1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.” 6 They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
After Moses presented the demands of the covenant to Israel and after the people agreed to obey all the things the Lord had spoken, “Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, ‘See the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words’” (Exodus 24:7-8). After the ratification of the covenant, Moses, went up Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the commandments.
The making of the golden calf came out of a problem the people were facing, the absence of Moses. Moses has been gone for a long time. A long time for the people were the forty days and forty nights that Moses spent with God on the mountain (Exodus 24:18).
The text does not explain the reason for the people’s anxiety. It is possible that they believed Moses was dead and that he would not return from the mountain to lead the people on their journey to the land of Canaan. The people needed leadership, both human and divine, for facing the perils of the wilderness and in their effort to conquer the land of Canaan.
So, the people gathered around Aaron and told him to make gods to go before them and to lead them to the promised land. The problem in understanding the people’s request is found in the ambiguity of the text. The Hebrew word for “gods” is ʾelōhîm. In Hebrew, the word ʾelōhîm is a plural word. When the word is used with a singular verb, it refers to the true God, the God of Israel. When the word is used with a plural verb, the word means “gods,” as in pagan gods.
The English translations differ in their understanding of the people’s request. The following are two different translations of the people’s request:
New Revised Standard Version: “Come, make gods for us.”
The New American Standard Bible: “Come, make us a god.”
What is the meaning of the people’s request? Do they want to worship the true God? Do they want to worship many gods (NRSV)? Or do they want to worship a god, any god (NASB)? Since the verb “who shall go” is plural, then the people are asking for “gods.” The same plural idea is present in verses 4, 8, and 23. However, according to Jeremiah, the people’s request is irrational: “Will a man make for himself gods which are no gods?” (Jeremiah 16:20).
When speaking about Moses, the people said to Aaron: “this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt.” This use of the pronoun “this” with a proper noun is rare in Hebrew. It occurs in Ezekiel 5:5 where God speaks of the city: “this Jerusalem.” According to Joosten, “‘This Jerusalem’ expresses how God in his anger and disappointment distances himself from his chosen city” (1991:414). Joosten goes on to argue that “this Moses” is not meant to distinguish Moses from other men, rather it implies that the speakers are distancing themselves from Moses with abusive and disparaging language.
Without any hesitation Aaron agrees to their demand. The text does not say why Aaron was so willing to agree with the people’s request. Some say that he was threatened, others that he was trying to show his leadership to the people in the absence of Moses. None of these theories find support in the text,
Aaron took the gold they had taken from the Egyptians and made an image in the form of a calf. The gold the people gave to Aaron may have been part of the plunder the Israelites took from the Egyptians (Exodus 12:35-36). According to the text, the gold was taken from the women and their daughters (the word “sons” does not appear in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament), but not from the men. This may reflect the fact that in Israel, only the women wore earrings. According to Judges 8:24, the men of Israel gave Gideon earrings they had taken from the Ishmaelites as booty “for the enemy had golden earrings, because they were Ishmaelites.”
When the text says that “all the people” brought gold to Aaron, one must understand that it was not the whole community of Israel who requested Aaron to make an image. The number of people who wanted an image built was small, as can be seen in the small number of people who were killed because of their apostasy.
What happened next is difficult to interpret and the lack of clarity in the text has divided scholars in their interpretation of the text. The word baḥereṭ has generated much discussion among scholars about its meaning and this debate is reflected in the translations. Below are a few examples:
The NRSV has “formed it in a mold”
The KJV has “fashioned it with a graving tool”
The NIV has “made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf”
The BBE has “hammering it with an instrument”
The CJB has “melted it down”
The DRA has “he fashioned them by founders’ work”
The NJB has “melted it down in a mould”
The NLT has “melted it down, and molded it into the shape of a calf.”
The word ḥereṭ appears in Isaiah 8:1, where it is translated “pen.’ Most translations take the meaning of ḥereṭ in Isaiah 8:1 and interpret the word in Exodus 32:4 to refer to a tool used for engraving metal. Such an interpretation, however, is suspect because of the question of how a stylus or a tool used for writing can be used to create a molten calf.
In Hebrew, the word for “calf” is ēgal, a word that means “a young bull.” In Leviticus 9:2 the ēgal is a bull calf which was used for a sin offering. However, in many contexts, the ēgal is an idol. The word ēgal is translated “calf-idols” (Hosea 13:2 NIV), “image of a calf” (Deuteronomy 9:16 NRSV), “idol cast in the shape of a calf” (Deuteronomy 9:16 NIV), and “a golden calf” (Deuteronomy 9:16 ESV). Most scholars believe that Aaron used an engraving tool to make the image. The image probably was made of wood and inlaid with gold, because Moses burned the golden calf with fire and ground it to powder (Exodus 32:20).
The golden calf may be a representation of Apis, the Egyptian god worshiped at Memphis, or it may be a representation of Baal, the god of the Canaanites. However, because of Aaron’s declaration that the image represents the God who brought the people from Egypt, then the image may represent a visible image of Yahweh. By saying that the deliverance from Egypt was done by this “god,” Aaron and the people failed to acknowledge that Yahweh was the one who brought them from Egypt. In the eyes of the people, the golden calf represented a visible and tangible substitute for the invisible God of Sinai.
Once the image was made, the people engaged in an act of worship by celebrating a feast to Yahweh. The worship of the image was a violation of the demands of the covenant: “You shall not make for yourself an idol.” “You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”
The Hebrew word translated “to revel” is ṣaḥēq. The word can imply either a sexual orgy or a joyful celebration. In Genesis 26:8 the word indicates a sexual connotation because Isaac was caressing his wife Rebekah. However, when Moses came down from the mountain, he mentioned shouting, singing, and dancing, but he does not mention any sexual orgy. The NLT says that the people indulged themselves in pagan revelry.
The making of the golden calf reflects Israel’s disloyalty to God. Israel broke its promise of obedience, became disloyal to God, and committed the sin of idolatry. The people of Israel violated the demands of the covenant by making an idol to represent the God who redeemed them from their slavery in Egypt. Israel misunderstood the nature of their God: The invisible, intangible God becomes visible and tangible through the image of the golden calf. By making the golden calf, the people of Israel changed the personal, active God into an idol, an impersonal object who cannot see or speak or act. By making the golden calf, Israel became disloyal to God and unfaithful to the God who had redeemed them from their oppressive situation.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Jan Joosten, “The Syntax of zeh Mošeh (Ex 32:1.23),” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 103 (1991): 412-415.
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