The Family Cohen: Sins, Sons and Sacrifices

The Family Cohen: Sins, Sons and Sacrifices
Type: Oil
Dimensions: Width/Height (in inches) 36/24
Year: 2006

This painting portrays Aaron, Moses’ brother, Israel’s first High Priest (Cohen Hagadol), alongside his four sons, Nadav, Avihu, Elezer and Itamar. More specifically it deals with the expiation of Aaron’s unimaginable sins of not only forging the golden calf (Eygel) with his own hands and tools while his brother Moses is on the mountain top receiving the Law, but also of his construction of a public altar upon which many Israelites brought sacrifices to this idol. The severe expiation for these severe sins, as very clearly outlined in the Torah, entailed the public human sacrifice of Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, one son for each broken tablet, who are consumed by God’s fire on the altar of the newly commemorated Tabernacle. This is the first and only time in Biblical history where ritualistic human sacrifice to God in a temple setting is performed. It is of course not directly acknowledged, but a close reading of the Torah makes this conclusion, as we shall see below, inescapable.

Portrayed to the left is Aaron, the central figure in this painting, wearing his priestly garb. He is wearing his miter upon which is inscribed in ancient Hebrew, “kadosh lashem”, “Holy to God”. He is also wearing his breastplate which is made of intertwined threads of scarlet, blue and purple, into which twelve different colored stones are inserted. Each of the stones is inscribed with the names of each of the twelve tribes, in ancient Hebrew. Modern Hebrew characters in 1300BCE were not yet extant.

Aaron is portrayed extending his left hand releasing the newly molded golden calf like a trick from a magician’s sleeve. The calf itself is anthropomorphized as would be the standard Egyptian idols which the Israelites were very familiar with. On top of the calf’s head is the red disc of the sun god, Ra, surrounded by his gothic heavenward reaching horns, a common Pharoic headdress connoting divine status. Looming behind the” Eygel” is Mount Sinai, wherein its mountain top, Moses is residing, simultaneously receiving the Ten Commandments written by the finger of God. The “Eygel” takes on a very large physical and psychological appearance, in perspective to the mountain. His extended arms are brandishing the priestly benediction directed at Israel, doubtlessly arousing God’s jealousy. On the Eygel’s arms and torso, are written the words from the Torah (Exodus) “And he (Aaron) took from their hands (gold), and he fashioned it using a smith-type tool, and he made a molten calf. And Aaron saw and he built an altar before it. And he said: these are the gods that elevated you out of the land of Egypt. And they raised sacrifices (to the calf) and approached with complete sacrifices. (And the nation sat down to eat and drink), and they stood up and they played”. Naked, swaying standing Israelites are portrayed in the painting surrounding the “Eygel”, worshipping their new god (or their old god with fresh visual representation). “Standing up and playing” is typically interpreted as engaging in sexual licentiousness. This would be the most typical mode of ancient pagan worship, especially after eating, and drinking intoxicating beverages.

God at the peak of Mount Sinai, alerts Moses to the situation below, and informs him that he would like to totally destroy Israel, and make a great nation out of Moses. Moses adroitly talks God out of that idea, and descends the mountain carrying the two tablets. Moses upon seeing the “Eygel” with his own eyes, and the wild goings on, furiously hurls the two tablets smashing them at the base of the mountain. He then takes the “Eygel”, burns it, smashes it into little bits, disperses its gold flakes into water, and forces the Israelites to drink up the concoction.

When Moses approaches Aaron, and asks him how he could do such a thing, Aaron answers sheepishly, “I took the gold, threw it in fire, and it just came out”. Moses then looks at the nation and sees that it is very free/liberated (PRA) and that Aaron liberated them (PRAH) to do vile things. Moses then proclaims “who is for God come to me!” The tribe of Levi responds to the rally cry, and then massacres all the people who partook in this sin, “brother killing brother”. Moses then returns to God to plead for forgiveness, and tells God; “wipe my name out of your books if you don’t forgive them”. God answers, “The one that sinned I will wipe out. Go and tell the people whoever sinned against me I will wipe out. The day that I choose, I will pay them for their sins.” I submit that the “one that sinned” is referring to Aaron. Later on in Deuteronomy, when Moses recalls the episode of the golden calf he fills in the blanks and says “And God was extremely angry at Aaron and wanted to destroy him, but I prayed for him”. This is written on the night sky on top of the cherubs in the painting.

Why wasn’t Aaron the leader of this episode killed? God wanted desperately to kill him. Other Levite brothers were killing their sinful brothers. If Moses personally killed Aaron, it would be with God’s hearty approval. Clearly the bond between Moses and Aaron was strong, and no matter what Aaron did, even when he challenged his leadership with his sister Miriam later, Moses always forgave Aaron, and whipped him into shape. But the sin of creating a golden calf, which all of Israel saw, could not go unpunished, and Aaron would have to suffer the severe consequences, and it would have to be public so that it would never happen again. As God stated, he would choose the right time, the right place and the right venue, and it would no doubt be as public as the “Eygel” event.

