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)


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.

The Full Account of the Narrative

Q. Why did the Israelites make the golden calf?

As Moses had been absent for forty days, the people started thinking Moses might not be coming back. They had been relying on Moses’s words to serve their God, but now they felt that they had to be more proactive. So they collected gold and cast a statue of a calf. This act was a violation of the law, one of the Ten Commandments, that prohibits from making an imitation of God as one of the creatures God created. It is not certain whether their act was an attempt to serve an entirely different god or merely a foolish act stemming from their thought that they needed a specific object representing YHWH. According to Ex 32:4-5, after making the golden calf, they celebrated YHWH’s festival, offering burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being. On the other hand, the Hebrew text indicates that the people demanded Aaron to make “gods” (Elohim), the plural form of a noun for “god.” When Aaron introduced the golden calf, written in the singular form, to the people, he said, “these are your gods” (v. 4). If Aaron made multiple idols, those idols might represent something other than YHWH, such as Apis of Egypt or Baal of Canaan. Anyways, the story’s focus is on the fact that they violated one of the Ten Commandments given in ch. 20.

Q. What did Moses and YHWH talk about after the incident?

In v. 7, we are told that YHWH already discovered the people’s idolatry and explained it to Moses. YHWH got furious and proclaimed destroying the people and raising another nation from Moses (v. 10). So, v. 13, Moses implored YHWH for mercy by asking God to remember God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (or Israel). After all, YHWH changed the mind and decided not to punish the people. So Moses went down to the people.

Q. When Moses heard the noise from the people as he was coming down with Joshua, what was his reaction?

Joshua told Moses that Joshua heard people fighting each other. But Moses correctly recognized that it was the noise of a festival. Of course, Moses knew what was going on down there. YHWH already told Moses what was going on. But the conversation between Joshua and Moses implies that Moses actually did not know the situation and was trying to understand it as he was approaching the people. Moses should have explained the situation to Joshua when Joshua told Moses that he heard the noise of a fight. But Moses did not. Instead, when he finally found out the people’s idol, he got furious like God did and threw the stone tablets of YHWH’s law and broke them. Moses’s reaction does not make much sense because he was the one who appeased God’s anger and implored for YHWH’s mercy.

Q. What did Moses do after returning to the camp?

He ordered the people to come to his side if anyone was on YHWH’s side. Then the tribe of Levi came to him. Moses once again ordered them to kill the people who didn’t come to his side, and the descendants of Levi killed about 3000 people. We do not know who died or who survived. Many people died because of their idolatry, but not all of those who committed the same sin perished.

Q. What did Moses do after the execution?

After the execution, Moses once again petitioned God for mercy. He even said that if God does not forgive the people, he also wanted his name to be erased from the book God writes. As mentioned, it is strange because YHWH already forgave the people at Moses’s imploration.

Q. When did Moses receive the second stone tablets of YHWH’s law, and what was written there?

The full account of the Golden Calf incident is written in Ex 32, but Moses’s reception of the second tablets is not. Then you may assume that it should be written in the following chapter, that is ch. 33. But the story of the second tablets appears in ch. 34. Chapter 33 interrupts the narrative flow by inserting an episode about God’s commanding the people to leave Sinai. This command is executed only in Num 10.

In the second tablets of stone, God did not write the Ten Commandments. In fact, the Decalogue is not written in the first ones either. The Decalogue was proclaimed by God in ch. 20, and the first stone tablets were given in ch. 24. The tablets were given along with other laws, which are known as the Covenant Code. Unfortunately, the text does not reveal the contents of the stone tablets. Intriguingly, however, we know what is written in the second ones (Ex 34:11-26). Let’s take a look.

  • Intro ( v. 11
  • 1 (vv. 12-16): Do not make a covenant with Canaanites; do not marry them; and ultimately do not follow their gods.
  • 2 (v. 17): Do no cast idols
  • 3 (v. 18): celebrate the festival of unleavened bread
  • 4 (vv. 19-20a): Firstborns belong to YHWH
  • 5 (v. 20b): Do not come to God without offerings
  • 6 (v. 21): Do not work on the seventh day
  • 7 (v. 22): Observe the festival of weeks and the festival of ingathering
  • 8 (vv. 23-24): Observe the three festivals
  • 9 (v. 25): Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice with leaven
  • 10 (v. 26): Off the best of the first fruits of your ground; do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

These are another ten commandments, known as “Ritual Decalogue.” The Ten Commandments are also called “Ethical Decalogue” to distinguish each other. Some scholars think that the Covenant Code in Ex 20:22-23:19 is an expanded version of the Ritual Decalogue, or the Ritual Decalogue is the summary of the Covenant Code.

Closing Words

We can discover at least two traditions in the Golden Calf incident. In one source, Moses appeases God’s anger and makes the people survive. In another source, Moses gets outraged and punishes the people by himself; then, he asks for God’s mercy. Two different versions of Decalogue also imply more than two traditions in the book of Exodus.

It is hard to deny that the Pentateuch is a composite work of many sources or a complex editorial process. Then it is not easy to accept that Moses is the single author of the Pentateuch. This chain of thought leads us to assume that telling historical facts is not the primary goal of the Pentateuch. If the first five books are not history books, then they should not be approached as history books. After all, what is essential is understanding what the Pentateuch is and how we should read it. It is not an easy matter, but every Christian should confront at any time in their journeys of faith.

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