The tabernacle texts of Exodus are bisected by the account of the idolatry of the golden calf (Exodus 32-34). On one side of that episode is the seven-speech prescription for the building of the tabernacle (Exodus 25-31), and on the other is a second description of the tabernacle furnishings and construction (Exodus 35-40).
Within that setting, we expect the calf idolatry to have something to do with the building of the sanctuary. It clearly does. In Exodus 25, Moses communicates Yahweh’s instructions, in which He tells the people to gather material for the tabernacle curtains and furniture and describes the things they are to make.
The calf incident begins with a similar sequence. When the people demand that Aaron make a god to replace the absent Moses, he tells them to gather a contribution of gold earrings (Exodus 32:1-3). If they have earrings, their ears are pierced, a symbol of their status as slaves (Exodus 21:5-6). If pierced ears represent their openness to the word of Yahweh, the fact that they relinquish the earrings to an idol symbolizes their apostasy. They return to the calf worship of Egypt, close their ears to Yahweh, and submit themselves to a calf that feeds on grass (Psalm 106:19-27).
From the gold, Aaron fashions a calf, as Bezalel and Oholiab fashioned the golden implements of tabernacle worship. He announces that the calf is the Elohim that brought Israel from Egypt (Exodus 32:4), a graven image of the god of the exodus (cf. Exodus 20:4-6). He builds an altar before the calf, proclaims a feast, and offers ascension and peace offerings (Exodus 32:5-6). Israel sacrifices, eats and drinks and rejoices before the calf (Exodus 32:6).
Aaron replicates the instructions Yahweh gives Moses (altar for ascension and peace offerings, Exodus 20:24-25), but leads Israel’s worship before a calf instead of before the throne of Yahweh. The tabernacle is a house of hospitality, a place for table communion between Yahweh and His people. Aaron fashions a false tabernacle, a golden calf-throne that replaces the ark as the resting place of Yahweh. Because he doesn’t listen to Yahweh’s voice, Aaron’s making is a mis-making, a construction whose ultimate fruit is destruction. The verb “play” (tzachaq; Exodus 32:6) is the root of the name Isaac. But the laughter of Israel before the calf is not the laughter of sons of Abraham. Moses demolishes the false tabernacle and grinds it to powder (Exodus 32:15-20). It’s the first sanctuary destruction in Israel’s history, but hardly the last.
Moses’ negotiations with Yahweh (cf. Genesis 18) are complex. I won’t attempt to untangle every stage, but will focus on the implications for the tabernacle.
Yahweh’s initial decision is to abandon the tabernacle system entirely. He instructs Moses to lead Israel on to the land and promises to send His angel to drive out the peoples of the land (Exodus 33:1-2). He will fulfill His promise to Abraham; He won’t back down on His oath. But “I will not ascend in your midst, because you are a stiff-necked people lest I destroy you on the way” (Exodus 33:3). The purpose of the tabernacle is for Yahweh to “dwell among you” (Exodus 25:8; 29:45-46), and His threat not to be in their midst is a threat to abandon His house. From that opening, the whole scene is about Moses’ successful efforts to restore Yahweh’s commitment to reside in His tent among His people (Exodus 34:9).
Like the restriction on Adam’s access to the tree of life, Yahweh’s decision to lead Israel but not to dwell among them is intended to preserve Israel’s life: If Yahweh remains in the midst, He will destroy Israel. That’s not good enough for Moses. He doesn’t want the land unless it’s the place where Yahweh lives among His people.
Yahweh is won over in several phases. When Moses reports Yahweh’s decision not to dwell among the people, the Israelites mourn and strip themselves of their ornaments (Exodus 33:4-6). Earlier in Exodus, the verb for “strip” (natzal) means “deliver” (Exodus 3:8; 5:23; 6:6) and “plunder” (Exodus 3:22; 12:36). Yahweh “plundered” Egypt when He delivered Israel, who left after plundering their oppressors. After the golden calf, the people self-plunder. They remove the finery of Egypt as a sign that they are repenting of their idolatrous return to Egypt.
Though Yahweh threatens to abandon His tent, He permits Moses to approach him in a separate tent of meeting, set up at a safe distance outside the camp (Exodus 33:7-11). The glory descends on that tent, an indication that Moses at least has access to the royal tent and a possible pledge of Yahweh’s future return to the camp. Israel’s actions while Moses enters the tent are noteworthy: When Moses enters the tent, they stand at their tents, waiting for Moses to return from the cloud (“tent” is used 7x in Exodus 33:8-10). They do, in other words, what they didn’t do when Moses disappeared into the tent on Sinai: They wait for Him to return, and they bow in worship at their tents. In effect, the camp is turned inside out. The tent of meeting is placed outside the perimeter, rather than at the center, and the tents of the people become a courtyard.
Finally, Moses intercedes, pleading with God to lead them in a new exodus from Sinai-turned-Egypt. He wins Yahweh’s favor: “you have found favor in my sight, and I have known you by name” (Exodus 33:17), and Yahweh promises to go with him (Exodus 33:14). But the decision isn’t for Moses alone. As Danny Mathews puts it in his Royal Motifs in the Pentateuchal Portrayal of Moses, “Based on the favored status between Moses and the Lord as ‘friends,' Moses becomes the sole party of the covenant and is the one who will be in Israel's midst. The partner of the covenant is left ambiguous in [34:10], but the Lord makes it clear in v. 27 that the covenant is established primarily with Moses and, by extension, with Israel” (121).
Yahweh makes a covenant with Moses, but Israel as a whole is treated as the body of Moses. Moses replicates the initial Sinai covenant: He ascends into the cloud, Yahweh speaks to Him, He receives Yahweh’s law and returns after forty days with new tablets (Exodus 34:10-28). He becomes the glory in the camp, horned like a calf with reflective glory. Because Yahweh commits Himself to Moses, He pledges to return to the center of Israel’s encampment, to dwell in His tent in the midst of His people.
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