After the Revelation and the sacrifices for the reading of the Covenant, Moses heads up Mount Sinai. For some commentators, he says he will be there for 40 days, for others, he never says. Either way, the people are restless and expect him back already.
Meanwhile, on the mountain, God prepares Moses for the next task: building the Mishkan (the Tabernacle). First, Moses is to ask the Hebrews for donations.
Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.
And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper;
blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair;
tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood;
oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.
And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.
Exactly as I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings—so shall you make it.Exodus 25:2-9
The rest of chapter 25 plus 26 and 27 describe in detail how to build the Ark and the surrounding building. Chapters 28-31 designate Aaron and his four sons as priests and describes how to dress and ordain them, along with a few other things. Chapter 31 ends with God giving Moses the tablets with what we call the Ten Commandments.
When He finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God.Exodus 31:18
Finally, in chapter 32, we return to the Hebrews waiting at the foot of the mountain for Moses to return.
When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.”Exodus 32:1
Usually modern commentators interpret this as the people wishing to turn their back on God and worship an idol. After all, Egyptians did worship the cow goddess Hathor and the Canaanites worshiped a god El, who could be represented by a bull.
Images of bulls and calves were common in Near Eastern religions. In Egypt, a bull, Apis, was sacred to the god Ptah and emblematic of him. In Canaanite literature, the chief god El is sometimes called a bull, although this may be no more than an epithet signifying strength, and the storm god Baal sires an ox in one myth.The Golden Calf. Dr. Jeffrey Tigay. My Jewish Learning.
But the sages don’t necessarily see it that way. Chizkuni says:
There is not a single sage that ever suggested that G-d would appoint as a prophet someone who would eventually revert to idolatry. There can therefore be no question that what the people demanded of Aaron was not a return to idolatry. The problem had been that Moses had not announced by what date he would return from the Mountain. The reason that he did not do so was simply that he himself had not known when he would return. G-d had told him that He would give him the Tablets, but had not said when. When the people noticed that Moses took an inordinately long time, far longer than a normal person can go without food or drink, they worried that he might have died, in fact they were convinced that he had. They therefore requested from Aaron that he make for them a replacement whose function would be similar to what had been Moses’ function vis a vis Pharaoh, i.e. elohim…They wanted to replace the Moses the man, not the deity, or semideity.Chizkuni on Exodus 32:1
Daat Zkenim has similar thoughts.
“make a new Judge for us!” The people saying this to Aaron did not intend for that symbol to be an idol, but to be a supreme judge in lieu of Moses, who they thought had died on the Mountain. This is quite clear from how they justified their request when they said: “for we do not know what has happened to the man Moses, who has brought us out of Egypt.”…When some of them prostrated themselves before that image this also referred to the golden calf as a substitute for Moses, not for G–d. It is not to be understood as idol worship, [although onlookers might have thought so. Ed.]Daat Zkenim on Exodus 32:1
Or HaChaim agrees but goes one step further, saying the people wanted a visible symbol of God to turn to. I find this odd because God appeared before them as a cloud during the day and a fire at night. The cloud was visible enough to guide them through the wilderness and the fire was strong enough to light their path, even when they traveled at night away from Egyptian roads.
[The people] reasoned as follows: Seeing that G’d Himself who has taken us out of Egypt is invisible and dwells in the Celestial Regions, they were afraid that if they would encounter some evil force in the desert without some visible symbol which reassured them that G’d did indeed watch over them they might lose faith. They wished to construct some symbol of a celestial force which would remind them of G’d in Heaven. The people who initiated the golden calf did not deny for a single moment either the primacy of G’d or the fact that He had made heaven and earth. They merely wanted a go-between them and G’d [similar to when all the people had asked Moses to be their go-between during the revelation at Mount Sinai. Ed.]Or HaChaim on Exodus 32:1:3
The cloud/fire did not speak but it had volition. When it was time for the Hebrews to move, it moved to let them know to pack up and follow. This is more than the golden calf had. True, the cloud/fire had been mostly in one place for almost two months, now that the Hebrews were settled in their camp at the base of Mount Sinai for a while. But it moved during Revelation and changed as Moses ascended the mountain.
At the time of the making of the Golden Calf, the top of Mount Sinai was on fire.
When Moses had ascended the mountain, the cloud covered the mountain.
The Presence of the LORD abode on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days. On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud.
Now the Presence of the LORD appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain.Exodus 24:15-17
I don’t think this was just about having a symbol of God to remind them. They already had that. The text says they wanted a judge to take Moses’ place (the highest of the human judges was Moses; after Yitro’s visit, Moses appointed lower level judges to adjudicate most of the cases so he’d only have to take the few that they couldn’t handle).
The Hebrews also couldn’t bear to have God speak to them directly so they wanted a go-between. They had this in Aaron and Miriam though, both prophets in their own right. What would a metal statue add to this? And how could a statue judge anything?
Looking at the various commentaries, it appears that the calf was meant to be a place for God to alight.
In other words, they did not intend the calf to depict YHVH but to function as the conduit of His presence among them, as Moses had functioned previously. Many scholars believe that the calf did so by serving as the pedestal or mount on which YHVH was invisibly present, as did the cherubs in the Holy of Holies. This conception of the calf is illustrated by ancient images of a god standing on the back of a bull or another animal.The Golden Calf. Dr. Jeffrey Tigay. My Jewish Learning.
The irony is that at that moment (the 40 days Moses was gone) God was giving Moses instructions for creating the very same device.
And deposit in the Ark [the tablets of] the Pact which I will give you.
You shall make a cover of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide.
Make two cherubim of gold—make them of hammered work—at the two ends of the cover.
Make one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end; of one piece with the cover shall you make the cherubim at its two ends.
The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover.
Place the cover on top of the Ark, after depositing inside the Ark the Pact that I will give you.
There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.Exodus 25:16-22
The difference, as Dr. Tigay points out, is that the Ark will be inside the Mishkan and not accessible to everyone, but the Golden Calf was for all the people who wished to approach it. Is this about taking back power from self-appointed leaders? (something stated directly through much of the Exodus story) Or about resisting the temptation to turn the conduit into an idol, something to be worshiped directly?
- Chizkuni on Exodus. Hezekiah ben Manoah, French rabbi and Bible commentator of the 13th Century.
- Daat Zkenim on Exodus. Torah commentary compiled by later generations of scholars from the writings of the Franco-German school in the 12th-13th century (Ba’alei Tosafot).
- Or HaChaim on Exodus. Written by Rabbi Hayyim ben Moshe ibn Attar (1696-1743), Moroccan Kabbalist and Talmudist.
- Pillars of fire and cloud. Wikipedia.
- Why Moses’s brother worshipped a golden calf: Although Aaron induced plagues against Pharaoh, his weak faith led to the death of 3,000 men and the destruction of the original Ten Commandments. Jean-Pierre Isbouts. National Geographic.
- The Golden Calf: As commonly understood, this biblical narrative condemns the first violation of the prohibition against idolatry–but it’s not that simple. Dr. Jeffrey Tigay. My Jewish Learning.
- Inside the Ancient Bull Cult: King Minos and the Minotaur remain shrouded in mystery and mythology, yet evidence of a Bronze Age ‘Bull Cult’ at the Minoan palaces abounds. Were bulls merely for entertainment or did they have a deeper significance? Richard Harrison. 10 Jul 2019. History Today.
- Apis. Joshua J. Mark. 21 April 2017. World History Encyclopedia.