What Was the Golden Calf?
Parshat Eikev (Deut 7:12-11:25) recounts Israel’s apostasy at Horeb (Sinai), “They have been quick to turn from the way that I commanded them. They have cast an image for themselves” (9:12). In response to Israel’s sin, God becomes angry and instructs Moses to leave him alone so that he may destroy the people, “Let me alone that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven” (9:14). But Moses does not leave God alone. Instead, he intercedes on the people’s behalf by prostrating and fasting before God: “Then I lay prostrate before the Lord as before, forty days and forty nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all the sin you had committed, provoking the Lord by doing what was evil in his sight.” Moses’ intercession is successful and God relents, “But the Lord listened to me that time also” (9:18). Moses then burns the calf, reducing it to dust (9:21).
There are several ways in which this retelling of the molten calf episode differs from its portrayal in Exodus 32. For example, Deuteronomy describes God as angry at Aaron for his involvement in fashioning the calf (9:20), while Exodus does not. In addition, in Exodus the people are punished for the golden calf, but in Deuteronomy they suffer no punishment at all.
Focusing on this latter difference, why doesn’t Deuteronomy portray God punishing Israel? The answer to this question may lie in the intended function of the fashioned image.
Traditional Approaches to the Molten Calf
Rashi (1041-1105, France)
According to Rashi, the people of Israel believed that Moses was dead and with his death the link to their redemptive deity was severed. They reacted to this circumstance with a desire to fashion gods who would not demand mortal human intermediaries.
אשר ילכו לפנינו – אלוהות הרבה אוו להם. כי זה משה האיש – כמין דמות משה הראה להם השטן שנושאים אותו באויר רקיע השמים. אשר העלנו מארץ מצרים – והיה מורה לנו דרך אשר נעלה בה עתה צריכין אנו לאלוהות אשר ילכו לפנינו
[Make us gods] which shall go before us – They wished to have many gods (the word אלהים is to be taken as plural since the verb ילכו is plural; cf. Sanh. 63a). For as for this Moses – This Moses implies that Satan shows them something that looked like Moses being carried on a bier in the air high above the skies (cf. Sabb. 89a). [That man] that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, and who used to show us the way we had to go, now that he is dead we need gods which shall go before us.
Ramban (1194, Gerona–1271, Jerusalem)
Nahmanides argues differently that the golden calf was never intended to be a god. Rather, it was meant to function in place of Moses, as an intermediary to God.
לשון רש”י ואין לשונו מכוון…אבל היו מבקשין משה אחר אמרו משה שהורה לנו הדרך ממצרים ועד הנה שהיו המסעים ע”פ ה ביד משה הנה אבד ממנו. נעשה לנו משה אחר שיורה הדרך לפנינו ע”פ ה בידו. וזה טעם הזכירים משה האש אשר העלנו לא האל אשר העלם כי יצטרכו לאיש אלהים.
This is Rashi’s language. But his language does not fit [the verse, since Scripture indicates only that they wanted a leader in place of Moses, but not gods]…Instead, they wanted another Moses, saying (Num. 9:23): “Moses, the man who showed us the way from Egypt until now, being in charge of the journeying at the commandment of the Eternal by the hand of Moses, he is now lost to us; let us make ourselves another Moses who will show us the way at the commandment of the Eternal by his hand.” This is the reason for their mentioning Moses, the man that brought us up, rather than saying, “The God who brought us up,” for they needed a man of God.
Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089, Spain – 1164, England)
Ibn Ezra contends that the golden calf was meant to be a pedestal for God – an object whereupon God’s presence would rest.
ומלת אלהים כבוד חונה בצורת גויה
Something corporeal on which the glory will rest.
In short, the traditional commentaries offer three approaches to what the Golden Calf was meant to be: an alternative god (Rashi), an alternative Moses (Ramban) or a pedestal upon which God would rest (Ibn Ezra).
The Calf and the Ark
Ibn Ezra’s contention that the calf functioned as a pedestal for God is particularly compelling in light of the instructions that follow the molten calf episode in Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy 10 God instructs Moses to build an ark of acacia wood wherein the tablets are placed (10:1-4). Elsewhere, the Bible describes this ark as the footstool of God: “Let us enter into his tabernacles: let us worship at the place where his feet stood. Arise, O Lord, and go to thy resting place, thou and the ark of thy might” (Ps 132:6-7; see also 1 Chron 28:2).
On top of the ark stand cherubs. These winged creatures form God’s throne, “The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake” (Ps 99:1). Through this imagery the Bible portrays God sitting upon his cherubic throne, with his legs resting upon the footstool that is his ark. Similar imagery exists among Israel’s neighboring cultures, a classic example being that of King Ahiram of Byblos (ca. 1000).
In contrast to foreign gods whose presences are confined within material images, and expressed in physical form, Israel’s God inhabits the empty space that exists atop the ark. When his people obey his laws, he sits on his throne that is amongst them, but when they sin, he ascends and abandons them (cf. Ezek 8:6). Israel’s offense may have been that they expected God to sit upon the golden calf—a throne that God did not commission.
Conclusion: Ibn Ezra Got it Right (Again)!
The context of Deuteronomy 10, describing the ark immediately after the sin of the calf, and our knowledge that in the ancient Near Eastern world animal images could function as a pedestal for deities suggests that ibn Ezra’s solution is the best explanation for why, according to Deuteronomy, the Israelites were not punished. In contrast to Jeroboam, who fashioned calves to persuade the people of Israel to abandon worshipping God in Jerusalem, the chosen city (1 Kgs 12), the desert generation fashioned a calf as a way to worship God while coping with God’s inaccessibility with the absence of Moses. This angered God, but he quickly relented.
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July 15, 2013
May 28, 2020
Dr. Deena Grant is associate professor of of Jewish Studies at Hartford Seminary. She received her Ph.D. from New York University in Hebrew and Judaic Studies, with a focus on the Hebrew Bible in its ancient Near Eastern setting. Dr. Grant taught at Hofstra University and Drisha. She is the author of Divine Anger in the Hebrew Bible.
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