The Decalogue’s Opening Laws, Written in Response to the Golden Calf
Moses goes up Mount Sinai to receive the two tablets of the covenant from YHWH. Forty days later, when he still hasn’t returned, the Israelites ask Aaron to make them gods (Exod 32:1). Aaron uses their gold jewelry to make a statue of a calf (vv. 2–4) and declares a festival for the next day (v. 5). Upon arising the next morning, the Israelites present offerings and celebrate (v. 6).
Atop the mountain, YHWH urges Moses to return quickly to the people (v. 7), because of the image they have made and its worship (v. 8). YHWH is so incensed by the Israelites’ stiff-necked behavior (v. 9) that he decides to annihilate them:
שׁמות לב:י וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי וְיִחַר אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל.
Exod 32:10 “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, and of you I will make a great nation.”
Moses pleads with YHWH to change his verdict against the people (vv. 11–13), and YHWH renounces the plan to destroy them (v. 14).
Moses’ Surprising Reaction
As Moses returns to the people, carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hands (vv. 15–16), Joshua hears a noise, and wonders about its source:
שׁמות לב:יז וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶת קוֹל הָעָם בְּרֵעֹה וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל מֹשֶׁה קוֹל מִלְחָמָה בַּמַּחֲנֶה. לב:יח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵין קוֹל עֲנוֹת גְּבוּרָה וְאֵין קוֹל עֲנוֹת חֲלוּשָׁה קוֹל עַנּוֹת אָנֹכִי שֹׁמֵעַ.
Exod 32:17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” 32:18 But he said, “It is not the sound made by victors or the sound made by losers; it is the sound of singing that I hear.”
Moses’ reply to Joshua does not refer to what YHWH has just told him on the mountain. Even more surprising is Moses’ reaction when he comes near the camp—stupefied by what he sees and acting impulsively, he drops and breaks the tablets (v. 19). Didn’t his discussion with YHWH prepare him for the sight?
As scholars have noted, Moses’ reaction makes sense when omitting vv. 7–14, the discussion of Moses with YHWH on the mountain. Without this passage, the story narrates how Moses goes down the mountain with no idea what is happening, hears the singing without knowing the context, and enters the camp. Stunned at seeing the people worshiping a golden calf, he smashes the tablets, grinds the calf into powder and forces the Israelites to drink it (v. 20). Then he rebukes Aaron for facilitating the sinful episode (vv. 21–24), but seeing the people were wild (v. 25), he gathers those loyal to YHWH—the Levites in this case—and marches them through the camp, where they slaughter 3,000 people (vv. 26–29).
Following this, Moses informs the people that he will speak to YHWH about the sin, and try to obtain forgiveness:
שמות לב:ל וַיְהִי מִמָּחֳרָת וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָעָם אַתֶּם חֲטָאתֶם חֲטָאָה גְדֹלָה וְעַתָּה אֶעֱלֶה אֶל יְהוָה אוּלַי אֲכַפְּרָה בְּעַד חַטַּאתְכֶם.
Exod 32:30 The next day Moses said to the people, “You have been guilty of a great sin. Yet I will now go up to YHWH; perhaps I may win forgiveness for your sin.”
This again highlights the secondary nature of vv. 7–14 — Moses’ earlier entreaty to YHWH on the mountain, since in that passage, Moses already obtained YHWH’s clemency (v. 14).
Now, following his rebuke of the people, Moses goes up the mountain again, and begs for forgiveness:
שׁמות לב:לא וַיָּשָׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶל יְ־הוָה וַיֹּאמַר אָנָּא חָטָא הָעָם הַזֶּה חֲטָאָה גְדֹלָה וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם אֱלֹהֵי זָהָב.
Exod 32:31 So Moses returned to YHWH and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves a god/gods of gold.”
Clearly, Moses sees the worship of the golden calf as a serious violation, but a violation of what?
What Is the Sin?
The Israelites ask Aaron to make them אלהים, which could mean “a god,” or “gods” or even “God.” The sense of the word seems to be clarified, at least partly, when the people announce that the calf is the god(s) who took them out of Egypt, i.e., YHWH:
שׁמות לה:ד וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 32:4 And they said, “These are your gods [or: “This is your god”], O Israel, who brought (pl.) you up out of the land of Egypt!”
While the verb is in the plural, here there is only one statue, implying that they may merely intend one god. This is certainly Aaron’s intention when he says in the next verse:
שׁמות לב:ה ...וַיִּקְרָא אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמַר חַג לַי־הוָה מָחָר.
Exod 32:5 …Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to YHWH.”
According to this, the people intend the calf to represent the same god(s) they have been following since the exodus from Egypt. In the LXX, however, it is not the people but Aaron who declares the calf to be the god who took them out of Egypt, and then reiterates the point in his declaration of the festival to YHWH. Either way, the Israelites seem to accept that the calf represents YHWH, and do not see their actions as turning away from YHWH worship.
