The Golden Calf: Comparing the Two Versions
Preamble: The Traditional Significance of the Golden Calf Story
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Ta’anit 4:5) states:
ר’ יודן בשם ר’ יסא: “אין כל דור ודור שאין בו אונקי אחת מחטא של עגל…”
Rabbi Yudin said in the name of Rabbi Yossa: “There is no generation that doesn’t have at a least a particle of the sin of the golden calf.”
Similarly, the Talmud Bavli (Sanhedrin 102a) States:
אמר ר’ יצחק אין לך כל פורענות ופורענות שבאה לעולם שאין בה אחד מעשרים וארבעה בהכרע ליטרא של עגל הראשון
R. Isaac said: No retribution whatsoever comes upon the world which does not contain a slight fraction (a twenty-fourth) of the [retribution for] first calf (i.e., the golden calf in the wilderness).
These statements point to the centrality of this story in Jewish cultural memory.
This centrality is further evident from the amount of times a part of this story appears as one of the official Torah readings for holidays, making it the most frequent story read in synagogue in the course of the year. In addition to the Shabbat in the respective parashiot Ki Tisa and Ekev, sections of it are read on the four “minor” fast days both in the shacharit and mincha services and on Tisha Be’av during the mincha service. Additionally, the ending of the story is read on Shabbat Sukkot and Pesach. All in all, parts of the story are read thirteen times throughout the year.
The significance of the story is also reflected in its association with Yom Kippur. Rashi, quoting the Seder Olam in Deuteronomy 9:18, states:
בו ביום נתרצה הקדוש ברוך הוא לישראל ואמר לו למשה (דברים י, א) פסל לך שני לוחות, עשה עוד ארבעים יום, נמצאו כלים ביום הכפורים. בו ביום נתרצה הקב”ה לישראל בשמחה ואמר לו למשה (במדבר יד, כ) סלחתי כדברך. לכך הוקבע למחילה ולסליחה.
On the same day, God was reconciled with Israel and He said to Moses, “Hew for yourself two tablets” (Exod. 34:1). He [Moses] remained there another forty days; consequently, these ended on Yom Kippur [the tenth of Tishri]. On that very day, the Holy One, blessed is He, was joyfully reconciled with Israel, and He said to Moses, “I have forgiven according to your words” (Num. 14:20). Therefore [Yom Kippur] was designated [as a day] for pardon and forgiveness.
The story of the golden calf is told twice in the Torah: Exodus 32, told through the voice of the omniscient narrator, is the version that is read in synagogue in the aforementioned days; it is repeated in Deuteronomy 9—10 in the voice of Moses, who reminds the Israelites at the Plains of Moab of their earlier sin. The goal of this piece is to highlight some of the more striking differences to stimulate further study and engagement with the story.
To fully appreciate the difference between the accounts and the challenges this poses, I encourage you to read Exodus 32-34 and Deuteronomy 9-10 yourselves before continuing.
Details Missing from Deuteronomy
A. Moses’ Tarrying on the Mountain
There is no mention in Deuteronomy that the incident was precipitated by Moses’ delayed arrival from the mountaintop. According to Exodus 32:1, 23, however, this was the precipitant cause. The people did not understand what had happened to Moses and why he tarried so long. In their anxiety, they sought to replace him by making a deity that could go before them in his stead. All of these details are lacking in Deuteronomy.
B. Aaron’s Role
Deuteronomy hardly mentions of Aaron’s role in the sin. According to Exodus 32, Aaron took the golden earrings that he told the people to bring to him, and formed from them a molten calf (verses 2—3). He also built an altar before the calf (also not mentioned in Deuteronomy) and proclaimed a festival for the Lord. When later confronted by Moses, Aaron lies to him and claims that he simply threw the people’s gold into a fire and the golden calf magically emerged (verse 24). The special guilt of Aaron is emphasized in verses 21 (“you have brought such great sin upon them”), 25 (since Aaron had let them get out of control) and 35 (“for what they did with the calf that Aaron made.”)
The only reference to Aaron’s role in Deuteronomy 9 is in verse 20:
וּֽבְאַהֲרֹ֗ן הִתְאַנַּ֧ף יְ-הֹוָ֛ה מְאֹ֖ד לְהַשְׁמִיד֑וֹ וָֽאֶתְפַּלֵּ֛ל גַּם־בְּעַ֥ד אַהֲרֹ֖ן בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִֽוא.
And God was very incensed at Aaron to destroy him; so I interceded for Aaron as well at that time.
This has the clear appearance of an afterthought; Aaron is mentioned only in the context of Moses’ intercession for the people and it is not even clear from the verse what his precise role in the sin was. (This verse does, however, along with other verses suggest that the author of Deuteronomy here, as elsewhere, was familiar with the earlier story [here in Exodus] and is reworking it.)
