The Sin of the Golden Calf and the Tabernacle in the Wilderness

Author: Esther Ehrman, Adar 5772/March 2012

In the Book of Exodus,the Bible relates that, after the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai and the ceremony that marks the covenant between the Lord and the Children of Israel, Moses went up to receive the Torah. At this point, the Torah tells of the instructions given to Moses by G-d to build a Tabernacle where G-d's presence will dwell and which will hold the Tablets of the Law. The instructions take up two and a half Torah portions( Teruma,Tetzave and part of Ki Tisa ). The text now switches back to the people, distressed because Moses has not returned. Fearing that he might not return at all, they turn to Aaron and he makes them a golden calf. When Moses saw what the people had done, he broke the two tablets on which G-d had written the Ten Commandments. Moses grinds the golden calf to dust, strews it on the water, makes the people drink it and punishes them. Moses then goes up the mountain once more, to seek forgiveness. The Lord grants this and tells Moses to hew two new stone Tablets. Again the scene changes and we then see Moses assembling the people to relate to them the instructions about the Tabernacle, which they build and which is then erected. The time covered by this narrative is from Shavuot (Pentecost), when the Ten Commandments were given, until the first of the month of Nissan, that is a year less nine weeks.

The question that has puzzled Bible commentators is the sequence of the two events related, the sin of the golden calf and the building of the Tabernacle. Was the Tabernacle always part of the Divine plan? Was it built because of the sin of the golden calf? The two perspectives accord somewhat different functions to the Tabernacle and, indeed, to the sacrifices that will be brought there. Two great commentators, Rashi and Ramban (Nachmanides) each have a different understanding of the text beacause each sees the sequence of events differently.

Rashi says, re Ex.21.v.18: 'the incident of the golden calf precedes the commandment of the construction of the Tabernacle (ma'ase ha egel kodem le tzivui melechet ha mishkan).' In this perspective, the Tabernacle can be seen as something that is there as a result of the sin of the golden calf. Its sacrifices are intended to atone for the sin. The Divine presence in the Tabernacle is something granted by the Lord once He had forgiven the people and allowed a second set of Tablets (luchot ha brit) to be given to the Children of Israel. Rashi gives a time-table to the events, re. Ex.21.11: 'On the 17th of Tammuz the tablets were broken and on the 18th he burned the calf and sentenced the sinners and on the 19th he went up...and on the 1st of Ellul, it was said to him “come up [again] in the morning unto Mt Sinai to receive the second tablets. And he tarried there 40 days..on the tenth day of Tishre the Holy One, blessed be He was reconciled with Israel..and he said to Moses 'I have forgiven' and He gave over to him the second tablets. Then Moses descended and began to command them regarding the construction of the Tabernacle'. Moreover, Moses took his tent outside of the camp of the Israelites 'from the time of the sin and further' (re Ex21.7), that is around the 18th of Tammuz. Moses would teach the elders there 'and this practice continued from the Day of Atonement until the tabernacle was set up and not longer' (ibid re.v 11).

Ramban, a century later, does not share Rashi's interpretation. With minor exceptions, Ramban accepts the sequence of events in the order that the Torah presents them, that is: G-d's instructions for the Tabernacle follow immediately on the Revelation on Mt Sinai; then comes the sin of the golden calf, G-d's anger and reconciliation, followed by the actual construction of the Tabernacle. Ramban sees the Tabernacle as a continuation of the Revelation on Mt Sinai : 'the main purpose of the Tabernacle was to contain a place in which the Divine Glory rests, this being the ark..' (re Ex.25.1). Consequently, the sacrificial worship there offers to the people the opportunity to come to the 'Tent of Meeting' – the other name for the Tabernacle – to have the privilege of proximity to the Divine presence. Ramban , too, believes that Moses came down on Yom Kippur or the next day and 'assembled' (vayakhel Ex 35.1) the people, to tell them the instructions concerning the Tabernacle that the Lord had given to him before the sin of the golden calf. According to Ramban, Moses simply continues where he had left off before the 'calf', - with the injunction that the Sabbath has priority over the work of the Tabernacle.

It follows that, for Ramban, it was always part of G-d's plan to have a location, a meeting-place for a continued Revelation to be possible, even if the sin of the golden calf had never happened. That is why the relevant instructions are given to Moses immediately after the Revelation on Mt Sinai. However, the people were not supposed to spend a long time on their journey to the Promised Land, so a temporary Tabernacle may only have been one option, with the emphasis on a permanent Temple (Beit haMikdash).

For Rashi, the major function of the Tabernacle is its atonement for the 'calf'. The Tabernacle is a physical symbol, just as the 'calf' was meant to be. Both are built with the gold, etc, the contribution of the people. The sacrifice of inauguration for the Tabernacle and the appointment of Aharon to serve is a bull.. All these seem to be echoes linking the two.

Yet, taking all of the above into account, it is possible to say that the two Bible commentators also accept each other's point of view. At the end of the five Torah sections that deal with the Tabernacle, in Pekudei, re Ex.40,2, Ramban writes about the account in Lev.9,23 where Aharon blesses the people and the cloud of glory descends on the Tabernacle on the eighth day of the inauguration 'this should have been the beginning of the Book of Leviticus. Why is it here? Because there is no 'before or later in the Torah' – the view taken by Rashi and here written by Ramban! And it is Rashi, on the verse,” On the first day of the first month shall you set up the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting (Ex.40.2) who writes that the people were upset when the cloud of glory did not descend on the first day and so they said to Moses '..all the trouble that we have taken so that the Divine Glory would dwell among us and that we would know that the sin of the calf had been atoned for ...'   Moreover, Ramban quotes this passage of Rashi's. Clearly, the text lends itself to both perspectives. Whether to atone or to continue the Revelation, the people built the beautiful Tabernacle so that the Divine Glory would dwell in their midst.