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The Worship of the Golden Calf

Why do the Israelites turn so quickly to worship a golden calf immediately after witnessing God’s revelation?

Hebrew Bible Covenant

Q. After God reveals himself to Moses and the Israelites in Exod 19, why do the Israelites beg Aaron for other gods to worship in Exod 32, so soon after their experience? Weren’t they witnesses to the event?

A. According to the account in the Pentateuch, the Israelites did indeed witness the sound-and-light show, experiencing all of the special effects first-hand, and they did in fact hear God’s voice as he spoke the Ten Words to Moses (Exod 19:9 and Exod 19:19).

We are told explicitly that the entire people were on hand for this event (Exod 20:15), and that Moses actually took pains to ensure that they would all be present (Exod 19:17).

Further, the very first words that they heard God say to Moses contained the prohibition of worshiping images (Exod 20:4-5; Deut 5:8-9), and the first thing Moses was commanded to say to them when he returned from the mountain was a similar prohibition (Exod 20:19-20).

From these and related passages, we see that the authors have gone to great lengths to inform us that the Israelites’ demand for an image to worship, Aaron’s cooperation in manufacturing it, and the ensuing worship of the calf on the part of the entire community were acts of sinful disobedience, criminal wrongdoing pure and simple (Exod 32:8; Deut 9:12 and Deut 9:16). Clearly, the authors seem to be saying, having seen and heard what they did, their behavior was utterly inexcusable.

The weak attempts made by both Aaron and the people to defend their actions (Exod 32:1 and Exod 32:22-23) do not mitigate their guilt, as may be seen by the severity of God’s threatened reaction (Exod 32:10) and the intense effort required of Moses to talk him out of it (Exod 32:11-13 and Exod 32:31-32). The worship of the golden calf is not presented as the worship of another deity but rather of Yhwh himself (Exod 32:5), and the theological assertion seems to be that since God is heard, not seen, he is not to be worshipped in any physical, visual form (see Deut 4:12-18).

One of the aims of this narrative, according to many scholars, is to condemn as thoroughly illegitimate the calf worship that existed in the Northern Kingdom during the centuries of its independent existence. This is accomplished by means of a tale relating that the sinfulness of this cultic practice was established for all time, and its repercussions experienced, at the very moment that the covenant was made and the laws were given.

  • Baruch J. Schwartz

    Baruch J. Schwartz is associate professor of biblical studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research centers on the Torah and its composition, biblical religion and law, classical prophetic literature and medieval biblical exegesis. He is the author of The Holiness Legislation (Magnes Press, 1999) and of the commentary on Leviticus in The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford University Press, 2004, 2014) as well as numerous scholarly articles on biblical topics.