The Golden Calf: The Background of Israel’s Idolatry

The Adoration of the Golden Calf’
by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665)
Wikimedia Commons

“The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction” (Exodus 24:12).

The making of the golden calf comes after God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai: “When God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18). These two tablets of the covenant are the only document in the Bible “written with the finger of God.” According to the instruction God gave to Moses, the two tablets contained the laws and the commandments which God gave to Israel “for their instruction” (Exodus 24:12).

The Ten Commandments express the basic demands of the covenant God established with Israel. Israel had a relationship with Yahweh through the covenant at Sinai. A covenant is a binding agreement between two parties in which they establish a relationship. The Decalogue was the basic document defining the duties and obligations of both parties. In the Old Testament, God made a covenant with Israel in which God made a promise to his people. In turn, God required certain conduct from the people.

God’s commitment to Israel was to make the nation his special people, a people who would have a mission to the nations. God spoke to the assembled people at Sinai and said: “Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).

In selecting Israel to be his special people from among the other nations, God promised that Israel would become “a priestly kingdom,” a nation who would have a mediatorial role in carrying out the knowledge of God throughout the world: “but you shall be called priests of the LORD, you shall be named ministers of our God” (Isaiah 61:6).

In addition, God told the people that they would become “a holy nation.” The Hebrew word for “holy” is qādôsh, a word that means “set apart.” Israel was to become a nation with a mission to the nations. Israel would become a special people to teach other nations how to worship the true God: “You are my servant, O Israel . . . I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 44:21; 49:6).

As the other party of the covenant, Israel had some obligations that were required of them as they accepted the demands of the covenant. The covenant between God and Israel was based on Israel’s promise of obedience to what God was demanding from them in the covenant. God said to Israel: “if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession” (Exodus 19:5). Israel’s response to God’s demand was a promise of unconditional obedience. Before the covenant, the people promised to obey God’s demands “The people all answered as one: Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8). After the covenant, when Israel had heard God’s demand, the people once again promised to obey: “Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Exodus 24:3).

The basis for the covenant is what God had done for Israel: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). God redeemed Israel from their slavery in Egypt to become God’s special people. Yahweh was Israel’s God: “I am the LORD your God.”

The redemption of Israel meant that Israel was now God’s people. This divine claim on Israel was based on their liberation from their oppressive condition in Egypt. God’s claim on Israel implies that Israel should worship no other God. The basis for Israel’s exclusive worship of Yahweh is grounded on Israel’s liberation from their inhumane condition in Egypt.

As a liberated people, Israel was now in a special relationship with God. As a partner in the covenant, Israel had obligations that must be kept. The Decalogue specifies what Israel must do as the other partner of the covenant.

The Decalogue specifies that Israel must not have other gods: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Although the first commandment does not say that Yahweh is the only God, it says that Israel must worship only Yahweh. The mention of “other gods” refers to the exclusion of the gods the nations worshiped: “If you do forget the LORD your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish” (Deuteronomy 8:19).

The expression “before me,” literally, “before my face,” refers to the act of worship. The expression “before my face” refers to divine presence. To appear before the face of God means to go to a holy place to worship God. After Hannah conceived her child, she said to her husband: “As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, that he may appear in the presence of [face of] the LORD” (1 Samuel 1:22).

The covenant also did not allow Israel to make images of gods and bow down before them to worship them: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:3-5).

This commandment includes three prohibitions that Israel must not violate. First, Israel must not make an idol. Second, Israel must not bow down before an idol. Third, Israel must not worship an idol. The Hebrew word for “idol” is pesel. The word literally means “an image.” This means that the commandment is forbidding Israel to make a visible manifestation of Yahweh. In the Ancient Near East, the nations worshiped their gods in the form of images.

The proper understanding of the events associated with the making and the worshiping of the golden calf in Exodus 32 must take into consideration the relationship that existed between God and Israel and the demands the covenant imposed on Israel as expressed in the Decalogue.

The worship of Yahweh in the form of an image is idolatry. Israel was found guilty of idolatry because when Aaron made an image of a young bull, the people of Israel bowed down before the image and worshiped Yahweh.

The worship of the golden calf was condemned because it was a demonstration of Israel’s disloyalty to God and a violation of the demands of the covenant. The story of the golden calf may be the first explanation of what is involved in observing the prohibition in the Decalogue dealing with the worship of Yahweh. The making of the golden calf is also related to another prohibition concerning the worship of God in the form of images. In Exodus 20:22-23, God told Moses: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I spoke with you from heaven. You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.’”

As a special nation, Israel had to show the nations that its God was a unique God, a God who could not be represented by an image. As Fretheim wrote: “The worshipers of the golden calf were engaged fundamentally in a false theology, which led to false worship, believing that an image, even of Yahweh, could have accomplished their redemption from Egypt” (1991:226).

An important theme in the story of the golden calf is Yahweh’s presence, or lack of it, with the people. Durham describes the problem Israel was facing with the lack of Yahweh’s presence. He wrote that the future of Israel was

thrown into terrifying jeopardy by a shattering act of disobedience that threatens to plunge Israel into a situation far deadlier and more ignominious than Egyptian bondage at its worst. The special treasure-people whose identity has been established by the arrival in their midst of the Presence of Yahweh himself are suddenly in danger of becoming a people with no identity at all, a non-people and a non-group fragmented by the centrifugal forces of their own selfish rebellion and left without hope in a land the more empty because it has been so full of Yahweh’s own presence.

All that has been received is about to be lost, and the loss is the greater because it is Israel’s own fault. An Israel from whom Yahweh’s Presence has departed is far worse than an Israel that had not known the Presence. The drama of the situation is multiplied by a layering of traditions about Yahweh’s punishment and Moses’ intercession—but at last it is resolved by Yahweh’s mercy. Yahweh will not withdraw his Presence. Though things cannot be the same, because Israel’s innocence as the people of Yahweh’s Presence has been lost, Yahweh will remain with them still (1987:417-18).

The story of the golden calf is a story of sin and forgiveness, of rebellion and mercy, of disobedience and reconciliation. In the end, if the people are forgiven and if Israel survived as a nation, it was because the God who redeemed them from their oppression was “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:60.

Studies on the Golden Calf

The Golden Calf

The Golden Calf: The Background of Israel’s Idolatry

The Making of the Golden Calf

The Golden Calf: Moses’ First Prayer

The Golden Calf: “Leave Me Alone”

The Golden Calf: Moses’ Second Prayer

NOTE: For a complete list of studies on Moses, read my post Studies on Moses.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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Durham, John I., Exodus. Word Biblical Commentary. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987.

Fretheim, Terence, Exodus. Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.

This entry was posted in Aaron, Book of Exodus, Golden Calf, Hebrew Bible, Moses, Old Testament, Ten Commandments and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Golden Calf: The Background of Israel’s Idolatry

  1. Your last paragraph says it well and is aptly applicable to today. God is long suffering, forgives, and is gracious.


  2. Pingback: Moshe Rabbenu and Torat Moshe – Immanuel Verbondskind – עמנואל קאָווענאַנט קינד

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