Moses obviously sees this differently. When he confronts Aaron, he says:
שׁמות לב:כא וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל אַהֲרֹן מֶה עָשָׂה לְךָ הָעָם הַזֶּה כִּי הֵבֵאתָ עָלָיו חֲטָאָה גְדֹלָה.
Exod 32:21 Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?”
But the story never explains what the terrible sin is. Moses simply takes it for granted. Reading the story in its narrative context, coming several chapters after the revelation of the Decalogue, the reader automatically interprets the making of the calf as a violation of the Decalogue’s first commandments. And yet, the golden calf story never refers to the Decalogue or its commandments, and Moses never reminds the people that the golden calf is clearly a violation of the very words YHWH spoke to them only forty days earlier.
A Reversed Process of Composition
This suggests that the golden calf story was composed earlier than the Decalogue account, and was unaware of it. Thus, instead of reading this account in light of the Decalogue, I suggest that the opening commandments of the Decalogue were written in response to the golden calf episode.
Worshipping Other Gods
In the calf story, the Israelites request new gods:
שׁמות לב:א ...וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ....
Exod 32:1 …The people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us….”
The Decalogue prohibits having other gods:
שׁמות כ:ג לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים עַל פָּנָי.
Exod 20:3 “You shall have no other gods before me.”
In the story of the golden calf, Aaron makes the image from the Israelites’ jewelry:
שׁמות לה:ד וַיִּקַּח מִיָּדָם וַיָּצַר אֹתוֹ בַּחֶרֶט וַיַּעֲשֵׂהוּ עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה....
32:4 He [Aaron] took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf….
The Decalogue prohibits making a statue or “a form of anything,” clarifying that Aaron’s very act of making the calf was sinful:
שׁמות כ:ד לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה לְךָ פֶסֶל וְכָל תְּמוּנָה אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל וַאֲשֶׁר בָּאָרֶץ מִתַָּחַת וַאֲשֶׁר בַּמַּיִם מִתַּחַת לָאָרֶץ.
Exod 20:4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”
After making the idol, Aaron builds an altar, and the people offer sacrifices:
שׁמות לב:ה ...וַיִּבֶן מִזְבֵּחַ לְפָנָיו וַיִּקְרָא אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמַר חַג לַי־הוָה מָחָר. לב:ו וַיַּשְׁכִּימוּ מִמָּחֳרָת וַיַּעֲלוּ עֹלֹת וַיַּגִּשׁוּ שְׁלָמִים....
Exod 32:5 …He [Aaron] built an altar before it [the calf]; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to YHWH.” 32:6 They rose early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being….
While using different terminology (ש]חוה, עבד] rather than זבח and עולות) the Decalogue instructs the Israelites not to worship idols, which is the action the Israelites committed during the festival of the calf:
שׁמות כ:ה לֹא תִשְׁתַּחְוֶה לָהֶם וְלֹא תָעָבְדֵם....
Exod 20:5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them….
Using YHWH’s Name Falsely
The Israelites (or Aaron) associate the calf statue with YHWH by identifying it with the god(s), already familiar to the Israelites for bringing them out of Egypt:
שׁמות לה:ד וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 32:4b And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
Aaron’s declaration of a חַג לַי־הוָה, “festival to YHWH,” in the next verse makes the connection between the calf and YHWH explicit. The Decalogue includes a prohibition against using the name of God לַשָּׁוְא , namely, in a false identification (cf. Ezek 13:7; Ps 31:7):
שׁמות כ:ז לֹא תִשָּׂא אֶת שֵׁם יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לַשָּׁוְא כִּי לֹא יְנַקֶּה יְ־הוָה אֵת אֲשֶׁר יִשָּׂא אֶת שְׁמוֹ לַשָּׁוְא.
Exod 20:7 You shall not make wrongful use (lashav) of the name of YHWH your God, for YHWH will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
The Decalogue dismisses the possibility of claiming that the calf was a legitimate representation of YHWH and indirectly conveys that the people’s action was an abandonment of the god who brought them out of Egypt.
Explaining a Redundancy
This analysis explains a redundancy in the Decalogue, which begins with a broad instruction to the people not to have any other gods besides YHWH (vv. 2–3). This command obviates the need for the more detailed prohibitions that follow—not to make physical representations of gods (v. 4), not to bow down or worship them (v. 5), and not to make false identifications of YHWH (v. 7). These additional laws are best explained as a point-by-point response to the events narrated in the golden calf story.
The Changing Significance of the Golden Calf Story
In the narratives of the wilderness period, the golden calf story is just one among many incidents in which the Israelites sin and anger YHWH. It lacks the significance of the story of the scouts (Num 13–14), in which the Israelites are punished with wandering for forty years in the wilderness for doubting YHWH’s power.
