The story of the golden calf in Exodus 32 is one of the most complex and dramatic in the entire Bible.1
The Narrative Lectionary ends in the middle of the chapter, and therefore avoids some of the thorny details that come later in the text, such as Moses’ own anger, the Levite’s slaughter of their “brothers, friends and neighbors” (Exodus 32:27) and subsequent ordination, the plague, etc. As it is, however, concluding with verse 14 leaves plenty of questions about the nature of God and God’s relationship with people.
Questions arise in the very first verse, which explains that Moses has “delayed” from coming down the mountain. In Exodus 24:18, it says that Moses was on the mountain for forty days and nights, but we are not told if the people knew how long he would be. Additionally, the number forty can be literal and exact, or symbolic and generalized to represent a period of time (see also Genesis 7:4; 1 Samuel 17:16; Jonah 3:4; Matthew 4:2).
The people’s request raises other questions as they ask Aaron to make “elohim.” Most English versions translate this word as “gods,” but it can also be translated as the singular noun, “God.” Are the people asking for Aaron to create for them other gods to follow, or are they asking for Aaron to make them a physical form of God? God appeared to the people previously in the cloud and in the fire (Exodus 13:21; 24:16-18), and in the theophany of smoke, lightning, and thunder on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:16-19), but God has not been as visible or present since then. As Hebrews 11:1 says, faith is the conviction of things unseen, but the people reflect a deep human desire — even a need — for something tangible. Because Moses is not there, the people want to see (a) God.
Another question has to do with the intent of the people. Though it is not explained in the text, the same string of words that describes the people “gathering against” Aaron in Exodus 32:1 gets used in Numbers 16:3 in an explicitly threatening act. Later, Aaron tells Moses, “you know the people, that they are bent on evil” (Exodus 32:22). However, his description of how the calf came to be — miraculously coming forth from the fire in its bovine form instead of shaped by him as Exodus 32:2-4 describes — ought to make us suspicious of Aaron’s version of the events. Indeed, in Exodus 32:2 Aaron responds to the people’s request without protest or hesitation, simply telling them to bring them the raw materials for him to construct the elohim. The gold rings from their ears could have been those that were symbolic of their slavery (see also Exodus 21:6), or perhaps the gold plundered from the Egyptians (Exodus 12:35-36).
Additionally, what did Aaron intend to make? In Egypt the bull symbolized the god Apis, while in Canaan it represented Baal. If this was meant to be an image of the LORD, it is an odd choice. Did Aaron make a foreign god for the Israelites to follow, or did he use a familiar symbol to make a physical representation of the LORD?
Another question has to do with what the people understand. Upon seeing the image, they declare it to be “your elohim, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4). Have they forgotten the identity of YHWH who brought them out of the land of Egypt (see also Exodus 20:1)? Or, they are declaring this as the image of the God who delivered them? In Exodus 32:8, God tells Moses that the people have turned aside from God’s commands to worship and sacrifice to the calf, but they may have broken the first, or the second commandment: no other gods, or no worshipping of images. When Aaron declares a festival to the LORD in Exodus 32:5, he is likely attempting to steer the people back to proper worship.
As the setting shifts from the foot of the mountain to the conversation between Moses and God at the top, three big questions occur. First, why does God threaten to consume God’s people? (Notice, also, that both God and Moses, when talking about the Israelites in Exodus 32:7 and 11, refer to them as “your people”; neither one apparently wants to claim ownership of the Israelites.) Second, why does Moses appeal to God’s reputation among the Egyptians, and call God to remember the promises to the ancestors? And third, why, in response to Moses, does it say in Exodus 32:14, “And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (32:14, NRSV)?
First, God’s anger throughout the Old Testament ought not be ignored or dismissed. However, it also must be contextualized in the larger metanarrative, as well as within the details of the texts in which is it narrated.
Second, God’s acts of power earlier in Exodus were, in part, “so that the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD” (Exodus 7:5, 14:4, 14:18). The LORD is not simply a tribal God for one people group, but is God for all people and nations throughout the entire Bible. Moreover, “to remember” need not imply previously “forgetting.” One can remember a person’s birthday without ever forgetting it. And when God “remembers,” it always comes before God’s action.
Third, different English translations soften the statement about God changing God’s mind: the Jewish Publication Society translates it as, “the LORD renounced the punishment he had planned to bring on his people,” and the New Interpreter’s Version reads, “Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.” This same phrase occurs in Jonah 3:10, when God responds to the repentance of the people of Nineveh. There are theological dangers on either side of this verse. On the one hand, if we overemphasize the changing of God’s mind, where is God’s omniscience? Why would God change if God knows all things that are going to happen? If God has been convinced by Moses’ appeals, where is God’s omnipotence? What kind of sovereignty does God have if a mere human can talk God out of what God planned to do? On the other hand, if we overemphasize God’s complete control; that God plans everything that is to happen from before the foundations of the earth and will make that plan happen, where is human free will? What role do humans play at all? Some explain that God knew all along God would not destroy the Israelites, and was just testing Moses to see how he would respond. Others say that prayer is not to change God, but to change the humans who pray it; therefore, Moses’ intercession had no effect on God but shaped Moses’ own feelings about the Israelites.
The safest theological space is to take seriously the words of the text: in response to Moses’ plea, God decides not to do what God originally said. In fact, God opened the door for Moses to participate with God in Exodus 32:10, when God said, “let me alone,” and Moses did not do so. As with Abraham pleading with God for Sodom and Gomorrah, the Old Testament gives us examples of humans who understand prayer to be a conversation, and God to be a relational God who actually listens to humans. To settle here does not deny that God is God, but clarifies that God is a God for us and with us.
Faithful God of an unfaithful people, The people of Israel doubted your power and turned to other gods to fulfill their needs. We too, turn to other gods, seeking acceptance, power, and independence. Show us how to live humbly in you, and walk in your ways, in the name of the one who offered true power to all humanity, Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Lord of all nations, grant me grace ELW 716 Lord of all being, throned afar H82 419 My song is love unknown ELW 343, H82 458, NCH 222
Go down, Moses, David Cherwien (Sacred Music Press)