Commentary on Exodus 32:1-14
The book of Exodus follows the journey of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to becoming a new nation as the people of God.
The revelation of God’s commandments on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 20-23 was a high point in Israel’s story. Yet, between receiving the covenant and waiting for Moses to return from the mountain, the Israelites fell into chaos and apostasy. This episode raises the question, “How did the relationship between God and Israel go so terribly wrong?”
Exodus 32:1-14 (see also Deuteronomy 9:7-10:11; Nehemiah 9:16-21) is often referred to as the golden calf incident. It is helpful to divide the passage into three parts: Exodus 32:1-6, 7-10, and 11-14. The journey from Egypt to the wilderness is a paradigmatic event in the Hebrew Bible. God hears and responds to the people’s cries in Egypt by sending Moses accompanied by Aaron to lead them out of Egypt. Moses is the one whom the people have appointed as the go-between of themselves and God (Exodus 20:19). As such, Moses spends a great amount of time with God on Mt. Sinai. Apparently, the people believed that the forty days and forty nights (Exodus 24:18) he spent on the mountain was too long and assumed that he would not return. What follows is idolatry, near annihilation, and intercession.
Exodus 32:1-6 can be summed up as a failure of leadership. Aaron, the brother of Moses, along with their sister, Miriam, is regarded as one of a triumvirate of wilderness leaders. Aaron is left to lead the people during Moses’ absence. The text reads that, “the people gathered around Aaron” and asked him to “make gods for us” who shall go before them in place of Moses, “the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:1). Aaron complies by ordering them to remove all the gold earrings they were wearing and bring them to him (Exodus 32:2-3). These first three verses raise a few textual concerns and interpretive challenges. The first matter is the translation of the verb “to gather” in the NRSV. The verb in Hebrew means to assemble for conflict or a rebellion and is better translated “gathered against,” as does the NJPS.1 This information offers the reader the choice to decide whether Aaron was a willing participant in the rebellion against God or if he felt coerced. Another matter is the translation of the Hebrew noun ’elohim, which is both the generic plural for gods and singular for the God of Israel. While the NRSV translation in Exodus 32:1 is “gods,” the NJPS uses “god.” The reader must weigh whether, as biblical scholar Rolf Jacobson offers, the text is “referring to a false god other than the Lord or to a false image of the Lord.”2
These textual and grammatical issues matter in how one evaluates Aaron’s actions. The text says that he then took a tool and fashioned the people’s jewelry in the image of a gold calf and offered it to the people. They proclaim that these are the gods (or is the god) of Israel, “who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4), giving the credit for leading them out back to God. Thus, one can argue that Aaron understood the people’s request as one to make an image of Israel’s deity, which was common in the ancient Near East. If this was his intent, it was nonetheless prohibited by God (Exodus 20:3-5; 32:7-8). Aaron exacerbates the situation by building an altar before the calf and declaring that the next day would be a festival to the Lord (Exodus 32:5). Thus, while Aaron may have attempted to keep the people’s attention on the worship of Israel’s deity, even if it is a representation of the deity, it was misguided. His poor judgment leads the people to engage in revelry that includes imbibing and inappropriate sexual behavior (Exodus 32:6).
Exodus 32:7-10 demonstrates the severity of Aaron’s choice. God sees the people’s depravity and commands Moses to go descend the mountain at once. For a third time, the perspective of who brought the people out of Egypt changes. God now speaks of Moses in the second person, making him responsible for the people: “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely” (Exodus 32:7; see also 32:1, 8). God has in effect denied God’s own people and is moved to destroy them and start over through Moses’ descendants (Exodus 32:9-10).
Moses’ response is to intercede on the people’s behalf. Moses does not appeal to God’s compassion but rather God’s reputation. First, Moses turns the responsibility for the people back onto God: “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt?” (Exodus 32:11). Next, he advises God that the Egyptians will question God’s motive for bringing the Israelites into the wilderness (Exodus 32:12). Finally, Moses appeals to God’s pledge to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob) to make a great nation of their descendants to dwell forever in the land God promised them (Exodus 32:13). Thus, Moses is able to persuade God to set aside God’s anger and let the people live (Exodus 32:14).
The people forgot who rescued them from slavery in Egypt. God may have used Moses, but it was by the power of God. Regardless whether or not they had good intentions, the people failed in keeping their covenantal obligations to God by seeking to substitute God’s physical absence with a false image of God. We should be assured that we do not need a physical image to know that God is with us but should instead look in the mirror, for we are made in God’s image, according to God’s likeness (Genesis 1:26).
New Jewish Publication Society.
Rolf Jacobson, “Moses, the Golden Calf, and the False Images of the True God,” Word & World, vol. 33, no 2, 2013, 130-139.