This public venue was the commemoration of the Tabernacle recorded in Leviticus. Public sacrifices to God with explicit rituals spelled out by Moses were then performed for the first time since the “Eygel” event. How should Aaron atone for his mortifying sins? Moses tells Aaron how. Written on Aaron’s outstretched left arm are the words from the Torah “ Moses tells Aaron, Take an “Eygel” for a sin offering and come near to God and perform the sin offering to atone for yourself and for the nation”. It is no coincidence that the sacrificial animal is an Eygel. In the next sentence it states that the Israelites should take a male goat (not an Eygel) to atone for their sins .This is the male goat which Jacob used to trick his brother, and hence atones for the sin of Israel/Jacob (see description of the painting, “Labor Day”: Jacob and Esau).

The ritual of animal sacrifice with respect to releasing guilt is psychologically exceptionally powerful. Aaron performs “Semicha” “a laying of hands” on the animal’s head, thus physically transferring his own guilt onto the head and body of the sacrificial animal who bears an uncanny resemblance to the idol (the grave graven sin) he created, as well an uncanny resemblance to a human being (himself). He then physically kills the animal, thereby acknowledging the physical and spiritual destruction of his sin. He then takes the carcass and burns it on the altar, so that any physical/spiritual remnant of his evil behavior is destroyed and ascends to God as pleasant incense. Indeed the killing of the animal is a simulation of the killing of the individual who offers the sacrifice, and is a cautionary tale for what could have happened to the sacrificer, and will happen to him, if he repeats the same error.

The whole concept of psychological transference of guilt, and nervous repression in modern civilization without a successful guilt release mechanism (as in the days of old) is the underpinning of all Freudian doctrine (Civilization and its Discontents). After the destruction of the Temple, early Christians, Jews who had experienced this Temple ritual, transformed and abstracted these concepts, maintaining that the human (anthropomorphized) son of God is the eternal Temple sacrifice through which all of humanities’ sins are expiated throughout all times by the self-sacrifice made by Jesus on the cross ( an altar made out of wood). Acceptance of this Christian axiom is the theological basis of Christian salvation. This is a transitional conception based entirely on the spiritual underpinnings of the Temple animal sacrifices which led to a very divergent theological viewpoint, obviously not accepted or espoused by Judaism. Judaism, on the other hand, transformed and abstracted the rituals of temple animal sacrifices into rituals of sacrificial prayers. It is these divergent reinterpretations of animal temple sacrifice more than anything else which demarcated the clear line of separation between Judaism and Christianity.

The narrative proceeds in Leviticus telling us that after Aaron slaughtered the Eygel, all his sons drew near and dunked their fingers in blood and placed it on the horns of the altar, and they poured the blood at the base of the altar. The altar portrayed on the lower right of the painting has four horns, only two of which can be seen, which are smeared with blood. Clearly the concept of Eygel’s horns symbolizing the power of God is so embedded in the ancient Hebraic, Egyptian- influenced, belief system, that despite the crime of the Eygel, the alter had four Eygel’s horns, corresponding to the four letters of the tetragrammaton, God’s name; an understandable theological paradox which was clearly not acknowledged by anybody at the time. The point of smearing the blood on the ascending spires is symbolic of facilitating the ascent of the sacrificial blood. In a similar vane Solomon’s temple had a huge water vase surrounded by twelve Eygels (go figure).

The narrative proceeds to tell us that Moses and Aaron together blessed the nation, and then the cloud of God appeared before the nation. Then, written on the fire emitted between the cherubim in this painting, emanating from the mouth of God are the words, “And a fire was released from God and it ate on the altar the ascending sacrifice and its fat”. Thus, part I of Aaron’s sacrificial atonement is complete, but part II is no where near completed.

The narrative then proceeds to tell us that the two older sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, approached God and offered “a strange fire” which they were not commanded (written on Avihu’s left forearm in the painting). Then written with identical language used to describe God’s acceptance of the animal sacrifice, the Torah states “And a fire was released from God, and it ate them, and they died before God”. This too is written on the emanating fire from God’s mouth in between the cherubim in the painting. These statements are juxtaposed to each other, and the identical first portions of these two separate sentences in both narrratives are used only once in the painting (“And a fire was released from God). Each “vatochel”, “and he ate” is repeated twice in the painting confirming the homologous language used for the animal and human sacrifices, respectively.

