everything is written by a single author to explain why these commandments need to be repeated in exactly the same language.

Where did the 10 commandments we know come from?

There is one remaining question.  To which tradition do the commandments in Exod 20, the ones commonly referred to as the ten commandments come from?  The answer is, probably to none of them.  It is not clear where these commandments came from.  They also appear, in almost similar form in Deuteronomy.  One theory could be that these belong to P, written after D, and inserted into the text here with some minor changes (namely relating Shabbat to the creation rather than the exodus).  Another option is that it's an older and separate document that was inserted into the text here by a later redactor (although probably included by the author of Deuteronomy).  I don't have a solid answer here, there are many acceptable options.

However, without a doubt it can be argued that the commandments listed above, the ones in Exod 34 and Exod 23, are both earlier versions of the divine commandments given by God to Moshe, and that these represent an earlier tradition of what was in the divine covenant.
Looking Ahead

With this week we've finished the second book of the Torah, the book of Shmot (Exodus). The next book represents the "doldrums" of the Torah the book of Vayikra (Leviticus). It is full with detailed descriptions of sacrifices and all sorts of things concerning how the tabernacle, and later the temple, should be run. The first two weeks will focus on these topics. After that we'll have two weeks devoted to Pesach (Passover). But after that, for the rest of the book, I may use some liberal interpretations of what topic to discuss. It should be interesting.

1. For more on the dependence of P on E, see F. M. Cross "Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. ^

2. If this law of Pesach is familiar, that's because we saw it way back when talking about Sukkot. ^

3. Just like with the ten commandments in Exod. 20, where the Jewish and Christian disagree on how to divide the ten commandments, it's possible to split these up in different ways. ^

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Golden Calf

Pashat Ki Tisa

The sequence of events following the event on Mt. Sinai is confusing both from a literal sense and from a theological sense.  In this post we'll attempt to shed light on one of the most confounding theological stories in all of the Torah, the story of the golden calf.  We'll see that out of a very specific context, this story makes no sense.  Unfortunately, the Rabbis from Talmudic times until the 20th century were missing some key pieces of information to properly make sense of the story.

A Quick Recap

The story of Mt Sinai goes something like this.  The Israelites arrive at Sinai and prepare for the revelation (Exod 19).  The 10 commandments are given (Exod 20:1-13).  The people tell Moshe to go talk to God by himself, which he does (Exod 20:14-17).   A somewhat curious group of commandments is given (Exod 20:19-22).  The commandments discussing social laws, based off of the Hammurabi code (Exod 21:1-23:4).  Another curious set of commandments are given (Exod 23:6-19).  And then a promise about conquering Israel (Exod 23:20-33).   

Moshe teaches Israel the commandments, presumably the ones in the previous chapters, the people accept it.  He brings 70 people with him to the top of the mountain, all of which meet God and even have a meal there. (Exod 24:1-11).  Moshe goes to the mountain again, now for the 40 day, 40 night period we all know (Exod 24:12-18).  Commandments about the tabernacle (Exod 25-27).  Commandments about the priestly clothing (Exod 28).  Commandments about the inauguration of Aharon and his sons into the priesthood (Exod 29-30).  Call of Bezalel and Oholiab who are to make the stuff in the previous chapters (Exod 31:1-11).  Commandments about Shabbat (Exod 31:12-17).  And finally, God gives Moshe the two tablets (Exod 31:18).

The people see Moshe is late descending from the mountain, so they make a Golden Calf (Exod 32:1-6).  God wants to destroy Israel, Moshe convinces him not to (Exod 32:7-14).  Moshe comes down, sees the calf, breaks the tablets, and the Levites slaughter approximately 3000 people (Exod 32:15-35).  Moshe puts his tent outside the camp (Exod: 33:1-11).  God reveals himself to Moshe (Exod 33:12-23).  God instructs Moshe to make new tablets (Exod 34:1-10).  God gives a different set of ten commandments (Exod 34:12-26, and next week's topic.)  God instructs Moshe to write those commandments on the tablets, which he does during another 40 day stint (Exod 34:27-35).

