The Golden Calf: A Post-Exilic Message of Forgiveness
Within days of hearing God’s voice thundering from Mount Sinai, the people of Israel panic about Moses’s absence. They demand that Aaron make them a god, thereby breaking one of the first commandments in the Decalogue. Aaron instructs them to bring their jewelry, which he uses to make the Golden Calf:
שמות לב:ד וַיִּקַּח מִיָּדָם וַיָּצַר אֹתוֹ בַּחֶרֶט וַיַּעֲשֵׂהוּ עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 32:4 This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”
Aaron then builds an altar and declares the next day to be a festival. Even more surprising than the Israelites’ sudden act of apostasy is that Aaron facilitates it, even though he has just been appointed high priest (Exod 28–29). Moses blames Aaron specifically for his involvement:
שמות 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 such great sin upon them?”
How did a story traducing the ancestral head of the entire priesthood come to be in our Bibles?
A Story from a Rival Priestly Clan?
One popular scholarly solution has been to attribute the story of the golden calf to the Levites, another priestly family who sought to denigrate their Aaronide rivals. This is supported by the praiseworthy role of the Levites in the story.
When Moses comes down the mountain, he announces that whoever is on YHWH’s side should join him, and the Levites answer the call. Moses then commands the Levites to kill the perpetrators:
שמות לב:כח וַיַּעֲשׂוּ בְנֵי לֵוִי כִּדְבַר מֹשֶׁה וַיִּפֹּל מִן הָעָם בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא כִּשְׁלֹשֶׁת אַלְפֵי אִישׁ. לב:כט וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה מִלְאוּ יֶדְכֶם הַיּוֹם לַי־הוָה כִּי אִישׁ בִּבְנוֹ וּבְאָחִיו וְלָתֵת עֲלֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה.
Exod 32:28 The Levites did as Moses had bidden; and some three thousand of the people fell that day. 32:29 And Moses said, “Dedicate yourselves to YHWH this day—for each of you has been against son and brother—that He may bestow a blessing upon you today.”
Thus, some scholars suggest, this story is meant to explain why the Levites serve as priests. At the same time, it takes a swipe at Aaron and his descendants, mocking their claim to be the one legitimate priesthood.
This interpretation focuses on the internal dynamics of the story, Levites vs. Aaron. Nevertheless, an important clue which leads to a different understanding of the story comes from the strong echoes the golden calf story has with the story of Jeroboam I’s establishment of cultic sites in Northern Israel (1 Kings 12).
Similarities between Aaron and Jeroboam
Having just broken off from the Davidic monarch, Rehoboam, Jeroboam, the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel, worries that his people might continue to worship in Jerusalem, which would risk renewing their allegiance to the Davidic house. Jeroboam, therefore, sets up worship places of his own, each with a golden calf:
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 golden calves. He said to the people, “You have been going up to Jerusalem long enough. These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” 12:29 He set up one in Bethel and placed the other in Dan.
The similarities between the two stories are obvious. Both Aaron and Jeroboam:
- Make an image of a calf out of gold;
- Declare the calf to be the Israelite god;
- Build an altar;
- Make sacrifices;
- Establish a festival.
Both cases of calf worship are condemned as a “great sin” (חֲטָאָה גְדוֹלָה), an unusual expression found in only one other place in the Bible (Gen 20:9).
“These Are Your Gods”
Which story comes first? Aaron’s declaration in comparison with that of Jeroboam is the clearest evidence that the Jeroboam story is earlier:
שמות לב:ד אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם
Exod 32:4 These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.
מלכים א יב:כח הִנֵּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם
1 Kgs 12:28 Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.
The plural phrasing – הֶעֱלוּךָ “they brought you” – makes sense in the context of Jeroboam’s fashioning two calves, one for each new worship site, but Aaron fabricates only a single calf. Why then does he use the plural to refer to the golden calf? The simplest explanation is that the language has been lifted from the story of Jeroboam. That the composer of Exodus 32 did not alter the grammar to fit the new context suggests that he wanted his readers to have the story of Jeroboam in mind as they read about Aaron’s sin.
Repurposing the Jeroboam Story
Classically, scholars see the story of Jeroboam originating as a Judahite polemic against the northern sanctuaries of Dan and Bethel dating anywhere from the monarchic to the early exilic period. The story of Aaron would then be a later repurposing of this story, but for what purpose?
