Commentary on Exodus 32:1-14
With the golden calf narrative, preachers have an opportunity to explore with their congregations the stunning, and even surprising, character of God and God’s way with the world.
The scene in Exodus 32:1-14 is preceded by Moses going up the mountain to receive “the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment” (Exodus 24:12). As he heads up into the mountain of God, Moses tells the elders to wait for him and indicates that they should consult Aaron and Hur if there is a dispute (Exodus 24:14).
For forty days and nights, Moses remained on the mountain (Exodus 24:18), receiving instructions from Yahweh about the construction of the tabernacle as well as the vestments for and procedures for the ordination of the priesthood. Yahweh and Moses are deep into the details when the scene suddenly shifts away from the mountaintop in chapter 32. The people’s anxiety about Moses’ absence appears to have gone into overdrive because almost immediately, they propose to Aaron: “Come make gods for us, who shall go before us” (Exodus 32:1).
The reason the people are so anxious has to do with the absence of Moses (“the people saw that Moses had delayed to come down from the mountain,” 32:1). Instead of identifying God as the one who has liberated them from Egypt, they refer to Moses (literally, “this Moses”) as “the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt” (32:1).
Thus the idol they request is meant to replace Moses. However, they challenge God’s sovereignty as well. After casting an image of a calf, they blatantly attribute the content of God’s self revelation (Exodus 20:2) to “these gods.” The people say, “THESE are your GODS, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (32:4). These people sure do know how to push the divine buttons.
Aaron’s blunders are a bit more subtle. In fact, partly because of what Aaron says after melting down the people’s jewelry and coins to make the calf (“tomorrow will be a feast to Yahweh” [32:5]), some commentators argue that the calf is intended to function as a symbol of Yahweh, not other gods (and so this is not technically apostasy). And when the people say, “these are your gods” (32:4), because the Hebrew word for “gods” is the same as the word for “God” (both are ʾĕlōhîm), the people are merely identifying the calf as Yahweh.
Further, some argue that the calf is not meant to represent Yahweh’s image but rather a seat for God (something for God to ride atop, like the ark), so this is not apostasy or idolatry. However, the plural modifier “these” before “gods” is not easily explained by this line of thinking; and God’s reaction suggests that the people have committed more than a minor infraction.
I think this inconsistency between what the people say about the calf and what Aaron says has to do with Aaron’s style of leadership. Aaron is depicted as a practical leader; he is willing to compromise on the theological details a bit in order to appease the people. The people want tangible images of GODS (gods who are a bit more accessible than Yahweh and/or intermediaries who are less cranky than Moses), so Aaron fudges a bit.
He makes them a calf and lets them think what they want about it. Technically, he clarifies that for him, this is about Yahweh by calling a feast in honor of Yahweh. But Aaron does not disavow the people of their theological misconceptions. Maybe he thinks, “So what that the people don’t get the subtlety of the distinction, what’s the harm? At least they’re not griping at me!” Once the party begins, apparently it gets out of hand pretty quickly because the Hebrew word for “revel” in the New Revised Standard Translation (32:6) has sexual connotations. I have to wonder if Aaron is getting nervous…
If I were doing lectio divina and had to find a character to relate to in this story, it would be Aaron. Classic people pleaser! So you could preach this from Aaron’s point of view. You could talk about the messes we get ourselves into when we compromise our theology in order not to upset people.
Or you could preach about God in the story. The scene veers back to the mountain and we get Yahweh’s point of view on the events. God is enraged and tells Moses to get down there on the double (32:7) because “your people” (that is, Moses’ people) have acted perversely.
That this is a pivotally important and dangerous moment is underscored by Yahweh’s allusions to the judgment that preceded the flood. God uses the same word of the Israelites (calling them “perverse” or “corrupted” [šiḥēt], verse 7) that God used of the people just before flooding the earth (Genesis 6:12). The offer God made to Noah is similar to the one God makes Moses — a proposal to start over with the one person God approves of, after destroying everyone else (32:10). Even God’s demand for “rest” (New Revised Standard Translation has “let me alone,” verse 10) from the Hebrew word nûaḥ recalls the name of Noah (nōaḥ).1
It looks as though things are about to fall apart completely — until Moses breaks from the script. Rather than scaring up gopherwood and rounding up animals, Moses “implores” (verse 11) God to change God’s mind and not bring disaster on the people (verse 12).
That Moses readily intercedes in the midst of God’s fury suggests that already, God has cultivated a relationship that invites human dialogue and input.
Terence Fretheim says that in this story, we learn that “God is not the only one who has something important to say.”2 Indeed in God’s change of heart, we see “a genuine openness to the future.”3 (287). This turn in the narrative presents the preacher with an opportunity to reflect on the relational nature of the biblical god — one that runs counter to many Christians’ assumptions about God being thoroughly distant like Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover.”
The intercessory prayer uttered by Moses, which appeals to God’s sense of justice and salvific intentions, works. With regard to the divine character, it is revealing that God has not chosen some sycophantic yes-man to be God’s right hand human. God has chosen one with the guts and the smarts to challenge God.
Surely God is angered by the actions of Israel, but God is portrayed, again, as responding to the anxieties underlying the people’s fears without compromising God’s vision for an alternative society.
Along the wilderness journey, we see God providing the people with more and more meaningful ways to access God.4 After Moses, the first intermediary God gives the people is the law (the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant in Exodus 21-23) — a book of God’s words they can learn and consult when they are uncertain about how to proceed.
The next intermediary is the tabernacle, along with the cloud of God’s presence that rests there and the priesthood that accompanies it. At the tabernacle, the people encounter God with the safety and order of the ritual sphere, so as not to be terrified by the direct, powerful presence of God as they were on Mt. Sinai.
A major crisis threatens the relationship between God and the people, but ultimately, God refuses to give up on these sometimes-stiff-necked, former slaves.
1Thomas B. Dozeman, Exodus (ECC; Winona Lake, IN: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), 706-7.
2Exodus (Interpretation; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1991), 285
4Tikva Frymer-Kensky, “Moses and the Cults: The Question of Religious Leadership,” Judaism 34 (1985), 444-452.