Dancing Erotically with the Golden Calf
The Delay in Breaking the Tablets
When Moses comes down from of the mountain after receiving the tablets containing the Decalogue, he witnesses the Israelites celebrating a festival featuring the golden calf. Witnessing this, Moses throws down the tablets and shatters them (Exod. 32:19). But why does Moses shatter the tablets at this point? Earlier, before he had begun his descent from the mountain top, God informed him of the sin of the Israelites (Exod. 32:8); why didn’t he break the tablets at that point? This question has been explored by a number of traditional commentaries. In this devar Torah I would like to suggest a new approach that draws upon historical context and archaeological findings.
According to Exodus 32:8, Moses is told by God:
עָשׂוּ לָהֶם עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ לוֹ וַיִּזְבְּחוּ לוֹ וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
“They have made themselves a molten calf and bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, saying: ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”
When Moses views the camp, however, he sees something more (Exod. 32:19):
וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר קָרַב אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה וַיַּרְא אֶת הָעֵגֶל וּמְחֹלֹת וַיִּחַר אַף מֹשֶׁה וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ מידו [מִיָּדָיו] אֶת הַלֻּחֹת וַיְשַׁבֵּר אֹתָם תַּחַת הָהָר.
“As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tables from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mount.”
The verse adds “dancing” to the information that Moses already knew, and it was only when he came close to the camp that he witnessed it, and only then that he shattered the tablets.
The Significance of Dancing
What is so wrong with dancing, or more specifically, why is it worse than “just” worshipping the calf? The terminology used in Exodus 32 implies that the Israelites were involved in group sexual promiscuity. Exod. 32:6 notes “they rose to play (לצחק).” The term “play” has clear sexual overtones in Gen. 26:8, where Abimelech sees Isaac “playing” with his wife, Rebecca, and deduces that they must be husband and wife. In short, in v. 19 Moses learns of the party’s erotic nature, something God had not informed him of earlier.
Noting this in combination with Moses’ reaction to the dancing, R. Shimshon Rafael Hirsch suggests that the erotic dancing pushed Moses to destroy the tablets (Exodus 32:19).
“את העגל ומחֹלֹת” (שמ’ לב:יט). את “העגל” המיודע שכבר ידע עליו, “ומחֹלֹת” בלתי ידועים, כי נתחדשו עתה לעיניו, והן מחולות אורגיאסטיות של פריצות, והם שהביאו אותו לשבּר את הלוחות. לא רק טעייה תיאולוגית מצא בישראל, אלא גם שחיתות של פריצות שנתלוותה אליה.
The calf and dancing – “the calf” with the definite article, because he already knew about it; “dancing” without the definite article, since he did not know about it, for he only learned about it first with his own eyes. These were orgiastic or lewd dances. Witnessing them was what brought Moses to smash the tablets, for now it wasn’t only a theological breakdown among the Israelites, but a lapse in sexual mores that came along with it
I believe that the ancient Near Eastern context supports this contention and can help modern readers understand Moses’ reaction a little better.
Ritual Dancing and the Divine Couple: Ancient Near Eastern Context
Figures of dancers, singers and musicians decorate incense burners from Canaan and the surrounding areas. Archaeologists found figurines of dancers and musicians among the remains of various temples. The best example of such an assemblage comes from the Edomite shrine of Horvat Qitmit in the Arad Valley. The worshipers in Qitmit worshiped a female deity – her head, adorned with three horns was found in the Temple.
Although dances are associated with many gods (even Yhwh, Exod. 15:20) and temples, examples like that of Qitmit point to the particularly strong association between dancing rituals and female deities. If dancing points towards a female deity then adding her to the calf or a bull that already plays a role in our story, brings to mind the chief couple of the Canaanite pantheon: El and his wife Asherah.
Although it is true that there may not have been sexual worship rituals (cult prostitution) in Israel, as was argued recently by Edward Lipiński, nevertheless, as he himself documents, there is some textual and archaeological evidences for cult prostitution in Canaan and around the Mediterranean. I suggest that the story of the Israelites dancing at Mount Sinai describes a pagan/Canaanites style worship of El and Asherah.
The Israelites, according to our story, associated the calf with the god who brought them out of the land of Egypt (32:8). This association is hardly surprising. The divine name El is associated with the bull by biblical writers from the Northern Kingdom (Num. 24:8; Psa. 68:35b).
Combining the above two images, that of the calf and that of the dancing, it seems likely that the Torah is describing a ritual where the divine couple, El (represented by the calf/bull) and Asherah (El’s wife), are being worshiped together.
