Sinai, Tabernacle, Golden Calf, and More Tabernacle: Compiling Exodus
The Order of the Narrative
At Sinai, the Israelites learn YHWH’s commandments—the laws of the Decalogue and the Covenant Collection (Exod 20–23). Moses then initiates a covenant ceremony with Israel (Exod 24:3–8), after which YHWH again summons Moses to the mountain’s summit to give him the stone tablets:
שׁמות כד:יב וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה עֲלֵה אֵלַי הָהָרָה וֶהְיֵה שָׁם וְאֶתְּנָה לְךָ אֶת לֻחֹת הָאֶבֶן וְהַתּוֹרָה וְהַמִּצְוָה אֲשֶׁר כָּתַבְתִּי לְהוֹרֹתָם.
Exod 24:12 YHWH said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and wait there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them.”
After he ascends the mountain, however (v. 18), the next verse, rather than describing Moses receiving the tablets, has YHWH giving Moses instructions for building the Tabernacle:
שׁמות כה:א וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. כה:ב דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִי.
Exod 25:1 YHWH spoke to Moses saying, 25:2 “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved.”
It is not until eight chapters later—after the many details about how to construct the Tabernacle and its accoutrements, but before the Tabernacle is built—that the story of the tablets continues:
שמות לא:יח וַיִּתֵּן אֶל מֹשֶׁה כְּכַלֹּתוֹ לְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ בְּהַר סִינַי שְׁנֵי לֻחֹת הָעֵדֻת לֻחֹת אֶבֶן כְּתֻבִים בְּאֶצְבַּע אֱלֹהִים.
Exod 31:18 Upon finishing speaking with him on Mount Sinai, [God] gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God.
The scene then shifts to the Israelites, who, after waiting for Moses for forty days and forty nights (24:18), have come to doubt that Moses will return:
שמות לב:א וַיַּרְא הָעָם כִּי בֹשֵׁשׁ מֹשֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן הָהָר 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.
Exod 32:1 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.”
Following the dramatic events in which the Israelites worship before the golden calf and Moses intervenes for them with an angry YHWH (chs. 32–34), the building of the Tabernacle recommences (ch. 35).
Why do the Tabernacle instructions interrupt the tablet narrative?
The Stories Are Not in Chronological Order: Rashi’s Solution
Rashi (R. Solomon Yitzhaki, ca. 1040–1105), following an exegetical principle found in the Talmud and midrash, explains that these biblical texts are not presented in chronological order:
ויתן אל משה וגו’ – אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה. מעשה העגל קודם לצווי מלאכת המשכן ימים רבים היה, שהרי בשבעה עשר בתמוז נשתברו הלוחות, וביום הכפורים נתרצה הקדוש ברוך הוא לישראל, ולמחרת התחילו בנדבת המשכן והוקם באחד בניסן:
“He gave Moses”: —There is no before or after in the Torah (ʾen mukdam umeʾuchar ba-torah). The episode of the calf took place long before the command of the work of the Tabernacle, for on the seventeenth of Tammuz the tablets were broken, and on the Day of Atonement the Holy One was reconciled with Israel, the next day they began to donate for the Tabernacle, and it was erected on the first of Nisan.
Rashi sees the current order of the Torah as reflecting an ideological revision rather than actual chronological order: the creation of the Tabernacle was part of the process of Israel’s reconciliation with YHWH after the sin of the golden calf. This is also the view of a midrash in Exodus Rabbah, which imagines God to declare: יָבוֹא זְהַב הַמִּשְׁכָּן וִיכַפֵּר עַל זְהַב הָעֵגֶל, “Let the gold of the Tabernacle come and atone for the gold of the Calf” (51:8). In the context of the golden calf story, God provides the Israelites with a licit and sacred dwelling-place for God’s presence on earth so the Israelites will not stray again into idolatry.
This midrashic reading, however, does not explain why the Torah decides to interrupt the account of the building of the Tabernacle with the Golden Calf account. Moreover, nothing in the text supports the idea that the Tabernacle was a concession.
