The Sin of the Golden Calf

Exodus 31:18-32:35

This section begins with God giving Moses the two tablets of stone upon which He has written with His own hand. After an extended break, the narrative returns to the people, awaiting Moses at the base of the mountain. They notice that Moses is late in returning, and they turn to his brother Aaron, asking him to build a new messenger to replace the missing Moses. Aaron asks the people to gather gold jewellery from their wives and children. He uses the gold to form a golden calf, and the Children of Israel proclaim, “This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.”


Meanwhile, God accuses the people of being “stiff-necked”, and threatens to wipe them out, starting over with Moses. Not even knowing exactly what the Israelites have done wrong to earn God’s wrath, Moses defends the people, telling God that if He were to do such a thing, the Egyptians would think He was unable to bring the people to safety. God concedes to Moses’s argument and allows him to take the stone tablets to the people.


When Moses arrives in the camp and sees what God saw, he is incensed. He throws down the tablets, smashing them at the base of the mountain. He destroys the golden calf, grinds it to a powder and dissolves it in water, which he forces the people to drink. He confronts his brother for leading the people astray, and calls upon all those who are for God to join him; the Levites join Moses and enact God’s justice among the people.


Now fully appreciating the gravity of their actions, Moses returns to the mountain to again ask God’s forgiveness on behalf of the people. God accepts.


In his defense of the people, Moses calls upon God to remember His pledge to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Israel Bible points out that Moses was concerned should God wipe out the people and start over with him, as He suggested, the promise to the forefathers to give their descendents the Holy Land might no longer be binding. He therefore pleads with God to be merciful and spare the people.


Virtual Classroom Discussion

Aaron’s actions seem indefensible, yet he continues to serve as High Priest even after the incident of the golden calf (indeed, he doesn’t even start to serve until after). Therefore, perhaps his deeds are mitigated somehow. Why do you think Aaron did what he did? Why do you think he is permitted to serve as High Priest after this?


Comments ( 9 )

The comments below do not necessarily reflect the beliefs and opinions of The Israel Bible™.

  • Where Moshe was the more Theocratic Leader reacting on the words and will of G-d was Aaron a more democratic leader, reacting on the words and will of the people, he served. He knew that which they were asking was wrong and tried to delay the whole process by asking the gold from the women. Then would he melt the gold and produce a calf from it. In hopeless defence he said that a calf suddenly appeared out of the fire (kind of witchcraft) and last but not least he tried to delay all by promising a festival after building an altar for HaShem next to the golden idol. But when Moshe arrived it was too late for Aaron’s involvement, though his heart had not been involved….., The 15th century scholar Isaac Abrabanel suggests that Aaron was prevented from entering the Land of Israel as a punishment for his involvement in this sin.

  • Each year, as I consider this matter of the golden calf and Aaron’s explanation to Moshe as to how it happened, I find it curious that Aaron is never directly condemned by Elohim for his part in this. Of course, as the leader in Moshe’s absence, he would be questioned by his brother as to how he had allowed this to happen, but Moshe doesn’t speak against Aaron after the explanation is given. Most telling is the fact that Aaron continues on to become the High Priest as if nothing had happened at all. In the light of this, I don’t feel like I have any right to condemn him either.

    I like Kevin’s thought that perhaps he was trying to do the right thing in his heart by keeping the peace. I think that he was trying to work out the situation in the best way that he could with the resources he had at hand. Sometimes, we just have to do the best we can in difficult situations.

    I also think his explanation to Moshe of how he’d thrown the gold in the fire and a calf came out is quite plausible. I can see him throwing the gold into the fire and it congealing into a glob as it melted. The shape it assumed would be lumpy and could be interpreted as one would look at any rock or cloud and imagine a resemblance to a thing or creature. I have no trouble seeing this happening.

    Perhaps Aaron was atoned when he and the other Levites came and stood with Moshe and they slew all those that stood apart from them just as Pinchas took a stand against sin in a later portion and received a special blessing from Elohim.

    The deeper question that I struggle with each year is how the people fell into sin standing next to a mountain covered with smoke and fire while a pillar of fire stood in the midst of the camp. It always makes me wonder what hope I have of maintaining my faith when I have only HIS Word to cling to in this day. Praise HIM Who keeps me in HIS Way!!