C. “This is your god”
In Exodus (v. 5), Aaron announces “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” apparently implying an identification of the calf with Yhwh. In Deuteronomy, without Aaron acting as the leader, there is no one to make the famous declaration and it is lacking.
In the late retelling of the story in Nehemiah (9:18) it is changed to the singular,
זֶ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶעֶלְךָ֖ מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם
this is your god who took you out of Egypt.
The interchange between Moses and Joshua at the foot of the mountain, where Joshua tells Moses that he hears the sound of war in the camp, and Moses disabuses him of that notion, is not mentioned (Exodus 32:17—18).
Exodus describes the people giving their jewelry to Aaron and his forming the calf from their gold (32:2-4). The calf is then described as a molten calf. In Deuteronomy, however, there is no such description, and the calf is simply called “the molten calf” (v. 16). In other words, if we only had the book of Deuteronomy, the story would be known as the Molten Calf story, not the Golden Calf story, since we would not have any reason to think it was made out of gold; it could have been brass or silver. It is worth adding that nowhere does the Torah use the phrase “golden calf.”
F. The Levite Executions
No mention is made of the intervention of the sons of Levi who responded to Moses’ call and killed about three thousand people, including brothers, friends and relatives (Exodus 32:26—29). In Deuteronomy 10:8—9 we are told that the tribe of Levi was appointed “at that time” to serve as God’s priests. This corresponds to Exodus 32:29 which implies that the sons of Levi were appointed for sacred duty in reward for their zealousness for God (cf. Numbers 25:10—13), but no mention is made in Deuteronomy of the reason for the new appointment.
According to Exodus 32:35, God sent a plague of some sort to punish the people for their sin. No mention of any punishment is found in Deuteronomy.
H. Drinking the Calf
According to Exodus 32:20, Moses burnt and ground the calf, spread it over the water and gave it to the Israelites to drink. According to the (plausible) suggestion of the Rabbis, this was to test the people in a fashion analogous to the waters of the Sotah.
In Deuteronomy 9:21 Moses simply throws the dust of the calf into the water (identified as the otherwise unknown “river descending from the mountain”), apparently so that the remains of the calf can be carried away.
Details Missing from Exodus
There are also a few details found in Deuteronomy 9 that are lacking in Exodus 32.
According to Deut. 9:18—19, Moses prayed on behalf of the people and fasted for forty days and forty nights, taking neither food nor drink, because he feared God’s wrath. The intercessions on behalf of the people in Exodus 32 (verses 7—14; 31—32) make no mention of this. In Exodus 34:28 Moses alone refrains from food and drink for forty days and nights, but this takes place after the covenant has already been renewed, and is unrelated to fasting for forgiveness (cf., similarly, Deut. 9:9).
B. Special Prayer for Aaron
The reference in Deut. 9:20 to Moses’ prayer on behalf of Aaron has no parallel in Exodus 32.
C. The Wooden Chest
According to Deut. 10:1-5, following God’s instructions, Moses built a wooden chest before he went up the mountain with the unmarked, second tablets that he prepared. After he came down with them, newly inscribed by God, he put them in the chest that God told him to make. This parallels, and is likely based on, Exodus 34:1—4, where God tells Moses to prepare the second tablets, but makes no mention of the building of a wooden chest for them. Nor is there mention of Moses putting the second tablets in a chest in Exodus 34:29.
Elsewhere, in the Priestly source, the book of Exodus speaks of the ’aron, the chest, or ark, that holds the “tablets of testimony” (Exodus 25:16, 21; 31:18; 32:15; 40:20). This, however, is no mere wooden chest; it is covered in gold and has the golden cherubim covering it and is part of an entire complex of holy vessels that make up the tabernacle, or משכן. Devarim,however, makes no mention of the gold coating, the cherubim covering, or the entire structure of the tabernacle!
There are many academic approaches that explain in detail the specific differences and the relationship of the two versions of the golden calf story to each other. For now, we would only observe that the version in Devarim presents the Israelites as the sole offenders and offers them no mitigating circumstances. Moses did not tarry overly long; Aaron did not lead the people astray; the Levites didn’t act any differently. Inversely, in Deuteronomy, Moses presents his own behavior as above and beyond. He fasts and intercedes for the people forty days and forty nights. God is angry at Aaron and Moses even intercedes on his behalf as well.
The differences noted above appear too significant to assume that they reflect Moses’ retelling of events that transpired almost forty years earlier, and are recorded in Exodus. Rather, Exodus and Deuteronomy here, as in other stories, reflect two different understandings, by different authors, of the wilderness experience.
Moreover, the differences are not haphazard, but reflect two internally consistent stories, each told from a particular perspective. Seeing these as two different stories allows these different perspectives to come through clearly.
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August 14, 2014
November 19, 2020
Dr. Rabbi David Frankel did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Professor Moshe Weinfeld. His publications include The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp. 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns). He teaches Hebrew Bible to M.A. and Rabbinical students at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
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