Bible Story: Worshiping a Golden Calf
Based on Exodus 32
Retold by Paul Katula

The BASIC STORY

When Moses went onto Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments from God for the first time, the Israelites, whom Moses had just led out of Egypt, looked forward to his return from the mountain. Unfortunately, Moses spent 40 days on the mountain, which was perhaps a little too long for the Israelites to wait for further instructions from God.

Thinking that Moses wasn't ever coming back, they just couldn't wait. They asked Aaron, Moses' brother, to make a new god for them, since, obviously, the one Moses was talking to on the mountain didn't care about them any more.

Aaron told the Israelites to give him their gold earrings and other things made of gold so he could build a god for them to worship. Aaron melted down the gold and formed it into a calf, which the people praised:

"Oh, great calf, you are the god who brought us out of Egypt, and we praise you most highly," they said in rituals and ceremonies around the golden calf. These rituals included things like making burnt offerings to the calf, and the people ate, drank, and made merry in praising the calf. Some of the celebrations got a little out of control.

Not a Wise Thing to Do
When God saw what was happening, he became very angry. His chosen people, the ones he had just rescued from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians, actually started worshiping an idol less than 40 days after he had just saved their lives. How ungrateful is that!

"Your people are a stiff-necked bunch, Moses. They have sinned a great sin against me, by casting idols out of gold," God said. "That's all I can take, so I'm just going to start over with the human race." An idol is a material or physical object that is worshiped as a god, but it is not really God.

"But Lord," Moses prayed. "I beg you to remember the promise you made to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, in which you promised never to destroy your people again and to deliver them to the promised land."

God listened and changed his mind, deciding not to destroy all the Israelites. But the people still had to be punished, and it was left up to Moses to stop them from worshiping the golden calf.

Hurry Up down the Mountain
So, Moses rushed down the mountain. When he saw that the Lord was right about his people worshiping a golden idol, he threw down the two tablets he was carrying, on which God had written the Ten Commandments. They broke into thousands of tiny pieces.

Moses was piping mad. He immediately burned the golden calf and ground it into a powder. He mixed the powder with water and made the Israelites drink it. That was their punishment, but it wasn't the end.

Moses called the Levites into his home. These "sons of Levi" were the leaders in Moses' Hebrew community.

"Take your sword, each of you," Moses commanded them. "And go back through the gates, from side to side in the village, to kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor for the sins they have committed against the Lord God."

About 3,000 Israelites died in the slaughter.

Ordained Servants of God
"Today you have ordained yourselves in the service of the Lord God," Moses told the Levites after the massacre. "Each of you has done this but at great cost: you lost a son, a brother, a friend. Therefore, the Lord will look on you with mercy and kindness."

When Moses went back to Mount Sinai to ask the Lord for mercy and forgiveness, he told God that if it was not possible to forgive the people, then God could just blot Moses' name right out of the book in which he had written it.

"I will blot out the names of the people who have sinned against me," God said. "But now, lead my people on to the promised land, the land that I promised Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. When the day comes to punish those who made the calf, I will take care of that punishment."

In the end, the Lord sent a plague on his people, to punish them for the sin of making the golden calf and worshiping it as if it were equivalent to God.

The MORAL of the STORY

Some Bible scholars believe that this story may have been added by editors during the Exile, when the Book of Exodus took its final form. These scholars say it was added to bad-mouth the religion practiced by people in the Northern Kingdom. However, there is really no good evidence to either refute or corroborate this theory. See, for example, the golden calf worship described in the time of Jereboam I (1 Kings 12:26-33).

The key to understanding the meaning of this story is Aaron, who made the calf for the people. When Moses left, he put his brother in charge. What was Aaron thinking? He basically allowed the people to worship whatever they wanted. It may be true (the Bible is extremely unclear about this) that Aaron actually intended the calf to represent the God of Israel. At least, he declared a feast to the Lord soon after he built the idol. It's because Aaron is so wishy-washy in dealing with the people that he comes out looking so bad. He doesn't stand up for his beliefs, but rather, he gives into the people's demands.

Another possible lesson from this story is in Moses, who at the end tells God he is willing to sacrifice his eternal life (blot out of the "book" God has written... see Rev 20:12, 21:17; Ps 69:28; Dan 12:1). He is willing to give up that eternal life in order to bring forgiveness onto the people of Israel. This is a direct foreshadowing of Christ who does give up his life on the cross for God's chosen people (us... see Matthew 20:28, for example). In addition, Paul was willing to be cut off from the promises of Christ for the sake of God's people (see Rom 9:1-5). Would you be willing to give up so much in order to bring your friend closer to Christ, thus saving a life?

In the story, because of their sin, known as idolatry, the Israelites deserved to die according to God's law. But God provided forgiveness and a new beginning instead, thanks to Moses, who accepted God's commandment. We as Christians know the blood of Christ on the cross saved us from sin, but this story is just an example of how powerful the grace and kindness of God really are. They can overcome even the most deadly sins. We should be much more confident today in our salvation through Christ than the Israelites in Moses' time were through the Hebrew law.

Another possible moral of this story concerns patience. The Lord had done such great things for the people of Israel, leading them safely through a parted Red Sea, out of the slavery of the Egyptians, and they couldn't even wait 40 days for him to tell them what to do next! That's impatience, for sure. Jesus said to his disciples (Luke 21:17-19): "Everyone will hate you because of my Name, but not a single hair on your head will be harmed. You endurance will save you and gain your souls." How does this teaching of Jesus Christ, our Lord, relate to the golden calf story, regarding patience?

Finally, concerning the grave sin of idolatry. What "idols" do you have in your life? Remember, idols don't have to be statues of cows. Idols are anything we worship, except that God himself is not an idol, of course. Some people worship money, sex, drugs, and material possessions. Instead, we should be honoring the commandment God gave us, to love one another, like spending time with our friends and families, and doing other things that show God's love to others and keep our promise to the One who created us. We should not replace these true acts of kindness and love with false gods of money and other instant-pleasure gratification.