The Worship of the Golden Calf by Baruch J. Schwartz

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, "Worship of the Golden Calf", n.p. [cited 3 Dec 2022]. Online:


Baruch J. Schwartz

Baruch J. Schwartz
Associate Professor, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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.

A gold cultic statue of a young bull, whose worship the biblical authors condemned. The calf first appears in the time of Moses (Ex 32), but golden calves were also worshipped in Northern Israel during the monarchy.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

The kingdom consisting of the northern Israelites tribes, which existed separately from the southern kingdom of Judah. According to the Hebrew Bible, all the tribes were part of a unified kingdom under David and Solomon, but the northern kingdom under Jeroboam I rebelled after Solomon's death (probably sometime in the late 10th century B.C.E.), establishing their independence. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E.

A rule commanding someone not to do something.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

The name of Israel's god, but with only the consonants of the name, as spelled in the Hebrew Bible. In antiquity, Jews stopped saying the name as a sign of reverence. Some scholars today use only the consonants to recognize the lost original pronunciation or to respect religious tradition.

Exod 19

The Israelites Reach Mount Sinai
1On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness ... View more

Exod 32

The Golden Calf
1When 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 ... View more

Exod 19:9

9Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.” ... View more

Exod 19:19

19As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder.

Exod 20:15

15You shall not steal.

Exod 19:17

17Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain.

Exod 20:4-5

4You 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 unde ... View more

Deut 5:8-9

8You 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 unde ... View more

Exod 20:19-20

19and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”20Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for Go ... View more

Exod 32:8

8they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed t ... View more

Deut 9:12

12Then the Lord said to me, “Get up, go down quickly from here, for your people whom you have brought from Egypt have acted corruptly. They have been quick to t ... View more

Deut 9:16

16Then I saw that you had indeed sinned against the Lord your God, by casting for yourselves an image of a calf; you had been quick to turn from the way that th ... View more

Exod 32:1

The Golden Calf
1When 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 ... View more

Exod 32:22-23

22And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil.23They said to me, ‘Make us gods, who shall go befo ... View more

Exod 32:10

10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

Exod 32:11-13

11But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great ... View more

Exod 32:31-32

31So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold.32But now, if you will only forg ... View more

Exod 32:5

5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.”

Deut 4:12-18

12Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice.13He declared to you his covenant, which he c ... View more

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