Atoning for the Golden Calf with the Kapporet
The latter half of Exodus consists primarily of very detailed orders to build the Mishkan (or Tabernacle) in Exodus 25–31 (Parashat Terumah and Tetzaveh) and their fulfillment in chapters 35–40 (Parashat Veyakhel and Pekudei), interrupted only by the account of the Sin of the Golden Calf and its resolution in Ki Tissa (chapters 32–34).
The centerpiece of the Mishkan is the ’aron—“Ark” or “Coffer”—of testimony, which according to this Priestly account held the tablets of testimony (luḥot ha-‘edut) given to Moses at Sinai. The ark was closed from the top with a lid or cover called the kappōret, the same width and length as the ark:
שמות כה:יז וְעָשִׂיתָ כַפֹּרֶת זָהָב טָהוֹר אַמָּתַיִם וָחֵצִי אָרְכָּהּ וְאַמָּה וָחֵצִי רָחְבָּהּ…. כה:כא וְנָתַתָּ אֶת הַכַּפֹּרֶת עַל הָאָרֹן מִלְמָעְלָה וְאֶל הָאָרֹן תִּתֵּן אֶת הָעֵדֻת אֲשֶׁר אֶתֵּן אֵלֶיךָ:
Exod 25:17 Then you shall make a kappōret of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth…. 25:21 And you shall put the kappōret on the top of the Ark; and in the Ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. (NRSV with adjustments)
The origin of the term kappōret is obscure. Some scholars suggest that it is an Egyptian word, as in many of the obscure terms for the priestly garments (Exod 28), and that it means either “sole of the foot” or “seat.” Nevertheless, most translations assume that the word derives from the Hebrew root כ.פ.ר, and these can divided into two approaches:
Lid or Cover—In its qal form, כ.פ.ר means “to cover” (as in Gen 6:14), and thus can be simply translated as “cover” or “lid.” This is how 4QTgLev (4Q156, fragm. 1) renders the term (כסיא), as well as a number of medieval peshat (plain meaning) commentators such as Rashi (כיסוי) and Rashbam (מכסה). Some English translations retain this literal sense of “Ark-cover” (JPS), or simply “cover” (NJPS, NEB, Alter).
Atonement—In its piel form, כ.פ.ר means “to atone or to expiate.” Scholars connect this to the meaning found in Akkadian of cleansing, and translated the term as “purgation,” though I suggest that there may be intimations of “covering over” sin, in a figurative sense. As early as the third century B.C.E., the Septuagint renders the Hebrew kappōret consistently as hilasteerion (ίλαστήριον), meaning place of propitiation or atonement, indicative of the role this locus plays in the atonement ritual of Yom Kippur. Jerome’s fourth-century C.E. Vulgate uses the Latin equivalent of this term, propitiatorium. The Wycliffe Bible (1382) follows this translation: “And thou schalt make a propiciatorie of clenneste [pure] gold,” adding the gloss, “that is a table hilinge [covering] the Arke” (Exod 25:17).
Later English translations render kappōret as “mercy seat” (KJV, RSV, NRSV, ESV). The term was first coined by William Tyndale, perhaps following Martin Luther’s German translation (1534) of kappōret as Gnadenstuhl (seat of grace). Luther’s translation was likely influenced by the figuration of Jesus as the new “mercy seat” [hilasteerion] or high priest, who would ensure expiation for the sins of humanity (Rom 3:25; Heb 9:1–25).
In his modern translation, Richard Elliott Friedman follows this line, rendering kappōret as “atonement dais.” Other modern translations attempt to include both senses of the term, as in Everett Fox’s “purgation cover” or NIV’s “atonement cover.”
An Atonement for What?
This latter approach, where the word means something like “site of expiation” or “atonement” is the preferred translation of the rabbis, but it raises the question as to what the kapporēt atones for.
