The Golden Calf narrative is perhaps one of the most memorable tales from the pen of the Elohist. But the story is not as ancient as one might think. In fact, it most probably was put to pen some time in the 8th or 7th century BC. The specific contradiction presented here is not so much a contradiction between two textual traditions; rather, it is between some apparent inconsistencies in the narrative itself.
For instance, the people clamor for gods who “will go in front of us” since Moses has apparently disappeared. Aaron abides by their wishes, and melting the peoples’ gold jewelry down he “fashioned it with a stylus and made a molten calf,” and then proclaimed: “these are your gods Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” As our first textual anomaly, we notice that one calf is made, yet the text proclaims “gods” in the plural. Why?
Second, and largely illogical in the larger narrative context, merely days after the Horeb revelation, the giving and acceptance of the laws by the people, one of which stipulated no images, and apparently only a short time after witnessing Yahweh’s “signs and wonders” in his destruction of Egypt, their land, livestock, plants, and all firstborns, and the parting of the sea of Reeds, it is these new gods who are proclaimed as the gods “who brought you out of Egypt.” There is much that initially does not make any sense here.
Lastly, Aaron builds an altar before the molten image and proclaims “a festival to Yahweh tomorrow!” And then we’re told that “they got up early the next day and made burnt offerings and brought over peace offerings”—that is, common sacrificial offerings to Yahweh. So, what or who exactly is being celebrated: Yahweh, the golden calf, or the “gods” who apparently brought Israel out of Egypt? Additionally, what is the relationship, that the text firmly implies, between Yahweh, the Golden Calf, and the “gods” of which it speaks?
Believe it or not, these questions can all be satisfactorily answered. But let us first examine more closely the literary context within which this story finds itself, and then secondly its historical context, that is in what historical period was it written and why.
The story presented in Exodus 32 is a self-contained unit and can be understood without knowledge of what preceded it and what follows. In fact, the story fits oddly into its literary context, more so with what immediately precedes it—a long Priestly insert detailing the parts of the Tabernacle to be built (Ex 25-31), and which is then built in Ex 35-40 where Aaron and his descendants are appointed as officiating priests, in contradiction to the portrait of Aaron drawn in the Golden Calf narrative.
But even if we go back to the last Elohist text in Exodus, our present story still makes no sense in its literary context. The last E material is found in Exodus 20-24 and narrates the divine theophany on Horeb, the people’s witnessing and fearing the theophany, the giving of the covenant law code, whose first commandment is—
“I am Yahweh your god who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from a house of slaves; you shall not have other gods before my face; you shall not make an image or any form that is in the skies above or that is in the earth below or that is in the water below the earth; you shall not bow to them, and you shall not serve them” (Ex 20:2-4)
—and the people’s consent to follow the covenant code, and finally the ratification of the covenant through the sacrifice of burnt offerings and peace-offerings of bulls to Yahweh! The Elohist passage ends on this note: “And Moses and Joshua, his attendant, got up, and Moses went up to the mountain of the god” (24:13).
A long, and later, Priestly insert, now Exodus 25-31, tells of Yahweh’s instructions to Moses about the construction of the tabernacle, and then the Elohist source comes in again at Exodus 32:1:
“And the people saw that Moses was delaying to come down from the mountain, and the people assembled at Aaron and said to him: ‘Get up. Make gods for us who will go in front of us because this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what has become of him!”
This, they say merely days, weeks, after witnessing Yahweh’s theophany at Horeb, accepting Yahweh’s covenant, and acknowledging themselves as Yahweh’s people.
Even more puzzling, this all occurs right on the heels of the Exodus, the miraculous crossing of the Red sea, the witnessing of Yahweh’s ten terrifying signs and wonders by which means he destroyed Egypt and redeemed the children of Israel. The story of the Golden Calf makes no sense within this literary context. Even granting the people’s inclination, if you like, toward disobedience, it still makes no sense following the array of Yahweh’s awesome signs, wonders, miracles, and theophany, as well as their own verbally expressed consent to be Yahweh’s people and uphold his covenant. Like so many of the murmuring stories in Exodus and Numbers, the stories have little historical semblance and make no sense in their literary contexts (see also #222, #333, #444).
Rather, the Golden Calf episode was written as an independent story with a specific message to a specific audience. It was later inserted, rather poorly it must be said, into its current literary context in Exodus. Furthermore, the meaning and purpose of this text is discernible once one understands the historical circumstances that prompted our author to write it—that is, what he was writing about.
