In reading Israel Knohl’s The Divine Symphony, I see he has a place for an old tradition from northern Israel. This tradition isn’t quite the same as E or the Elohist of the old documentary hypothesis. E, after all, is the most widely disputed of the four sources in that theory. And yet, Knohl also sees what is the strongest element of the old theory.. That is the story of the Israelites worshiping the golden calf in the wilderness.
The golden calf story in Exodus 32 (see also Deuteronomy 9:6 ff.). clearly has something to do with the calves that the first northern king, Jeroboam, set up at worship centers in Dan and Bethel (1 Kings 12:25 ff.). Jeroboam uses the same words to justify his golden calves as Aaron had. “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt (1 Kings 12:28 and Exodus 32:4). That “gods” is plural in Exodus where there was only one calf shows that 1 Kings 12 came first and Exodus drew upon it.
Knohl points out that neither in Exodus nor 1 Kings was the calf supposed to represent a foreign god. Those who worshiped at the calf shrine in Bethel thought they were worshiping the God of Israel. A later king of Israel, Jehu, massacred those who worshiped Baal and did away with Baal worship in Israel. But he did nothing about the calf shrine at Bethel. In fact, Knohl suggests that 2 Kings 10:15-16 means that Jehu stopped and worshiped at Bethel on his way to destroy the Baal temple.
When Knohl goes on to say that even Elijah never said a word against the calves, he is using an argument from silence that I do not find very convincing. He may be right. But I am sure the historical Elijah said a lot of things that we don’t know about. Still, Knohl has a point. There is no evidence before Hosea of prophetic criticism of the calf shrines.
Hosea (see Hosea 8:6 and 13:2) shows that by sometime in the eighth century there was a group in northern Israel who hotly opposed the calf cult. As I understand the sequence, Assyria overran Dan in an earlier offensive. So, if the Assyrian action had destroyed a calf shrine there, prophets might have taken that as a sign of God’s displeasure.
I do not know what the calf meant to the Israelites. It certainly was not a god, even though the statements of Aaron and Jeroboam speak of “gods”. Somehow they associated the calves with the God who brought them out of Egypt, that is, YHWH.
Hosea says they kissed the calves, so perhaps what had once been a simple representation (sometimes Knohl gives the impression that he thinks the calves just represented the animals used in sacrifice) became, in popular religion, a superstition and a practice bordering on idolatry.
Bethel was also, according to Knohl, the center of an angel cult. The angel that Jacob had wrestled with is criticized and demeaned as a being who wept and implored Jacob in Hosea 12:4-5. Knohl points out that after the golden calf incident in Exodus, God tells Moses that he will no longer go in their midst (Exodus 33:3). Instead, an angel shall go before them (Exodus 32:34). The presence of the angel is inferior to the presence of God. Knohl never says that the calves represented the angel. But, since the calves “brought them out of Egypt”, maybe there was some kind of angeology behind them.
Since Hosea also criticizes dreams as an inferior means of revelation (Hosea 12:6-8), Knohl sees this as another component of the religion of Bethel. The calves, the angel, and dreams made up the spirituality Hosea condemns.
Like the priests in Jerusalem, the Bethel priests saw God as present among the people through the sanctuary. This got projected back into the wilderness in the stories about the Tabernacle. But in the wilderness, Moses also went to the Tent of Meeting, something quite different from the tabernacle. The Tent of Meeting was not a place of sacrifice or ritual or dreams. Moses and the elders met God there in prayer. God did not live in the Tent of Meeting. He came there on occasion to respond to human need. The outer court in the Jerusalem Temple was like the Tent of Meeting. The inner court was like the Tabernacle.
The Tent of Meeting stories stood as a criticism of the religious practice in the sanctuaries of the northern kingdom. The Tabernacle and the Tent of Meeting represent two quite different spiritualities that have been merged in the stories that went into a book like Exodus.