Is Seeing Believing? (Exodus 30:11-34:35)


Midway through this week's Torah portion of

Ki Tisa

Moses descends Mount Sinai to observe for himself the Israelites' idolization of the Golden Calf, an indiscretion that God had already reported to him. Only when Moses sees his people dancing before the desert deity does he throw down the Tablets of the Testimony, shattering them into irretrievable pieces. For only seeing is believing, right? Or is it the opposite message we are meant to draw from this group of chapters of the Book of Exodus? The Torah's unmasked ambivalence towards what is knowable by the eye, and, more specifically, towards observable objects and their role in God's worship, is here relentlessly explored although the issue is never resolved.

The Torah portion begins with Moses atop Mount Sinai receiving the law from God, leaving behind him a worrisome absence in the Israelite camp. After forty days with no sign of his return, the Children of Israel demand from Aaron, the High Priest and Moses' brother, to make them gods they can see: "Make us gods which shall go before us: for as for this man Moses who has lead us out of Egypt, we know not what has become of him." And so Aaron fashions from their molten jewelry a golden calf. It is a god comparable to the gods they saw in Egypt, whose presence alone assures them of its power.

The Israelites' worship of the golden calf is an obvious flouting of the laws they had just received orally a few chapters earlier. And with it, the covenant threatens to fall apart, as God seethes with wrath. Instead of the dissolution of the covenant, though, they are brutally punished.

Testing their loyalty to God once and for all, Moses incites what could only be understood as a massacre. "Put every man his sword by his side, and go to and fro, from gate to gate, throughout the camp and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor."

And even then God's anger hardly abates: he refuses to "dwell" among the people. In his stead he sends an angel to carry out his covenant with the Israelites. "And I will send an angel before thee: and I will drive out the Canaanite and the Amorite and the Hittite...for I will not go up in the midst of thee: for thou art a stiff-necked people."(33:3-5)

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