An influential answer was put forward by Frank Moore Cross (1921–2012), the late Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages Emeritus at Harvard University. He argued that Exodus’ repurposing of the Jeroboam story was best explained if the Aaronide family was originally connected with the northern worship site of Bethel. The story could then be seen both as a sullying of the Aaronide family as well as a deliberate perversion of the Bethel cult’s founding legend.
Differences between Aaron and Jeroboam
While Cross is certainly correct that Exodus 32 is calling our attention to the Jeroboam story, it is problematic to see this as an anti-Aaron polemic. Why was this story not emended in priestly circles during the Second Temple period, when Aaron was widely revered as the esteemed ancestor of the priesthood?
Moreover, the equating of Aaron with Jeroboam overlooks some important differences between the two stories, that can help us understand what the author of the Golden Calf story is trying to say.
One important difference between the stories is that 1 Kings 12 places the blame squarely on Jeroboam’s shoulders. Having successfully instigated a rebellion against Solomon’s son Rehoboam, and drawn the northern tribes away from their loyalty to the Davidic dynasty, Jeroboam faces the challenge of embedding a new political loyalty to his newly-minted kingdom. As noted above, this is what motivates him to establish novel cultic sites at Dan and Bethel, to diminish the appeal of pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Jeroboam’s culpability is emphasized by the repeated use of the verb עשׂה “to make.” Jeroboam makes two golden calves (1 Kgs 12:28), houses on the high places (v. 31), priests who were not Levites (v. 31), a new festival (v. 32), and an altar (v. 33). When subsequent kings of Israel are condemned, comparison is regularly made to the sinful conduct of Jeroboam son of Nebat.
In contrast, the guilt for the Golden Calf at Sinai is shared by Aaron and the people. Moreover, Aaron is not the active but the reactive party. It is only as a result of the people’s request to make gods that Aaron collects the gold from the Israelites and casts the calf. As a result, Aaron’s culpability is somewhat mitigated.
2. Accepting Blame
Another difference is in how the characters respond when confronted with their sin. In the dramatic climax of his new festival, Jeroboam is confronted by a prophetic figure who strikes him with some physical disfigurement (1 Kgs 13:1–10). Jeroboam pleads with the prophet to return (שׁ.ו.ב) his hand to its former state, which the prophet agrees to do.
The divine willingness to heal the king is contrasted with the king’s own unwillingness to repent of his evil. Despite all that Jeroboam experienced, the narrator observes that
מלכים א יג:לג אַחַר הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה לֹא־שָׁב יָרָבְעָם מִדַּרְכּוֹ הָרָעָה
1 Kgs 13:33 Even after this incident, Jeroboam did not turn back from his evil way.
Quite the contrary, he continued to ordain non-Levites to priestly roles on the high places. The story repeatedly plays on the root שׁ.ו.ב (“to return”) to highlight the king’s failure; Jeroboam emerges from the encounter with the prophet unmoved.
In Exodus, however, Aaron seems to accept Moses’s statement that building the Golden Calf was a sin, though he does try to exculpate himself somewhat (32:31–34). The people, who the story blames more than Aaron, are even clearer in their expression of remorse for their sins. When YHWH tells them that he will not accompany them into the land:
שמות לג:ד וַיִּשְׁמַע הָעָם אֶת הַדָּבָר הָרָע הַזֶּה וַיִּתְאַבָּלוּ וְלֹא שָׁתוּ אִישׁ עֶדְיוֹ עָלָיו.
Exod 33:4 When the people heard this harsh word, they went into mourning, and none put on his finery.
As a result, the two stories have different views about the possibility of forgiveness.
The prophetic figure who confronts Jeroboam proclaims the end of the king’s cultic innovations. He foretells the ascension of Josiah to the throne of Judah many centuries later and the violent suppression and desecration of the Bethel cult.
מלכים א יג: ג וְזָבַח עָלֶיךָ אֶת־כֹּהֲנֵי הַבָּמוֹת הַמַּקְטִרִים עָלֶיךָ וְעַצְמוֹת אָדָם יִשְׂרְפוּ עָלֶיךָ
1 Kgs 13:2 He shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who offer incense on you, and human hones shall be burned on you.
