The Sin of the Golden Calf
1sn This narrative is an unhappy interlude in the flow of the argument of the book. After the giving of the Law and the instructions for the tabernacle, the people get into idolatry. So this section tells what the people were doing when Moses was on the mountain. Here is an instant violation of the covenant that they had just agreed to uphold. But through it all Moses shines as the great intercessor for the people. So the subject matter is the sin of idolatry, its effects and its remedy. Because of the similarities to Jeroboam’s setting up the calves in Dan and Bethel, modern critics have often said this passage was written at that time. U. Cassuto shows how the language of this chapter would not fit an Iron Age setting in Dan. Rather, he argues, this story was well enough known for Jeroboam to imitate the practice (Exodus, 407-10). This chapter can be divided into four parts for an easier exposition: idolatry (32:1-6), intercession (32:7-14), judgment (32:15-29), intercession again (32:30-33:6). Of course, these sections are far more complex than this, but this gives an overview. Four summary statements for expository points might be: I. Impatience often leads to foolish violations of the faith, II. Violations of the covenant require intercession to escape condemnation, III. Those spared of divine wrath must purge evil from their midst, and IV. Those who purge evil from their midst will find reinstatement through intercession. Several important studies are available for this. See, among others, D. R. Davis, “Rebellion, Presence, and Covenant: A Study in Exodus 32-34,” WTJ 44 (1982): 71-87; M. Greenberg, “Moses’ Intercessory Prayer,” Ecumenical Institute for Advanced Theological Studies (1978): 21-35; R. A. Hamer, “The New Covenant of Moses,” Judaism 27 (1978): 345-50; R. L. Honeycutt, Jr., “Aaron, the Priesthood, and the Golden Calf,” RevExp 74 (1977): 523-35; J. N. Oswalt, “The Golden Calves and the Egyptian Concept of Deity,” EvQ 45 (1973): 13-20. When the people saw that Moses delayedtn The meaning of this verb is properly “caused shame,” meaning cause disappointment because he was not coming back (see also Judg 5:28 for the delay of Sisera’s chariots [S. R. Driver, Exodus, 349]). in coming downtn The infinitive construct with the lamed (ל) preposition is used here epexegetically, explaining the delay of Moses. from the mountain, theytn Heb “the people.” gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Get up,tn The imperative means “arise.” It could be serving here as an interjection, getting Aaron’s attention. But it might also have the force of prompting him to get busy. make us godstn The plural translation is required here (although the form itself could be singular in meaning) because the verb that follows in the relative clause is a plural verb – that they go before us). that will go before us. As for this fellow Moses,tn The text has “this Moses.” But this instance may find the demonstrative used in an earlier deictic sense, especially since there is no article with it. the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know whattn The interrogative is used in an indirect question (see GKC 443-44 §137.c). has become of him!”
2 So Aaron said to them, “Break off the gold earrings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”sn B. Jacob (Exodus, 937-38) argues that Aaron simply did not have the resolution that Moses did, and wanting to keep peace he gave in to the crowd. He also tries to explain that Aaron was wanting to show their folly through the deed. U. Cassuto also says that Aaron’s request for the gold was a form of procrastination, but that the people quickly did it and so he had no alternative but to go through with it (Exodus, 412). These may be right, since Aaron fully understood what was wrong with this, and what the program was all about. The text gives no strong indication to support these ideas, but there are enough hints from the way Aaron does things to warrant such a conclusion.
3 So alltn This “all” is a natural hyperbole in the narrative, for it means the large majority of the people. the people broke off the gold earrings that were on their ears and brought them to Aaron.
