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The Golden Calf

Bible Study Resource

One of the early traditions of Exodus 32 records that when Moses delayed coming down from his encounter with Yahweh at Mount Sinai, the people despaired of seeing him again and demanded that Aaron make them gods to worship. 

Under pressure, Aaron gave in. He had the men collect the women's gold jewellery, no doubt with some difficulty, and from it made them a molten calf 'fashioning it with a graving tool' (Exodus 32:1-4). An altar was built and burnt sacrifices offered, Aaron presumably officiating. 

Bronze bull, image of a fertility god

This ancient bronze bull figurine may have been covered in gold leaf

The story about the Golden Calf is no longer in its original simple form. It is notable, however, that Aaron proclaimed a 'festival to the Lord' to be held in front of the Golden Calf. This seems to have some connection with the story in I Kings 12:26-30 about Jeroboam making the Golden Calves, for he uses exactly the same phrase that is given to Aaron in Exodus: “Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” 

There is a theory that Aaron was the founder of a popular cult that combined Yahwism with other non-Mosaic elements and might have extended to worship of a golden calf. Alternatively, Aaron may have been forced to take part in this pagan worship as the only means of maintaining his control over the people.

 Reconstruction of a golden calf

 

Moses' anger

When Moses returned from the mountain the Bible narrative emphasizes his great anger and the vengeance he took on the people (32:19-29). Calling on the Levites to aid him in re-asserting his authority, Moses sent them through the camp to 'slay every man his brother and every man his companion and every man his neighbour' (Exodus 32:27), by which action the Levites 'ordained themselves for the service of the Lord' (32:29). 

Golden calf, ancientMany scholars believe that the story of the Golden Calf and its sequel contain the echoes of tensions which developed between the House of Aaron and the tribe of Levi. In this incident Aaron is shown leading the people to the golden calf --  an act which called for the most severe reprisals by Moses and the Levites. 

Additional evidence of opposition to Aaron’s supreme position comes from the story of the rebellion of the non- priestly Levites, led by Korah (Numbers 16), who rose against Moses and Aaron and demanded the priesthood for themselves. On this occasion, Aaron faced the rebels at Moses’ side and, when the leaders had been destroyed (16:25-35) and their supporters punished by a plague, Aaron and his censer stopped the plague from spreading further among the people (16:40-50). 

The incident is rounded off by the account of the miraculous flowering of Aaron's rod as a sign that the Lord had chosen him above all his fellows (17:1-11), which seems a good example of hindsight in the Bible stories. 

King Jeroboam of Israel erected a Golden Calf in the northern city of Dan

After the breakup of Solomon's kingdom, the ten tribes broke in two to form Israel in the north and Judah in the south. King Jeroboam of Israel erected a Golden Calf in the northern city of Dan for his people to worship. The photograph above shows remains of the Temple area built at this time.


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Bible Study Resource for Archaeology: The Golden Calf, Aaron, Moses and Miriam; ancient gods

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