Golden calf

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The Adoration of the Golden Calf – picture from the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg (12th century)

According to the Bible and the Quran, the golden calf (Hebrew: עֵגֶל הַזָּהָב, romanizedʿēḡel hazzāhāḇ) was a cult image made by the Israelites when Moses went up to Mount Sinai. In Hebrew, the incident is known as "the sin of the calf" (Hebrew: חֵטְא הָעֵגֶל, romanizedḥēṭəʾ hāʿēḡel). It is first mentioned in the Book of Exodus.[1]

Bull worship was common in many cultures. In Egypt, whence according to the Exodus narrative, the Israelites had recently come, the Apis was a comparable object of worship, which some believe the Hebrews were reviving in the wilderness.[2] Alternatively, some believe Yahweh, the national god of the Israelites, was associated with or pictured as a sacred bull through the process of religious assimilation and syncretism.[3] Among the Canaanites, some of whom would become the Israelites,[4] the bull was widely worshipped as the Lunar Bull and the creature of El.[5]

Biblical narrative[edit]

The Worship of the Golden Calf by Filippino Lippi (1457–1504)

When Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:12–18), he left the Israelites for forty days and nights. The Israelites feared that he would not return and demanded that Aaron make them "a god who shall go before us". Aaron told the Israelites' to bring their golden earrings and ornaments in order to stall for time, constructed a "golden calf" and he declared, "'This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!'" (Exodus 32:1–4).

Aaron built an altar before the calf and proclaimed the next day to be a feast to yhwh(again in order to stall for time) . "Early next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance." (Exodus 32:6)

yhwh told Moses what the Israelites were up to back in camp, that they had turned aside quickly from the way which God commanded them and he was going to destroy them and start a new people from Moses. Moses pleaded that they should be spared "And yhwh renounced the punishment planned for God’s people." (Exodus 32:11–14)

Moses went down from the mountain; upon seeing the calf, he became angry and threw down the two Tablets of Stone, breaking them. Moses burnt the golden calf in a fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on water, and forced the Israelites to drink it. When Moses asked him, Aaron admitted to collecting the gold and throwing it into the fire; he said it came out as a calf. (Exodus 32:21–24)

Exclusion of the Levites and mass execution[edit]

The Bible records that the tribe of Levi did not worship the golden calf. Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Whoever is for יהוה, come here!” Then all the men of Levi rallied to him.

He said to them, "Thus says yhwh, the God of Israel: Each of you put sword on thigh, go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay sibling, neighbor, and kin." The men of Levi did as Moses had bidden; and some three thousand of the people fell that day. And Moses said, "Dedicate yourselves to yhwh this day—for each of you has been against blood relations—that [God] may bestow a blessing upon you today."

Other mentions in the Bible[edit]

Moses destroying the tablets (watercolor c. 1896–1902 by James Tissot)

The golden calf is mentioned in Nehemiah 9:16–21.

But they, our ancestors, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and they did not obey your commands. They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery. But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them, even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf and said, 'This is your god, who brought you up out of Egypt', or when they committed awful blasphemies. Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the wilderness. By day the pillar of cloud did not fail to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take. You gave your good Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them water for their thirst. For forty years you sustained them in the wilderness; they lacked nothing, their clothes did not wear out nor did their feet become swollen.

The language suggests that there are some inconsistencies in the other accounts of the Israelites and their use of the calf. As the version in Exodus and 1 Kings are written by Deuteronomistic historians based in the southern Kingdom of Judah, there is a proclivity to expose the Israelites as unfaithful. The inconsistency is primarily located in Exodus 32:4 where "gods" is plural despite the construction of a single calf.[6]

The episode of the golden calf is also mentioned in the New Testament, by the apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians chapter 10, as a warning against idolatry. "Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were... ."

Scholars are divided on other intertextual references to the golden calf in the Torah, notably the ordeal of the bitter water in the Book of Numbers 5:17–24. Specific elements of the ritual, such as the powder mixed into water and being forced to drink, echo similar language in the aftermath of Moses punishing Israel at the end of the narrative.[7]

Jeroboam's golden calves at Bethel and Dan[edit]

Worshiping the Golden Calf

According to 1 Kings 12:26–30, after Jeroboam establishes the northern Kingdom of Israel, he contemplates the sacrificial practices of the Israelites.

