What Was the Sin of the Golden Calf?
What the Israelites Did
There is no ambiguity about what it was that the Israelites did in the episode of the golden calf, described in Exodus 32. As YHWH says to Moses, the only Israelite not in the camp to witness the events,
שמות לב:ח עָשׂוּ לָהֶם עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ לוֹ וַיִּזְבְּחוּ לוֹ וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Exod. 32:8 They have made themselves a molten calf and bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, saying, ‘This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’” (NJPS).
This digest of the narrative in the first verses of the chapter boils it down to its essence. The reason that the Israelites made the calf—the absence of Moses—is unimportant. What they made the calf from—their gold earrings—is immaterial. The role of Aaron—who should have known better—is irrelevant. What matters is only the creation of the calf and the worship of it.
Why is the Calf Sinful?
What is less clear, but just as crucial, is the actual sin of the Israelites, what divine law they violated. YHWH tells Moses only that,
שמות לב:ח סָרוּ מַהֵר מִן הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִם…
Exod. 32:8 They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I enjoined upon them…
The question is: precisely from what have they turned away?
Many readers and interpreters have concluded that since the golden calf is the ultimate moment of Israelite apostasy, it must be a violation of the ultimate divine law. These interpreters connect the golden calf to the first words of the Decalogue in Exodus 20:2-4:
לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים עַל פָּנָיַ. לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה לְךָ פֶסֶל וְכָל תְּמוּנָה אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל וַאֲשֶׁר בָּאָרֶץ מִתַָּחַת וַאֲשֶׁר בַּמַּיִם מִתַּחַת לָאָרֶץ. לֹא תִשְׁתַּחְוֶה לָהֶם וְלֹא תָעָבְדֵם.
You shall have no other gods besides me. You shall not make for yourselves a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.
Although the parallels between these two passages seem obvious—sculptured image, likeness of what is on the earth, bowing down—I want to suggest that the creation of the golden calf was not considered by the biblical authors to be a violation of the Decalogue. To this end, we have to understand not only what the Israelites did, but what they thought they were doing.
The Calf Is YHWH – Not another Deity
In order for the golden calf to be a violation of the Decalogue, it would have to represent not Israel’s god, but some other deity—this is what the Decalogue prohibits: “You shall have no other gods besides me . . . you shall not bow down to them or serve them.” This prohibition follows from the opening words of God’s speech, considered in Judaism to be the first command (lit., “divine utterance,” Hebrew דבר): “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (20:2). The obligation to worship YHWH alone rests on YHWH having taken the Israelites out of Egypt.
When the calf is created, the Israelites say, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (32:4). While this is parallel with the first words of the Decalogue it does not at all suggest that this saying of the Decalogue was violated: if the Israelites recognize that the calf represents the god who brought them out of Egypt, then they could hardly be worshipping it as any god other than YHWH! They may be exhibiting a lack of faith, but they are not historical revisionists; they know which deity rescued them from Egypt.
Aaron also knows which god the Israelites intended the calf to represent: “Tomorrow shall be a festival of YHWH!,” (חַג לַי-הוָה מָחָר) he proclaims (32:5). And thus the next day, when the Israelites bring sacrifices before the calf, there can hardly be any misunderstanding: they are sacrificing to YHWH.
Jeroboam’s Calves in the North: What was his Sin?
Most biblical scholars agree that the narrative in Exodus 32 is meant to invoke the story and history of Jeroboam’s two golden calves, at the sanctuaries of Dan and Bethel, as described in 1 Kings 12  Jeroboam’s sin, which dominates the evaluation of the northern kingdom in the books of Kings, and which is said to be responsible for the eventual fall of Israel, is not worship of deities other than YHWH. Jeroboam is condemned primarily for violating the fundamental law of Deuteronomy: the centralization of worship in the one valid sanctuary, the Temple in Jerusalem. As bad as he was, nowhere is Jeroboam accused of leading the Israelites to worship any deity other than YHWH; and if Jeroboam’s golden calves are not idolatry, then the golden calf of Exodus 32, which is modeled after it, shouldn’t be either.
Yet the golden calf in Exodus cannot be viewed as a violation of Deuteronomy’s centralization law. Not only have the laws of Deuteronomy not been given yet at this point in the narrative, but those laws apply only once the people have settled in the land
דברים יב:א אֵלֶּה הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְרוּן לַעֲשׂוֹת בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֶיךָ לְךָ לְרִשְׁתָּהּ…
Deut 12:1 These are the laws and rules that you must carefully observe in the land that YHWH, the God of your fathers, is giving you to possess…
The Israelites in the wilderness need no law of centralization: they are already centralized, living in a single camp.
