The Sin of the Golden Calf

Peter Enns rightly insists that ‘chapters 32–34 cannot be separated without affecting the integrity of the whole. To chop up this narrative into smaller units—however convenient—will only disrupt the message they are intended to convey: rebellion, mediation, and restoration.’

John Oswalt (Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, art. ‘Tabernacle’) writes:-

‘When human needs are met in God’s way the results far surpass anything we could conceive on our own. The golden calf could hardly compare to the tabernacle. In the tabernacle there was beauty of design, color, texture, and shape. There was a satisfying diversity in objects and spaces. There was a sense of motion through separate stages from the profane to the sacred. There was a profound, yet evident, symbolism capable of conveying multiple truths to different persons.

‘Moreover, the impact upon people is profoundly different when our needs are met in God’s way. Here, instead of limited gifts and no participation (Ex 32:3–4), everyone has something to contribute, whether in talent or material (Ex 35:4–10). Here persons give freely, without coercion (Ex 35:21, contra Ex 32:2). Here work is done according to Spirit-imparted gifts, not according to rank or appearance (Ex 35:30–36:2). And here, instead of further alienation from God (Ex 32:9), the glory of God’s presence is revealed in the midst of human life (Ex 40:35).

‘Thus, Exodus 32–34 is an integral part of the whole final segment of the book, illustrating by contrast the same truths that chapters 25–31 and 35–40 teach in a positive way.’

32:1  When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Get up, make us gods that will go before us. As for this fellow Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!”

Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain – Enns suggests that ‘it is possible to read the story not as an act of godless rebellion, but as an act of panic on the part of a people who fear they have lost their contact with God.’

“Make us gods” – Scholars are divided about whether elohim here should be regarded as singular or plural.  The distinction is not critical: the main point is that the people wanted to make an image.

‘The request for a ‘deity’ is highly ironic in the light of the instructions that God is giving to Moses on the mountain. The tabernacle will enable YHWH to dwell among the Israelites and the tent itself will be a constant testimony to his presence among them. Their wish for a ‘deity’ is both grossly inappropriate and utterly irrelevant. In contrast to other supposed deities, YHWH’s presence is not made manifest in an idol. Furthermore, the people’s desire to have ‘deity’ who will go before them is ironic in the light of YHWH’s covenant commitment in Ex 23:20–33, with its frequent references to God (or his ‘angel’) going ahead of the Israelites.’ (Alexander)

“Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt” – They seem to have forgotten that it was the Lord who brought them out of Egypt.  Mind you, the Lord seems have ‘forgotten’ too, albeit temporarily (v7)!

32:2 So Aaron said to them, “Break off the gold earrings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 32:3 So all the people broke off the gold earrings that were on their ears and brought them to Aaron. 32:4 He accepted the gold from them, fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molten calf. Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

Calf – According to Alexander, the word indicates a young bull in its prime – up to three years old – rather than a vulnerable calf.  He quotes Meyers: ‘The bull was a symbol of divine strength, energy, fertility, and even leadership in the biblical world.’

Alexander speculates that ‘the narrator deliberately says little about the construction of the golden bull, because of its association with false worship. This contrasts sharply with the extensive details that are supplied regarding the tabernacle.’

“These are your gods, O Israel” – ‘The Israelites are not saying that this calf and not Yahweh brought them out of Egypt, but that Yahweh’s presence is now associated with this piece of gold. By making the golden calf, Israel has broken not the first commandment but the second.’ (Enns)

In some contexts the word used for ‘gods’ (Elohim) indicates the singular, ‘god’.  Here, however, the use of both plural plural pronoun as well plural noun suggests that a plurality of gods is meant.  As Enns writes: ‘it is not just idolatry, one of the standard practices of pagan religion, but polytheism as well!’

“Who brought you up out of Egypt” – Cf. Exodus 20:2 – “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.”  ‘Israel is fashioning a new, false religion according to the pattern of what God revealed to them earlier.’ (Enns)

‘Two popular Egyptian gods, Hapi (Apis) and Hathor, were thought of as a bull and a heifer. The Canaanites around them worshiped Baal, thought of as a bull. Baal was their sacred symbol of power and fertility and was closely connected to immoral sexual practices. No doubt the Israelites, fresh from Egypt, found it quite natural to make a golden calf to represent the God who had just delivered them from their oppressors. They were weary of a God without a face. But in doing so, they were ignoring the command he had just given them: “Do not make idols of any kind, whether in the shape of birds or animals or fish” (20:4). They may even have thought they were worshiping God. Their apparent sincerity was no substitute for obedience, nor excuse for disobedience.’ (HBA)

32:5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it, and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow will be a feast to the LORD.” 32:6 So they got up early on the next day and offered up burnt offerings and brought peace offerings, and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.

