The story of the Golden Calf is an odd one, in large part because it’s not clear it ever belonged in Torah at all. It’s really the story of a much later time. Jeroboam, king of Northern Israel around 900 years BCE, erected two golden calves in northern cities with the intention of allowing his subjects to make their religious sacrifices in the north, instead of traveling to Jerusalem in Southern Israel. It’s easy to dismiss both Jeroboam’s and the Exodus-era Hebrews’ sin as idol worship, but that’s not the case.
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.What Was the Sin of the Golden Calf? Prof. Joel Baden. The Torah.com.
What we have in Exodus is a community existing long before the establishment of a settlement in Israel (let alone a temple in Jerusalem and its corresponding rules for worship). If both the explanations of the Golden Calf being idol worship (at least in intention) and breaking the rule of centralized worship in Jerusalem are off the table, what exactly did the Hebrews in Exodus do wrong?
We have the peripheral wrongs. The Hebrews who coerced Aaron into replacing Moses (their intermediary with God) acted violently. This isn’t actually in Torah at all, though we know that Aaron wasn’t on their side and felt compelled to do as they asked. Many commentators take it as a given that the Hebrews in question murdered Hur in the process, though that’s not in Torah either (neither is the common assertion that Hur was Aaron’s and Moses’ nephew, the son of Miriam and Caleb).
We also know that some of the Hebrews did cross that line and worship the Golden Calf directly.
יהוה spoke to Moses, “Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely.
They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I enjoined upon them. 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!’”Exodus 32:7-8
Torah though presents the very making of the Golden Calf as a sin. Or HaChaim here breaks down how God explained to Moses the nature of the Hebrews’ mistakes.
G’d had to add particulars about the form this corruption had taken. G’d listed three sins: 1) “they made a golden calf for themselves;” 2) “they prostrated themselves before it and they offered sacrifices to it;” 3) they proclaimed: “these are your gods O Israel, who have brought you out of Egypt.” Israel had therefore sinned in (1) thought, (2) in speech and (3) in deed. G’d first told Moses about Israel having sinned in thought when He said: “they have made for themselves, etc.” This was a sin in thought as long as they had not hailed the calf or sacrificed to it. The critical word is להם, “for themselves.”…Concerning the Israelites’ sin in deed, G’d told Moses that the people had “offered sacrifices to it.” There is no greater act of idol worship than the offering of sacrifices to an idol. Concerning the Israelites having sinned in speech, G’d cited their having said: “these are your gods O Israel, etc.”Or HaChaim on Exodus 32:8:1.
Or HaChaim goes on to discuss the issue that the Hebrews were worshiping God “wrong.” Making it clear that the problem was not that they turned away from God.
It is also possible that the wording reflects- as I have written previously- that the Israelites retained their full faith in G’d and only saw in the golden calf one of His many manifestations. In view of all this G’d had to make clear that He had not ever commanded something of this nature, i.e. Israel was not allowed to employ intermediaries in their worship of Him and that what happened represented a complete departure from the way G’d had instructed them to relate to Him. This explains why G’d did not speak of Israel in terms of their having rebelled against Him or having denied Him. He was well aware that the Israelites had retained their belief in Him.Or HaChaim on Exodus 32:8:2.
Ramban wrote centuries before Or HaChaim with similar arguments. He adds:
Aaron saw them set on evil, intent upon making the calf, and he arose and built an altar and proclaimed, Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Eternal, so that they should bring offerings to the Proper Name of G-d upon the altar which he built to His Name, and that they should not build altars to the shameful thing, and that their intent in the offerings should be [to none] save unto the Eternal only.Ramban on Exodus 32:5.
So making the calf was wrong and shameful, but the Hebrews didn’t really cross the line into evil until they sacrificed animals to the calf itself, an act that entailed worship.
This also is proof to what I have explained [that at first their intent was not to worship idols], since it was not said to Moses, Go, get thee down, for thy people have dealt corruptly. on the day that Aaron made the [golden] calf and the altar, [for had they been made for the purpose of idolatry, Moses] would have come down immediately. Instead, it was only when the people sacrificed to it and worshipped it that He told Moses to go down.Ramban on Exodus 32:6.
God (and Moses) decries all participation in anything to do with the Golden Calf. Giving up one’s gold jewelry to make the calf with, engaging in revelry the day of the festival, and so on. But God’s punishment was for those who sacrificed and worshiped the calf.