4 He accepted the goldtn Here “the gold” has been supplied. from them,tn Heb “from their hand.” fashionedtn The verb looks similar to יָצַר (yatsar), “to form, fashion” by a plan or a design. That is the verb used in Gen 2:7 for Yahweh God forming the man from the dust of the ground. If it is here, it is the reverse, a human – the dust of the ground – trying to form a god or gods. The active participle of this verb in Hebrew is “the potter.” A related noun is the word יֵצֶּר (yetser), “evil inclination,” the wicked designs or intent of the human heart (Gen 6:5). But see the discussion by B. S. Childs (Exodus [OTL], 555-56) on a different reading, one that links the root to a hollow verb meaning “to cast out of metal” (as in 1 Kgs 7:15). it with an engraving tool, and made a molten calf.sn The word means a “young bull” and need not be translated as “calf” (although “calf” has become the traditional rendering in English). The word could describe an animal three years old. Aaron probably made an inner structure of wood and then, after melting down the gold, plated it. The verb “molten” does not need to imply that the image was solid gold; the word is used in Isa 30:22 for gold plating. So it was a young bull calf that was overlaid with gold, and the gold was fashioned with the stylus. Then they said, “These are your gods,tn The word could be singular here and earlier; here it would then be “this is your god, O Israel.” However, the use of “these” indicates more than one god was meant by the image. But their statement and their statue, although they do not use the holy name, violate the first two commandments. O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
5 Whentn The preterite with the vav (ו) consecutive is subordinated as a temporal clause to the next preterite. Aaron saw this,tn The word “this” has been supplied. he built an altar before it,tn “Before it” means before the deity in the form of the calf. Aaron tried to redirect their worship to Yahweh, but the people had already broken down the barrier and were beyond control (U. Cassuto, Exodus, 413). and Aaron made a proclamationtn Heb “called.” and said, “Tomorrow will be a feastsn The word is חַג (khag), the pilgrim’s festival. This was the word used by Moses for their pilgrimage into the wilderness. Aaron seems here to be trying to do what Moses had intended they do, make a feast to Yahweh at Sinai, but his efforts will not compete with the idol. As B. Jacob says, Aaron saw all this happening and tried to rescue the true belief (Exodus, 941). to the Lord.”
6 So they got up early on the next day and offered up burnt offerings and brought peace offerings, and the people sat down to eat and drink,tn The second infinitive is an infinitive absolute. The first is an infinitive construct with a lamed (ל) preposition, expressing the purpose of their sitting down. The infinitive absolute that follows cannot take the preposition, but with the conjunction follows the force of the form before it (see GKC 340 §113.e). and they rose up to play.tn The form is לְצַחֵק (lÿtsakheq), a Piel infinitive construct, giving the purpose of their rising up after the festal meal. On the surface it would seem that with the festival there would be singing and dancing, so that the people were celebrating even though they did not know the reason. W. C. Kaiser says the word means “drunken immoral orgies and sexual play” (“Exodus,” EBC 2:478). That is quite an assumption for this word, but is reflected in some recent English versions (e.g., NCV “got up and sinned sexually”; TEV “an orgy of drinking and sex”). The word means “to play, trifle.” It can have other meanings, depending on its contexts. It is used of Lot when he warned his sons-in-law and appeared as one who “mocked” them; it is also used of Ishmael “playing” with Isaac, which Paul interprets as mocking; it is used of Isaac “playing” with his wife in a manner that revealed to Abimelech that they were not brother and sister, and it is used by Potiphar’s wife to say that her husband brought this slave Joseph in to “mock” them. The most that can be gathered from these is that it is playful teasing, serious mocking, or playful caresses. It might fit with wild orgies, but there is no indication of that in this passage, and the word does not mean it. The fact that they were festive and playing before an idol was sufficient.
7 The Lord spoke to Moses: “Go quickly, descend,tn The two imperatives could also express one idea: “get down there.” In other words, “Make haste to get down.” because yoursn By giving the people to Moses in this way, God is saying that they have no longer any right to claim him as their God, since they have shared his honor with another. This is God’s talionic response to their “These are your gods who brought you up.” The use of these pronoun changes also would form an appeal to Moses to respond, since Moses knew that God had brought them up from Egypt. people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have acted corruptly.
