From a Political Polemic to a Religious Sin:
Reading the Golden Calves of Sinai and Northern Israel in Context
The Bible mentions the golden calf incident several times, including Parashat Eikev (Deuteronomy 9:8-10), Psalm 106:19-23, and Nehemiah 9:18. However, the fullest account is in Parashat Ki Tissa, which tells how the people approached Aaron as a result of Moses’ lengthy absence and then responded to seeing the calf by proclaiming, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt . . .” (32:4). The text is unclear about the nature of the transgression, but it was severe enough to bring God to consider destroying Israel altogether.
The Literary Context: A Story about Characters in the Torah
The story recounts events in the wilderness, soon after the exodus. The Israelites there defend their request for a new god, “for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.” As Nahmanides (13th century) pointed out, the phrasing suggests that they credited Moses with their escape from Egyptian slavery, and it is Moses, ostensibly lost on the mountain, whom they are attempting to replace with the calf. They turn to Aaron, who, surprisingly, builds the calf and declares the festival.
While all this is happening on the ground, up on the mountain, God and Moses engage in a strange argument about whose people Israel really is. God angrily insists that Moses “Hurry down, for your people whom you brought out of Egypt have acted sinfully” (v. 7). The phrasing reveals His frustration and desire to be rid of this endlessly ungrateful band.
Strikingly, Moses responds in kind with, “Don’t be angry at Your people, whom You delivered from Egypt” (v. 11). Unlike God, Moses is not trying to be rid of Israel, but to protect them by making God take responsibility for them. He warns God that destroying the Israelites may lead the Egyptians to think that the exodus had been for naught (v. 12) and reminds Him of His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (v. 13). This reading is followed in rabbinic literature, with some rabbis even suggesting that we are all still atoning for this grievous sin.
The Historical Context: A Critique of the Northern Worship Sites
The story bears a striking similarity to an incident in the book of Kings, where Jeroboam, depicted as the first king of the Northern Kingdom after its split from Judah, erects golden calves for the people to worship in the cities of Dan and Bethel (1 Kings 12):
כו וַיֹּ֥אמֶר יָרָבְעָ֖ם בְּלִבּ֑וֹ עַתָּ֛ה תָּשׁ֥וּב הַמַּמְלָכָ֖ה לְבֵ֥ית דָּוִֽד: כז אִֽם יַעֲלֶ֣ה׀ הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֗ה לַעֲשׂ֨וֹת זְבָחִ֤ים בְּבֵית יְ-הֹוָה֙ בִּיר֣וּשָׁלִַ֔ם וְ֠שָׁב לֵ֣ב הָעָ֤ם הַזֶּה֙ אֶל אֲדֹ֣נֵיהֶ֔ם אֶל רְחַבְעָ֖ם מֶ֣לֶךְ יְהוּדָ֑ה וַהֲרָגֻ֕נִי וְשָׁ֖בוּ אֶל רְחַבְעָ֥ם מֶֽלֶךְ יְהוּדָֽה: כח וַיִּוָּעַ֣ץ הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וַיַּ֕עַשׂ שְׁנֵ֖י עֶגְלֵ֣י זָהָ֑ב וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֗ם רַב לָכֶם֙ מֵעֲל֣וֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַ֔ם הִנֵּ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶעֱל֖וּךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם: כטוַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֶת הָאֶחָ֖ד בְּבֵֽית אֵ֑ל וְאֶת הָאֶחָ֖ד נָתַ֥ן בְּדָֽן: ל וַיְהִ֛י הַדָּבָ֥ר הַזֶּ֖ה לְחַטָּ֑את וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ הָעָ֛ם לִפְנֵ֥י הָאֶחָ֖ד עַד דָּֽן:
26 Jeroboam said to himself, “Now the kingdom may well return to the House of David. 27 If these people still go up to offer sacrifices at the House of the Lord in Jerusalem, the heart of these people will turn back to their master, King Rehoboam of Judah; they will kill me and go back to King Rehoboam of Judah.” 28 So the king took counsel and made two golden calves. He said to the people, “You have been going up to Jerusalem long enough. This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” 29He set up one in Bethel and placed the other in Dan. 30That proved to be a cause of guilt, for the people went to worship [the calf at Bethel and] the one at Dan.
Jeroboam’s proclamation, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt” (v. 28), uses the same words that the Israelites had earlier pronounced at the foot of Mount Sinai. These two stories, with their identical language for identical objects, are surely related.
