Israel’s Golden Calf Idolatry
Last month the new issue of Credo Magazine was released: Idolatry. The following is an excerpt from James Todd’s article. James M. Todd III serves as Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at College of the Ozarks. He is the author of Remember, O Yahweh: The Poetry and Context of Psalms 135-137 and Sinai and the Saints: Reading Old Covenant Laws for the New Covenant Community.
The golden calf narrative serves as one of the most shocking examples of idolatry in the Scriptures, yet when one considers the context of the story, the awe factor increases significantly. The story of the golden calf comes at an important juncture in the narrative of the Pentateuch. Less than forty days prior to the golden calf incident, Moses descended Mt. Sinai, gave the people Yahweh’s commands, and wrote them down in a book called the “Book of the Covenant” (24:1–8), which contained the laws given in Exodus 20:22–23:33. These laws were part of the covenant Yahweh made with Israel in order to make them a “holy nation” and a “kingdom of priests” to all the nations as they obeyed his covenant stipulations (19:4–6). During Moses’ meeting with the people at the base of Sinai, Moses ratified the covenant through blood (24:5–8), and most importantly for our discussion, the people agreed to obey Yahweh’s words twice (24:3, 7). Moses then returned to the top of the mountain to receive the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments (24:12) and the Tabernacle instructions (25–31).
The Ten Commandments served as a summary of Israel’s covenant obligations to Yahweh (Deut. 4:13), so it is ironic that Israel built the golden calf while Yahweh was giving Moses stone tablets with the Ten Commandments. As Moses descended the mountain and witnessed the people’s actions, he slammed the stone tablets on the ground (v. 19). While Moses’ shattering of the tablets reflected his anger toward the people, his actions serve a greater purpose in the narrative. The shattering of the tablets represented what the people had done in their idolatry: broken their covenant with Yahweh. The Israelites had agreed to obey “all the words” of Yahweh (Ex. 24:3; cf. v. 7), but they had broken several of Yahweh’s words in their idolatry. Therefore, after Yahweh pardoned the Israelites because of Moses’ intercession (Ex 34:9), he said, “Behold, I am making a covenant” (Ex. 34:10). The covenant required renewal because they people had failed to fulfill their covenant obligations. The shattering of the tablets represented what the people had done in their idolatry: broken their covenant with Yahweh. Click To Tweet
Which of Yahweh’s words did the people not obey? As noted above, several textual features indicate that Israel intended the calf to represent Yahweh, thus demonstrating that their actions violated the second commandment, which reads, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them,” (Ex. 20:4–5a). An idol crafted in the form of a bull certainly qualifies as the likeness of something “that is in the earth beneath.”
Yahweh’s prohibition of images related directly to his invisible nature and his appearance on Mt. Sinai. Moses emphasized this connection in Deuteronomy 4:11–24, wherein Moses exhorted the people not to make a carved image in any form. Twice in these verses (vv. 11–12, 15), Moses reminded the people that Yahweh spoke to them from the midst of fire and that they saw no form. In the context of cultures that represented their gods with various images, Yahweh revealed himself as a holy God who could not be represented with images. By representing Yahweh as a bull, the Israelites portrayed Yahweh just like the surrounding nations portrayed their gods, thus making him just another god amid the plethora of ANE gods. As the One True God, Yahweh was unlike all the ANE false gods; therefore, he expected his people to approach him in a manner that differed significantly from their neighbors, i.e., as a holy nation.
A close reading of the golden calf narrative raises questions as to whether Israel intended the golden calf to serve only as a representation of Yahweh. Most English translations highlight the plural “gods” throughout this story (vv. 4, 8, 23). Some scholars argue that this plural indicates the Israelite’s desire to worship other gods alongside Yahweh or even in place of Yahweh, thus transgressing the first commandment (“You shall have no other gods before me.” [Ex 20:3]), and even more specifically, Exodus 20:23, which reads, “You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.” Israel’s worship of this god of gold alongside Yahweh once again demonstrates the surrounding culture’s influence on Israel’s actions. Israel saw no problem with representing Yahweh with the golden calf (second commandment) and worshiping the calf as a rival, or even companion, to Yahweh (first commandment) because they lived in the midst of polytheistic nations who worshiped their gods via images.