Exploring Babylon Chapter 16.2
Attempts to calculate the end of exile — by both Belshazzar in Babylon and Ahashverus in Persia — have something powerful in common with the People’s behavior in at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the Torah portion Ki Tisa (Ex 30:11 – 34:35).
I love spots in the Torah where translators disagree. When a Torah verse is translated by different sources in very different ways, it’s a reminder that translation is never straightforward and that no one translation can tell the whole story, even if scholars agree on what it is. Differing translations are also frequently a clue that more is going on under the surface of any one translation. We have a powerful example in Ki Tisa:
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 man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.”
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.
– Ex 32:1, JPS Tanakh, 1985
Based on language alone, there are at least three obvious ambiguities in this verse:
- Did the People demand gods, plural, or one god? “Elohim” works both ways in Hebrew, referring to God or to human judges, and scholars argue for both possibilities in this context. Because there was ultimately only one Golden Calf created in the story, translators usually employ “god,” singular;
- What kind of leadership are the People expecting from Aaron? When Moses went up the mountain – which is back in chapter 24 – he told the people that Aaron and Hur would be in charge in his absence. But we have no mention of earlier interactions with the interim leaders – and then there’s the odd failure to mention Hur again, which lead some midrashim to suggest that things were already so dire that Hur had already been killed by the agitated crowd. Still, the language could mean the people are standing opposite Aaron to speak to him or that they are gathering more aggressively.
- Finally, what, exactly has Moses done to upset the People so severely? A common translation is that he “delayed” or “was so long” in coming down. Robert Alter says he “lagged.” And Everett Fox chooses “shamefully-late.” These three versions reflect a spectrum of angst: something taking “so long” could possibly be neutral or positive, even if excess is implied; “lagged” leaves less room for a non-negative interpretation; and “shamefully-late” might leave room for a positive explanation – helping someone with an emergency concern, for example, rather than forgetting or procrastinating – but it’s still obvious that whoever is waiting is distressed by the delay.
Regardless of translation, commentators spend a lot of energy trying to devise some kind of explanation for the People’s behavior that prompted what comes next: the quick turn to idol worship, Moses destroying the tablets, God threatening to destroy the whole People, and three thousand killed in camp.
Shame and Delay
It doesn’t help translation or interpretation that the word central to this narrative, “bosheish,” doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Torah and shows up only once in the Tanakh.
Sisera’s mother, who doesn’t yet know that her son the general, was killed, wonders why his chariot bosheish (Judges 5:28). It’s a heart-breaking scene that might shed some light on the kind of anxiety the People were experiencing.
The related word “bosh,” translated as “shame,” is more common, appearing 106 times in the Tanakh, according to my concordance. Aviva Zornberg, in her discussion of this portion in the Particulars of Rapture, mentions one instance in particular, another verse in Judges, from the odd story of King Eglon, whose servants wait for him ad-bosh, “until they’re ashamed,” after he has been stabbed and retreats to his room, possibly to relieve himself, only the servants soon learn that he is dead(Judges 3:25). Another indication that bosh and bosheish are associated with very troubling – even life and death – situations.
I don’t fully grasp the biblical connection between shame and being late. But I think we’ve all experienced the peculiar state of waiting for someone who was expected at a certain time, terrified that something awful happened and equally, simultaneously ashamed at likely making a mountain out of a molehill.
With this in mind, some Golden Calf midrashim put part of the blame on Moses for being unclear about his return, when he went up the mountain, thereby causing unnecessary angst. The Talmud puns on bosheish and the word for “six,” saying that Moses had announced he would return by the sixth hour – noon, by Talmudic accounting – after 40 days. But the People miscalculated his expected return, because Moses failed to specify that the day he went up did not count as a full night and day.
Uncertainty and ha-Satan
And then, the midrash continues, the satan took advantage of the ambiguity and the People’s concern to convince them that Moses was dead. Thus, they’re so quick to look for another way forward.
There are similar stories, in midrash, in which the satan shows up. At the Akedah, for example: Sarah knows nothing about the journey Abraham and Isaac are taking, so the satan can convince her that Isaac is dead. I have not made an extensive study, but I notice that one key element in Jewish stories where Satan shows up is a disturbing level of uncertainty that can be exploited. The satan even convinces God to test Job based on uncertainty (about Job’s faithfulness). So, I’d to concentrate on the uncertainty in the Golden Calf story.
One way I look at this Torah moment is akin to being on a roadtrip with strangers to parts unknown, when the driver disappears behind a creepy truck-stop: Is he seeking directions or obtaining supplies? In need of privacy – to relieve himself, or meditate, or whatever? Or, given that we’re all relative strangers, can we rule out that he might be doing something nefarious that we’d rather not witness or involved in something that could get us all into terrible trouble?
Unless the instruction before he disappeared were dramatic and very specific – like “give me ten minutes and then come after me” or “wait twenty minutes and then take off, no matter what” – how do we decide what to do and when, as his return is delayed? If the driver left someone else in charge, do we automatically trust them? If relationships among other travelers are stronger than links to a leader, will factions develop? How long do we wait before declaring “enough is enough” and commandeering the car or going our own ways?
I suspect that most of us, at some point, have been in a situation of uncertainty and some gravity which forced us to decide, for safety and sanity, if and when to bail.
Maybe there was also a God factor, that is, a situation in which someone claims to speak for God and all involved have to decide whom to trust, how to discern divine will – assuming such is even possible – and how to move forward, individually and collectively.
Most of this portion does not offer the best model for handling such situations. It does remind us, however, of how frightening uncertainty can be – on our own and within a community – and the Golden Calf story warns us of how dangerous it is to let that fright convince us to jump to conclusions and then launch into action, thinking that we know the answers.
The Perils of Calculus
While the ancient Rabbis had compassion for the People’s precarious state of mind, they had no sympathy for, in essence, trying to out-calculate God.
The futility of this is also decried in Rabbinic writings about predicting the expected end of the Babylonian Exile and rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. One such attempt is by Belshazzar in Babylon. He calculated that the time of exile, prophesied by Jeremiah, was complete but the Jews were not yet rescued, so God had abandoned them (Daniel 5). This results in the “writing on the wall,” followed by Belshazzar’s death and the conquest of Babylon by Persia.
In midrash to the Book of Esther, Ahashverus in Persia tries to avoid Belshazzar’s error with his own calculations, planning to similarly celebrate the Jew’ abandonment by God, because the Temple is not yet reconstructed. But his calculations also fail, and, after a number of reversals, it turns out that “the Jews had rule over them that hated them” (Esther 9:1). (See B. Megillah 11b).
The Golden Calf story and these midrashim about Babylon and Persia all seem to point to Jewish tradition warning against trying to guess the future or what is going on with other people.
So, what are we supposed to do when faced with uncertainty?
We have a strong suggestion in the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident: God teaches Moses how to pray when in trouble, telling him to recite the 13 divine attributes:
…יְהוָה יְהוָה, אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן–אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת
“merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth”
– Ex 34:6
When faced with uncertainty and fear, the way forward, the portion tell us finally, is not to try to out-calculate or second-guess God or other people but to call on God’s attributes and work to help them become manifest in our world.
These remarks were prepared as a dvar torah for Hill Havurah
Calf from FreeBibleImages.org