“Tomorrow will be a feast to the Lord” – Aaron may have been as confused as the people, or possibly he wanted to steer them back in the right direction.

v6 ‘The similar wording in Ex 32:6 suggests that the festival here is a reversal—indeed, a perversion—of the true celebration of chapter 24. Israel’s actions are systematically, step by step, undoing what has been done.’ (Enns)

Alexander adds that, in contrast to Ex 32:6, the present verse doesn’t say that they offered these sacrifices to ‘the Lord’.  this indicates, perhaps, that in the mind of the narrator they were unacceptable to God.

They rose up to play – Some commentators think that this expression carries a sexual connotation – a view which finds some support from 1 Cor 10:8.

32:7 The LORD spoke to Moses: “Go quickly, descend, because your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have acted corruptly. 32:8 They have quickly turned aside from the way that I commanded them—they have made for themselves a molten calf and have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt.’ ”

‘YHWH highlights the idolatry of the people, emphasizing that they have ‘turned quickly from the way that I commanded them’. In saying this, God distances himself from the Israelites by referring to them as ‘your [Moses’] people, whom you [Moses] brought up from the land of Egypt’ (contrast Ex 3:7, 10; 5:1; 7:4, 16, 25; 8:16–19; 9:1, 13, 17; 10:3–4; 22:24). To this Moses will respond in v. 11 by stating that the people belong to YHWH and that he, not Moses, brought them up from Egypt.’ (Alexander)

32:9 Then the LORD said to Moses: “I have seen this people. Look what a stiff-necked people they are! 32:10 So now, leave me alone so that my anger can burn against them and I can destroy them, and I will make from you a great nation.”

“I will make from you a great nation” – The Lord is saying, ‘I’m going to start again.  I’m going to build a new nation, starting with you, Moses, as the new Abraham (cf. Gen 12).’  As Enns says: ‘God is threatening to wipe out the Israelites and to start over again.’

32:11 But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God and said, “O LORD, why does your anger burn against your people, whom you have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 32:12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘For evil he led them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger, and relent of this evil against your people. 32:13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel your servants, to whom you swore by yourself and told them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken about I will give to your descendants, and they will inherit it forever.’ ” 32:14 Then the LORD relented over the evil that he had said he would do to his people.

“Relent of this evil against your people” – Of course, God is incapable of moral evil; Moses is asking God to relent from brining disaster against his people.

“Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel your servants, to whom you swore…”Cf. Gen 22:17; 26:4, and also Ex 2:24.  It is good, in prayer, to ‘show God his own handwriting’.

‘Given what YHWH has already done for the benefit of the Israelites, Moses invites him to consider how the destruction of the Israelites will be interpreted by the Egyptians. Will they not conclude that God intended from the outset to destroy the Israelites? Such thinking would undermine one of the main purposes for God’s rescue of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt: the liberation of the Israelites was intended to make the Egyptians aware of YHWH’s identity (cf. Ex 7:5, 17; 8:10[6], 22[18]; 9:14; 10:2).’ (Alexander)

The character of God implied in this interaction with Moses seems to have much in common with that of the limited and fallible gods of the pagans.  As Enns says, ‘The portrait of God presented here in 32:11–14 seems to have more in common with the capriciousness of Greek and Roman gods, prone to fits of anger and who must be appeased, than to the steady, sovereign Creator of the universe.’  Can God really have his arm twisted like this?  Enns suggests that we should focus, as the writer does, on Moses’ role as an intercessor, rather than on the inner workings of the divine mind (as if Scripture ever encourages us to do that!).

However we are to understand this exchange between Moses and the Lord, it worked: Then the Lord relented over the evil that he had said he would do to his people.

Enns points out that we cannot simply transfer this story into our own time and culture and say, “That’s what God is like; that’s what he will do to sinners unless they repent.”  For one thing, this story does not concern ‘sinners’ at large.  The ‘sin’ is not that of pagans, but of professing believers.  For another thing this occured before any settled means of atonement was available.  For us today, the final one-for-all atonement has happened.  In offering up himself, Christ has achieved what Moses was unable to achieve, despite his willingness.  God has not become ‘soft’ on sin: rather sin has been completely dealt with.