Looking at the archeology of Mount Sinai strengthens this contention considerably. In my estimation, the best candidate for the biblical mountain of God, upon which the story of the Sinai revelation is based, is Gebel Hashm et-Tarif. It is located in the northeast Sinai Peninsula, about 14 miles west of Netafim border cross near Eilat. This is the only mountain that fits all the geographical data hidden in the verses mentioning the mountain of God, whether Sinai or Horeb. It is situated west of Midian, not very far from it (Exod. 3:1), on the straight road connecting Midian with Egypt (Exod. 4:20, 27), next to a junction with a road going towards the land of Canaan (Num. 19:29-30). It is about 11 days walking to Kadesh-barnea (Deut. 1:2). [Cattle drivers advance about 10 mils per day, sheep, goats and young children are a lot slower.]
Most important, over a dozen Early Bronze temples are situated on the foot of that mountain indicating that Gebel Hashem et-Tarif was known to the desert dwellers as a secret mountain (Ex. 18:5). Most of these temples are twin temples. The building on the left of each pair contains a sacrificial area, while the temple on the right has a circle of stones in its center that likely once surrounded a holy tree. Uzi Avner, who discovered the twin temples, suggested that El and Asherah were worshiped there.
It seems that as early as the third millennium B.C.E., Gebel Hashm et-Tarif was known as “the mountain of god(s).” If the Israelites had worshiped El and Asherah at the mountain of God, then it is likely that the dancing wasn’t innocent dancing but rather erotic dancing, part of fertility rituals. It was not “just” idolatry anymore. Fertility rituals represent moral degradation and a collapse of the society’s ethics. That apprehension caused Moses to break the tablets.
Gripping the Tablets and Moses’ Struggle
When telling the story of the golden calf, the Deuteronomic writer has Moses adding a little color to the description (Deut. 9:17):
יז וָאֶתְפֹּשׂ בִּשְׁנֵי הַלֻּחֹת וָאַשְׁלִכֵם מֵעַל שְׁתֵּי יָדָי וָאֲשַׁבְּרֵם לְעֵינֵיכֶם.
Thereupon I gripped the two tablets and flung them away with both my hands, smashing them before your eyes.
If Moses was already holding the tablets, what sense does it make for him to say that he gripped them? This problem was noted by R. Chaim ben Atar (Or HaChayim ad loc.), who offers an interesting solution.
ואתפש בשני וגו’. צריך לדעת למה הוצרך לתופשם והלא בידו היו. ואולי כשלא חטאו ישראל היו הלוחות גבוהות על יד משה ולא היתה ידו משגת לקחת אותם, וכמו שדקדק לומר בפסוק שלפני זה ושני הלוחות על שתי ידי ולא אמר בשתי ידי או בידי, אלא נתכוון לומר שלא היו בידיו ממש אלא גבוהות למעלה מידיו והיו נושאות עצמן, ואחר שראה העגל הוסר כח קדושתם והוצרך לתופשם בידו.
And I gripped the two [tablets] – it is necessary to understand why he needed to grip them. Weren’t they already in his hands? Perhaps, before Israel sinned the tablets were floating above Moses and he couldn’t reach them to take them. This may be what the previous verse implies, “and the two tablets were on my two hands.” He didn’t say “in my two hands” or “in my hands.” Rather, he meant to express that they weren’t actually in his hands at all, but floating above his hands, carrying themselves. After he saw the calf, the holy power of the [tablets] left them, and he was forced to grab them in his hands.
R. Ben Atar’s fantastic image of floating tablets losing their power is quite similar to an approach taken by Chazal. For example, the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta’anit 4:5) offers more than one approach to explain Moses’ gripping the tablets, as part of their overall explanation for why Moses broke them.
רבי שמואל בר נחמן בשם רבי יונתן הלוחות היו אורכן ששה טפחים ורחבן שלש’ והיה משה תפוש בטפחיים והקב”ה בטפחיים וטפחיי’ ריוח באמצע כיון שעשו ישראל אותו מעשה ביקש הקדוש ברוך הוא לחוטפן מידו של משה וגברה ידו של משה וחטפן ממנו הוא שהכתוב משבחו בסוף ואומר ולכל היד החזקה ייא שלמא על ידא דגברת עליה מינא
Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman in the name of Rabbi Jonathan: “The tablets were 6 handbreadths long and three wide. Moses grasped to handbreadth’s worth and the Holy One grasped two handbreadth’s worth and there were two handbreadth’s left in the middle. Once Israel did what they did, the Holy One tried to grab them away from Moses, but Moses was stronger and took them from God. This is the meaning of the biblical praise at the end of the Torah, ‘and all his strong arm’ – let there be peace upon him whose arm was stronger than mine.”
רבי יוחנן בשם רבי יוסה בר אביי הלוחות היו מבקשין לפרוח והיה משה תופשן דכתיב ואתפוש בשני הלוחות
Rabbi Yochanan in the name of Rabbi Yosa bar Abaye: “The tablets attempted to fly away but Moses grasped them, as it says, ‘and I grasped the two tablets.’”
