The Whole Story of the Golden Calf Incident

Life-size basalt statue of the Apis Bull dedicated by Hadrian to Serapis in Alexandria (Egypt), Osiris, Sunken Mysteries of Egypt exhibition, Paris (2015)

Intro

In one of my previous posts, “How Many Times Did Moses Climb Mount Sinai?” I said I would give a full account of the so-called “Golden Calf incident” later, as the story is not as simple as it seems. This is the post.

I think many people understand the event as follows:

Moses, at the command of YHWH, had climbed mount Sinai, stayed 40 days and nights, and received YHWH’s laws (or Torah) as well as the tablets of stone. In the meantime, the people of Israel committed idolatry by worshiping a golden calf that they made. When Moses found out about it, he threw the stone tablets and broke them out of control, feeling outraged at the scene. So he had to climb the mountain to receive the stone tablets once again to replace the original ones.

Overall, this understanding of the story is not wrong, but this simple version veils some textual inconsistencies and contradictions, which may lead the reader of the Bible to critical theological questions about the Pentateuch or the Bible. Let’s try to disentangle the story on an issue-by-issue basis.

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How Many Times Did Moses Climb Mount Sinai

Introduction

In the third month, after Israelites left Egypt, they arrived in the wilderness of Sinai, in which they received the law of God, including the Decalogue through Moses. Mount Sinai is the place where Moses communicated with God.

I assume that most readers understand the plot of the story quite simply. For example, Moses climbed Mount Sinai as God commanded, and he fasted for forty days and night to receive the law of God and the stone tablets of the Decalogue. But when Moses went down the mountain, he threw the tablets and broke them because he was outraged as he witnessed Isralietes committing idolatry while he was absent. So he had to go up the mountain again to receive new tablets of the Decalogue.

Honestly, this is how I understood the story in the past, but the actual story is far from it. If you don’t read the text as if you are analyzing it, it is almost impossible to follow the storyline, especially Moses’s move precisely.

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Aaron’s Performance of Signs and People’s Response to It

Two Intriguing Things about the Story in the last section of Exodus 4

Icons made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com

1. The first thing I want to talk about is the significance of Aaron in the last section of Ex 4. No one is like Moses before and since, but he appeared and disappeared pretty quickly. Unlike Moses, however, the house of Aaron, as priests, had played important roles throughout the history of Israel. But how do we know Aaron is such an important person? There should be some passages that promote Aaron’s importance so that later readers would accept that his descendants should occupy the position of the high priest. The last section of Ex 4 is one of those texts.

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About Circumcision

According to Merriam-Webster English Dictionary, “circumcision” is

“the cutting off of the foreskin of males that is practiced as a religious rite by Jews and Muslims and by others as a social custom or for potential health benefits (such as improved hygiene)”

Though Jews practice this surgery as a religious rite, its health benefits are also intended. For example, Leviticus 11-19, or “the Purity Code,” in which many hygienic practices are listed as God’s commandments, includes regulations for women in the state of maternity (Lev 12), and the rules are to prohibit touching them to protect the women and their community from the spread of unknown illnesses–they did not have the knowledge of the microorganism, so they tried to be careful at any circumstances. Interestingly, the law of circumcision is mentioned as one of the regulations in Lev 12 for women in the state of maternity. That means circumcision is not merely a religious rite but a hygienic practice for Jews too.

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