    • SueJean, you’re right that it is hard to condemn Aaron when God himself doesn’t and he is allowed to continue in his role as High Priest. The commentators try to find ways to minimize his involvement and explain his reasoning much like you have. It is, however, impossible to deny his involvement. According to the Sages, the sin offering that Aaron was required to bring during the dedication ceremony of the Tabernacle (Leviticus 9:2) was meant to atone for his part in the sin of the Golden Calf.
      Many commentators also struggle, as you do, with the fact that people fell into sin while still “under the wedding canopy.” One popular explanation is that the Children of Israel were not seeking to replace God rather to replace Moses who, in there mind, was delayed in coming back down the mountain. Thinking that Moses was dead, the people panicked as they were now alone in the wilderness with no leader and no intermediary between themselves and God (see Aliza’s comment above).

  • Kevin

    According to the Mishna, Aaron was a peace-maker. He wanted to restore peace (shalom) to the people. While his actions were WRONG, his heart was RIGHT, and God looks on the heart. Also, the people were not substituting the golden calf for the worship of the one true God, but using artificial means of man’s design and making to worship Him.

    • Hi Kevin, welcome to the discussion! You mention such an interesting point. Yehudah HaLevi, the author of the Kuzari, written in the 12th century, discusses the sin of the Golden Calf at length. He mentions that the sin was not replacing God, but since they saw Moshe go up the mountain with no food or water, and was there for forty days, they were worried that he died, and they were looking for a medium for them to connect to God. They had just left Egypt, a culture full of worshiping gods through the tangible here on earth, and the Israel Nation was searching for a physical representation of God on earth, through which they could connect to Him. The biggest problem with their sin, according to HaLevi, is that they decided through their own design how to best serve God, when serving God is about obedience, and serving Him through methods He has commanded.

  • Kenneth Osterman

    This incident is full of lessons. It shows man’s inherent weakness and God’s justice and compassion and also portrays Moses as both slayer and mediator and a means of atonement. Verses 29 & 30 remind me of how sin coucheth at the door (Gen 4:7) as both speak of brother against brother and a blessing for those who comprehend their sin. Many (perhaps all) participated in the sin, but God limited the penalty to those who possibly instigated it.
    Aaron was complicit in breaking a commandment of God.Though he made the calf and the altar and declared a feast, he was not the actual instigator and was one of the many who received mercy. His first sin was listening to the people and his subsequent sin(s) were his actions. Aaron was saved only through the mercy and compassion of God and Moses reasoning and attempt tp make atonement.
    And the LORD smote the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron made.

  • The sages discuss Aaron’s role in the sin at great length. For example, when the people come to Aaron and ask for another representative, since they don’t know what happened to Moses the man, the sages interpret Aaron’s actions as a stalling tactic. He first commands the people to bring their jewelry. He was assuming that the woman would be less likely to part with their gold, and that would give enough time for Moses to descend the mountain. As well, as Diana mentioned, when he sees the calf, and the reaction of the people, he declares the next day as a holiday for God. Perhaps trying to steer them away from worshiping the calf, and directing them in the proper service of God. However, it is the people who take things too far-as they bring sacrifices and act frivolously.

  • Diana Brown

    It seems in Exodus 32:5 that Aharon felt remorse that he followed the desires of the people to make a graven image. Once he realized the sin committed, he tried to rectify by building an altar and proclaiming that, “To-morrow shall be a feast to the LORD.” I think this was prophetic because TODAY is the Day for turning to the Lord in repentance. Once we turn and repent TODAY, To-morrow is the new beginning we hope for–Restoration to God and to each other.
    Where the priest, sinned, the prophetic utterance offered a way out of the mess Israel had just gotten themselves into. Because Aharon had put his hope in the Lord to be the God of His Salvation, God did allow for reconciliation.

  • Jesse

    While God certainly showed mercy here in this situation, it should also be remembered that this legacy of not fulfilling God’s commands was passed down to Nadab and Abihu upon whom judgment fell thus acting as a punishment to Aaron as well

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