The Slaughter in the Wilderness

Tuesday, May 1, 2012 –– Week of 4 Easter

Saint Philip and Saint James, Apostles

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office


Tuesday of Week of 4 Easter (p. 961)

Psalms 45 (morning) 47, 48 (evening

Exodus 32:21-34

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Matthew 5:11-16


Feast of Saints Philip & James (p. 997)

Morning Prayer: Psalm 119:137-160 / Job 23:1-12 / John 1:43-51

Evening Prayer: Psalm 139/ Proverbs 4:7-18 / John 12:20-26

I chose the readings for Tuesday of 4 Easter

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

What would we call it today? A slaughter; a massacre; religious genocide?

Moses returns from his absence on the mountain and finds that the people have turned from their loyalty to the God of Abraham and made a golden idol of a bull, a symbol of power and fecundity. They have been feasting and engaging in acts of religious or wanton sex, according to the custom of some cultic rituals. Moses confronts his brother Aaron, who offers a pitiful excuse. From the camp gate Moses cries, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me!” The sons of Levi respond, and Moses has them take swords and set upon the camp. “Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.” The text says that about three thousand people died that day. (A comparison: Over 900 died in the Jonestown, Guyana, suicide-killings among the People’s Temple cult of Jim Jones.)

Taken at face value, it is a grizzly story. It darkens deeply the narrative of Moses. If it is a memory of the days of the Exodus, the story may reflect a rebellion or civil war against Moses leadership, which Moses had to put down by force.

Some scholars have speculated that there may be other influences present in the story as it comes to us. The text of the long Sinai section of Exodus was composed largely by the Priestly tradition of redactors, written sometime after the fall in 587 BCE. The Priestly writers had access to many very ancient traditions, stories and texts. As they put their particular stamp upon the material, they emphasized their central priestly interest over various cultic matters involving the tabernacle, sacred objects, sacrifices and priesthood.

From the perspective of the Priestly writers, there is another civil war and rebellion that is of great significance: Jeroboam’s rebellion in the 900’s BCE which separated the Northern Kingdom (Israel) from the Southern Kingdom (Judah) and established a rival capital in Shechem. To prevent his people from returning to the Temple in Jerusalem, Jeroboam erected two temples at the ends of his Northern Kingdom, one in Dan and one in Bethel. He made two statues of a golden calf, one for each shrine, and he spoke the same words over them as Aaron says in Exodus: “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” (1 Kings 12:28)

The Priestly authors are loyal to Jerusalem and to the Southern Kingdom. They want to condemn the apostasy of Jeroboam. Some scholars think that they have linked the story of Jeroboam with the story of the calf in Exodus. A few think the Exodus story was created whole as a polemic against the Northern king.

It is very possible that the bull was an alternative symbol representing not the Canaanite deities but the God of Abraham and Moses. In the North, the bull was a symbol of El, with whom the God of Abraham and Moses was identified, possibly as the invisible God atop the bull, much like the invisible God seated upon the cherubim of the Ark of the Covenant.

So, the story of the golden calf in Exodus may be a fiction to condemn the Northern rebellion, or it may have historical roots in the Exodus story, or both. It’s hard to know with certainty.

What seems clear is that Moses faced murmurings, conflict and resistance to his leadership in the wilderness. The Hebrew people were challenged and tempted by the established religious cults, rituals and shrines related to the sacred bull traditions. And the division between northern and southern kingdoms created deep scars, present in the Gospel accounts in the hostility between Jew and Samaritan. Doubtless, all of these conflicts were bitter, costly and at times bloody.

As a 21st century Christian, I’m fed up with wars in the name of God. I want the world’s powers to use their military might to stop genocide, especially religious genocide. I reject a God who commands slaughter in the name of right belief or ethnic purity. I embrace the God of Jesus Christ who absorbed such violence on the cross. And I turn to an ethic marked by yesterday’s gospel reading of the Beatitudes and today’s peaceful reminder, “You are the light of the world… [L]et your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14a, 16)

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