Yom Kippur Ritual
On a peshat level, Leviticus 16 connects the Yom Kippur ritual of expiation with the kappōret, since the high priest expiates for the people of Israel by sprinkling blood upon it:
ויקרא טז:יד וְלָקַח מִדַּם הַפָּר וְהִזָּה בְאֶצְבָּעוֹ עַל פְּנֵי הַכַּפֹּרֶת קֵדְמָה וְלִפְנֵי הַכַּפֹּרֶת יַזֶּה שֶׁבַע פְּעָמִים מִן הַדָּם בְּאֶצְבָּעוֹ. טז:טו וְשָׁחַט אֶת שְׂעִיר הַחַטָּאת אֲשֶׁר לָעָם וְהֵבִיא אֶת דָּמוֹ אֶל מִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת וְעָשָׂה אֶת דָּמוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְדַם הַפָּר וְהִזָּה אֹתוֹ עַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת וְלִפְנֵי הַכַּפֹּרֶת. טז:טז וְכִפֶּר עַל הַקֹּדֶשׁ מִטֻּמְאֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִפִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכָל חַטֹּאתָם…
Lev 16:14 He shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger over the kapporēt on the east side; and in front of the kapporēt he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times. 16:15 He shall then slaughter the people’s goat of sin offering, bring its blood behind the curtain, and do with its blood as he has done with the blood of the bull: he shall sprinkle it over the kapporēt and in front of the kapporēt. 16:16 Thus he shall purge (kipper) the Shrine of the uncleanness and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins…
This text connects the cover and the atonement ritual not only in terms of wordplay, but through function: the people receive expiation (kapparah) when blood is sprinkled on the site of “expiation” (kappōret). The rabbis, however, suggested an entirely different, midrashic connection between the kappōret and atonement.
Sifrei: The Kappōret Atones for the Sin of the Golden Calf
The tannaitic midrash, Sifrei Deuteronomy, comments on the strange place name Di-Zahav in Deuteronomy 1:1, which the rabbis understand as meaning “enough gold”, a subtle reference to the sin of the Golden Calf:
רבי יוסי בן חנינה אומר ועשית כפרת זהב טהור, יבא זהב כפורת ויכפר על זהב עגל.
R. Yossi ben Hanina says: “Then you shall make a kappōret of pure gold …” (Exod. 25:17)—Let the gold of the kappōret atone [yekhaper] for the gold of the calf.
While the midrash seems to be a mere play on words (kappōret as a means of kippur), it highlights the fact that the two objects are made of gold. One golden object, the kappōret, atones for the other, the Golden Calf.
The Cherubim and the Golden Calf
The kappōret ark cover is not merely an unadorned slab of gold. Upon it sit two golden statues of cherubim (כרובים) who spread their wings over it:
שמות כה:יח וְעָשִׂיתָ שְׁנַיִם כְּרֻבִים זָהָב מִקְשָׁה תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם מִשְּׁנֵי קְצוֹת הַכַּפֹּרֶת: כה:יט וַעֲשֵׂה כְּרוּב אֶחָד מִקָּצָה מִזֶּה וּכְרוּב אֶחָד מִקָּצָה מִזֶּה מִן הַכַּפֹּרֶת תַּעֲשׂוּ אֶת הַכְּרֻבִים עַל שְׁנֵי קְצוֹתָיו: כה:כ וְהָיוּ הַכְּרֻבִים פֹּרְשֵׂי כְנָפַיִם לְמַעְלָה סֹכְכִים בְּכַנְפֵיהֶם עַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת וּפְנֵיהֶם אִישׁ אֶל אָחִיו אֶל הַכַּפֹּרֶת יִהְיוּ פְּנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים:
Exod 25:18 And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the kappōret. 25:19 Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the kappōret shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. 25:20 The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the kappōret with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the kappōret shall the faces of the cherubim be.
