Did the Israelites really believe that something they built with their own hands turned the Nile to blood and destroyed all the firstborn of Egypt? Indeed, the Israelites seem less-than-intelligent to many modern readers. Were they that senseless, or are we as modern readers missing something when we read the story?
“How could they do that?”––the question of disbelief posed by countless bystanders witnessing some incredulous activity––may be the most common response of modern readers to the story of the golden calf (Ex. 32). It is shocking to witness the Israelites turn so quickly from the God who delivered them from Pharaoh’s clutches. Yahweh had crushed Pharaoh and the Egyptians with mighty plagues, brought Israel out of Egypt, guided them through the wilderness in miraculous ways, and entered into a covenant with them at Mt. Sinai.
Yet, Israel fashioned an idol and worshiped it as the God who delivered them. Did the Israelites really believe that something they built with their own hands turned the Nile to blood and destroyed all the firstborn of Egypt? Indeed, the Israelites seem less-than-intelligent to many modern readers. Were they that senseless, or are we as modern readers missing something when we read the story?
The purpose of this article is to explain Israel’s rationale for building the golden calf in light of its narrative and historical context and to show how their idolatry was a direct breach of the covenant they made with Yahweh at Mt. Sinai.
Why the Golden Calf?
When someone asks the question, “How could they do that?” they are typically asking the question, “Why would they do that?” So, why did Israel build the golden calf? We can answer this question from several angles. First, the biblical text gives two reasons for their actions. The people of Israel voice their primary motivation for the golden calf at the beginning of the story, which begins with the words, “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain” (Ex. 32:1). Moses’ forty-day conference with Yahweh (24:18) was too much for the people of Israel. They grew impatient, surrounded Aaron, and said, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us” (32:1). Since Moses was the mediator of the covenant with Yahweh (20:18–21), the people interpreted his absence as Yahweh’s absence. Thus, the people demanded that Aaron make them a god who would “go before” them just as Yahweh had gone before them in the wilderness on their way to Sinai (cf. 13:21–22). The Israelites wanted a tangible symbol of Yahweh’s presence, and without their mediator, they had no such symbol.
The second answer the biblical text gives to the “why” question comes from Yahweh’s viewpoint. Moses was unaware of the events taking place at the foot of the mountain while he was meeting with Yahweh on top of the mountain, so Yahweh informed Moses of Israel’s actions and commanded him to descend the mountain (32:7). In his explanation of Israel’s actions, Yahweh labeled Israel “a stiff-necked people” (32:9), a designation with which Moses agreed (34:9; cf. Deut. 9). Such a designation underscores Israel’s rebellious nature and comes as no surprise to readers who are familiar with Israel’s journey from the Red Sea to Mt. Sinai, during which they complained about water and food (Ex. 15:23–24; 16:1–3; 17:1–3). In fact, upon their departure from Sinai in Numbers 11, Israel continued the same pattern of complaining and rebellion as they journeyed toward the Promised Land. The golden calf, therefore, serves as one, albeit an important one, of many examples of Israel’s rebellion against Yahweh and his appointed leaders. Israel had a heart problem, and the idolatry of the golden calf stemmed from the heart of a people who were “set on evil” (Ex. 32:22).
After reading the previous two paragraphs, some readers may still have questions regarding Israel’s specific choice of a golden calf. Why did they not ask Aaron to serve as the mediator in Moses’ place? Why did they want an idol? More specifically, why did they build a calf idol? These questions often plague modern readers unfamiliar with the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context of the Old Testament. However, answering these questions helps modern readers understand Israel’s actions and shows that the ancient Israelites, although very rebellious, were not as dumb as we often think. So, why did Israel ask Aaron to “make” a god? Israel had lived among the Egyptians for hundreds of years before Yahweh delivered them from their bondage. As they lived among the Egyptians, the Israelites would have witnessed forms of idolatry common in the ancient Near Eastern world. One of the common features of worship in this context was the construction of an image to represent or embody the deity they were worshiping. In some instances, this image served as the place where the deity sat/stood. The Israelites’ request for Aaron to make them gods did not mean that Israel believed the deity’s existence began when they built the image; on the contrary, they believed that the image represented the deity. In other words, the image served as a tangible symbol of Yahweh’s presence.