8 They have quickly turned asidetn The verb is a perfect tense, reflecting the present perfect nuance: “they have turned aside” and are still disobedient. But the verb is modified with the adverb “quickly” (actually a Piel infinitive absolute). It has been only a matter of weeks since they heard the voice of God prohibiting this. from the way that I commanded them – they have made for themselves a molten calf and have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt.’”
9 Then the Lord said to Moses: “I have seen this people.sn This is a bold anthropomorphism; it is as if God has now had a chance to get to know these people and has discovered how rebellious they are. The point of the figure is that there has been discernible evidence of their nature. Looktn Heb “and behold” or “and look.” The expression directs attention in order to persuade the hearer. what a stiff-necked people they are!sn B. Jacob says the image is that of the people walking before God, and when he called to them the directions, they would not bend their neck to listen; they were resolute in doing what they intended to do (Exodus, 943). The figure describes them as refusing to submit, but resisting in pride.
10 So now, leave me alonetn The imperative, from the word “to rest” (נוּחַ, nuakh), has the sense of “leave me alone, let me be.” It is a directive for Moses not to intercede for the people. B. S. Childs (Exodus [OTL], 567) reflects the Jewish interpretation that there is a profound paradox in God’s words. He vows the severest punishment but then suddenly conditions it on Moses’ agreement. “Let me alone that I may consume them” is the statement, but the effect is that he has left the door open for intercession. He allows himself to be persuaded – that is what a mediator is for. God could have slammed the door (as when Moses wanted to go into the promised land). Moreover, by alluding to the promise to Abraham God gave Moses the strongest reason to intercede. so that my anger can burn against them and I can destroy them, and I will make from you a great nation.”
11 But Moses sought the favortn S. R. Driver (Exodus, 351) draws on Arabic to show that the meaning of this verb (חָלָה, khalah) was properly “make sweet the face” or “stroke the face”; so here “to entreat, seek to conciliate.” In this prayer, Driver adds, Moses urges four motives for mercy: 1) Israel is Yahweh’s people, 2) Israel’s deliverance has demanded great power, 3) the Egyptians would mock if the people now perished, and 4) the oath God made to the fathers. of the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your anger burn against your people, whom you have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?
12 Whytn The question is rhetorical; it really forms an affirmation that is used here as a reason for the request (see GKC 474 §150.e). should the Egyptians say,tn Heb “speak, saying.” This is redundant in English and has been simplified in the translation. ‘For eviltn The word “evil” means any kind of life-threatening or fatal calamity. “Evil” is that which hinders life, interrupts life, causes pain to life, or destroys it. The Egyptians would conclude that such a God would have no good intent in taking his people to the desert if now he destroyed them. he led them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroytn The form is a Piel infinitive construct from כָּלָה (kalah, “to complete, finish”) but in this stem, “bring to an end, destroy.” As a purpose infinitive this expresses what the Egyptians would have thought of God’s motive. them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger, and relenttn The verb “repent, relent” when used of God is certainly an anthropomorphism. It expresses the deep pain that one would have over a situation. Earlier God repented that he had made humans (Gen 6:6). Here Moses is asking God to repent/relent over the judgment he was about to bring, meaning that he should be moved by such compassion that there would be no judgment like that. J. P. Hyatt observes that the Bible uses so many anthropomorphisms because the Israelites conceived of God as a dynamic and living person in a vital relationship with people, responding to their needs and attitudes and actions (Exodus [NCBC], 307). See H. V. D. Parunak, “A Semantic Survey of NHM,” Bib 56 (1975): 512-32. of this evil against your people.
13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel your servants, to whom you swore by yourself and told them, ‘I will multiply your descendantstn Heb “your seed.” like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken abouttn “about” has been supplied. I will give to your descendants,tn Heb “seed.” and they will inherit it forever.’”
