The narrative of the golden calf in Exodus 32 and the events that followed this incident happened at a critical time in the relationship between God and Israel. When the people arrived at Sinai, Moses summoned the elders of the people and told them that God was establishing his covenant with Israel. Then Moses set before them all the words that the Lord had commanded him. After the people, with a unanimous voice, agreed to do everything that the Lord had spoken (Exodus 19:7-8), Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the law from God.
Moses remained in the presence of the Lord forty days and forty nights (Exodus 24:18). During the absence of Moses, not knowing what had happened to him, the people were afraid that they would be left without the guidance of Moses and the presence of God as they journeyed to the land of Canaan. In a state of panic, the people asked Aaron to make gods to go before them. In response to the people’s request, Aaron made an image of gold in the form of a young bull. The response of God to Israel’s sin of idolatry was severe, so severe that God was willing to consume the people and begin again by creating a new people with Moses.
Although the story of the golden calf is familiar to many people who read the Bible regularly, the story is not easy to interpret. There are many issues which have caused interpreters of the text to differ in their interpretation. One issue that scholars debate is the intent of the people’s request. Another issue that few people notice in this story is how Moses had an impact on the events through his intercession before God on behalf of Israel. Finally, a most difficult problem in this narrative is how the story of the golden calf in Exodus 32 relates to the two golden calves mentioned in 1 Kings 12.
Today I will begin a series of studies on the golden calf. The golden calf narrative begins with the sins of Israel, the judgment of the nation, the intercession of Moses, and the forgiveness of the people. This series of studies will deal with the people’s request, with the nature of the image Aaron made, and the role Moses and Aaron played in this story.
Two items will surface in these studies. One of them is the failed leadership of Aaron in allowing the people to worship the image and the other is the leadership of Moses who was willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of the future of Israel.
Aaron was in charge of the people during Moses’ absence. When Moses and Joshua went up the mountain to meet God, Moses gathered the elders of Israel and said to them: “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them” (Exodus 24:14).
Key to these studies will be the role of Moses as an intercessor. Because of his prayers, the destruction of Israel was averted and the future of Israel was assured. In answer to Moses’ prayer, God revealed himself as a merciful and gracious God, whose faithful love endures for generations (Exodus 34:6-7).
These studies will also focus on God’s reaction to the extreme nature of Israel’s sin and how Moses became an intercessor on behalf of the people and was able to avert the destruction of Israel. In the end, Yahweh was willing to restore the broken relationship with Israel. This was accomplished because of Moses’ work as an intercessor and because of his insistence that Yahweh gives Israel a second chance.
This series of studies on the golden calf will include the following posts:
4. The Golden Calf: “Leave Me Alone”
5. The Golden Calf: Moses’ Second Prayer
I hope you will enjoy these studies on the golden calf.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Previous Studies on the Golden Calf
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