The rabbis noticed the similarities between the cherubs of the ark and the molten statue of a calf made of gold through which the Israelites sin. They are also sensitive to the fact that the calf episode seems to interrupt the account of the building of the Mishkan:
שמות לב:א וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ כִּי זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה הָיָה לוֹ…. לב:ד וַיִּקַּח מִיָּדָם וַיָּצַר אֹתוֹ בַּחֶרֶט וַיַּעֲשֵׂהוּ עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 32:1 [T]he people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” … 32:4 He took [gold] from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “This is your god [or: “These are your gods”], O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
This behavior angers God, who informs Moses, while the latter is still on the mountain, what is going on in the camp, even quoting what Aaron said about the calf:
שמות לב:ח סָרוּ מַהֵר מִן הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִם עָשׂוּ לָהֶם עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ לוֹ וַיִּזְבְּחוּ לוֹ וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 32:8 “They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘This is your god [or: ‘These are your gods’], O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’”
The proximity of the story about the golden calf to the account of the creation of the golden cherubim gave the rabbis pause. How is the kappōret, this container of God’s immanence framed by golden cherubim, really any different from a calf made of gold? Both are golden statues designed for a cultic purpose. Moreover, even the way the gold was gathered—collected from the people’s jewelry—is similar:
שמות לב:ב וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם אַהֲרֹן פָּרְקוּ נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵי נְשֵׁיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם וּבְנֹתֵיכֶם וְהָבִיאוּ אֵלָי. לב:ג וַיִּתְפָּרְקוּ כָּל הָעָם אֶת נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶל אַהֲרֹן.
Exod 32:2 Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 32:3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron.
שמות לה:ד וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ־הֹוָה לֵאמֹר. לה:ה קְחוּ מֵאִתְּכֶם תְּרוּמָה לַי־הֹוָה כֹּל נְדִיב לִבּוֹ יְבִיאֶהָ אֵת תְּרוּמַת יְ־הֹוָה זָהָב וָכֶסֶף וּנְחֹשֶׁת…. לה:כב וַיָּבֹאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים עַל הַנָּשִׁים כֹּל נְדִיב לֵב הֵבִיאוּ חָח וָנֶזֶם וְטַבַּעַת וְכוּמָז כָּל כְּלִי זָהָב וְכָל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֵנִיף תְּנוּפַת זָהָב לַי־הֹוָה.
Exod 35:4 Moses said to all the congregation of the Israelites: This is the thing that YHWH has commanded: 35:5 Take from among you an offering to YHWH; let whoever is of a generous heart bring YHWH’s offering: gold, silver, and bronze… 35:22 So they came, both men and women; all who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and pendants, all sorts of gold objects, everyone bringing an offering of gold to YHWH.
And yet, the creation of one was considered a terrible sin while the creation of the other an important mitzvah (commandment).
Admittedly, the golden calf and the cherubim are not identical:
- The cherubim are two beings; the calf is one.
- The cherubim are heavenly creatures; the calf is earthly.
- The cherubim are winged; the calf has no wings.
- The cherubim are part of the ark’s cover; the calf stands alone.
- The cherubim frame an empty space above the ark; the calf is made of solid gold.
Yet these differences alone do not sufficiently account for why one golden statue is a holy object, to be kept in the Tabernacle, while the other is an egregious sin to be ground up and destroyed.
Commentators, traditional and modern, have debated whether the golden calf was meant as a chariot, seat, or footstool for YHWH, or whether it was a depiction of YHWH himself. Rabbinic tradition, assumes the latter. Moreover, in what follows, the calf is actually worshiped:
שמות לב:ה וַיַּרְא אַהֲרֹן וַיִּבֶן מִזְבֵּחַ לְפָנָיו וַיִּקְרָא אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמַר חַג לַי־הוָה מָחָר.
Exod 32:5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to YHWH.”
