Portion of the Week: The Ultimate Sin

Parashat Ekev

Ancho Gosh

In Parashat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25), Moses declares, “Hear, O Israel: thou art to pass over the Jordan this day, to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than thyself, cities great and fortified up to heaven, a people great and tall, the sons of giants … Know therefore this day, that the Lord thy God is he who goeth over before thee as a devouring fire; he will destroy them, and he will bring them down before thee” (Deut. 9:1-3).

Ostensibly, these are verses intended to encourage Israel: No need to fear the enemies awaiting you in Canaan; no matter how great and mighty they may be, God’s power will defeat them. God is with Israel; he promised Canaan and he will fulfill that promise. However, Moses’ speech goes on in a different direction, describing what might happen after the pledged victory: “Speak not thou in thy heart, after that the Lord thy God hath thrust them out from before thee, saying: ‘For my righteousness the Lord hath brought me in to possess this land” (Deut. 9:4).

Believing that victory is equivalent to being righteous is a familiar problem. That’s why Moses reiterates the point, “Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thy heart, dost thou go in to possess their land; but for the wickedness of these nations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee, and that he may establish the word which the Lord swore unto thy fathers” (Deut. 9:5). God grants Canaan to Israel because the land’s present inhabitants are for worse than them and because God has promised it to the patriarchs, but in no way because of the righteousness of those who have conquered the land themselves. Moses sums up: “Know therefore that it is not for thy righteousness that the Lord thy God giveth thee this good land to possess it; for thou art a stiff-necked people” (Deut. 9:6).

Moses shows how stubborn and ungrateful Israel is, recalling past incidents: “from the day that thou didst go forth out of the land of Egypt, until ye came unto this place, ye have been rebellious against the Lord” (Deut. 9:7). Readers of Exodus and Numbers already know of these incidents, but Deuteronomy presents them in its own manner.

Whereas, throughout the Torah, the incidents in which Israel rebels against God appear in various contexts, each account having its own purposes, this week’s Torah portion presents them as a single continuum leading to one conclusion: “Ye have been rebellious against the Lord from the day that I knew you” (Deut. 9:24). With respect to some incidents, Deuteronomy mentions only the place where they occurred: “And at Taberah, and at Massah, and at Kibroth-hattaavah, ye made the Lord wroth” (Deut. 9:22). The sin of the spies sent to Canaan, which Numbers recounts and which Moses mentions early on in Deuteronomy, is given a single verse. The incident Deuteronomy considers the gravest of all – the Sin of the Golden Calf – is told in the greatest detail.

Deuteronomy thoroughly condemns idolatry, which it sees as the ultimate sin. There are two kinds of idolatry. The most serious is worship of another god. Deuteronomy considers the second kind as well – unacceptable worship of Israel’s God, namely, the Sin of the Golden Calf – to be very serious. Deuteronomy is consistent in its prohibition of visual representation of God, even arguing, in contrast to other traditions in the Torah, that Israel did not see God during the revelation following the Exodus from Egypt.

Whereas Exodus recounts how Israel’s leaders were permitted to ascend Mount Sinai and view God – “and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness” (Exodus 24:10) – Deuteronomy tells things differently: “And ye came near and stood under the mountain; and the mountain burned with fire unto the heart of heaven, with darkness, cloud and thick darkness. And the Lord spoke unto you out of the midst of the fire; ye heard the voice of words, but ye saw no form; only a voice” (Deut. 4:11-12). While acknowledging the revelation’s visual dimension, Deuteronomy denies that Israel saw God.

The polemical nature of Deuteronomy’s description is evidenced from the emphasis given a little later: “Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves – for ye saw no manner of form on the day that the Lord spoke unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire lest ye deal corruptly, and make you a graven image, even the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the heaven” (Deut. 4:15-17). The text links narrative and normative elements: The memory of the literal revelation, where God spoke from the depths of fire but was not seen by Israel, serves as a warning against worshipping God’s visual representation – the Sin of the Golden Calf.

Is the focus on that sin congruent with Moses’ goal? If the goal is to emphasize Israel’s obstinacy, rebelliousness and infidelity, the other sins only briefly mentioned here are more appropriate: doubt expressed at Massah regarding God’s powers, complaints voiced at Kibroth-hattaavah about the quality of the food and, most grievous of all, the doubts expressed in the incident of the Sin of the Spies as to God’s capacity for keeping his chief promise and bringing Israel to Canaan. Why focus on the Sin of the Golden Calf, a ritualistic-theological offense? Moreover, if the goal is to warn Israel against the intoxication with power and the complacency that might emerge after Canaan’s conquest – how is that connected with the religious sin of worshipping God through visual representation?

We can find the answer to these questions by attempting to better understand Deuteronomy’s assumptions, and by discarding modern, non-biblical distinctions between faith and action and between religion and morality. Israel’s loyalty to God is expressed not just in the thought that he can provide for its needs but primarily in the readiness to worship him appropriately. The wickedness of Canaan’s present inhabitants and the danger of Israel’s adopting their sinful ways are expressed not only through unjust government, but mainly through prohibited ways of worshipping God. As we will see next week, this was apparently the goal behind Deuteronomy’s composition in its historical context: waging total war on idolatry.