The calf story is more akin to other accounts of Israel’s sinning in the wilderness, in which YHWH punishes Israel for their complaints by smiting a host of them. Like these incidents, the golden calf worship has no essential effect on the people’s fate. How, then, did this commonplace sin story become the inspiration for the Decalogue’s idolatry laws? The answer has to do with the development of religious polemic in ancient Israel.
Calf Idols in Ancient Israel
Calf or bull statues appear to have been a legitimate aspect of the Yahwistic cult in the northern kingdom of Israel. This practice is reflected in the account of King Jeroboam’s establishment of two cult sites, at Dan and Bethel:
מלכים א יב:כח וַיִּוָּעַץ הַמֶּלֶךְ וַיַּעַשׂ שְׁנֵי עֶגְלֵי זָהָב וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם רַב לָכֶם מֵעֲלוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם הִנֵּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.יב:כט וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת הָאֶחָד בְּבֵית אֵל וְאֶת הָאֶחָד נָתַן בְּדָן.
1 Kgs 12:28 So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. He said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” 12:29 He set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.
The use of these cult objects was not universally accepted, however. The accounts in Kings of the sins of the kings of Israel routinely include accusations that the king וַיֵּלֶךְ בְּדֶרֶךְ יָרָבְעָם וּבְחַטָּאתוֹ אֲשֶׁר הֶחֱטִיא אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל “walked in the way of Jeroboam and in the sin that he caused Israel to commit” (1 Kgs 15:34; cf. 1 Kgs 16:2, 19, 26; 22:52; 2 Kgs 10:29, 31; 13:11; etc.). The calves also appear in the sins that led to the destruction of the northern kingdom:
מלכים ב יז:טז וַיַּעַזְבוּ אֶת כָּל מִצְוֹת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם מַסֵּכָה שְׁנֵים עֲגָלִים....
2 Kgs 17: 16 They rejected all the commandments of YHWH their God and made for themselves cast images of two calves….
Already the 8th century B.C.E. northern prophet, Hosea, denounces the calves in a passage whose language alludes to the laws of the Decalogue:
הושׁע יג:ב וְעַתָּה יוֹסִפוּ לַחֲטֹא וַיַּעְשׂוּ לָהֶם מַסֵּכָה... עֲגָלִים יִשָּׁקוּן.... יג:ד וְאָנֹכִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם וֵאלֹהִים זוּלָתִי לֹא תֵדָע וּמוֹשִׁיעַ אַיִן בִּלְתִּי.
Hos 13:2 “And now they keep on sinning and make for themselves a cast image for themselves… People are kissing calves… Hos 13:4 Yet I have been YHWH your God ever since the land of Egypt; you know no god but me, and besides me there is no savior.” 
The final version of the golden calf story serves this anti-Northern polemic.
The Sin in the Golden Calf Narrative
The scene of YHWH informing Moses that the Israelites were worshipping a calf idol and threatening to destroy the nation (vv. 7–14) was added, perhaps together with the Decalogue, to enhance the severity of Israel’s sin. It achieves this by highlighting how constructing the calf violates YHWH’s direct commands:
שׁמות לב:ח סָרוּ מַהֵר מִן הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִם עָשׂוּ לָהֶם עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ לוֹ וַיִּזְבְּחוּ לוֹ וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 32:8 “They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’”
This was the coup-de-grace in the polemic against northern worship sites, which included bovine statues. In the literary context, the elaboration given in the Decalogue effectively anticipates the essential transgression of the people and Aaron in the calf incident: not only did they seek an alternative to YHWH (32:1; cf. 20:3) but they also replaced YHWH with an image (32:4; cf. 20:4) and worshiped it (32:6; cf. 20:5), while falsely claiming it to be YHWH (32:4–5; cf. 20:7).
The final version of the story in the Torah recounts that, while Moses is on Sinai, receiving the tablets of the covenant (v. 15–16), the Israelites are down in their camp violating those very laws. The inclusion of YHWH’s threat to destroy the entire nation, as a result of their covenant violation (v. 10), helped to promote the golden calf incident to the status of a major sin committed by the ancient Israelites, to be disgracefully repeated by the Israelites of the northern kingdom.
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Dr. Gili Kugler is a Senior Lecturer of Biblical Studies in the University of Haifa. Until recently she was a lecturer in Biblical Studies and Classical Hebrew at the University of Sydney. She holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and teaches and writes about topics such as chosenness in biblical theology, religion and politics in prophecy, and biblical narratives and mythology in light of modern psychology. She is the author of several articles as well as the book When God Wanted to Destroy the Chosen People: Biblical Traditions and Theology on the Move (De Gruyter, 2019).
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