Golden Calf

In the prelude to the story of the Golden Calf, Moses has led the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt through the wilderness to Mount Sinai, “the mountain of God” (Exodus 24:13).

October 7, 2012

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Commentary on Exodus 32:1-14

In the prelude to the story of the Golden Calf, Moses has led the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt through the wilderness to Mount Sinai, “the mountain of God” (Exodus 24:13).

There the LORD made a covenant of promises and obligations, including the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17).

The first and most important commands prohibited the worship of others gods and the making of idols of any kind (20:1-5; see also 20:23; 23:13). The Israelites agreed three times to obey these commands (19:8; 24:3, 7). The LORD then gave detailed instructions for building the tabernacle or tent in which God’s presence will dwell with the Israelites as they travel on to the promised land of Canaan (25:1-31:17). As readers, we expect that the next step for the Israelites is to begin building the tabernacle which will be the mobile home of God’s glorious presence among them (29:46).

Make Gods for Us!

Suddenly and unexpectedly, these positive expectations of obedience and tabernacle-building are shattered. The Israelites make a golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai and bow down and worship the idol. They break the most important covenant obligation commandment against worshipping other gods and idols (20:1-5; 20:23; 23:13).

It all started with the Israelites growing impatient with Moses who has been on the mountain for a long time (a total of forty days and nights, according to 24:18). The people turn to Aaron, the brother of Moses, the future high priest, and the person in charge in Moses’ absence (24:14). The people command Aaron, “Make gods (Hebrew elohim) for us” (32:1), which Aaron translates as a demand to make an idol or image to worship.

Aaron instructs the people to give to him their “gold rings.” These gold rings were given by the Egyptians as an encouragement to get out of Egypt quickly after all the plagues that God had sent upon Egypt (3:22; 11:2-3; 12:35-36). Their intended use had been for building and furnishing the LORD’s tabernacle as a home to the LORD’s presence with Israel (25:2-3). Instead, Aaron decides to bend to the people’s demands and use the gold to make a statue of a golden calf or bull for the people to worship. 

This use of statues of calves or bulls in worship in ancient times has a ring of authenticity to it. Archaeologists have uncovered images or statues of calves or bulls that were used in worship in many ancient religious sites from biblical times, both within Israel and in surrounding cultures. Another biblical story about King Jeroboam and his two golden calves at Bethel and Dan also sheds some light on the golden calf story (1 Kings 12:25-30). 

God’s Threatened Destruction

The LORD is angered by the people’s worship of the golden calf so soon after the rescue from slavery in Egypt and so soon after the people’s agreement to the covenant and its commandments. The LORD commands Moses to go down to “your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt.” Previously, the LORD had repeatedly referred to Israel as “my people” (3:7, 10; 5:1; 6:7; 7:4, 16; 8:1, 8, 20-23, 9:1, 13, 17; 10:3; 12:31; 19:5-6; 22:25) whom “I brought out of the land of Egypt” (3:17; 6:6-7; 18:1, 12; 20:2; 29:46).

The LORD rejects that past relationship and pushes the Israelites onto Moses; these are now Moses’ people (not the LORD’s) whom Moses brought out of Egypt. Note the similar claim made by the Israelites themselves in 32:1 (“Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt”). The split of God and Israel from one another seems mutual.

The LORD’s next statement to Moses is dramatic and terrifying: “Now let me alone, so that . . . I may consume them” (32:10). The LORD plans to destroy all the Israelites there in the wilderness and end the whole experiment with God’s chosen people. Moreover, the LORD makes Moses a tempting offer: “I will make you a great nation” (32:10). In effect, the LORD offers to Moses the chance to become a new Abraham, the sole originator of a whole new people who will be a substitute for the destroyed Israelites (see Genesis 12:1-3).

Moses’ Intercession

Moses denies himself the opportunity to become a new Abraham. Instead, Moses prays and intercedes for Israel with three strong reasons why the LORD should not carry out the planned destruction of the Israelites.

1. Remember, these are not my people.  They are “your people,” LORD, whom “you brought out . . . of Egypt” (32:11).
2. Destroying your own people, Israel, in the wilderness would be bad for your international reputation.  What would the Egyptians say? (32:12)
3. Remember the promises of land and descendants that you made to Abraham, Isaac and Israel/Jacob long ago.  You always keep your promises! (32:13)

Moses had not always been successful in changing God’s mind in the past (see the call of Moses in Exodus 3:7-4:17). But advocating for others, denying one’s own interests, and appealing to the mercy of God has a particularly powerful effect that God takes very seriously. In this case, remarkably, in response to Moses’ prayer, “the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (32:14).

Preaching the Golden Calf Story

This challenging and rich narrative offers any number of promising angles for homiletical treatment.

  • Which golden calves in our culture today draw our loyalty and love away from God when we get impatient with waiting for God’s timetable?
  • Have we made the God whom we worship into an idol, a small fixed statue that we try to control and manipulate as a substitute for the free, untamed, mysterious, and surprising God of the universe who will not be tied down to small and humanly-constructed images, ideologies, institutions, and idols? 
  • How do we maintain this story’s delicate balance between divine judgment with consequences for disobedience along with God’s dominant leaning toward mercy, forgiveness, and faithfulness to the promises God has made (see Exodus 34:6-7)? 

The preacher might explore the power of prayer and intercession with its potential to have real effect upon God, especially when advocating for others and leaning hard on God’s compassion and God’s missional interest in what others like even the Egyptians might think about all this.

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)