"Is the LORD in Our Midst or Not?" Conceptions of Divine Presence in Ancient Jewish and Christian Interpretations of the Calf Incident
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CitationNussberger, Mark. 2012. "Is the LORD in Our Midst or Not?" Conceptions of Divine Presence in Ancient Jewish and Christian Interpretations of the Calf Incident. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard Divinity School.
AbstractThis study examines various notions of divine presence as integral to the depiction of Israel's apostasy at Mount Sinai within the redacted Pentateuch as well as to interpretations of that composite text by ancient Jews and Christians. The concepts of presence articulated by ancient interpreters express not only particular images of an immanent and intimate Deity, but also distinctive understandings of redemption and of communal identity as an elect people. And those exegetical-theological reflections are necessarily a by-product of how each community construes its biblical canon, especially regarding the role of the Torah/Law.
Within Exodus 25-40, contact with the divine is intimately related to sacred artifacts, with the golden calf acting as foil to the covenantal tablets and the Priestly Tabernacle. The earliest extant Christian appropriations of the calf narrative, 1 Corinthians 10 and Acts 7, offer another antipode to idolatry--adherence to Jesus as Lord and Son of Man. And both do so while utilizing scriptural juxtapositions--the covenant-making ceremony versus idolatry at Sinai and the calf vis-à-vis the Tabernacle. The latter juxtaposition is also significant for several rabbinic interpretations of Exodus 32, with the Shekhinah's entering the Tabernacle emblematic of Israel's ongoing election and of the LORD having forgiven his chosen people. Those midrashic depictions of divine condescension resonate with the interpretations of two fourth-century Christians, Ephrem the Syrian and Gregory of Nyssa, who further the hermeneutical trajectories begun by Paul and the author of Luke-Acts. For Ephrem and Gregory, the restored tablets that supplant the calf pre-figure the incarnation of the Logos, the remedy for the baneful effects of the Fall. This use of the calf narrative significantly complicates the ancient Christian dichotomy of "carnal Israel" and "spiritual church." And while certain rabbinic interpreters presume (if not directly express) the centrality of the mitsvot as a means of redemption and encounter with God, patristic readers of the calf narrative understand the Law as ultimately provisional vis-à-vis the Christ event. The above conceptions of divine presence, whether Israelo- or christo-centric, are thus ineluctably particular and depend on the hermeneutical circle of interpretive communities and their scriptures.
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