This passage (within its larger context in Ex 32-34) also impacts on our understanding (or lack of understanding!) or how prayer ‘works’.  In the present passage, Moses seeks to prevail upon a God who seems as though he might go too far in his punishment of sin, and has to be persuaded to relent and forgive his people.  But (says Enns again), this is not so very far from our own experience of prayer: ‘Lord, let my interview tomorrow go well’ – as if God has not yet made up his mind about the outcome.  We have no choice but to engage with God on a human level, even as our Saviour did in Gethsemane (Mt 26:38f).  We believe, rightly, that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and all the rest.  But God has revealed himself in human terms (as Father and Friend, for example), and we relate to him on that basis.

32:15 Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hands. The tablets were written on both sides—they were written on the front and on the back. 32:16 Now the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets. 32:17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “It is the sound of war in the camp!” 32:18 Moses said, “It is not the sound of those who shout for victory, nor is it the sound of those who cry because they are overcome, but the sound of singing I hear.”

“It is…the sound of singing” – Just as they celebrated the Lord’s victory over Egypt in ch. 15, so now they celebrate the ‘supremacy’ of their ‘gods’ with singing.  As Enns says, the parody is obvious.

32:19 When he approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses became extremely angry. He threw the tablets from his hands and broke them to pieces at the bottom of the mountain. 32:20 He took the calf they had made and burned it in the fire, ground it to powder, poured it out on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.

He threw the tablets from his hands and broke them to pieces – ‘By deliberately breaking the divinely inscribed stone tablets containing the terms of agreement, Moses indicated that the covenant relationship between God and the Israelites was now ended.’ (NBC)

‘Moses’ act says to the Israelites that if they are not prepared to obey the law, they do not deserve to have it.’ (Enns)

‘They may have been able to imitate the portions of their Exodus experience, albeit wholly inadequately, by making the calf and proclaiming it to be the god of the Exodus. They may have used gold to imitate the splendor of the ark and the tabernacle, and they may have appointed Aaron priest of their new religion. But one thing they have not been able to duplicate, which is essential to the Exodus experience, is the law. Their actions are wholly contrary to that law. The smashing of the tablets, with one resounding crash, tells the Israelites below that the party is over. Their attempt to create a religion of their own design has failed.’ (Enns)

At the bottom of the mountain – ‘The “foot of the mountain” mentioned in this verse is not simply an incidental description of where Moses happened to be at the time he smashed the tablets. “The foot of the mountain” holds a special place in the narrative as the people’s official gathering place and worship arena (Ex19:12), thus their place of meeting with God (Ex 19:17) as well as the location of the only proper worship altar (not the one Aaron built) as described already in Ex 24:4.’ (Stuart)

32:21 Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you, that you have brought on them so great a sin?” 32:22 Aaron said, “Do not let your anger burn hot, my lord; you know these people, that they tend to evil. 32:23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods that will go before us, for as for this fellow Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.’ 32:24 So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, break it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and this calf came out.”

“What did this people do to you…?’ – ‘Perhaps the question is sarcastic: “Aaron, you know better! You are the high priest! The only way I can see you doing something so stupid, to commit such a ‘great sin,’ is that ‘these people’ did something to you first!”’ (Enns)

“They gave [the gold] to me, and I threw it into the fire, and this calf came out” – Aaron does not deny, but seeks to minimise, his role in the affair.  He admits collecting the gold from the people, but omits to say that he had a hand in making the golden calf.  All he did (he says) is to throw the gold into the fire, and out came this calf!

32:25 Moses saw that the people were running wild, for Aaron had let them get completely out of control, causing derision from their enemies. 32:26 So Moses stood at the entrance of the camp and said, “Whoever is for the LORD, come to me.” All the Levites gathered around him, 32:27 and he said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Each man fasten his sword on his side, and go back and forth from entrance to entrance throughout the camp, and each one kill his brother, his friend, and his neighbor.’ ”

‘At first glance it might seem that God was ordering the Levites to kill everyone else, but the wording is actually not intended to imply that. What the Levites were to do was to “go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other,” which means carefully and systematically approaching everyone and finding out whether or not they intend to return to Yahweh, abandoning their idolatry. Those found to be committed to idolatry must be killed. Those sorry for being caught up in it but now actively repenting must be spared.’ (Stuart)