Yet even more commandments (Exod 35).  The making of the tabernacle stuff (Exod 36-40).

The Golden Calf

Given the story recounted above, the construction of the golden calf makes no sense.  In this story, the people here directly from God the second commandment, which is pretty clear that they shouldn't be making graven images.  Could it possibly be that they forgot this commandment in forty days?  Also, why would they choose a cow of all things?

If you've been following this blog so far, you'll probably have already thought of a nice possibility to explain why the Israelites might make an idol just after hearing a commandment from God himself telling them not to.  The answer lies in the fact that there appear to be multiple versions of the ten commandments.  Furthermore, only the version in Exodus 34 is actually referred to as a set of ten commandments.  So you can imagine two versions of the story here, one in which the people never hear the commandment about idols from God.  There are in fact multiple stories here, and while it's possible to separate them into self-consistent strands, I'd rather focus on something different in this post.  I'd like to talk about the second question: why choose a cow.

The Rival Shrine

The verse describing the construction of the calf is (Exod 32:1-6):
1 And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him: 'Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.' 2 And Aaron said unto them: 'Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.' 3 And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. 4 And he received it at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they said: 'This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.' 5 And when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said: 'To-morrow shall be a feast to the LORD.' 6 And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt-offerings, and brought peace-offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to make merry.
The phrase "which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt" appears elsewhere in Tanach.  The context in which it appears is startling (1 Kings 12:25-32):
25 Then Jeroboam built Shechem in the hill-country of Ephraim, and dwelt therein; and he went out from thence, and built Penuel. 26 And Jeroboam said in his heart: 'Now will the kingdom return to the house of David. 27 If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, then will the heart of this people turn back unto their lord, even unto Rehoboam king of Judah; and they will kill me, and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.' 28 Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold; and he said unto them: 'Ye have gone up long enough to Jerusalem; behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.' 29 And he set the one in Beth-el, and the other put he in Dan. 30 And this thing became a sin; for the people went to worship before the one, even unto Dan. 31 And he made houses of high places, and made priests from among all the people, that were not of the sons of Levi. 32 And Jeroboam ordained a feast in the eighth month, on the fifteenth day of the month, like unto the feast that is in Judah, and he went up unto the altar; so did he in Beth-el, to sacrifice unto the calves that he had made; and he placed in Beth-el the priests of the high places that he had made.
The similarities cannot be coincidental  In 1 Kings we see that Yeroboam (Jeroboam) makes two golden calves and installs them in two northern cities, the purpose of which is to rival Solomon's temple in Jerusalem.  He uses the same words as are used in the story of the golden calf at the time of the Torah, and he also declares a feast afterwards.  And if this wasn't enough, Yeroboam's sons are named Nadav and Aviyah (1 Kings 14:20), almost exactly the same as the two sons of Aharon, Nadav,and Avihu who are later killed by God for offering an inappropriate sacrifice!

Here's the takeaway point.  It makes absolutely no sense for Yeroboam to do this if everyone knew the story of the golden calf.  The people would think he was mad to do the same thing that the people did at the time of Moshe which led to the death of many people and caused the wrath of God to be roused against the Israelites.  Yeroboam and his people must have been unaware of this story.  This can only mean that Yeroboam's story came first, and the golden calf story came afterwards as a sort of polemic against the northern Israelite shrines.

Looking at it this way, it makes a lot of sense.  Yeroboam makes two shrines.  The authors of this story [1] wanted to discredit the northern kingdom.  So they retrojected the calves into the distant past, and wrote a negative story about how God really disliked golden calves.  Did Yeroboam's golden calves actually exist?  Besides the account in Melachim, Hoshea also mentions them (Hos 8:5-6), so we're probably on pretty firm ground in stating that these calves actually existed and were critiqued by at least one northern prophet, and likely the southern kingdom as well.

