Monday, March 19, 2012

Five Angry Angels - Moses, the Golden Calf, and Zombie Angels

Many people are familiar with the episode in Ex. 32:11-13 where God wants to wipe out Israel in response to the egel zahav, the golden calf incident. Moses, according to the biblical version, talks God down and persuades the Holy One not to wipe out the people and make him, Moses, the new Abraham.

Less may be aware of the "zombie-fighting" Moses who appears in various midrashim. In these re-tellings, Moses again puts himself on the line for Israel, But in a much more dramatic way. According to this tale (variants appear in Exodus Rabbah (41.7; 44:8), Tanhuma (Ki Tissa 20), PdRE 45, and Deut. Rabbah (3.11), God unleashes five "destroying angels" (Af [or Haron-Af], Ketzaf, Mashchit [the three names are derived from Ps. 78], Chaimah [Deut. 9.19], and Hashmed [alt. M'lachah) against the people. Moses uses his lifeline to the amudei ha-olam, the meritorious ancestors (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the three names in invokes in verse 13) to neutralize three of the angels with their powers of love, but Moses is left to dispatch the other two himself. Being a prayer-warrior, the son of Amram slays them with his sincere bakasha (supplication).

One of the intriguing features of this story is how God's anger is understood to become personified (or angelified, to be more specific), reflecting the rising medieval belief that God interacts with the world less directly and more through intermediaries.

It's also interesting how differently each source treats the role of the ancestral helpers. In several versions, the mere mention of the names deflect God's irritable messengers, but in one version, Abe, Izzy, and Jake actually rise from the grave, like a righteous zombie army! Then, just to round out the story, Moses buried the two ?corpses? of the angels he personally defeats and seals them in their graves using God's name (PdRE). Still, these zombie angels are a continuing threat to Israel, trying to rise up from their dual graves whenever the people sin. So to ensure they stay put, Moses is in turn buried opposite them (at Peor, as described in the Torah, Deut. 34.6) as a kind of spirit sentinel, keeping watch over Israel even in death. This is why it is called Beit Peor ("House of Peor," but literally, "two mouths" - get it?)

Here again we see angels used to created a mythologized theology - that the zechut avot, the merit of our ancestors, protects us and graciously shields us from divine wrath, even if we deserve it.

To learn more, read my Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.


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