‘This was a shocking assignment. Notice that it was not Moses’ idea; the command came from God. And this was the first thing that God told the Levites to do when they came to his side—to carry out his judgment against Israel’s sin. There is no question here as to whether or not this was just. The Israelites had made a blood covenant with God, in which they had promised not to make any idols or have any other gods. Once they broke these commandments, their lives were forfeit. God had every right to put them all to death. If we have trouble understanding this, it is because we do not understand what a wicked thing it is to worship other gods. Moreover, the whole plan of salvation was in jeopardy. Israel was called to be a holy nation through which all the nations of the world would be blessed. But the Israelites had turned away from God, and unless God did something to bring them back, he would no longer have a people to call his own.’ (Ryken)

32:28 The Levites did what Moses ordered, and that day about three thousand men of the people died.

About three thousand – or ‘three companies’, each of which might contain a dozen or so men.

‘Even in his wrath, God remembered to show mercy. Not everyone was killed. The Bible says, “The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died” (v. 28). This was a horrific loss of life, but rather than simply thinking about how many perished, we should also consider how many were saved. Three thousand was only one half of 1 percent of Israel’s adult male population. God restrained his hand of judgment. Presumably, when the Israelites saw what was happening, most of them stopped sinning against God, and so their lives were spared. In the words of Caesarius of Arles, “Behold true and perfect charity: he ordered the death of a few people in order to save six hundred thousand, with the women and children excepted. If he had not been aroused with zeal for God to punish a few men, God’s justice would have destroyed them all.” Or as Umberto Cassuto put it, “better that a few Israelites lose their lives rather than that the entire people should perish.”’ (Ryken)

‘This passage also teaches us to be ruthless in our pursuit of holiness. God was showing the Levites that if they wanted to serve God in his holy tabernacle, they had to pursue absolute purity among the people of God. The same is true for believers in Jesus Christ. We must put idolatry and immorality to death, not only as individual Christians, but also as a church. Of course, God has not given us the power of the sword. The Bible is perfectly clear about this. “The weapons we fight with,” wrote the Apostle Paul, “are not the weapons of the world” (2 Cor. 10:4a). Our only sword is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17). For the Israelites, what drew the distinction between holiness and sin was the sharp edge of a Levite’s blade. What draws the distinction for us is the Word of God, which clearly distinguishes right from wrong. And to the extent that we have any power to carry out judgment today, it is only through the exercise of church discipline, in which sin is condemned so that people can grow in godliness. This is one of the differences between the old covenant and the new covenant. Whereas under the old covenant, God’s people had the power of the sword, under the new covenant we have the spiritual power of church discipline.’ (Ryken)

‘Moses’ actions as described in this passage are not to be copied exemplaristically; the New Covenant does not allow for killing as a means of preservation of orthodoxy. But here was an Old Covenant watershed instance of being “for Yahweh” (the only God who could save) or for an idol (that cannot save and can only distract from saving truth).’ (Stuart)

32:29 Moses said, “You have been consecrated today for the LORD, for each of you was against his son or against his brother, so he has given a blessing to you today.”
32:30 The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a very serious sin, but now I will go up to the LORD—perhaps I can make atonement on behalf of your sin.”

“Perhaps I can make atonement on behalf of your sin” – Moses is prepared to act out the significance of the tabernacle even before it is constructed.  He is even willing to sacrifice his own life in the process (v32); is this an anticipation of the sacrifice of Christ, who died, one for all?

32:31 So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has committed a very serious sin, and they have made for themselves gods of gold. 32:32 But now, if you will forgive their sin …, but if not, wipe me out from your book that you have written.” 32:33 The LORD said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me—that person I will wipe out of my book. 32:34 So now go, lead the people to the place I have spoken to you about. See, my angel will go before you. But on the day that I punish, I will indeed punish them for their sin.”

“If not, wipe me out from your book that you have written” – ‘To be blotted out of the book of life is not asking to be eternally condemned (as we might be tempted to think), but to die (see Isa. 4:3; Jer. 22:30; Ezek. 13:9; cf. Ps. 69:28).’ (Enns)

This is not the only time Moses intercedes on behalf of his people.  See also Ex 33:12-23; 32:10.  Here is a foreshadowing of Christ, who ‘always lives to intercede’, Heb 7:25.

32:35 And the LORD sent a plague on the people because they had made the calf—the one Aaron made.