14 Then the Lord relented over the evil that he had said he would do to his people.
15 Moses turned and went down from the mountain withtn The disjunctive vav (ו) serves here as a circumstantial clause indicator. the two tablets of the testimony in his hands. The tablets were written on both sides – they were written on the front and on the back.
16 Now the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.
17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted,sn See F. C. Fensham, “New Light from Ugaritica V on Ex, 32:17 (br’h),” JNSL 2 (1972): 86-7. he said to Moses, “It is the sound of war in the camp!”
18 Mosestn Heb “he”; the referent (Moses) has been specified in the translation for clarity. said, “It is not the sound of those who shout for victory,tn Heb “the sound of the answering of might,” meaning it is not the sound of shouting in victory (U. Cassuto, Exodus, 418). nor is it the sound of those who cry because they are overcome,tn Heb “the sound of the answering of weakness,” meaning the cry of the defeated (U. Cassuto, Exodus, 415). but the sound of singingtn Heb “answering in song” (a play on the twofold meaning of the word). I hear.”sn See A. Newman, “Compositional Analysis and Functional Ambiguity Equivalence: Translating Exodus 32, 17-18,” Babel 21 (1975): 29-35.
19 When he approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses became extremely angry.tn Heb “and the anger of Moses burned hot.” He threw the tablets from his hands and broke them to pieces at the bottom of the mountain.sn See N. M. Waldham, “The Breaking of the Tablets,” Judaism 27 (1978): 442-47.
20 He took the calf they had made and burned it in the fire, ground ittn Here “it” has been supplied. to powder, poured it out on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.tn Here “it” has been supplied.sn Pouring the ashes into the water running from the mountain in the brook (Deut 9:21) and making them drink it was a type of the bitter water test that tested the wife suspected of unfaithfulness. Here the reaction of the people who drank would indicate guilt or not (U. Cassuto, Exodus, 419).
21 Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you, that you have brought on them so great a sin?”
22 Aaron said, “Do not let your anger burn hot, my lord;sn “My lord” refers to Moses. you know these people, that they tend to evil.tn Heb “that on evil it is.”
23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods that will go before us, for as for this fellow Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.’
24 So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, break it off.’ So they gave ittn Here “it” has been supplied. to me, and I threw it into the fire, and this calf came out.”sn Aaron first tried to blame the people, and then he tried to make it sound like a miracle – was it to sound like one of the plagues where out of the furnace came life? This text does not mention it, but Deut 9:20 tells how angry God was with Aaron. Only intercession saved his life.
25 Moses saw that the people were running wild,tn The word is difficult to interpret. There does not seem to be enough evidence to justify the KJV’s translation “naked.” It appears to mean something like “let loose” or “lack restraint” (Prov 29:18). The idea seems to be that the people had broken loose, were undisciplined, and were completely given over to their desires. for Aaron had let them get completely out of control, causing derision from their enemies.tn The last two words of the verse read literally “for a whispering among those who rose up against them.” The foes would have mocked and derided them when they heard that they had abandoned the God who had led them out of Egypt (S. R. Driver, Exodus, 354).
26 So Moses stood at the entrance of the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, cometn “come” is not in the text, but has been supplied. to me.”tn S. R. Driver suggests that the command was tersely put: “Who is for Yahweh? To me!” (Exodus, 354). All the Levites gathered around him,
27 and he said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Each man fastentn Heb “put.” his sword on his side, and go back and forthtn The two imperatives form a verbal hendiadys: “pass over and return,” meaning, “go back and forth” throughout the camp. from entrance to entrance throughout the camp, and each one kill his brother, his friend, and his neighbor.’”tn The phrases have “and kill a man his brother, and a man his companion, and a man his neighbor.” The instructions were probably intended to mean that they should kill leaders they knew to be guilty because they had been seen or because they failed the water test – whoever they were.
28 The Levites did what Moses ordered,tn Heb “did according to the word of Moses.” and that day about three thousand men of the people died.tn Heb “fell.”