The Tabernacle Instructions are the Reason Moses Goes Up the Mountain: Nahmanides
Rabbi Moses Nahmanides (ca. 1195–ca. 1270; also known by his Hebrew acronym the Ramban), argues that the order of presentation in the Torah is correct, and that the Tabernacle instructions were the natural continuation of YHWH’s lawgiving at Sinai (gloss on Exod 25:1):
כאשר דבר השם עם ישראל פנים בפנים עשרת הדברות, וצוה אותם על ידי משה קצת מצות... וישראל קבלו עליהם לעשות כל מה שיצום על ידו של משה, וכרת עמהם ברית על כל זה, מעתה הנה הם לו לעם והוא להם לאלהים...
Once God spoke the Decalogue to Israel, face to face, and commanded them, through Moses, in some of the laws… and Israel accepted upon themselves to do whatever they are commanded [by God] through Moses, and he made a covenant with them about this, from now they are [God’s] people, and [YHWH] is their God…
והנה הם קדושים, ראויים שיהיה בהם מקדש להשרות שכינתו ביניהם ולכן צוה תחלה על דבר המשכן שיהיה לו בית בתוכם מקדש לשמו, ושם ידבר עם משה ויצוה את בני ישראל.
Now that they are sanctified, it is fitting that they that have a temple in which the divine presence may dwell among them, therefore, [God] first commanded the building of a Tabernacle, so that God would have a dwelling among them, sanctified to the divine name, from which God could speak with Moses and command the Israelites.
In Nahmanides’s reading, the revelation of the Tabernacle rules is part of the larger thrust of legal revelations, like the Decalogue and the Covenant Collection. This solves the problem of the order of the text and the interruption between the command to build the Tabernacle and its construction: while Moses is on the mountain receiving instructions about how to build the Tabernacle, the Israelites are below, losing patience, and falling into sin.
And yet, this approach does not sufficiently explain the disconnect in the current narrative, where YHWH tells Moses to come up the mountain to receive the tablets, but instead gives him the instructions about how to build the Tabernacle.
A Compilation of Sources
Source critical analysis offers a very different way of approaching this problem. According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the Tabernacle material is all part of the Priestly (P) source, while the story about the tablets and the golden calf are part of the Elohistic (E) source.
P’s world has YHWH at the center, within the Tabernacle; tending to the Tabernacle are the priests, who in turn are surrounded by the nation of Israel. Israel thus stands at the conceptual center of humanity, itself at the heart of all creation, which is why the building of the Tabernacle has so many literary connections to the Priestly creation story (Gen 1:1–2:4).
YHWH’s initial plan seems to have been to create an orderly world in which no one nation is singled out and no earthly temple is built for divine worship; instead YHWH will appreciate this world from afar. The persistence of human error, however, prompts YHWH to take a different approach. Following the Flood, YHWH sets in motion a series of events, including new rules for all humankind (Gen 9), the selection of Abraham as the progenitor of a holy nation (Gen 17), and the redemption of that nation from its slavery in Egypt (Exod 6). This process is designed to culminate in the establishment of a holy abode on earth.
To that end, for P, the main event at Sinai is the delivery of instructions for the building of the Tabernacle. The account is brief and relatively undramatic. The detailed description of the Tabernacle’s construction begins with YHWH summoning Moses on the seventh day after the Israelites arrive at Sinai:
שמות כד:טז וַיִּשְׁכֹּן כְּבוֹד יְ־הוָה עַל הַר סִינַי וַיְכַסֵּהוּ הֶעָנָן שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִתּוֹךְ הֶעָנָן. כד:יז וּמַרְאֵה כְּבוֹד יְ־הוָה כְּאֵשׁ אֹכֶלֶת בְּרֹאשׁ הָהָר לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. כד:יח וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה בְּתוֹךְ הֶעָנָן וַיַּעַל אֶל הָהָר....
Exod 24:16 The Presence of YHWH abode on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days. On the seventh day [YHWH] called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. 24:17 Now the Presence of YHWH appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. 24:18a Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain.
YHWH then gives Moses precise instructions regarding the construction of the Tabernacle (25:1). Thus, in P, Sinai is the place where the Tabernacle is created and nothing more (or less).
E’s Lawgiving and Restoration
For E, Sinai (called Horeb) is the site for the giving of law. Again and again, the centrality of law is repeated:
שׁמות כד:ג וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וַיְסַפֵּר לָעָם אֵת כָּל דִּבְרֵי יְ־הוָה וְאֵת כָּל הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וַיַּעַן כָּל הָעָם קוֹל אֶחָד וַיֹּאמְרוּ כָּל הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה נַעֲשֶׂה.