This story is presented as a de novo sin of the two elder sons of Aaron. What is this strange fire? I submit that it is the strange fire of Aaron’s which has been transferred to his two elder sons. It is the strange fire needed to create a graven “Eygel”. It is the strange fire lighting the wood on the altar of the Eygel. The sons are publicly recreating the same strange fires which their father ignited to melt the Israelites’ jewelry, to heat the smith tools necessary to fashion the Eygel, and to burn the wood to offer sacrifices to it. As God promised, he chose the right place and right time, to punish Aaron without killing him, keeping his word. Sacrificially consuming his sons while they are simulating their father’s grave sin was a far sterner and more educational punishment to Israel than killing Aaron himself.

It is clear that this is a sacrifice for the following reasons: 1) The language used, “And a fire was released from God”, and “the fire ate them” is identical for both animal and human holocaust meals. 2) Immediately after the fiery consumption of his sons, Moses tells Aaron “This is what God spoke when he said, it is with my close ones (those that come near to me; my sacrifices) I will be sanctified, and before the entire nation I will be honored”. This is written amidst the consuming sacrificial fire on the bottom right of the painting. And what is Aaron’s response? It is written in yellow on the red sun behind him, “Vayidom Aaron”, popularly translated “and Aaron remained silent”. However, it literally means “and Aaron reddened”. Reddened from what? From guilt? From sadness? From his inability to control events? 3) Moses proceeds to tell Aaron’s nephews to take Nadav and Avihu’s corpses and move them outside the camp. This ritual and its accompanying language are identical to the language used to dispose of the corpse of the animal Eygel sacrifice after it was devoured by fire. 4) Furthermore prior to the day’s events, Moses himself dressed Aaron and their son’s and “washed their legs”. Similarly, prior to bringing the animal Eygel for a sacrifice, the priests “washed their legs”, using identical ablution language for an animal sacrificial preparation.

Two other linguistic terms should be brought to attention proving that the sacrifice of Aaron’s sons is punishment for the creation of the Eygel. After the sacrifice of his sons, Moses instructs Aaron and his surviving sons not to liberate (PRA) their hair, a reference to the moral liberation (PRA) that Aaron caused during the time of the Aygel. Also immediately after this event the priests are warned that they are not to drink alcohol before performing their priestly services. Jewish scholars speculate that part of Nadav and Avihu’s sin was being inebriated during the performance of their ritual. I would speculate that the prohibition against alcohol, stemmed from the fact that the Israelites got drunk in front of the Eygel and then played. This alcohol prohibition was one more reminder to sift the pagan ritual from the holy.

Because of all the above, I have fused the animal “Eygel” sacrifice with the human “Nadav and Avihu” sacrifice which were sequential, and virtually identical. The fused human-animal sacrifices are portrayed with “Eygel” horns. The left arm of Nadav is penetrated by the horn of the altar. Nadav and Avihu’s intestines are flayed out like a temple sacrifice, their intestinal fat simmering and yielding a pleasant fragrance. Avihu with his right hand is holding on to his father’s right arm begging him to stop. Avihu’s left hand is trying to remove his father’s benedicting fingers. Aaron is portrayed with his left hand on the “Golden Eygel” and ritualistically transferring the guilt of the “Eygel” to his right hand which is performing the act of transference of this guilt to his sons while simultaneously blessing them. On Aaron’s right arm is written, “And Aaron neared the altar and slaughtered the “Eygel of repentance that is his”. Indeed he slaughtered the animal and human forms of this “Eygel”.

As part of the priests’ preparation for the sacrificial rites, the blood of one of the animals was dabbed on the right ear, right thumb and right great toe of the priests symbolizing the devotion of the priests’ right ear, hand, and legs to the service of God. This is portrayed in this painting.

For further proof that Aaron’s sons were indeed sacrificed, we can merely look at the definition of their names. “Nadav” means “a sacrifice given freely”. “Avihu” means “he is my father”. Put these two names together and you get “Nadav Avi, hu”, “A sacrifice of my father, it is” Can the Bible be more explicit?

Seen on the lower left of the painting cowering behind Aaron are his two younger son’s “Elezer” and “Itamar”. They are watching the day’s events with shock and horror, fearing that they will be next. Like all of Israel that was watching, they will never create fires like their father/older brothers to create a graven “Eygel”. Seared into their consciousness is the lesson that if they don’t create strange fires there will never again be another human sacrifice. They didn’t, and there wasn’t.

The definition of “Elezer” is “God is a helper”. The definition if “Itamar” is “without tamar”, or “without a billow of smoke”, such as is seen with a sacrifice. Put the names of the two younger sons together, and you get “Elezer Itamar”, “God will help without the smoke (i.e. without being sacrificed).

In the middle background of the painting we see the tabernacle cherubim facing each other with wings outstretched sitting atop the Ark of the Covenant. In between the cherubim God speaks. His mouth is portrayed spewing fire. The cherubim’s wings in the vision of Ezekiel hide God’s face. Here their wings are hiding God’s eyes, which are portrayed transparently behind the wings.