The calf, then, is a direct abrogation of the commandments against making idols (Exod 20:3–5). The cherubim, however, do not represent YHWH, but are merely part of his entourage. References to cherubim appear elsewhere in the Bible, though their functions vary. In some prophetic and poetic passages, cherubim denote YHWH’s chariot (מרכבה) and in others his throne or footstool  (הדום רגליו);in fact, YHWH is sometimes referred to by the epithet “He who sits [enthroned] upon/dwells between the cherubim  (יושב כרובים).” In the Pentateuchal Tabernacle texts, the cherubim frame an empty space where YHWH would appear:
שמות כה:כב וְנוֹעַדְתִּי לְךָ שָׁם וְדִבַּרְתִּי אִתְּךָ מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים אֲשֶׁר עַל אֲרוֹן הָעֵדֻת אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּה אוֹתְךָ אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:
Exod 25:22 There I will meet with you, and from above the kappōret, from between the two cherubim that are upon the Ark of the testimony, I will speak with you of all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.
במדבר ז:פט וּבְבֹא מֹשֶׁה אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ וַיִּשְׁמַע אֶת הַקּוֹל מִדַּבֵּר אֵלָיו מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל אֲרֹן הָעֵדֻת מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים וַיְדַבֵּר אֵלָיו.
Num 7:89 When Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with Him, he would hear the voice speaking to him from above the kappōret that was on the ark of the covenant from between the two cherubim; thus it spoke to him.
In these Priestly texts, the cherubim are not meant to be statues of YHWH. Yet, if idolatry lingers as a pernicious danger, why would the appearance of the divine be associated with golden statues? Moreover, God never issues a word of warning to avoid worshiping the cherubim or mistaking them for gods, as they had with the golden calf. In short, how are we to understand the relationship between the Mishkan and golden calf episode?
The Relationship between the Mishkan and the Golden Calf
Critical scholarship sees these two texts as coming from different sources, and thus at their core unrelated. The rabbis, however, read the biblical text harmoniously, and thus suggest an inherent connection between them.
The Sifrei (quote above), noting that the ark cover is called a kappōret, suggests that the two are connected; the cherubim were designed as a source of atonement (כ.פ.ר) for the sin of the calf. In other words, one becomes the antidote to the other, the Mishkan a means of channeling the Israelites’ desire to contain and then carry the presence of God in their midst following the revelation at Sinai.
The point is made explicitly and at length in the late homiletical Midrash Tanhuma (7th-9th century Palestine) where the orders to make the Mishkan come to “heal the wound” of Israel’s apostasy. The midrash takes as its starting point God’s explanation to Moses for why he wants Israel to build the Mishkan:
שמות כה:ח וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם.
Exod 25:8 Have them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (betokham).
The midrash then asks (Tanhuma, “Parashat Terumah” 8):
אימתי נאמר למשה הפרשה הזו של משכן? ביום הכפורים עצמו אף על פי שפרשת המשכן קודמת למעשה העגל,
When was this Parashah concerning the Mishkan said to Moses? On Yom Kippur itself, even though this precedes the deed of the Calf.
א”ר יהודה בר’ שלום אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה שנאמר (משלי ה:ו) נעו מעגלותיה לא תדע מטולטלות הן שביליה של תורה ופרשותיה,
Said R. Yehuda in the name of R. Shalom: There is no set chronological order to the Torah, as it says (Prov 5:6), “She does not keep straight to the path of life; her ways wander,”—the Torah and its passages.
הוי ביום הכפורים נאמר למשה ועשו לי מקדש, מנין שכן עלה משה בששה בסיון ועשה ארבעי’ יום וארבעי’ לילה ועוד עשה ארבעים ועוד עשה ארבעי’ הרי מאה ועשרים
It was on Yom Kippur that “Make me a sanctuary” was said. How do we know? Moses ascended the Mountain on the 6th of Sivan, and he was there for 40 days and 40 nights, and another [set of] 40, and yet another 40—altogether 120 days.