Jeroboam thought to himself, "The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David. If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam." After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, "It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt." One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan. And this thing became a sin; the people came to worship the one at Bethel and went as far as Dan to worship the other.

His concern was that the tendency to offer sacrifices in Jerusalem, which is in the southern Kingdom of Judah, would lead to a return to King Rehoboam. He makes two golden calves and places them in Bethel and Dan. He erects the two calves in what he figures (in some interpretations) as substitutes for the cherubim built by King Solomon in Jerusalem.[8]

However, in the Antiquities of the Jews (v. VIII: 8), which is taken from the Septuagint, Josephus states: "He made two golden heifers, and built two little temples for them, the one in the city Bethel, and the other in Dan...and he put the heifers into both the little temples in the aforementioned cities."

Richard Elliott Friedman says "at a minimum we can say that the writer of the golden calf account in Exodus seems to have taken the words that were traditionally ascribed to Jeroboam and placed them in the mouths of the people." Friedman believes that the story was turned into a polemic, exaggerating the throne platform decoration into idolatry, by a family of priests sidelined by Jeroboam.[9]

The declarations of Aaron's people and Jeroboam are almost identical:

  • 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt' (Exod 32:4, 8);
  • 'Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt' (1 Kings 12:28)

After making the golden calf or golden calves, both Aaron and Jeroboam celebrate festivals. Aaron builds an altar and Jeroboam ascends an altar (Exod 32:5–6; 1 Kings 12:32–33).[10]

Jewish views[edit]

The Levites killed about 3,000 Israelites who worshipped the Golden Calf (1984 illustration by Jim Padgett).

In Legends of the Jews, the Conservative rabbi and scholar Louis Ginzberg wrote that the worship of the golden calf was the disastrous consequence for Israel who took a mixed multitude in their exodus from Egypt. Had not the mixed multitude joined them, Israel would not have been misled to worship this molten idol. The form of the calf itself came from a magical virtue of an ornament leaf with the image of the bull which is made by Aaron.[11]

The devotion of Israel to this worship of the calf was partly explained by a circumstance at passing through the Red Sea, when they beheld the most distinct creature about the Celestial Throne which is the resemblance of ox, then they thought it was an ox who had helped God in their journey from Egypt.[11] After seeing Hur, son of Miriam, who was carelessly murdered by the people following his rebuke of their ingratitude action to God, Aaron was willing rather to take a sin upon himself to make an idol than to cast the burden of an evil deed upon the people if they commit so terrible sin of killing a priest and prophet among them.[11]

Also there would be among the Israelites no priestly caste, and the nation would have been a nation of priests only if Israel had not sinned through worshiping the golden calf that the greater part of the people lost the right to priesthood, except the tribe of Levi as the only tribe who remained faithful to God and did not partake in this sinful deed.[12]

According to Nachman of Breslov, everyone contributed to the building of the Tabernacle, and the contribution that each Jew made was his or her good points. Thus, the Tabernacle was built by the good points found in each person; this was sufficient to counteract the blemish of the golden calf.[13] The "good points" are reflected in the "gold, silver and copper" that the Jews donated. The various colors of these metals reflect the Supernal Colors and the beauty of a person's good deeds.[14]

Christian views[edit]

Justus Knecht gives two important moral points from the episode of the golden calf: 1) The Mercy of God. "The people of Israel had sinned horribly against God by their idolatry, and yet, at Moses’ intercession, He forgave them." 2) Idolatry. "The weak people were most ungrateful and faithless to God. The Lord had done such great things for them! Only forty days before, full of holy fear, they had heard His voice and had repeatedly promised obedience to His Commandments; and now they transgressed the first and most important of them, and forsook God to worship idols. Saint Paul calls lust and covetousness idolatry. Whenever a man loves anything more than he loves God, he is guilty of idolatry."[15]

Islamic narrative[edit]

The incident of the worship of the golden calf is narrated in the second chapter of the Quran, named Al-Baqarah, and other works of Islamic literature. The Quran narrates that after they refused to enter the promised land, God decreed that as punishment the Israelites would wander for forty years. Moses continued to lead the Israelites to Mount Sinai for divine guidance. According to Islamic literature, God ordered Moses to fast for forty nights before receiving the guidance for the Israelites.[16][17] When Moses completed the fasts, he approached God for guidance. During this time, Moses had instructed the Israelites that Aaron was to lead them.[17]

