ESSAY
The Calf of the Purification Offering

On the eighth day of the rite of "filling the hand," Aaron began his service at the altar. His first offering was a "calf" (Heb. `egel), which served as a purification offering for himself and (apparently) his household (Leviticus 9:2, 8). This is striking for a couple of reasons. First, Leviticus 4:3 requires that priests offer a par, a "bullock," for their purification offering, and, second, nowhere else does the Bible mention an `egel as a sacrificial animal. There is no question of a violation of the commandment here; Leviticus 9:2 describes the animal as a "calf, a bullock," so that a "calf" is included in the category of animals covered by "bullock." Yet, there must be some reason for calling the animal an `egel here. Several possibilities suggest themselves.

First, the use of `egel emphasizes the youth of the animal. Par always means a young bull or bullock, but an `egel is even younger, a young bullock. This is appropriate for Aaron’s first approach to the altar, for he is an `egel in priestly ministry, not yet a par, much less a shor, a mature "ox" (Leviticus 9:4). Some similar rationale may be behind the selection of an `egel for the ascension offering of the people (Leviticus 9:3); Jordan has suggested a progression from initial ascension to God, represented by a calf, to communion with God, represented by the mature animal.

Second, prior to his ordination Aaron was involved with another `egel, the golden calf of Exodus 32. Aaron must have winced noticeably when Moses told him to take an `egel for his purification; ouch! The `egel of his first offering is a fitting atonement for his role in constructing the idolatrous `egel. There is a neat reversal here: The first time we see Aaron involved with liturgical matters he is constructing a golden calf and offering sacrifices to it; but now, his hands having been filled with the priesthood to Yahweh, he offers a calf in his first act of true worship. Dead and idolatrous Aaron has been given new life in his baptismal ordination.

Finally, Exodus 32:1 indicates that the people suggested that Aaron construct an image because Moses was delayed in returning from the mountain. This suggests that they understood the golden calf image as being in some sense a replacement for Moses, who had "brought them out of Egypt." Fittingly, Moses will later return from the mountain with a "horned" face, shining with the glory of Yahweh, the glory that had led Israel through the wilderness to Sinai. Moses is thus the true image of Yahweh, the true calf. In Leviticus 8-9, however, there is a transfer to a new image. Aaron is decked in glory-garments, his head is crowned with glorious gold, and he is now allowed to ascend to the altar-mountain and beyond the screen into the house. As his first act of ministry, Aaron, the new image of Yahweh, the new "golden calf," offers an `egel for purification and a calf of ascension for the people.

Peter Leithart is the president of Theopolis Institute. This post originally appeared on Biblical Horizons

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