ואתה מוצא שביום הכפורים נתכפר להם ובו ביום א”ל הקדוש ב”ה ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם כדי שידעו כל האומות שנתכפר להם מעשה העגל,
And you find that on Yom Kippur they were forgiven, and on that same day, the Holy One blessed be He said: “Have them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exod 25:8) so that the nations of the world will know that they [the Israelites] have been forgiven for the deed of the calf,
אמר הקדוש ב”ה יבא זהב שבמשכן ויכפר על זהב שנעשה בו העגל שכתוב בו (שמות לב) “ויתפרקו העם את כל נזמי הזהב” וגו’ ולכן מתכפרין בזהב “וזאת התרומה אשר תקחו מאתם זהב…” (שמות כה:3), אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא (ירמיה ל:17) “כִּי אַעֲלֶה אֲרֻכָה לָךְ וּמִמַּכּוֹתַיִךְ אֶרְפָּאֵךְ…”
The Holy One, blessed be He, said: “Let the gold of the Mishkan atone for the gold from which the Calf was made,” as it says, “So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears…” (Exod 32:3), and so they atone through the gold, “This is the offering that you shall receive from them: gold…” (Exod 25:3). Said the Holy One, Blessed be He, “for I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal” (Jer 30:17).
In this conception of how events unfolded, the Tabernacle is meant to turn the Israelites away from idolatry by engaging the people in a collective building project dedicated to creating a space (tokh), a sanctuary (miqdash) for the manifestation of divine immanence. Only when the Divine Presence comes to dwell in the Mishkan (in chapter 40), do the people realize that they have been forgiven. But how could the space between winged figurines possibly contain the Divine Presence?
The Kappōret as a Boundary Line
Temples in the ancient Near East were furnished with the statue of a god at its center, whereas the Israelite sanctuary, at least according to the Bible, had none. The rabbis here understand the building of the calf as an expression for the need to have a golden image of the deity at the Temple’s center.
Rather than ignoring this need entirely, God commands the making of cherubim as a sublimation and transformation of the gold, from a fixed molten form to a frame for empty space, a tokh, through which God speaks. As Avivah Zornberg observes,
“[T]he gold… frames the sacred space, the hollow out of which God will speak. The heart of the Mishkan is the space between the wings of the cherubim which, from an unbridgeable distance, at opposite ends of the golden Kapporeth (the Cover of the Ark), gaze towards each other, even as they gaze downwards at the Ark. That oblique gaze frames the space between the cherub figures.”
The kappōret, the cover to the Ark, then defines a boundary line below which God does not descend. In other words, the rabbis depict kappōret not only as the site of encounter between the human and divine, but also as a boundary separating the heavenly and earthly realms (b. Sukkah 4b–5b). In contrast to the simple reading of the text, the rabbis hold that God never descends to earth.
In this imagery, the cherubim function as guards, just as they do poised at the entrance to the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:24), since access to the Mishkan’s inner sanctum was highly circumscribed, according to the Priestly source. Their wings are spread like a protective bower not to obscure a vision of the Divine Presence, but to frame the empty space where God’s presence is made sensible as voice.
Thus the cherubim are the antithesis of the calf, which was made of solid molten gold, not only an effigy of a god (or gods), but a visual, external object upon which the Israelites fixate their desire. By contrast, the cherubim frame an elusive presence that cannot be fixed and are themselves, rarely if ever seen.
God Among the Cherubim and Among the Israelites
The mystery of God’s in-dwelling gestures at a theological question. Can God condense into a particular place and yet exist beyond space? As the dictum goes: “God is the place of the world yet the world in not God’s place  [שהוא מקומו של עולם ואין עולמו מקומו].” The paradox hinges on understanding the phenomenology of tokh.
The Ark is composed both of solid gold and vacuous space, embodying sacred presence and absence, carrying the legacy of past failures and abiding relations, harsh judgment and the still voice of forgiveness. That space between the cherubim as a site of divine encounter and occlusion emerges from the resonant meanings of kappōret, both as locus of atonement and as boundary-line between heaven and earth.
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February 21, 2019
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Prof. Rachel Adelman is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Boston’s Hebrew College. She holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is the author of The Return of the Repressed: Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer and the Pseudepigrapha (Brill 2009) and The Female Ruse: Women's Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Phoenix, 2015). Adelman is now working on a new book, Daughters in Danger from the Hebrew Bible to Modern Midrash (forthcoming, Sheffield Phoenix Press).
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