This month’s regular annual Torah portions included the end of the Book of Exodus. As seems to so often be the case, they proved to be exceedingly apropos to what is going on in the world as well. Sometimes, however, we might be tempted to skip over a lot of what might appear to be tedious, even repetitive detail, about the construction of the “mishkan”, or tabernacle, by the people of Israel in the wilderness. Don’t. And why would that famous story — including one of the most tragic act of rebellions in history — be sandwiched right in the middle of all that?
One possible answer to that question, and, yes, I will submit that it bears DIRECTLY on what is happening in the world again, today, is contained in that level of repetitive detail, and indeed in the very STRUCTURE that our Creator uses to give us His Instruction here. But to make that clear, a bit of introduction is helpful.
One literary device that the Bible employs more than once is the concept of “bookends,” perhaps sometimes described as nested sets of brackets, almost like some programming languages employ. In English, you may here the word “chiasm” used, but I think the Hebrew term is most illustrative, because it is called “atbash” — an acronym for the letters “alef – tav – bet – shin”. Those are the first and last, and the second and second-to-last, letters in the alef-bet, and that explains the nested structure nicely. It also fits the Torah’s description of the story, from Moses’ ascent of Mt. Sinai into the cloud, to the end of the Book of Exodus. Observe the pattern:
alef ==> Cloud on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 24:15-16)
bet ==> Command to build the Tabernacle (Ex. 25-26, etc)
==> Keep My Sabbaths (Ex. 31:13-17, “a sign…forever” )
+++++++++++++++++++++++++ Central event: Idolatry/Adultery of the Golden Calf
==> Keep My Sabbaths (Ex. 35:1-3)
shin ==> Building of the Tabernacle completed
tav ==> Cloud FILLS the Tabernacle (Ex. 40:34-38)
The story is “bookended” by the presence of YHVH in cloud – first on Mt. Sinai, where Moses ascends to receive the Tablets, and ending with the end of the Book of Exodus, where the ‘shekina’ Glory of the Most High fills the completed Tabernacle. On the next obvious level of nesting, we see the clear instructions to build the mishkan, in all of its detail. In direct correspondence, with a similar level of detail, the final portions of the book describe the completion of that job of creation, and the final inspection by Moses.
But it is the central event framed by atbash, and the prominent inner bracketing, that I want to focus on for this article.
One of the most direct, and obvious metaphors in all of Scripture, employed repeatedly (arguably, because we as humans throughout history have DONE it so repeatedly!) is the idea that idolatry, which in the broadest sense consists of putting ANYTHING ahead of, or in place of, the Most High in our lives, our love, and our worship. It is literally the equivalent of adultery in a marriage — an ultimate betrayal. It is the reason why BOTH the Northern (Israel) and Southern (Judean) kingdoms in Biblical history were ultimately sent into exile, and even scattered throughout “every nation, tribe, and people” — and indeed for the most part still are.
And it is the essence of the story of the “golden calf.” Immediately following the vow of all of the people of Israel at the base of Mt. Sinai to be obedient, (“ALL that YHVH says, we WILL do!“) they rebel to commit an act of adultery. The “wedding” was put, figuratively, on hiatus, and, but for the intercession of Moses, all of them would have been killed by the Almighty on the spot.
But it is the parallels to today, and the structure and what it says about US, NOW, that I find most compelling:
Even most people in “mainstream Christian” churches, and even in most of those which teach one of the biggest lies in history, that the “old” testament has been replaced by something “new”, and different — in spite of the repeated assurances of Yahushua to the contrary, and the many prophecies and warnings on that score besides — still tend to understand that the incident involving that “golden calf” was somehow really bad.
What is most damning, however, is that modern idolatry is arguably so much worse, were it not for the rejoinder that they “should’ve known better,” since they’d all seen so many miracles first-hand, and even heard His voice directly! So what did they really do? The bottom line seems to be that they decided to worship Him just the way the pagans did; the way that they’d come to know from “Egyptian tradition.” And they simply wanted something PHYSICAL to represent Him, that they could see. And besides, didn’t Aaron even SAY that it was for YHVH, by Name? At least they got THAT part right, in contrast to much modern “pagan tradition,” which has long even forgotten that He ever GAVE us His Name.
Doesn’t He “know our hearts?” Doesn’t He find our traditions “cute”, or even charming? (Forget, of course, about what He actually SAYS about such things, calling them words like “abomination,” and saying essentially, WHATEVER you do, don’t learn the ways of the pagan, don’t bring their idolatry into your house*, and — for cryin’ out loud! — don’t do to me what you did to those false gods!)
Didn’t He know THEIR hearts, too? And YHVH didn’t find their decision to worship Him the way THEY thought He OUGHT to appreciate either cute or charming.
“Easter” is named for a false pagan goddess, celebrated during the spring fertility rights, symbolized by bunnies and eggs. The “cute” tradition of dying eggs comes directly from the wonderful tradition of dying those eggs in the blood of the children sacrificed to Easter/Oestre/Ishtar/Astarte (which may also represent another direct parallel between the pagan sexual orgies associated with both the golden calf and the events associated with the more “modern” symbolism).
It just may be, in other words, that part of the reason much of “Xtianity” is still in exile is because it is still in idolatry. And lest any of us be tempted to “boast,” or become cocky or remain “stiff-necked” — we need to remember that the commandments against idolatry are many, and so are the ways we can practice them, and the things that we can put in His rightful place.
But there is another aspect to that atbash that still ought to stand out to us strikingly at this point, too!
What does He say no less than TWICE in that structure, immediately before AND immediately after the idolatry of the golden calf?
Keep My Sabbaths! (Note: they’re not just ‘the Jewish Sabbaths’, either; YHVH pointedly calls them “My Sabbaths“; Ex. 31:13.)
Perhaps the fact that the commandments which both precede (as if He already knew what was coming) and follow that preeminent act of idolatry both re-iterate the importance of His Sabbath is a statement of how important they are.
We live in an age of idolatry, when much of the world not only ignores His Word, but actively even detests His instruction for us. The Bible has been removed from public schools. This month the president of the United States even called an act that YHVH Himself explicitly forbade as “abomination” a “fundamental freedom.” This is more than ironic, given that the true liberties once guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, from freedom of worship, to self-defense, to freedom from spying and illegal searches, are so clearly ignored by that same lawless government. It is not at all far-fetched to suggest that things which Elohim calls “evil” are being turned into something approaching sacrament, by “another master” which holds the Creator of the Universe in contempt. A “jealous god,” indeed!
The atbash structure surrounds the central act of rebellion that mankind continues to repeat in a framework that suggests a literal process for how a PEOPLE can begin the process of “tshuvah”, or return to Him, as a community. Without question, it involves doing what He says we must do, and that begins with keeping His Sabbaths, the sign of our continued Covenant with YHVH. Other aspects of the process of rebuilding that relationship present themselves in the text as well…like having willing, wise, and generous hearts, and then being filled with His spirit in order to do the work He has for us to do.
In the end, it’s all about coming together for His purposes, in the way He directs, so that He might dwell among us. But how can that process even BEGIN until we recognize the idolatry that so permeates the current “Greater Babylonian Metro Area,” to the point that we don’t even keep His “Appointed Times,” much less recognize the pattern?
* See places like Deuteronomy 7:25-26; Deuteronomy 12:2-4; 30-31; etc. Including, obviously, the “Ten Commandments.”
Again, kudos to Rabbi David Forhman, of alephbeta.org, for his insight and introduction to the concept of the “atbash” in this parsha.