This page was originally posted on my Blogger version of the blog on October 4, 2015
The content below has a few minor tweaks for clarity, and additional references, and some updated information.
While Moses is on the mount talking to God, the Israelites are quick to break the first and second commandments. Possibly the most infamous case of idolatry in the Bible—particularly among the Israelites—the case of the golden calf shows us just how merciful and patient God truly is.
From God's point of view, He has delivered them from Egypt through a series of miracles, parted the Red Sea, provided protection against an army, gave them food and water when there was none, and shown Himself as a pillar (of cloud and of fire) before them, yet they still refuse to stay true to Him.
Cause and Motivation
Like believers today, the Israelites panicked when Moses didn't return immediately. Can you imagine seeing him go up to this cloud that thundered, then not returning for over a month? Moses was on the mountain for 40 days without any communication with the Israelites. Whether they thought God had killed him, taken him to Heaven like Enoch, or that he had abandoned them, the Israelites panicked. It is possible that when Moses performed acts in the name of God, the Israelites wrongly attributed the miracles to Moses (and Aaron) instead of to God.
Photocredit: FreeImages.com/Tatyana Khramtsova
In fear, the Israelites ask Aaron to build them an idol. Aaron could have been the one to put an end to the idea of idolatry and calmed the people, however, he went along with the idea. Aaron requests the gold earrings of the people and fashions the gold into a calf. During the time that God is telling Moses how to consecrate Aaron as a high priest of God, Aaron is blasphemously attributing the actions of God to the golden calf he's built. Aaron even builds an altar for the calf and proclaims the Israelites should have a feast for the calf. This is precisely what God forbade when issuing the first and second commandments.
I find it interesting that Aaron chose to make a calf. The Canaanite god Baal was known as the bull god and often represented by a bull. In Eastern religions like Hinduism, the cow is considered sacred. Egypt and Greece (therefore Rome) also had gods who were symbolized by the bull.
Because Moses is with God when the Israelites begin creating/worshiping the golden calf, we get a complete picture of God's reaction to the crime—from the beginning, all the way until He forgives them. Initially, He is furious; He describes the Israelites as corrupted and "stiff-necked." He tells Moses He will destroy the Israelites but make a great nation of Moses (as Moses has not committed the crime).
It’s important to realize that the Israelites were not worshiping a foreign deity, but using foreign methods to worship the Father, and it still made Him angry. Simply putting His name on the bull and the feast did not make it ok. The same is true today of pagan practices that exist in the church.
Luckily, Moses (who was favored by God) fought for the Israelites' redemption—Abraham behaved similarly on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses pleads with God not to pour out His wrath on Israel, using the argument that the Israelites (and anyone who heard the events from Egypt through the destruction) would think He had taken them from Egypt simply to kill them. Moses further reminds God that He promised Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob), that the Israelites would be a great nation. It is through Moses' plea that God recants His desire to destroy Israel. The action of intercession that Moses takes on for both Pharaoh during the plagues and the Israelites after the golden calf fiasco is what Jesus does for us each time we sin.
God commands Moses to return to the people to pacify His wrath. As Moses and Joshua head down the mountain, Joshua hears the noise of the idol celebration. Once they can see the camp, the golden calf becomes visible causing Moses' anger to be incited. Remember, God never told Moses why He was angry with the Israelites, so Moses was just witnessing the idolatry for the first time. In anger, Moses breaks the stone tablets that God authors and destroys the golden calf. He melts the calf in the fire, grinds it into powder, places the powder in to the water, and forces the Israelites to drink it.
Moses Confronts Aaron
As the one Moses left in charge and the soon to be high priest, Aaron is the one Moses sees as responsible for the people's lapse in faith. When Moses confronts Aaron about the idolatry, Aaron's reaction is just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden—he places the blame on the people. Moses then rallies those who will stand for God; they were to kill those who were against God. The Levites are the ones who respond to Moses' call. They kill 3000 people that day, but the next day there are still sinners which leads scholars to believe that the 3000 were the leaders of the rebellion or active participants.
It is interesting to note that although Aaron is the one who makes the statue and tries weasel out of responsibility when Moses confronts him, he is still chosen as the high priest. Since the text tells us the sons of Levi joined Moses to stand for God, we know that Aaron quickly sided with God and eventually repented. As some point out, God often chooses unexpected people to lead and carry out His plan. Aaron's position as high priest proves the power of God's forgiveness. It also proves that once God has called us to a task, we will fulfill His calling.
After idolatry and murder, atonement must be made. Moses goes before God to repent and plead for forgiveness. In this conversation, Moses tells God if He won't forgive Israel, He can blot Moses' name from God's book (the Book of Life). This is the first time the Book of Life is mentioned in the Bible. God tells Moses that He will blot out those who sinned against Him. God plagues the Israelites as punishment for their idolatry, but maintains sending His angel to guide them to the promised land.
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