By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The story of Aaron building a golden calf for the Israelites to worship may strike us a strange episode in the history of the people of Israel, as that story is told in the Old Testament. But there are some interesting reasons why the ‘golden calf’ makes more sense when placed in its historical context.
Let’s take a closer look at the golden calf story, which can be found in the Book of Exodus (chapter 34).
Aaron and the Golden Calf: summary
The following quotations are from the King James Version of the Bible.
32:1 And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.
Earlier in Exodus, Moses went up to Mount Sinai and received the ‘Ten Commandments’ from God (a story we have previously analysed here). He was away for forty days and forty nights (it’s always forty days and forty nights in the Bible).
After a while, the Israelites feared that their leader would never return. People need something to follow, something to believe in, and with Moses absent, they started to grow restless and fearful. Many of them, it would seem, were uncomfortable with the idea of an invisible god anyway, preferring a god that could be represented in more solid, tangible, visible form.
32:2 And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.
32:3 And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron.
32:4 And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.
They asked Moses’ older brother, Aaron, to make them a god for them to worship as they made their way to Canaan. Aaron gathered up their golden earrings, melted down the gold, and made a calf (i.e., a young bull) out of it. The people acknowledged this ‘golden calf’ as their new god, happy that they now had a visible deity to worship.
32:5 And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, To morrow is a feast to the LORD.
32:6 And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.
An altar to the golden calf is erected, and a sacrifice is offered. The people sit down to celebrate their feast.
32:7 And the LORD said unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves: 32:8 They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.
32:9 And the LORD said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people: 32:10 Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation.
So Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets on which the ‘Ten Commandments’ (as they are commonly known) are inscribed.
32:19 And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount.
32:20 And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.
Not content with destroying the golden calf in the fire, he grounds the gold into fine dust and then makes a drink of it, forcing the Israelites to drink their precious god.
32:21 And Moses said unto Aaron, What did this people unto thee, that thou hast brought so great a sin upon them? 32:22 And Aaron said, Let not the anger of my lord wax hot: thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief.
Aaron promptly blames the people, saying essentially that they grew restless when Moses was away for so long, and Aaron felt he had better appease them by agreeing to their demand that he make a god for them to follow.
32:26 Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the LORD’s side? let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him.
32:27 And he said unto them, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.
32:28 And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.
Moses and the Levites (members of the tribe of Levi, which Aaron led) unite. The men of Levi refused to give up their worship of ‘the Lord’ to pay homage to the golden calf, so they have remained loyal to God. Led by Moses, the Levites go and kill three thousand men for worshipping the golden calf as a false idol.
Aaron and the Golden Calf: analysis
What is the significance of the golden calf? Why a calf, to begin with? To answer this question, we have to take a closer look at the history of religious worship. If we do so, we realise that bulls or cattle have often been made the object of worship: there is the famous Hindu reverence for the cow (giving rise to the phrase ‘sacred cow’), and the ancient Egyptian god Apis or Hapi, who was represented as a bull. Apis was believed to be a manifestation of the god Osiris. The Persian worship of Mithras also involved bulls.
We don’t have to think about this for too long to see why. Cattle are an important source of both milk and meat for any people, not to mention the labour that cattle would be called upon to perform. Given how widespread bull-worship was in this part of the world especially, the ‘golden calf’ was almost certainly a young bull rather than a cow, with horns.
To this fact, Isaac Asimov provides a further soupcon of speculation in his informative Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The Old Testament by Isaac Asimov. Although we tend to think of ‘cherubim’ (from which we get cherub) as human in form, this isn’t necessarily what is implied by the Old Testament use of the term. After all, after the Fall of Man, God set up some ‘cherubims’ to guard the tree of life in the Garden of Eden, but our popular perception of the cherub as a baby with wings may be wide of the mark.
Asimov points out that in Ezekiel 1:7, the cherubim are described thus: ‘the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot’. Although other animals are mentioned – winged lions and winged oxen as well as winged humans are all described at various points in Ezekiel – winged bulls are among the bestiary of divine guardians.
What makes the leap between worship of Yahweh (the Old Testament God) and worship of a golden calf less of a leap than a mere step is the fact that, in Exodus 25:18, ‘two cherubims of gold’ are mentioned, which ‘shall stretch forth their wings on high’ (25:20). These cherubim are said to sit on the ‘mercy seat’, the gold slab covering the Ark of the Covenant containing the ‘Ten Commandments’.
If these gold cherubim are meant to be golden winged bulls, the Israelites’ calling for a golden calf, whilst still a departure from their Yahweh-worship, is not as much of a departure as it might first sound.