29 Moses said, “You have been consecratedtn Heb “Your hand was filled.” The phrase “fill your hands” is a familiar expression having to do with commissioning and devotion to a task that is earlier used in 28:41; 29:9, 29, 33, 35. This has usually been explained as a Qal imperative. S. R. Driver explains it “Fill your hand today,” meaning, take a sacrifice to God and be installed in the priesthood (Exodus, 355). But it probably is a Piel perfect, meaning “they have filled your hands today,” or, “your hand was filled today.” This was an expression meant to say that they had been faithful to God even though it turned them against family and friends – but God would give them a blessing. today for the Lord, for each of you was against his son or against his brother, so he has given a blessing to you today.”tn The text simply has “and to give on you today a blessing.” Gesenius notes that the infinitive construct seems to be attached with a vav (ו; like the infinitive absolute) as the continuation of a previous finite verb. He reads the verb “fill” as an imperative: “fill your hand today…and that to bring a blessing on you, i.e., that you may be blessed” (see GKC 351 §114.p). If the preceding verb is taken as perfect tense, however, then this would also be perfect – “he has blessed you today.”
30 The next day Moses said to the people,tn Heb “and it was on the morrow and Moses said to the people.” “You have committed a very serious sin,tn The text uses a cognate accusative: “you have sinned a great sin.” but now I will go up to the Lord – perhaps I can make atonementtn The form אֲכַפְּרָה (’akhappÿrah) is a Piel cohortative/imperfect. Here with only a possibility of being successful, a potential imperfect nuance works best. on behalf of your sin.”
31 So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has committed a very serious sin,tn As before, the cognate accusative is used; it would literally be “this people has sinned a great sin.” and they have made for themselves gods of gold.
32 But now, if you will forgive their sin…,tn The apodosis is not expressed; it would be understood as “good.” It is not stated because of the intensity of the expression (the figure is aposiopesis, a sudden silence). It is also possible to take this first clause as a desire and not a conditional clause, rendering it “Oh that you would forgive!” but if not, wipe me outtn The word “wipe” is a figure of speech indicating “remove me” (meaning he wants to die). The translation “blot” is traditional, but not very satisfactory, since it does not convey complete removal. from your book that you have written.”sn The book that is referred to here should not be interpreted as the NT “book of life” which is portrayed (figuratively) as a register of all the names of the saints who are redeemed and will inherit eternal life. Here it refers to the names of those who are living and serving in this life, whose names, it was imagined, were on the roster in the heavenly courts as belonging to the chosen. Moses would rather die than live if these people are not forgiven (S. R. Driver, Exodus, 356).
33 The Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me – that person I will wipe out of my book.
34 So now go, lead the people to the place I have spoken to you about. See,tn Heb “behold, look.” Moses should take this fact into consideration. my angel will go before you. But on the day that I punish, I will indeed punish them for their sin.”sn The Law said that God would not clear the guilty. But here the punishment is postponed to some future date when he would revisit this matter. Others have taken the line to mean that whenever a reckoning was considered necessary, then this sin would be included (see B. Jacob, Exodus, 957). The repetition of the verb traditionally rendered “visit” in both clauses puts emphasis on the certainty – so “indeed.”
35 And the Lord sent a plague on the people because they had made the calftn The verse is difficult because of the double reference to the making of the calf. The NJPS’s translation tries to reconcile the two by reading “for what they did with the calf that Aaron had made.” B. S. Childs (Exodus [OTL], 557) explains in some detail why this is not a good translation based on syntactical grounds; he opts for the conclusion that the last three words are a clumsy secondary addition. It seems preferable to take the view that both are true, Aaron is singled out for his obvious lead in the sin, but the people sinned by instigating the whole thing. – the one Aaron made.sn Most commentators have difficulty with this verse. W. C. Kaiser says the strict chronology is not always kept, and so the plague here may very well refer to the killing of the three thousand (“Exodus,” EBC 2:481).
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