The Israelites grew restless, since Moses had not returned to them, and after thirty days, a man the Quran names as Samiri raised doubts among the Israelites. Samiri claimed that Moses had forsaken the Israelites and ordered his followers among the Israelites to light a fire and bring him all the jewelry and gold ornaments they had.[18] Samiri fashioned the gold into a golden calf along with the dust on which the angel Gabriel had trodden, which he proclaimed to be the God of Moses and the God who had guided them out of Egypt.[19] There is a sharp contrast between the Quranic and the biblical accounts of the prophet Aaron's actions. The Quran mentions that Aaron attempted to guide and warn the people from worshipping the golden calf. However, the Israelites refused to stop until Moses had returned.[20] The righteous separated themselves from the pagans. God informed Moses that he had tried the Israelites in his absence and that they had failed by worshipping the golden calf.

Returning to the Israelites in great anger, Moses asked Aaron why he had not stopped the Israelites when he had seen them worshipping the golden calf. The Quran reports that Aaron stated that he did not act due to the fear that Moses would blame him for causing divisions among the Israelites and that he was afraid of being killed, he explained "Son of my mother, indeed this people thought me to be weak, and they were about to kill me. So do not let the enemies gloat over me, and do not take me with the wrongdoing lot." Moses realized his helplessness in the situation, and both prayed to God for forgiveness.[21] According to Qur’anic sources Moses then questioned Samiri for the creation of the golden calf;[22] Samiri justified his actions by stating that he had thrown the dust of the ground upon which Gabriel had tread on into the fire because his soul had suggested it to him.[23][18] Moses informed him that he would be banished and that they would burn the golden calf and spread its dust into the sea.[24] Moses ordered seventy delegates to repent to God and pray for forgiveness.[25] The delegates traveled alongside Moses to Mount Sinai, where they witnessed the speech between him and God but refused to believe until they had witnessed God with their sight. As punishment, God struck the delegates with lightning and killed them with a violent earthquake.[26] Moses prayed to God for their forgiveness. God forgave and resurrected them and they continued on their journey.[27]

In the Islamic view, the calf-worshipers' sin had been shirk (Arabic: شرك), the sin of idolatry or polytheism. Shirk is the deification or worship of anyone or anything other than God (Allah in Arabic) or more literally the establishment of "partners" placed beside God, a most serious sin.

Historical interpretation[edit]

Early precursor: copper bull from Ninhursag's temple in Ur
The Louvre bullock is still gilded.
Bronze bull statuette found at a worship site in the Samaria region, c. 12th century BCE

Copper Bull: According to modern scholarship, there are two versions of the Ten Commandments story, in Elohist (Exodus 20) and Jahwist (Exodus 34); this gives some antiquity and there may be some original events serving as a basis to the stories. The Golden Calf story is only in the E version and a later editor added in an explanation that God made a second pair of tablets to give continuity to the J story.[28] The actual Ten Commandments as given in Exodus 20 were also inserted by the redactor who combined the various sources.[29]

Current historiography considers that this episode was introduced into the Exodus account in the time of Josiah (late 7th century BCE) or later to discredit the custom rooted in the Kingdom of Israel (North) of identifying Yahweh with a bull. The cult of the bull was rooted in Palestine from pre-Israelite times, as attested by the archaeological find of a bronze bull in the sanctuary of the acropolis of Jasor dated to the late Bronze Age. A bronze bull has also been found in an Israelite sanctuary east of Tel Dothan, in the mountains of Samaria, dated to around the 11th century BCE.[30]

Albertz says that when we read in 1 Kings 12:28 that the first monarch of the northern kingdom, Jeroboam, had introduced the worship of golden calves in Bethel and Dan, we must interpret that what Jeroboam really does is to return to the traditional Israelite religion, as opposed to the syncretistic innovations introduced by David and Solomon in centralizing the cult in Jerusalem.[31]

According to Michael Coogan, it seems that the golden calf was not an idol for another god, and thus a false god.[32] He cites Exodus 32:4–5 as evidence:

He [Aaron] took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, "Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD (Yahweh)."