But Why the Cow?

We have not yest answered the question of why bother to use a cow.  It's possible to approach this by comparing a golden calf with the central element in the Jerusalem temple, the holy ark.  The holy ark was a square box, plated in gold, and topped by a cover with two cruvim.  In modern English, these would be translated as cherubim and would likely be given an image of angelic winged beings.  An image like this is probably what you think of when you think of the ark.  However, the ancient near east cruv looked different.  It was a fearsome winged beast, and looked like this.  They are all over Assyrian and Bablyonian art, specifically on thrones, like in this image.  Therefore, it makes sense to interpret the ark as a divine throne.  And indeed, in the biblical account, God's shechina (holy presence) is described as living on top of the ark (Exod. 25:22).

Ok, so why is this relevant.  It turns out the bull symbology was associated with the Canaanite god El, the head of the Canaanite pantheon, and also to a somewhat lesser degree Ba'al.  El is often referred to in Akkadian as tr 'l, which would read the same in Hebrew, bull El [2].   El is used often in the Tanach as a description of God.  Nearly every biblical scholar agrees that YHWH and El were separate deities that fused at some point into one.  They were probably fused by the time of Yeroboam.  So what's happening here is that Yeroboam is tapping into old symbolism for El-YHWH.  The golden calf is a symbol for El-YHWH in the exact same manner as the ark.  It is also a symbolism that everyone will be aware of, just as they all know what the cruvim represent.

One oft-heard thing from Orthodox Jews is that their religion is authentic, the real original Judaism.  This is often said in contrast to Reform or Conservative.  The reason that they take this route is that authenticity is a very appealing, and if you can convince others that your practices represent a more ancient and authentic version, then you're going to have a lot of persuading power.  If you can convince people that this is what their distant ancestors did, then you may convince them to do the same.  Yeroboam may have been doing something similar.  The ark in Jerusalem was a newer symbolism, the bull idol was more ancient.  He might have been billing it as a more authentic way to worship God, more in touch with the past, more similar to what the Israelite's ancestors would have worshiped.  That is why Yeroboam chose the bull as his symbol.  And that is why the Israelites would have tolerated it.

Making Sense of it All

If you take the bible at its literal word, the story makes no sense.  The Israelites making a calf symbol right after hearing a commandment from God to not do exactly that thing.  And then the King of Israel, doing the exact same thing five hundred years later, and the entire population is apparently okay with it, even though the earlier golden calf story is right there in their holy book.  The only way to salvage a reasonable story is to place the golden calves of Yeroboam as occurring first.  The golden calf story in the desert, must be later.

There are still some complications in the story.  For example, Aaron is portrayed in a negative light.  So the author of the story must have been someone that was antagonistic to both the priests claiming priesthood from Aaron, and antagonistic to Yeroboam.  We'll talk about the priestly rivalries in later weeks.  But as foreshadowing, keep in mind that polemics against rival priestly groups are littered throughout the Torah   

1. Friedman, in Who Wrote the Bible attributes this story to E, and claims E was the northern priests of Shiloh, who were snubbed by Yeroboam from serving in his shrines. This is supported by F.M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, Harvard Univ Press, 1973 p 198-199 .^

2. See, for example, Cross p. 15.^

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Bonus Purim Post

So, I forgot to reserve a week for Purim, so instead, I decided to just make a bonus post to outline some of my thoughts on the book of Esther.  Esther is probably one of my favorite books.  In my opinion, it's possibly the first satire ever written.  It has a reasonably good story.  And possibly to the chagrin of at least one ancient Jewish community, it makes no mention of God or anything divine.  In this post, I'll lay out some of my thoughts on Esther, some of the historical background, and I'll propose my own theory that the original story was probably completely unrelated to Judaism at all.