Now most of the people shared in the sin of the incident of the calf, for so it is written, And all the people pulled off the golden pendants. And were it not for this [participation of theirs in the incident], the anger [of G-d] would not have been directed against them to destroy them all. For even though the numbers of those who were killed for this sin: there fell of the people that day about three thousand. and those smitten by G-d. were few [in comparison to the total number of the people, this was because] most of them shared in the sin only in their evil thought [and not in action].Ramban on Exodus 32:7.
Rashi brings in the idea that the blame for the Golden Calf lies with the mixed multitudes, the non-Hebrews who joined the Hebrews as they left Egypt. Although much of the Torah states that all people who accept God’s commandments or were present at the Revelation, etc, are to be treated the same as those born to the religion, many commentators, before and after Rashi, consider the converts to be the source of any and all trouble, and the reason for any resistance by the people to doing what God had asked of them.
It does not say the people have corrupted but “thy” people — the mixed multitude whom you [Moses] received of your own accord and accepted as proselytes without consulting Me. You thought it a good thing that proselytes should be attached to the Shechina — now they have corrupted themselves and have corrupted others.Rashi on Exodus 32:7.
Although blaming the converts is a common belief, I find that the trauma of slavery, the terror at being in the desert far from the only home they’d ever known, and the suddenness of a barrage of new rules and laws from a God they barely knew existed a couple months before was enough to explain the Hebrews’ desire for something solid they could point to as their connection with the force that both rescued them and blew up their lives, as well a way to help them know how to move forward.
The last thing on the people’s mind was that Aaron should construct an idolatrous object for them; they did not demand a deity but a leader during their travels in the desert, just as Moses had been their leader. They said this clearly when they told Aaron אשר ילכו לפנינו, “who are to walk ahead of us.” The “leader” was to show them the direction they were to travel in the desert. Up until now Moses had told them what route to take, and now there was no one to tell them in which direction to move.Rabbeinu Bahya, Shemot 32:8:4.
Rabbeinu Bahya goes on to ask how God chose those who were to die for these acts.
The obvious question is why the people were punished so severely…Why were the Levites allowed to execute 3,000 Israelites? Why did G’d dispatch a plague which killed many of the people?
The answer is simply that whereas the whole episode with the golden calf began innocently enough as an error at worst, as it progressed it turned into deliberate acts of idolatry. This is why the Torah wrote that the people “prostrated themselves before the calf, that they offered peace-offerings to it, that they danced around it, etc.“.
Actually, at that time, the Israelites were divided into different groups. Some of them had pure motives when offering sacrifices…The ones whose motives were idolatrous were the ones of whom the Torah writes: “they prostrated themselves before it, and they slaughtered offerings for it.”Rabbeinu Bahya, Shemot 32:8:5.
What we’re left with is a collection of wrongs, each coming from a different place and each meriting a different level of punishment. There is no one overarching answer. Nor can we dismiss it all as “they were worshiping an idol.” Any attempt to unify the greater sin of the Golden Calf (whether it be to blame the converts, to say that the Hebrews didn’t worship God exactly as told to, and so on, falls apart when we look more closely.
Instead, we have the complex web that any serious analysis of a historical (or fictional) event would produce. Thousands of people all with different motivations, choices, and understanding of their actions. Some intent on doing evil, others doing it by accident, some with a pure heart throughout, and some crossing the line in the midst of it all.
- What Was the Sin of the Golden Calf? Prof. Joel Baden. The Torah.com.
- Jeroboam. Wikipedia.
- Golden Calf. Wikipedia.
- 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.
- Or HaChaim on Exodus. Written by Rabbi Hayyim ben Moshe ibn Attar (1696-1743), Moroccan Kabbalist and Talmudist.
- Ramban on Exodus. Moses ben Maimon, aka Maimonides, a 12th Century Spanish Torah scholar.
- Rashi on Exodus. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki lived in Troyes, France (1040-1105). Rashi’s commentary is an essential explanation of the Tanakh and resides in a place of honor on the page of almost all editions of the Tanakh. Over 300 supercommentaries have been written to further explain Rashi’s comments on the Torah.
- Rabbeinu Bahya, Shemot. Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa, a rabbi and scholar from 13th-14th Century Spain.