“How could they do that?”––the question of disbelief posed by countless bystanders witnessing some incredulous activity––may be the most common response of modern readers to the story of the golden calf (Ex. 32). It is shocking to witness the Israelites turn so quickly from the God who delivered them from Pharaoh’s clutches. Yahweh had crushed Pharaoh and the Egyptians with mighty plagues, brought Israel out of Egypt, guided them through the wilderness in miraculous ways, and entered into a covenant with them at Mt. Sinai.
Yet, Israel fashioned an idol and worshiped it as the God who delivered them. Did the Israelites really believe that something they built with their own hands turned the Nile to blood and destroyed all the firstborn of Egypt? Indeed, the Israelites seem less-than-intelligent to many modern readers. Were they that senseless, or are we as modern readers missing something when we read the story?
The purpose of this article is to explain Israel’s rationale for building the golden calf in light of its narrative and historical context and to show how their idolatry was a direct breach of the covenant they made with Yahweh at Mt. Sinai.
Why the Golden Calf?
When someone asks the question, “How could they do that?” they are typically asking the question, “Why would they do that?” So, why did Israel build the golden calf? We can answer this question from several angles. First, the biblical text gives two reasons for their actions. The people of Israel voice their primary motivation for the golden calf at the beginning of the story, which begins with the words, “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain” (Ex. 32:1). Moses’ forty-day conference with Yahweh (24:18) was too much for the people of Israel. They grew impatient, surrounded Aaron, and said, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us” (32:1). Since Moses was the mediator of the covenant with Yahweh (20:18–21), the people interpreted his absence as Yahweh’s absence. Thus, the people demanded that Aaron make them a god who would “go before” them just as Yahweh had gone before them in the wilderness on their way to Sinai (cf. 13:21–22). The Israelites wanted a tangible symbol of Yahweh’s presence, and without their mediator, they had no such symbol.
The second answer the biblical text gives to the “why” question comes from Yahweh’s viewpoint. Moses was unaware of the events taking place at the foot of the mountain while he was meeting with Yahweh on top of the mountain, so Yahweh informed Moses of Israel’s actions and commanded him to descend the mountain (32:7). In his explanation of Israel’s actions, Yahweh labeled Israel “a stiff-necked people” (32:9), a designation with which Moses agreed (34:9; cf. Deut. 9). Such a designation underscores Israel’s rebellious nature and comes as no surprise to readers who are familiar with Israel’s journey from the Red Sea to Mt. Sinai, during which they complained about water and food (Ex. 15:23–24; 16:1–3; 17:1–3). In fact, upon their departure from Sinai in Numbers 11, Israel continued the same pattern of complaining and rebellion as they journeyed toward the Promised Land. The golden calf, therefore, serves as one, albeit an important one, of many examples of Israel’s rebellion against Yahweh and his appointed leaders. Israel had a heart problem, and the idolatry of the golden calf stemmed from the heart of a people who were “set on evil” (Ex. 32:22). Israel had a heart problem, and the idolatry of the golden calf stemmed from the heart of a people who were “set on evil” (Ex. 32:22). Click To Tweet
After reading the previous two paragraphs, some readers may still have questions regarding Israel’s specific choice of a golden calf. Why did they not ask Aaron to serve as the mediator in Moses’ place? Why did they want an idol? More specifically, why did they build a calf idol? These questions often plague modern readers unfamiliar with the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context of the Old Testament. However, answering these questions helps modern readers understand Israel’s actions and shows that the ancient Israelites, although very rebellious, were not as dumb as we often think. So, why did Israel ask Aaron to “make” a god? Israel had lived among the Egyptians for hundreds of years before Yahweh delivered them from their bondage. As they lived among the Egyptians, the Israelites would have witnessed forms of idolatry common in the ancient Near Eastern world. One of the common features of worship in this context was the construction of an image to represent or embody the deity they were worshiping. In some instances, this image served as the place where the deity sat/stood. The Israelites’ request for Aaron to make them gods did not mean that Israel believed the deity’s existence began when they built the image; on the contrary, they believed that the image represented the deity. In other words, the image served as a tangible symbol of Yahweh’s presence.
Several items in the text support the interpretation that Israel intended the golden calf to represent Yahweh. First, Aaron’s pronouncement that the golden calf “brought [them] up out of the land of Egypt” (32:4) echoes Yahweh’s self-identification in the prologue to the Ten Commandments: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (20:2). Second, Aaron proclaimed “a feast to the LORD” (32:5), thus emphasizing that the festivities surrounding their worship of the golden calf were directed toward Yahweh. Finally, the people’s actions toward the golden calf are very similar to their actions toward Yahweh earlier in the narrative. The building of an altar, offering burnt offerings and peace offerings, and the meal (2:5–6) all have parallels in Exodus 24:1–11.
The final “why” one might ask regarding this incident relates to Aaron’s choice of the calf. Why did Aaron make the people a calf? The Hebrew word translated as “calf” by modern English translations can refer to a young bull. The Egyptians and Canaanites both regarded bulls as images of strength and fertility, so it appears that Aaron’s rationale for the golden calf corresponded to his cultural context and was not an arbitrary decision.
The Golden Calf and the Covenant at Sinai
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 shattering of the tablets represented what the people had done in their idolatry: broken their covenant with Yahweh. Click To Tweet 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.
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.
At the beginning of this article, I highlighted how many modern readers react with incredulity toward the golden calf narrative, so in conclusion, we should flip the question. If the ancient Israelites could see our cultural idolatry, would they ask the same question we ask of them? Would they say, “How could they do that?” Israel’s construction of the golden calf related directly to their desire for Yahweh’s presence as they continued their journey to the Promised Land. Their actions, although extremely sinful, were perfectly consistent with their ancient cultural context. They allowed their culture to pervert their understanding of Yahweh and his ways as well as their worship of him.
As modern Christians, we should ask ourselves, “How does our culture pervert our understanding of Yahweh and his ways?” Our churches are not constructing calf idols and labeling them the God who redeemed us from sin, but our churches may be worshiping other cultural idols alongside Yahweh or may describe Yahweh in terms of our culture’s idols. We have the same heart problem the ancient Israelites had, and if we do not guard our hearts, we too will quickly seek security and satisfaction in our culture’s idols.
Thankfully, we also have the same solution Moses promised Israel in Deuteronomy 30:6: “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” Christ has circumcised our hearts (Col. 2:11) and given us his Spirit (Rom. 8:1–11) that we might walk in “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4) as we await “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). And as we wait, may we heed the closing words of 1 John: “He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (5:21).