Exodus 30:11 – 34:35; Haftarah: I Kings 18:1 – 18:39
The parasha for this week is famous for the story of the golden calf. This incident is rather minor in the overall flow of events, but it has captured our imagination for millennia – for good reason: it shows, in relatively brief strokes, how quickly humanity gravitates to idolatry of all kinds. We study how this scene is an anti-thesis to the Tabernacle that was just prescribed to Moses and see how the actual atoning work of the Tabernacle receives its first revelation in the immediate aftermath of the sin of the golden calf in Moses’ act of giving the children of Israel to drink from the “waters of bitterness” (Numbers 5). Finally, we study God’s intimate relationship with Moses and the revelation given to him in the “cleft of the Rock”.
Scripture references from the episode
But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 12 “Speak to the people of Israel, If any man’s wife goes astray and breaks faith with him, 13 if a man lies with her sexually, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her, since she was not taken in the act, 14 and if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself, or if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself, 15 then the man shall bring his wife to the priest and bring the offering required of her, a tenth of an ephah of barley flour. He shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of remembrance, bringing iniquity to remembrance.
16 “And the priest shall bring her near and set her before the Lord. 17 And the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. 18 And the priest shall set the woman before the Lord and unbind the hair of the woman’s head and place in her hands the grain offering of remembrance, which is the grain offering of jealousy. And in his hand the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse. 19 Then the priest shall make her take an oath, saying, ‘If no man has lain with you, and if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while you were under your husband’s authority, be free from this water of bitterness that brings the curse. 20 But if you have gone astray, though you are under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself, and some man other than your husband has lain with you, 21 then’ (let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse, and say to the woman) ‘the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your thigh fall away and your body swell. 22 May this water that brings the curse pass into your bowels and make your womb swell and your thigh fall away.’ And the woman shall say, ‘Amen, Amen.’
23 “Then the priest shall write these curses in a book and wash them off into the water of bitterness. 24 And he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain. 25 And the priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy out of the woman’s hand and shall wave the grain offering before the Lord and bring it to the altar. 26 And the priest shall take a handful of the grain offering, as its memorial portion, and burn it on the altar, and afterward shall make the woman drink the water. 27 And when he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has broken faith with her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall become a curse among her people. 28 But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children.
(Ex 31:18) Augustine – Letter 55
This law was “written with the finger of God,” and this finger of God the New Testament explicitly identifies with the Holy Spirit. For when one Evangelist has “By the finger of God, I cast out devils,” (Lk 11:20) another says this same thing thus: “By the spirit of God, I cast out devils.” (Mt 12:28) Who would not have this joy in the divine mysteries, when the redemptive doctrine shines with so clear a light, rather than all the powers of this world though they be infused with unwonted peace and happiness?
(Ex 32:10) Jerome – Homilies on the Psalms 26
Moses resisted God and prevented him from destroying his people when God said to him: “Let me alone, that I may strike this people.” Just see the power of Moses! What does God say to him? Let me alone; you are compelling me, your prayers, as it were, restrain me; your prayers hold back my hand. I shoot an arrow; I hurl a javelin; and your prayers are the shield of the people. Let me alone that I might strike down this people. Along with this, consider the compassionate kindness of God. When he says, “Let me alone,” he shows that if Moses will continue to importune him, he will not strike. If you, too, will not let me alone, I shall not strike; let me alone, and I shall strike. In other words, what does he say? Do not cease your persistent entreaty, and I shall not strike.
(Ex 32:20) Ephrem the Syrian – Homily on Our Lord 6.2
Moses pulverized the calf and made them drink it in the waters of testing, so that all who had lived to worship the calf would die by drinking it.
(Ex 33:13) Clement of Alexandria – Stromateis 2.2.6
As a result Moses, convinced that God will never be known to human wisdom, says, “Reveal yourself to me,” and finds himself forced to enter “into the darkness” where the voice of God was present; in other words, into the unapproachable, imageless, intellectual concepts relating to ultimate reality. For God does not exist in darkness. He is not in space at all. He is beyond space and time and anything belonging to created beings. Similarly he is not found in any section. He contains nothing. He is contained by nothing. He is not subject to limit or division
(Ex 33:18) Augustine – Letter 147.20
The saintly Moses, his faithful servant, showed the flame of this desire of his when he said to God, with whom he spoke face to face as to a friend: “If I have found favor before you, show me yourself.” What, then? Was it not himself? If it were not himself, he would not have said “Show me yourself” but “Show me God”; yet, if he really beheld his very nature and substance, he would have been far from saying “Show me yourself.” It was himself, therefore, under that aspect in which he willed to appear (but he did not appear in his own very nature) which Moses longed to see, inasmuch as that is promised to the saints in another life. Hence the answer made to Moses is true that no one can see the face of God and live; that is, no one living in this life can see him as fully as he is. Many have seen, but they saw what his will chose, not what his nature formed … when he willed … not in his nature under which he lies hidden within himself even when he is seen.
(Ex 33:19) Cyril of Jerusalem – Catechetical Lecture 10.8
It is our purpose to demonstrate that the Lord, Jesus Christ, was with the Father. The Lord then said to Moses, “I will make all my beauty pass before you, and in your presence I will pronounce my name, ‘Lord.’ ” Being himself the Lord, what Lord does he proclaim? You see how in a veiled manner he was teaching the holy doctrine of Father and Son. Again, in what follows, it is written in express terms: “Having come down in a cloud, the Lord stood with him there and proclaimed his name, ‘Lord.’ Thus the Lord passed before him and cried out, ‘The Lord, the Lord, merciful and gracious, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity, and guarding justice and continuing his kindness for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness and crime and sin.’ ” And thereafter: “Moses at once bowed down to the ground in worship” before the Lord proclaiming the Father, and said, “O Lord, do come along in our company.”
(Ex 33:20) Marius Victorinus – Against Arius 3.3.1
No one sees the power itself alone, for “no one has ever seen God.” And since power is life in repose and knowledge in repose but life and knowledge are actions, if someone were to see God he must die, because the life and knowledge of God remain in themselves and are not in act. But every act is exterior. Indeed, for us to live is to live externally [in a body]; to see God is therefore a death. “No one,” says the Scripture, “has ever seen God and lived.” Indeed, like is seen by like. External life therefore must be forgotten, knowledge must be forgotten, if we wish to see God, and this for us is death.
(Ex 33:23) Origen – Commentary on the Song of Songs 3.15
Like to these is the saying of God to Moses: “Lo, I have set you in a cleft of the rock, and you shall see my back parts.” That rock which is Christ is therefore not completely closed but has clefts. But the cleft of the rock is he who reveals God to men and makes him known to them; for “no one knows the Father, save the Son.” So no one sees the back parts of God—that is to say, the things that are come to pass in the latter times—unless he be placed in the cleft of the rock, that is to say, when he is taught them by Christ’s own revealing.
(Ex 34:19) Jerome – Against the Pelagians 2.4
All the heretics have gone astray by not understanding the mystery of his nativity. The statement “He who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord” is more applicable to the special nativity of the Savior than to that of all humanity. For Christ alone opened the closed doors of the womb of virginity, which nevertheless remained permanently closed. This is the closed east door, through which only the high priest enters and leaves, and nevertheless it is always closed.