The final interpretation, which suggests that the loss of the writing made the tablets too heavy, does not deal with the grasping. In the first two interpretations, however, Moses grasps the tablets to keep them from returning to heaven, either on their own or in God’s own hands. Moses wants to keep them himself, in order to destroy them.
Chazal understand “grasp” (ת.פ.ש) as a term that connotes struggle. They picture not an inner struggle but an actual struggle, Moses actually struggling with God. This dramatic depiction illustrates the drastic nature of Moses’ action. Moses destroys the tablets of the covenant written by God’s own hand and given to him. How did he have the confidence to make this decision? Did he have any doubt about its correctness?
Even though the Torah—on a peshat level—never alludes to any internal conflict on Moses’ part, it is hard to read the story and not imagine Moses in the grips of inner turmoil. On one hand, Moses was witnessing an ethical downfall and an abandonment of God’s principles. On the other hand, God gave him the tablets and never commanded him to smash them. God didn’t even mention the erotic dancing that upset him (Moses) so much.
Whatever inner struggle Moses may be supposed to be encountering in this scene, the reader sees little if any evidence of it. The Moses encountered by the reader doesn’t even hesitate. Despite the fact that God makes no mention of the dancing and never gives Moses permission to destroy the tablets, Moses acts on his own initiative. Unable to stand aside, Moses steps up to the stage and shatters the tablets before the eyes of the Israelites.
Praise from Chazal
Was Moses’ decision justified? Did he do the right thing? Chazal go all out in praising Moses’ decision. The book of Deuteronomy ends with great praise for Moses (34:10-12):
י וְלֹא קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְהוָה פָּנִים אֶל פָּנִים. יא לְכָל הָאֹתוֹת וְהַמּוֹפְתִים אֲשֶׁר שְׁלָחוֹ יְהוָה לַעֲשׂוֹת בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם לְפַרְעֹה וּלְכָל עֲבָדָיו וּלְכָל אַרְצוֹ. יב וּלְכֹל הַיָּד הַחֲזָקָה וּלְכֹל הַמּוֹרָא הַגָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה מֹשֶׁה לְעֵינֵי כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל.
10 Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses—whom Yhwh singled out, face to face, 11 for the various signs and portents that Yhwh sent him to display in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and his whole country, 12 and for all the strong arm and great wonder that Moses displayed before the eyes of all Israel.
We already saw above in the Jerusalem Talmud passage, that Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman in the name of Rabbi Jonathan understands the praise in verse 12 about the strong arm as a compliment from God to Moses for defeating him in the contest for the tablets. Rashi, making use of a Tannaitic midrash with a slightly different use of the hermeneutic hooks, offers a similar interpretation.
ולכל היד החזקה – שקבל את התורה בלוחות בידיו:
ולכל המורא הגדול – נסים וגבורות שבמדבר הגדול והנורא:
לעיני כל ישראל – שנשאו לבו לשבור הלוחות לעיניהם, שנאמר (לעיל ט, יז) ואשברם לעיניכם, והסכימה דעת הקדוש ברוך הוא לדעתו, שנאמר (שמות לד, א) אשר שברת, יישר כחך ששברת:
‘All the strong arm’ – this refers to the Torah, which he received with the tablets into his arms.
‘All the great wonder’ – the miracles and powerful acts performed in the great and wondrous desert.
‘Before the eyes of all Israel’ – that his heart lifted him to break the tablets before their eyes, as it says (Deut. 9:17), ‘and I broke them before your eyes.’ The Holy One agreed with his decision, as it says (Exod. 9:17), ‘[the first tablets], which you broke’, i.e. ‘good work that you broke them.’
Even though Moses acted without God’s authority, perhaps even in direct conflict with God’s authority, the Sages embrace and even glorify his daring decision to smash the tablets.
Despite the tablets being the handiwork of God and containing God’s message to the Israelites, Moses destroys them, without even first asking God’s permission. Even more striking, Moses smashes the tablets not in reaction to idolatry (he knew about the calf long before he returned to the camp) but because of the erotic nature of the ritual that he observed. By smashing the tablets in reaction to the dancing, Moses turns the spotlight on the degraded morals reigning in the camp and not on the ritual violation of worshiping the divine couple or creating a calf. This message was important enough for Chazal to place their approbation of Moses’ work into the final verse of the Torah itself.
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February 11, 2014
January 11, 2021
Dr. David Ben-Gad HaCohen (Dudu Cohen) has a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew University. His dissertation is titled, Kadesh in the Pentateuchal Narratives, and deals with issues of biblical criticism and historical geography. Dudu has been a licensed Israeli guide since 1972. He conducts tours in Israel as well as Jordan.
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