Three Levels of Irony

There is actually multiple levels of irony in Esther, which is one of the reasons I like the book so much.  The first level is the superficial level of irony present in the story itself.  Namely, the king of Persia, Ahashverosh, is depicted as having no ability to make decisions on his own. He in fact, makes only one decision in the story.  At the very beginning, he holds a party.  All the other decisions he makes are prompted by advisors and Esther.  His advisors tell him to kill Vashti for insubordination. His advisors tell him to invite a bunch of virgins to the palace for one night stands in order to find a replacement queen.  Haman (his chief advisor) tells him to kill the Jews, and also suggests, ironically, to honor Mordechai. Esther advises him to not kill the Jews.  Ahashverosh, is the most powerful king in the known world, and he's depicted as completely useless.  That's irony level one.

The second irony level is found in the names of the two protagonists in the story, Mordechai and Esther.  These are no other than the names of the two chief Babylonian deities, Marduk and Ishtar.  Marduk being the symbol of Babylonia itself, and Ishtar being the prime female deity, worshiped in many lands (Greek Astarte for example).  The irony here is a triumph over Babylon over Persia who recently captured it.  In other words, even though Persia is the ruler of the world, "from India to Ethiopia," it is the Babylonian deities that are pulling the strings.

The third level of irony is the fact that the Babylonian deities are depicted as Jews.  This leads to two humorous ironies, the first is that Mordechai and Esther are two of the most prototypical Jewish names, and they're names of the deities worshiped by the culture that destroyed the kingdom of Judah!  The second irony is that the great Babylonian deities, now worshiped by no-one, only live on because they were depicted as folk heroes of one of their conquered nations.

Historical Background

Esther is actually one of the easier books to place historically.  Ahashverosh is almost definitely Xerxes I who ruled from about 485 to 465 BCE.  Xerxes is the Greek name, and Ahashverosh is actually the Babylonian name.  Xerxes I is chosen, as opposed to later kings with that name because he actually did rule over a kingdom that stretched from India to Ethiopia.  Later the Persians would lose a lot of those lands to Alexander the Great's conquests.

There are also other features of the story that are reminiscent of Xerxes.  In the story, Mordechai foils a plot by two eunuch guards to kill Ahashverosh. Xerxes was actually assassinated with the help of a eunuch.  Also, Ahashverosh wants to kill the people of Mordechai, depicted as Jews in the story.  One of Xerxes' more notorious actions was to melt down a statue of Marduk in Babylon, greatly angering the Babylonians.

These ideas lead to one possible origin for the story which is the story was originally Babylonian propaganda.  In this case, the identification of Mordechai and Esther with Judaism would have been added later by people (Jews) who co-opted the story.  It should be noted that the motif of a foreign king that wants to wipe out the Jewish population because they refuse to bow down to the king appears elsewhere in Tanach, namely the book of Daniel, chapter 3.

A Modified Tale

Esther is really one of the odder inclusions in the Tanach for many reasons.  As mentioned above, it has no mention of God, or really any theological message at all.  Also, it seems that it wasn't considered canon by other groups. For example, Esther is the only book not represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Other groups did include Esther but were apparently put off by the lack of theological message.  We know this because the Septuagint version of Esther differs significantly.  The only real "story" difference is a dream at the beginning, that Mordechai has of two intertwined serpents.  The obvious guess is that it's describing the wars between Persia and the Greeks, although we have no idea how recent this addition was.  Another difference is the inclusion of the letters that the king sends out, both to kill the Jews and to not kill them.  However, there are also changes that are theological in nature.  God's name is added in several places.  Also, both Mordechai and Esther give long drawn out speeches in which they ask for God's help several times. 

The reasons for these additions, and it really seems like they are additions, is that the Egyptian community that authored the Septuagint were unhappy with the lack of divine elements, so they added their own.  While the Masoretic text used today does not have any mention of God, Rabbis are very likely to point out stuff like it must all be God's doing.  In my opinion, if any deities are involved in this tale, it's not the Jewish God, but it's the Babylonian ones.