The Opening Law of the Covenant Collection
The law at stake in the sin of the golden calf is the one found at the very beginning of the laws of what is called the Covenant Collection, in Exod 20:22 [English 20:19]–23:33. While the Covenant Collection covers a vast legal territory, ranging from how to treat slaves to prohibitions on bestiality to festival regulations, it begins with a reference back to the narrative of the theophany that just occurred, the pronouncing of the Decalogue, and a law derived from that experience (Exod 20:22–23 [English 20:19–20]):
אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם כִּי מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם דִּבַּרְתִּי עִמָּכֶם. לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן אִתִּי אֱלֹהֵי כֶסֶף וֵאלֹהֵי זָהָב לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם.
You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens. With me, therefore, you shall not make gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold..
While the first laws of the Decalogue are about how (not) to worship gods other than YHWH, the first law of the Covenant Collection is about how (not) to worship YHWH himself. The laws are not identical; they are complementary. The Decalogue states “no other gods besides me”; the Covenant Collection says “with me, therefore, you shall not make any gods.” There is a right way and a wrong way to worship YHWH; about this YHWH could hardly have been clearer.
Because YHWH did not reveal himself to the Israelites in any reproducible shape—“I spoke to you from the very heavens”—therefore proper worship cannot include any physical representation, especially a figural one, and especially one made of precious metals. The creation of the golden calf violates this opening law of the Covenant Collection: the Israelites, in ill-advisedly attempting to represent YHWH’s presence, make for themselves a god of gold.
The Elohist’s Only Law Collection
The import of the connection between the golden calf and the Covenant Collection goes beyond the mere identification of the precise sin, and even beyond absolving the Israelites of any accusations of idolatry. It serves as an important reminder that for the biblical author of this narrative—encompassing the Decalogue, the Covenant Collection, and the episode of the golden calf—the Covenant Collection is of far greater importance than it is usually credited with.
Because the Covenant Collection seems so scattered in terms of content—rarely discussing any topic for more than a few verses before moving on to another—and because so much of it is taken up and re-presented in Deuteronomy, its centrality in the story is often overlooked or underappreciated. Yet the Israelites’ preeminent sin, the making of the golden calf, is fundamentally a lack of obedience to this law code.
For this author—known as the Elohist—the Covenant Collection is not one part of the law, or one law collection among others, but is the law collection, the only laws that YHWH ever gave to Israel. When YHWH says to Moses, “They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I enjoined upon them,” the way that YHWH enjoined upon the Israelites is not the Decalogue, but the Covenant Collection.
The Decalogue as a Prelude to the Covenant Collection
Despite the historical significance of the Decalogue, both for Judaism and for Christianity, the Bible itself exhibits a stronger concern for the Covenant Collection. These are the laws through which the relationship between YHWH and Israel is cemented. These are the laws that YHWH gives privately to Moses after the public delivery of the Decalogue; these are the laws on which the covenant between YHWH and Israel, established in Exod 24:3–8, is based (hence the name, Covenant Collection). Though the Israelites hear the Decalogue with their own ears, they are not the basis of the covenant.
In fact, according to the Exodus narrative, the Decalogue is proclaimed in the hearing of the Israelites explicitly so that they will accept the laws that Moses will subsequently transmit to them—that is, the Covenant Collection. As YHWH says to Moses (Exod. 19:9):
הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָּא אֵלֶיךָ בְּעַב הֶעָנָן בַּעֲבוּר יִשְׁמַע הָעָם בְּדַבְּרִי עִמָּךְ וְגַם בְּךָ יַאֲמִינוּ לְעוֹלָם.
I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.
The theophany—the hearing of YHWH’s speech—is meant to ensure that the Israelites will recognize Moses as their prophet and accept the message he delivers in YHWH’s name. And this is precisely what happens after the proclamation of the Decalogue: the people, terrified, request that Moses act as their intermediary with YHWH: “You speak to us and we will obey,” (דַּבֵּר אַתָּה עִמָּנוּ וְנִשְׁמָעָה) they say (Exod 20:19 [English 20:16]). And so the people stand back while Moses approaches the mountain to receive the laws—the laws of the Covenant Code.
Breaking Their Promise to Obey the Laws of the Covenant Collection
YHWH’s fury at the golden calf—even to the point of wanting to destroy the Israelites altogether—is thus even more understandable than if the sin had been merely the violation of the Decalogue. They have violated the first words of YHWH’s law, given through the prophet: to not make any silver or gold representations of YHWH. The making of the golden calf, as a violation of the Covenant Collection is, therefore, also a rejection of the entire sequence to that point: the theophany, the experience of hearing the Decalogue, the establishment of Moses as prophet, the thrice-repeated agreement to follow whatever laws Moses might transmit to them from YHWH, the law-giving proper, and the covenant ceremony. In one act, they have undermined the whole of YHWH’s covenantal arrangement with them.
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March 14, 2017
February 26, 2020
Professor Joel Baden is Professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale University. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard and an M.A. from the University of Chicago. Among his many books are, The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis, The Promise to the Patriarchs, and Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness.
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