Pra’am danced with wild abandon. He was not drunk. At least he did not think so. He was happier than he could ever remember. He gyrated around the pretty young thing in front of him. She was marked as he was, with dried blood on the cheeks, forehead and arms. He did not recall her name. It did not matter.
The beat of the drums kept his pulse racing. Dozens of torches were blazing in the dim daylight. Pra’am was not sure if the shadows were from the mountain or from the dark clouds above. He still had pieces of meat in his teeth and his throat was numb from all the wine.
Freedom! Pra’am thought to himself. Finally, true freedom. To dance. To eat. To drink. All to my heart’s content. Hah! To think that just a few months ago I was a lowly, filthy brick-maker.
Pra’am heard a resounding crash that shook the earth he was dancing on. He looked towards the source of the sound and he sighted Moses sprinting down the mountain. Moses appeared furious. There were fragments of bright blue stone at the foot of the mountain.
Moses? Pra’am thought. They said he was gone. We have new gods now. Gods that we can see and worship. He can go back and take all his stuffy laws with him.
Moses approached a statue of a calf, made completely out of gold. It was surrounded by men and women of all ages dancing and prostrating around it. With one swoop of his long staff Moses cleared a space in front of the calf, sending bodies flying. He took hold of the heavy golden statue and raised it above his head. Moses turned with the golden calf in his hands and faced a nearby bonfire. He then flung the calf into the bonfire. The fire roared and quickly melted the calf. The worshippers stood back, aghast at the violence done to their god. Moses proceeded to smash his staff into the melting gold. He beat the gold in the fire until it became ash. Moses took the ashes to the stream flowing from the mountain and dumped them into the water. Many of the worshippers cried at the destruction of their god. Many others look on with relief at Moses, as if awoken from a bad dream.
“Drink!” Moses shouted, pointing at the water. Hordes of people ran to the river and started drinking from its water.
What has he done to our god? Pra’am thought. Why is Moses making us drink from our god’s remains? I will have no part of this.
Pra’am and a few thousand other similarly marked people moved back from the stream. The drums resumed their beat. Pra’am continued dancing, turning his back on Moses and the activity at the stream. Thousands of other blood-marked bodies turned and twisted to the tempo of the drums.
Moses left the stream and walked back to the main entrance of the Israelite camp. He had a heated discussion with his brother Aaron. Moses then surveyed the blood-marked dancers. Raising his staff, he called out in a booming voice that Pra’am could hear over the sound of the drums:
“Whoever is with God – stand by my side!”
Thousands of Levites congregated around Moses, with his staff in hand.
“So commands our Lord, the God of Israel,” Moses exclaimed. “Put every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro, from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother,” pointing at the frenzied dancing mob, “and every man his friend, and every man his relative.”
The Levites marched away from Moses towards the dancing mass, swords in hand. They started slashing at the dancers. The twirling Israelites fell, as if their puppet strings had been cut, their own wet blood covering up the dried animal blood on their bodies. Some Levites reached the drummers. The beat suddenly stopped. The former dancers now heard the death-cries of their co-worshippers. Some fought back. They were no match for the determined Levites.
Pra’am saw the approaching Levites. He ran to his nearby tent and grabbed his sword. At the head of a column of Levites he noticed his mother’s brother, Miluel, approaching.
“Miluel!” Pra’am yelled. “What are you doing? Stop this madness!”
“It is you who are mad, Pra’am,” Miluel responded, “for worshipping an idol. How could you turn your back on our God and on Moses so quickly?”
“Moses left us, and I tired of his laws. Were we freed from Egyptian bondage to enter an even more onerous servitude? This God is too demanding; I would prefer one of our own making.”
“Then you do deserve to die. We cannot have such rebelliousness amongst us. It would have been better if you had never left Egypt.” Miluel attacked Pra’am with an upper hand cut. Pra’am parried, but did not counterattack.
“What matter is it to you how or who I worship? Am I hurting someone? Is your Almighty God offended by my disinterest?”
“It is too late, Pra’am, to change your mind or allegiance. Had you been so fickle in Egypt you would have perished there. But now, after we have been freed, after God spoke to us, after we received His commandments, it is nothing less than treason to worship false idols. You have no place amongst the Children of Israel. If we do not destroy you, God may very well destroy us all!” Miluel attacked again. Pra’am parried, but not before Miluel managed to slash Pra’am’s arm.
“Now you have upset me!” Pra’am counterattacked. “What makes you better than me? Did God say something to you that he did not to me?”
“Are you blind to what has happened?” Miluel parried and renewed his attack. “Your group created a graven image when just over a month ago we all heard God’s command forbidding idol-worship. Moses, who went up Mount Sinai to receive the Tablets of the Law, smashed them in his fury when he saw the golden calf. He himself has just ordered us to kill all the idol worshippers with whom you proudly align yourself. For the sake of our nation’s future, you must die.
“It will take more than yourself to do me in. My swordsmanship was always better than yours. Why does God Himself not come and strike me down?”
Pra’am lunged for Miluel’s unprotected torso. Pra’am tripped on his own sandal strap and lost balance. Miluel stepped aside and stabbed Pra’am as he was flailing to catch his balance. Pra’am fell heavily to the ground, face down.
“That is our job now,” Miluel addressed Pra’am’s corpse sadly, “though He is not beyond helping us.”
* * * * *
Exodus 32:1-6; 15-28
1 And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him: ‘Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.’ 2 And Aaron said unto them: ‘Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.’ 3 And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. 4 And he received it at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they said: ‘This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.’ 5 And when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said: ‘To-morrow shall be a feast to the Lord.’ 6 And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt-offerings, and brought peace-offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to make merry.
15 And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, with the two tables of the testimony in his hand; tables that were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. 16 And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables. 17 And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said unto Moses: ‘There is a noise of war in the camp.’ 18 And he said: ‘It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome, but the noise of them that sing do I hear.’ 19 And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing; and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and broke them beneath the mount. 20 And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it with fire, and ground it to powder, and strewed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it. 21 And Moses said unto Aaron: ‘What did this people unto thee, that thou hast brought a great sin upon them?’ 22 And Aaron said: ‘Let not the anger of my lord wax hot; thou knowest the people, that they are set on evil. 23 So they said unto me: Make us a god, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him. 24 And I said unto them: Whosoever hath any gold, let them break it off; so they gave it me; and I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.’ 25 And when Moses saw that the people were broken loose–for Aaron had let them loose for a derision among their enemies– 26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said: ‘Whoso is on the Lord’s side, let him come unto me.’ And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. 27 And he said unto them: ‘Thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel: Put ye every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.’ 28 And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.
In the biblical text there is very little narrative outside of the discussion between Moses and Aaron. There were however a number of difficulties that I tried to address in the story.
In the text, Moses breaks the Tablets, destroys the Golden Calf, rebukes Aaron and only after this sends the Levites to kill the idol worshippers. The worshippers must have continued doing something to merit being killed so violently by their friends and relatives.
There must have been some physical mark to distinguish the idol worshippers from those that had not. Otherwise, how would the Levites know who to kill?