By Israel Drazin


The Jewish iconoclast Arnold B. Ehrlich (1848-1919) offered unusual thought-provoking, sometimes disturbing, Bible interpretations on Exodus 30-33 in his book Mikra Ki-Pheshuto (The Bible According to its Literal Meaning). He attempts to show here that the ancient Israelites were very superstitious and that at least certain parts of the Hebrew Bible were composed long after the death of Moses. The following are some of his views:

  1. The Torah      required that each Israelite donate an offering when the population was      counted so “that there be no plague among them” (30:12). This reflects the      ancient belief of Jews and non-Jews, such as the Romans, that counting      people creates an “evil eye” that can kill people. Thus the offerings and      not the people were counted. This belief is reflected in II Samuel 24 and      I Chronicles 21, and many Jews still believe it today and refuse to count      the men attending synagogue services to see if the required ten men are present.      They recite instead a verse with ten words, saying each word as they look      at a different person, and see if they use all ten words.
  2. Why does the Torah mandate that a person      who mixes ingredients of the “holy anointing oil” be killed (30:33)? The      Torah was only allowing Moses to mix the ingredients. When the supply of      the solution decreased, plain oil was added to the ancient small supply.      This was satisfactory as long as at least some of Moses’ mixture was in      the jar. According to a tradition, high priests and kings were placed into      office with this anointing and would remain in the position until death.      Thus, although God and Samuel no longer wanted Saul to remain as king, and      wanted him replaced by David, they were unable to set David on the throne      until Saul died. This oil of anointing was not used after the destruction      of the first temple in 586 BCE because it was lost during the battle or,      according to a tradition, it was hidden away but we no longer know where      it is hidden. One explanation for the unusual sanctity ascribed to this      oil was to highlight the importance of the high priest and kingly      positions; they were so important that only Moses’ oil could place them in      their office. However, it might have been a superstitious belief in the      power of the oil; it was magical because Moses created it.
  3. The story of the golden calf in chapter      32 seems to have been composed long after the days of Moses. This will      explain why none of the prophets who criticized the Israelites’ behavior      during the desert wanderings mention it. The only reference to it is Psalm      106, which was composed during a much later period.
  4. Why did Moses shatter the two tablets      containing the Ten Commandments (32:19); the Torah states they were prepared      by God? Moses saw that the Israelites worshipped the golden calf and      understood that they had difficulty accepting a non-corporeal God and      needed a physical representation. He may have felt that giving the      Israelites the Ten Commandments that were inscribed in physical stone      supported their view that people need physical things, so he shattered      them to indicate that the laws should be accepted even if they are nor      inscribed on stone. (Later, the Torah allowed a physical structure, the      tabernacle, so Moses also provided the people a new set of the Decalogue      engraved in stone.)
  5. Why did Moses grind the golden calf into      powder, mix it with water, and give it to the Israelites to drink (32:20)?      As indicated in the Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 44a, this was a somewhat      magical test to identify which Israelites worshipped the calf; the mixture      would harm those who acted improperly. This kind of test was carried out      even in the middle ages by Christians when people were tossed into water      to see if they survived and were innocent. The Torah has such a practice      with the married woman who is suspected of committing adultery, called      Sotah (Numbers 5:12ff). She drank a mixture of water and dust from the      tabernacle floor. If she became sick, we knew she committed adultery. This      biblical practice was discontinued in ancient times.
  6.  What      book was Moses referring to when he told God, either forgive the Israelite      nation for their act with the golden calf or “blot me out of the      book…which you wrote”? The ancients, including the Babylonians, believed      that God has a book in which he records the good deeds of the righteous.      (See, for example, Psalms 56:9 and 139:16. The concept is mentioned in the      Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers and many Jews understand this      literally.) Moses was saying if you don’t do what I ask, you can wipe me      out of the righteous book because I do not agree with you.