Importantly, there is a single calf in this narrative. While the people refer to it as representative of the "gods", this is a possessive form of the word Elohim (אֱלֹהֶיךָelo'hecha, from אֱלֹהִים‎), which is a name of God as well as general word for "gods". While a reference to singular god does not necessarily imply Yahweh worship, the word usually translated as 'lord' is Yahweh יהוה‎ in the original, so at least it cannot be ruled out.[32] In the chronology of Exodus the commandment against the creation of graven images had not yet been given to the people when they pressed upon Aaron to help them make the calf, and that such behavior was not yet explicitly outlawed.[32]

Another understanding of the golden calf narrative is that the calf was meant to be the pedestal of Yahweh. In Near Eastern art, gods were often depicted standing on an animal, rather than seated on a throne.[32] This reading suggests that the golden calf was merely an alternative to the ark of the covenant or the cherubim upon which Yahweh was enthroned.[32]

The reason for this complication may be understood as

  1. a criticism of Aaron, as the founder of one priestly house that rivaled the priestly house of Moses, and/or
  2. as "an attack on the northern kingdom of Israel."[32] The second explanation relies on the "sin of Jeroboam," who was the first king of the northern kingdom, as the cause of the northern kingdom's fall to Assyria in 722 BCE.[32] Jeroboam's "sin" was creating two calves of gold, and sending one to Bethel as a worship site in the south of the Kingdom, and the other to Dan as a worship site in the north, so that the people of the northern kingdom would not have to continue to go to Jerusalem to worship (see 1 Kings 12:26–30). According to Coogan, this episode is part of the Deuteronomistic history, written in the southern Kingdom of Judah, after the fall of the northern kingdom, which was biased against the northern kingdom.[32] Coogan maintains that Jeroboam was merely presenting an alternative to the cherubim of the Temple in Jerusalem, and that calves did not indicate non-Yahwehistic worship.[32]

The documentary hypothesis can be used to further understand the layers of this narrative: it is plausible that the earliest story of the golden calf was preserved by E (Israel source) and originated in the northern kingdom. When E and J (Judah source) were combined after the fall of northern kingdom, "the narrative was reworked to portray the northern kingdom in a negative light," and the worship of the calf was depicted as "polytheism, with the suggestion of a sexual orgy" (see Exodus 32:6). When compiling the narratives, P (a later Priest source from Jerusalem) may have minimized Aaron's guilt in the matter, but preserved the negativity associated with the calf.[32]

Alternatively it could be said that there is no golden calf story in the J source, and if it is correct that the Jeroboam story was the original as stated by Friedman, then it is unlikely that the golden calf events as described in Exodus occurred at all. Friedman states that the smashing of the Ten Commandments by Moses when he beheld the worship of the golden calf, is really an attempt to cast into doubt the validity of Judah's central shrine, the Ark of the Covenant. "The author of E, in fashioning the golden calf story, attacked both the Israelite and Judean religious establishments."[33]

As adoration of wealth[edit]

A metaphoric interpretation emphasizes the "gold" part of "golden calf" to criticize the pursuit of wealth.[34] This usage can be found in Spanish[35] where Mammon, the Gospel personification of idolatry of wealth, is not so current.

In popular culture[edit]

Eponymous subjects[edit]