Exod 24:3 Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of YHWH and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that YHWH has commanded we will do!”
Having just committed themselves to follow YHWH’s law, the Israelites immediately break their vow when they worship the golden calf (32:7–8). In response, YHWH tells Moses:
שׁמות לב:י וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי וְיִחַר אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל.
Exod 32:10 Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation.”
In E’s story, the people deserve execution for the sin of the Golden Calf. They owe their lives, after all, to YHWH, who freed them from slavery. Only after Moses intervenes with YHWH on the Israelites’ behalf are specific wrongdoers punished instead of the nation en masse. Seeing the punishment of their fellows, the remaining Israelites mourn (Exod 33:4–6), abashed by their own behavior.
The relationship between Israel and YHWH is restored when YHWH personally reinscribes the two tablets (34:1, 4), which Moses had destroyed in anger when he saw the Israelites worshipping before the calf (32:19). Thus for E, Sinai (Horeb) is the site both of lawgiving and restoration.
While the theory that the last third of Exodus is comprised of two main sources explains the differences in the two revelation accounts, it does not explain why the compiler splices the story to create its current, odd form, with the Tabernacle instructions interrupting the flow of the tablets account, and then the tablets account interrupting the construction of the Tabernacle.
The Combined Narrative
According to the neo-documentarian approach, the compiler of the Torah’s work was generally consistent and predictable, “almost mechanical” in nature, but he did intervene at times. Since each of the sources had a theology embedded within it, the compiler had to choose, on occasion, which theology to prefer; in some cases, he even created a new theological understanding by weaving together disparate texts. That is seen very clearly by examining the golden calf and Tabernacle texts.
The compiler could have placed the narrative of the Tabernacle after the Sinai events described by E. This reading would have given preference to the theology of E, which features rupture and return, and it would have diminished (or obliterated) P’s focus on the Tabernacle. YHWH’s holy presence would be constructed in response to human action—as Rashi and the midrash suggest—rather than as something intentionally initiated by YHWH.
Alternately, the compiler could have given more priority to P’s point of view by placing the laws of the Tabernacle before the Decalogue. In this version, all other divine legislation would be merely an addendum to the laws of the Tabernacle. After breaking those laws, the Tabernacle would be built, fulfilling Sinai’s primary purpose. Ultimately, the building of the Tabernacle would serve as a symbol of the restored relationship between Israel and YHWH.
Compiling Something Entirely New
Instead of giving precedence to E or P, though, the compiler creates an altogether novel theology. Whereas E displays Israel’s many faults, P thinks much more highly of Israel. The discord in E has no place in P, which sees YHWH and Israel as willing allies in the effort to establish the conditions necessary to allow YHWH’s presence to dwell on earth.
In braiding together P’s presentation of the laws of building the Tabernacle with the drama of E, the compiler presents a more textured account of the relationship between Israel and YHWH than could be achieved by any source on its own. In the combined text, P’s straightforward account is complicated by rupture and repair, and at the same time, the golden calf story is imbedded in a Tabernacle narrative that assumes Israel’s reliability.
This combination accomplishes two goals at once: on one hand, the Tabernacle is built after the golden calf and therefore serves as a symbol of repair for the challenged relationship between Israel and YHWH; on the other hand, the instructions for its construction come before the construction of the calf, demonstrating that YHWH always knew and expected that the Tabernacle would be properly built.
The decision to create a Tabernacle is not sparked by the golden calf episode, though YHWH’s recommitment to that plan does symbolize YHWH’s restored relationship with Israel. The compiled text depicts a YHWH who knows both that Israel will need a Tabernacle because of their lack of faith, and also that they will, ultimately, seek and maintain a positive relationship with YHWH.
Thus, the effect of bringing these voices together in this specific order generates a particular theology that is bigger than the sum of its parts. E and P each have fairly straightforward portraits of the relationship between YHWH and Israel; when the texts are combined, the theologies are combined as well, yielding a more intricate and nuanced relationship between YHWH and Israel.
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Rabbi Daniel Kirzane serves as the associate rabbi of Oak Park Temple in Oak Park, IL. He earned an M.A. in Hebrew Letters and an M.A. in Religious Education from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he was ordained in 2014. He is currently continuing his studies as an M.A. student at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and the chair of the Alumni Leadership Council of HUC-JIR, where he serves as a member of the Board of Governors. Additional information and publications can be found at danielkirzane.com.
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