Were Jeroboam’s Calves Idolatrous?
The implication in both Kings and the Pentateuchal account of the golden calf is that the Israelites worshiped the calf as an idol representing a deity other than YHWH. Is this what worshippers at the northern temples would have said about their own practice? Were the calves representations of God or gods? Evidence from ancient Near Eastern material culture would lead us to question such an assumption.
Archeologists have found that ancient Near Eastern deities were often portrayed atop animals. Exodus (25:17-22 and 37:6-9) describes cherubs, which appear to have been winged animals, on top of the ark where God appeared. The book of Psalms describes them as God’s steeds (Ps 18:11), and Numbers 7:89 tells of God speaking from between them.
The Ten Commandments prohibit depictions of God, so ancient Israelite temples may have depicted only animals on which God stood– whether the cherubs (in Jerusalem) or the calves (in Dan and Bethel). Certainly, if one were to ask the Jerusalemite priesthood whether the cherubs in the Holy of Holies were idols representing YHWH, I am sure we would hear an emphatic no. But the southern authors of Kings offered no such contextualization for the temples of their brothers in the Northern Kingdom, as these authors polemicized against the religious practices of the North.
The book of Kings describes Jeroboam’s construction of these shrines, which were located in the northern and southern regions of his new kingdom, as intended to keep the people in his “breakaway” nation from being drawn to the Temple in Jerusalem, which was now the capital of his enemy Judah (see v. 27). In other words, his motivation was primarily political, not religious. But the idolatrous sounding phrase “this is your god” implies that Jeroboam meant to replace the God of Israel with these calves.
In other words, the book of Kings, which quite clearly regards the Judean monarchy as the only legitimate one and Jerusalem as the only legitimate Temple, is emphasizing the religious aspect (idolatry) of what was probably a political act (providing a place where the Northern Israelites could worship God outside of Jerusalem.) In reality, the difference between having calves and having cherubs may have been one of style rather than theology, but the book of Kings does not present the matter that way. Rather than being a disinterested report of historical facts, the account in Kings is a Southern view of the Northern Kingdom.
Reading the Story through Ancient Judahite Eyes
In sum, archeologists’ discovery that ancient Near Eastern deities were often portrayed perched atop animals has led modern scholars to suspect that this was the function of both the cherubs in Jerusalem and the calves in Dan and Bethel, although Israel’s religious views prohibited including an image of YHWH Himself. However, the book of Kings, which believed that Jerusalem was the only acceptable place for worshipping God, presented Jeroboam’s decision to create shrines at Dan and Bethel, so that his people wouldn’t have to go to Jerusalem, as an act of idolatry. The book of Exodus, then, told the story of the golden calf in language that evoked Jeroboam’s action, further magnifying what he did by turning it into a reenactment of that “primordial” sin.
This analysis has significant implications for understanding the story of the golden calf in the book of Exodus. Although we often think of biblical accounts as timeless, they were written for an audience that lived in a specific time and place, who would have understood them in terms of their own circumstances and concerns, which might be quite different from our own. An ancient inhabitant of Judah would have been hard pressed to read the story in Exodus without thinking of the Northern shrines. That is not an accident; the authors of the golden calf story wrote in a way that foreshadowed the gravity of Jeroboam’s later act.
The Seventy Faces of the Torah
The original readers (or hearers) of the biblical accounts, who lived in a world quite different from our own, would have thought about these events differently than we do. Although we encounter the story of the wilderness sin long before learning about Jeroboam, ancient Israelites hearing it would have been well aware of religious practices in the Northern Kingdom. In other words, what we see as a paradigmatic instance of idolatry would have appeared to them as a forerunner of their Northern neighbors’ sinful ways.
It is easy to forget how much our own experiences and point of view influence how we understand passages that were written in a different time and place. Of course, the story’s ability to be meaningful to diverse audiences is what makes it timeless. That is what the rabbis meant when they spoke of the Torah’s “seventy faces.” And so a story that was originally a Judean critique of Northern Israel has come to be the prototype of idolatry, thereby making its presentation of the various characters – Aaron, the people, God, and Moses – all the more striking.
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Prof. Frederick E. Greenspahn is the Gimelstob Eminent Scholar of Judaic Studies at Florida Atlantic University. He earned his M.A. in Hebrew Letters from HUC-JIR and a Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University. He is the author of When Brothers Dwell Together, The Preeminence of Younger Siblings in the Hebrew Bible (1994) and An Introduction to Aramaic.
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