The Word Made Fresh
1The people, seeing that Moses had not returned from the mountain, went to Aaron and said, “Make gods to lead us. We don’t know what has become of this man Moses who drug us out of Egypt.”
2Aaron replied, “Bring me the gold earrings from your wives and sons and daughters.” 3The people collected the earrings and brought them to Aaron, 4and Aaron took the gold, shaped it in a mold and cast it in the image of a calf. The people said, “Oh, Israel! These are your gods who brought you out of Egypt!”
5So, seeing their reaction, Aaron built an altar and set it up in front of the calf. He announced, “Tomorrow will be a celebration before the LORD!”
6The people rose early the next day. They made burnt offerings and brought gifts to make their god favor them and then they sat and feasted on food and drink and they drank and danced and had a big party.
7The LORD said, “Moses, get back down there now. The people you led out of Egypt have become completely foolish. 8They have turned away from my guidance and have made a casting of a calf. They are worshiping it and making offerings to it and saying, ‘These are your gods who brought Israel out of Egypt!’ I can see now how stubborn they really are. 10Step aside. I am so angry with them that I am going to do away with them altogether. But I will still see to it that you become a great nation.”
11Moses begged the Lord his God. He pleaded, “LORD, why should you be so angry with your people? You brought them out of Egypt with a strong hand and powerful deeds. 12Why give the Egyptians an opportunity to claim that you brought them out here to kill them in the mountains and wipe them off the face of the earth? Please don’t be so angry. Please change your mind and don’t destroy your people. 13You promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that you would multiply their families like the stars in the sky, and you promised to give all this land to their children to have forever!”
14The LORD heard Moses and had a change of heart about bringing disaster on the people.
15Moses turned and went down the mountain carrying the two stone tablets on which the laws were written on both front and back. 16God had written the laws on the tablets. 17Joshua was the first to hear the noise the people were raising in the camp. He said, “It sounds like a battle taking place down there.”
18“No,” said Moses. “That is not the noise made by victors or losers in a battle. I hear the sound of a big party.” 19When they approached the camp and saw the calf and the merry-making, Moses was very angry. He threw the tablets down and broke them at the base of the mountain. 20He took the calf they had made and threw it in the fire. Then he beat it into gold powder and scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.
21Then Moses confronted Aaron. “How did these people make you bring this terrible sin upon them?”
22“Don’t be angry, my lord,” Aaron said. “You know these people are bad to the core. 23They came to me and said, ‘Make gods for us to lead us. As for that man, Moses, who brought us here from Egypt, we don’t know what happened to him.’ 24So I told them to remove whatever gold they were wearing. They gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire. This calf came out!”
25When Moses saw Aaron had let the people run wild, and their enemies making fun of them, 26he took a stand at the entrance to the camp. “Whoever is on the LORD’s side, come stand with me!” he called. All the sons of Levi came to his side. 27He told them, “The LORD, the God of Israel tells each one of you to strap your sword at your side. Go back and forth through the camp and kill your brothers and your friends and your neighbors.” 28They followed Moses’ orders, and about three thousand of the people died that day.
29Moses said, “God has set you apart this day to do the LORD’s work. Each of you have earned the LORD’s recognition at the cost of a brother or a son. You have brought honor on yourselves this day.”
30The next day Moses said to the people, “You are guilty of great sin. But I will return to the LORD and try to obtain forgiveness for your sin.” 31So, Moses went back to the LORD. He said, “Bad news! These people have committed a terrible sin. They made gods for themselves out of gold. 32But I am asking you to forgive them for their sin. If not, then erase my name from your book.”
33But the LORD replied, “I will erase from my book the name of whoever has sinned against me. 34As for you, go now and lead the people to the place I told you about. I will send my messenger to go ahead of you. 35Still, when the day of punishment arrives, I will punish their sin.”
36Then the LORD sent a plague among the people because they told Aaron to make the calf.
1-10: While Moses is on the mountain a crisis is brewing in the camp below. The people are not content to wait any longer. They are ready to move on. They want Aaron to make gods for them to lead them. There are many interpretations of Aaron’s motives. Perhaps his asking for their gold earrings is a stalling tactic on his part. There is some confusion in the narrative, though, because they ask for “gods,” plural, and Aaron makes a single golden calf which they then acknowledge to be their “gods,” again in the plural. Some suggest that they are referring to both Aaron and the golden calf as their gods and think that is Aaron’s motive for proceeding. Aaron makes an altar and tells them that the next day will be a festival to the LORD, using the holy name of the God of Israel who freed them from slavery in Egypt. Perhaps his intention is to sacrifice the golden calf on the altar as a way of stirring the people to think again about what they are doing. The people, however, bring offerings early the next day which they sacrifice to the golden calf as burnt offerings and offerings of well-being, and have themselves a feast.
7-10: Meanwhile on the mountain God tells Moses that the people have already broken the first commandment and he is going to destroy them.
11-14: Moses argues with God much the same as had Abraham. His argument is twofold: one, if God destroys them now the Egyptians will think they have won after all; two, God promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that their descendants would number like the stars. His arguments are effective, and God’s anger is assuaged. (This idea that God can be persuaded to change is the hope of many selfish prayers.)
15-20: Joshua has been on the mountain with Moses all along, though not at the summit, and he thinks the noise coming from below is a battle, but Moses knows it is a festival. When he sees the golden calf, he breaks the two tablets by throwing them on the ground, a symbol of what the people are doing to the Law they have only recently been given. He storms into the camp in a rage and burns the calf (perhaps throwing it on the altar?), then grinding it up and scattering it on their drinking water and making them drink their god.
21-24: Moses confronts Aaron, who pretends it all just sort of happened through no fault of his own.
25-29: Aaron is not as successful in calming Moses down as Moses had been with God, and Moses’ anger still needs venting. He challenges the people by asking who will stand with him. The “sons of Levi” join him, and he tells them to go through the camp and for each one of them to kill a brother, friend or neighbor, presumably from among those who were still reveling. They do so, killing about 3000.
Verse 29 is problematic because it can read either, “today you have ordained yourselves,” (that is, by following Moses’ orders and shedding the blood of even their closest friends and relatives they have justified having been set apart for special duties within the camp) or, “today ordain yourselves,” meaning that their act of fidelity qualifies them to now become priests along with Aaron and his sons. However, almost certainly it is the first interpretation that holds.
30-34: Moses returns to the mountain to argue for the people. He has taken severe actions to punish them and thus atone for their sin, and he tells God that if his actions aren’t good enough then God should discard him, not them. God, however, is not to be denied vengeance, and tells Moses to tend to his own business of leading the people. God will deal with those who have sinned against God.
35: So, the people suffer a plague, although we are not told what kind of plague it is or how severe, but it is not the first plague they encounter in the wilderness.
The golden calf is a significant and dangerous attempt at a ‘coup’ on the part of the people. They learned the hard way that their ‘god’ was no god. Nor is there any god we today can make that is real. We either worship the LORD, Creator of heaven and earth, giver of life, or we worship non-gods that we elevate to a status we invent. The very first commandment is “have no other gods before me.”