  • In Episode 79 of the U. S. television series Batman, a Golden Calf full of money was stolen by The Riddler[40]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Exodus 32:4.
  2. ^ Chung, Youn Ho (2010). The Sin of the Calf: The Rise of the Bible's Negative Attitude Toward the Golden Calf. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-567-21231-3.
  3. ^ Day, John. Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan. 2002. pp. 36ff.
  4. ^ Finklestein, Israel; Silberman, Neil Asher (2002). The Bible Unearthed. Touchstone. p. 118. ISBN 0-684-86913-6. Most of the people who formed early Israel were local people—the same people whom we see in the highlands throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. The early Israelites were—irony of ironies—themselves originally Canaanites!
  5. ^ Friedman, Richard Elliott (2019) [1987]. Who Wrote the Bible?. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-1-9821-2900-2. The calf, or young bull, was often associated with the god El, the chief god of the Canaanites, who was in fact referred to as Bull El.
  6. ^ Coogan, 2009, pp. 116–117.
  7. ^ " | Biblical Intertextuality | Exodus 32:20 | Numbers 5:17". Retrieved 2024-02-16.
  8. ^ Coogan, 2009. p. 117.
  9. ^ Friedman, Richard Elliott, "Who Wrote the Bible?", 1987, pp. 72–73.
  10. ^ Harvey, John E. (2004). Retelling the Torah: the Deuteronomistic historian's use of Tetrateuchal Narratives. New York, New York; London, England: T & T Clark International. p. 2. ISBN 9780567080950. OCLC 276852204.: "The subsequent declarations of Aaron's people and Jeroboam are almost identical: 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt' (Exod 32:4, 8); 'Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land ..."
  11. ^ a b c Ginzberg, Louis (1909). The Legends of the Jews Volume III: The Golden Calf (Translated by Henrietta Szold) Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Jewish Publication Society.
  12. ^ Ginzberg, Louis (1909). The Legends of the Jews Volume III: The Revelations in the Tabernacle, (Translated by Henrietta Szold). Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Jewish Publication Society.
  13. ^ Likutey Halakhot I.
  14. ^ Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. Exodus-Leviticus Jerusalem, Israel/New York, New York, Breslov Research Institute.
  15. ^ Knecht, Friedrich Justus (1910). "XXXVII. The Golden Calf" . A Practical Commentary on Holy Scripture. B. Herder.
  16. ^ Quran 2:51.
  17. ^ a b Quran 7:142.
  18. ^ a b M. Th Houtsma (1993). First encyclopaedia of Islam: 1913–1936. BRILL. p. 136. ISBN 9004097961.
  19. ^ Abdul-Sahib Al-Hasani Al-'amili. The Prophets, Their Lives and Their Stories. Forgotten Books. p. 354. ISBN 9781605067063.
  20. ^ IslamKotob, Sayyed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi. Stories of the Prophets – قصص الانبياء. p. 115.
  21. ^ Quran 7:167–174.
  22. ^ "Quran 20:95". Retrieved 2022-07-09.
  23. ^ "Quran 20:96".
  24. ^ "Quran 20:97".
  25. ^ IslamKotob, Sayyed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi. Stories of the Prophets – قصص الانبياء. p. 113.
  26. ^ Iftikhar Ahmed Mehar (2003). Al-Islam: Inception to Conclusion. Al-Islam. p. 123. ISBN 9781410732729.
  27. ^ "The Quran: 2:54 to 2:56". The Quran. Retrieved 2023-06-22.
  28. ^ Friedman, Richard Elliott. 2003. The Bible with Sources Revealed, p. 177.
  29. ^ Friedman, Richard Elliott. 2003. The Bible with Sources Revealed, p. 153.
  30. ^ Pedro Giménez de Aragón Sierra. (2007). "Historia de la Salvación, Una antigua fuente judeocristiana," Traducción y Comentario de Recognitiones I,27–42,2. Miño y Dávila srl. pp. 238.
  31. ^ Albertz, R: Historia de la Religión de Israel en Tiempos del Antiguo Testamento (in Spanish). Göttingen, 1992. Madrid, Spain, 1999.
  32. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Coogan, M. (2009). A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible in Its Context. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 115.
  33. ^ Friedman, Richard Elliott (1987). Who Wrote the Bible?. p. 74.
  34. ^ Squires, Nick (2013-05-17). "Pope blames tyranny of capitalism for making people miserable". The Age. Retrieved 2019-09-25.
  35. ^ "becerro de oro". Diccionario de la Real Academia Española.
  36. ^ "Trump's golden statue compared to Golden Calf in online derision". The Jerusalem Post | 2021-02-27. Retrieved 2024-02-16.
  37. ^ Castronuovo, Celine (26 February 2021). "Golden statue of Trump at CPAC ridiculed online". The Hill. Retrieved 28 February 2021.
  38. ^ Beauchamp, Zach (26 February 2021). "This golden statue of Trump at CPAC is a perfect metaphor for the state of the GOP". Vox. Retrieved 28 February 2021.
  39. ^ Chait, Jonathan (26 February 2021). "Donald Trump, CPAC and Republican Cult of Losing". Retrieved 28 February 2021.
  40. ^ DeCandido, Keith (September 16, 2016). "Holy Rewatch Batman! "Batman's Anniversary" / "A Riddling Controversy"". Macmillan Publishers. Archived from the original on September 17, 2016.

Further reading[edit]

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