Altar, Altar!

I’m continuing my way through John Van Seters’ Life of Moses.  Here are some items:

1.  If the Yahwist is exilic, as Van Seters argues, then how does one account for the laws about the altar in Exodus 20:24-26?  Why would an exilic Yahwist have a law about an altar in Israel, especially when, in Exodus 13:3-16, he discusses rituals (such as his version of the Days of Unleavened Bread) that “do not presuppose any temple or elaborate cultus” (page 125), which is appropriate for Israelites who have been cut off from the land of Israel and its cult?  Van Seters holds that Exodus 20:24 should be translated in accordance with the Syriac—“In every place where you invoke my name I will come to you and I will bless you”—for the hiphil of z-k-r with shem usually means “to ‘invoke the name’ of the deity” (page 281).  Van Seters explains: “One is reminded of 1 Kings 8, where prayer may be rendered before the altar but also in distant places quite cut off from the central sanctuary” (page 281).  Van Seters contends that Exodus 20:24-26 is calling for “a simple reconstruction of the altar in Jerusalem with its cult in the exilic period” (page 281).  Even the exiles would benefit from such an altar, notwithstanding their distance from the land of Israel, for their prayers would travel to the altar, and God would bless them.

2.  On pages 296-299, Van Seters argues that Jeroboam’s construction of the golden calves is not historical, but that the Deuteronomistic Historian “created it as an interpretive framework for his history of the Northern Kingdom.” Why does Van Seters think that such is the case?  First, Van Seters looks at I Kings 12:25, which says that Jeroboam moved from Shechem and built Penuel, and he says that this occurred perhaps on account of the North’s conflict with Judah, which took place from the time of the North’s secession (I Kings 14:19, 30; 15:6-7).  But, if there is war between the North and the South, why would Jeroboam be afraid in I Kings 12 of “continuous peaceful pilgrimages to Jerusalem, which could lead to a disaffection in the north and Jeroboam’s overthrow”—the very reason that Jeroboam in the story constructed the calves?  For Van Seters, the story about the calves contradicts another element of the narrative about Jeroboam, namely, the existence of war between the North and the South.  If there were indeed such war, then Northern Israelites could not make “continuous peaceful pilgrimages to Jerusalem”.

Second, Van Seters sees Deuteronomistic ideology written all over the Golden Calves story. The story faults Jeroboam for disobeying the law of worshiping only in a central sanctuary, and centralization did not exist “prior to the Deuteronomic reform” in the seventh century B.C.E.  The story also blames Jeroboam for the high places, another Deuteronomic bogey-man.  While Jeroboam allows priests from the high places to serve in Bethel, Josiah did not allow such priests to serve in Jerusalem (II Kings 23:9), and so Jeroboam is a foil for Josiah.  Moreover, the Deuteronomistic Historian justifies Josiah’s deviation from Deuteronomy 18:6-8, which allows Levites from local shrines to serve in the central sanctuary.  The idea is that “since the time of Jeroboam the credentials of local priests have become suspect”.  Jeroboam, after all, consecrated non-Levitical priests in the story, so how can we be sure that these Levitical priests from the high places are actually Levites?  For Van Seters, the story of the Golden Calves is not history, but rather propaganda to justify Josiah’s policies.

Third, Van Seters does not believe that the reference to calves in Hosea 8:5 and 10:5 indicates the historicity of Jeroboam’s cult.  Those calves could have been “religious iconography” in Northern temples, or perhaps Hosea “is responsible for inaugurating the use of the derogatory term ‘calf’ as a way of referring to small bull images that were used as cult objects.”  But they don’t necessarily refer to Jeroboam’s golden calves, as far as Van Seters is concerned.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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