Moreover, Jeroboam’s sins, and his failure to repent of them, sets the pattern for the subsequent history of the Northern Kingdom. Its final epitaph in the book of Kings reads:
מלכים ב יז: כא כִּי־קָרַע יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵעַל בֵּית דָּוִד וַיַּמְלִיכוּ אֶת־יָרָבְעָם בֶּן־נְבָט (וַיַּדֵּא) [וַיַּדַּח] יָרָבְעָם אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאַחֲרֵי יְ־הוָה וְהֶחֱטֵיאָם חֲטָאָה גְדוֹלָה׃ יז:כב וַיֵּלְכוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּכָל־חַטֹּאות יָרָבְעָם אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לֹא־סָרוּ מִמֶּנָּה׃ כג עַד אֲשֶׁר־הֵסִיר יְ־הוָה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵעַל פָּנָיו כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר בְּיַד כָּל־עֲבָדָיו הַנְּבִיאִים וַיִּגֶל יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵעַל אַדְמָתוֹ אַשּׁוּרָה עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה׃
2 Kgs 17:21 For Israel broke away from the House of David, and they made Jeroboam son of Nebat king. Jeroboam caused Israel to stray from YHWH and to commit great sin,17:22 and the Israelites persisted in all the sins which Jeroboam had committed; they did not depart from them.17:23 In the end, YHWH removed Israel from His presence, as He had warned them through all His servants the prophets. So the Israelites were deported from their land to Assyria, as is still the case.
The story of the golden calf in Exodus strikes a completely different tone. The rupture in the relationship is deep and significant. The smashed tablets at the foot of Sinai, the repeated intercessions by Moses, and the various forms of punishment and atoning actions underline how reconciliation will not be easy.
Nevertheless, there is an overwhelming sense that the relationship must be remade despite the obstacles, and ultimately YHWH does forgive.
שמות לב:יד וַיִּנָּחֶם יְ־הוָה עַל־הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לְעַמּוֹ:
Exod 32:14 And YHWH renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people.
Given these sharp differences, we must think in terms of how these stories should be understood when read together.
Revision through Introduction
In the case of Aaron and the Golden Calf, we have an example of what Sara Milstein of the University of British Columbia has called “revision through introduction,” in which an earlier text is both preserved and reinterpreted by prefacing it with new material. In the examples that Milstein examines the new material is placed at the beginning of a self-contained work or immediately before the material being recast. Admittedly, the Golden Calf is embedded in the middle of the Pentateuch and literarily distant from the story in the book of Kings. But if we view Genesis to Kings as a national epic at the time when the Golden Calf Story was composed, I would argue that it is still an example of this phenomenon.
Reading Jeroboam after Aaron
Reading the story of Jeroboam's calves after that of Aaron’s golden calf undoes the original presentation of Jeroboam’s sin as the archetypal act of apostasy. Instead, Jeroboam is re-enacting the archetypal sin of idolatry committed by the Israelites centuries before in the wilderness period.
More importantly, the Golden Calf story raises the possibility of intercession, repentance and forgiveness. In the book of Kings, the sin of Jeroboam begins a terminal decline that ends with the fall of Samaria. In the light of the story of Aaron and the Golden Calf, however, the finality of this judgment can be revisited.
Within the history of Israel, the story of the Golden Calf functions as an epic fail. Israel’s failure is almost inexplicable. It is difficult to imagine a more brazen act of rebellion than attributing Israel’s miraculous deliverance from Egypt to an idol produced in deliberate violation of the Ten Commandments.
But the fact that even the grossest transgression in Israel’s history can receive God’s forgiveness provides grounds for hope that the subsequent failures of Israel and Judah can also be forgiven. For the inhabitants of the Persian provinces of Judah and Samaria, the story of the Golden Calf promises that Jeroboam’s sin can be transcended, and a new start contemplated.
This understanding of the Golden Calf story sheds light on Aaron’s complicity in the Israelites’ idolatry. While, as noted above, scholars have long seen this as a settling of scores between different priestly factions, Aaron’s role is better understood as the revered forefather of the priesthood and his esteemed position makes this event a catastrophic sin without parallel in Israel’s subsequent history. The writers of the story do so in order to highlight the power of intercession and repentance, since, even the most calamitous sin imaginable can be forgiven.
The message of the story to the post-exilic reader is: If punishment for such failure can be forgone by YHWH, even the sins that led to the catastrophic fall of the northern and southern kingdoms can be absolved and a fresh start contemplated.
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Prof. Nathan MacDonald is Professor in the Interpretation of the Old Testament at the University of Cambridge and a fellow at St John’s College. He previously taught and researched at St Andrews University and Göttingen University. He is the author of four books, the most recent of which is Priestly Rule: Polemic and Biblical Interpretation in Ezekiel 44 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015).
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