So what is the purpose and message of the Golden Calf narrative? Later biblical traditions, like the Deuteronomic, will view the Golden Calf incident as just another rebellion story associated with the hard-necked wilderness generation (Deut 9). And we may note that like other stories of rebellion, they served a specific theological need and function: to showcase and warn about dangers, such as infidelity, that lead to national catastrophe and punishment by the deity (but see #111). But besides how later tradition might have understood this story, what else might be said about its purpose and date of composition?
A good starting point is to examine the verse which exclaims “these are your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt” (Ex 32:4). Recall that this is said in the context of: 1) a single molten calf, and 2) a festival to Yahweh—both of which initially make little sense.
Yet there is another passage in the Bible that might clue us in to what is really going on here in the Golden Calf narrative. In fact there is only one other place in all of the Bible that duplicates word for word the verse above, and it is found in 1 Kings 12:28: “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”
Could both the account in 1 Kings 12 and the Golden Calf narrative be recounting the same or similar event? Is one of these texts alluding to the other through the use of this exact phrase? It certainly seems so.
The statement in 1 Kings 12:28 is claimed to have been said by Jeroboam I, the northern kingdom’s first king after its secession from Solomon’s tyranny. It must also be borne in mind that this is what the author, most likely the pro-Solomonic southern Deuteronomist, says Jeroboam says. It’s certainly a discriminating remark, and was used despairingly to depict Jeroboam as an apostate. This was, no doubt, the Deuteronomist’s intention. The reference, however, whether Jeroboam actually said this or not, has a real historical referent. “The gods” of which the Deuteronomist has Jeroboam proclaim are actually two molten calves, or more precisely young bulls, that Jeroboam establishes at Dan and Bethel to rival the cultic center at Jerusalem. This explains the plural, “gods” in the Golden Calf narrative. As a matter of fact, the presence of “these gods” in the golden calf narrative is a direct reference to Jeroboam’s two bull altars (2 Kgs 17:16). Could the rest of the Golden Calf narrative be referring to this 9th-8th century BC northern cultic practice?
The question pondered by historians is what was Jeroboam doing or thought he was doing? And secondly, can this be ascertained apart from the pejorative and biased portrait of him intended by the pro-southern Deuteronomist? Regardless of the Deuteronomist’s biased report, the biblical and archaeological record do attest to the fact that Jeroboam erected two bull altars at Dan and Bethel, and furthermore, they were most likely intended to serve as a rival cult to the Jerusalem-centered cult of Solomon, which we should not forget worshiped Yahweh together with Baal (1 Kgs 11:5-7)! But what is unclear is what was Jeroboam doing: Was he reviving an older form of Yahwistic worship?
Both the Golden Calf incident as well as the Deuteronomist’s account portray Jeroboam and his Aaronide lead cult as apostates. But many scholars think that this is far from certain, and moreover the portrait of Jeroboam meshes too well with the Deuteronomist’s ideological agenda as found elsewhere in the books of Kings.
First, there are numerous biblical passages that mention Yahweh, most often El Shaddai, in connection with the bull. Gen 49:25 identifies Yahweh-El (#27) as “the Bull of Jacob,” and similarly Psalm 132:2-5, and Isaiah 49:26 and 60:16. Compounded with the fact that bull figurines have been unearthed at many of the major cultic sites throughout Canaan the evidence strongly suggests that Yahweh-El was worshiped or associated with the young bull.
Even more startling, an archaic poem preserved in Numbers 23 mentions El in the guise of the bull, as the deity who lead Israel out of Egypt: “El who liberated him [Israel] from Egypt has horns like a wild ox.” This reflects a time when Yahweh and El were viewed interchangeably. It appears therefore that Jeroboam was indeed reviving a more archaic form of Yahwistic worship. But the Deuteronomist portrays Jeroboam as an apostate, setting up new gods.
In all intents and purposes, it is highly unlikely that the bulls symbolized Yahweh, but rather like the cherubim seat in the Temple of Jerusalem, they symbolized Yahweh’s throne seat. In any event, the Deuteronomist has indeed successfully painted Jeroboam as an apostate. In fact, “the sins of Jeroboam”—namely his two bull altars—appear throughout the book of Kings like a leitmotif and is used by the Deuteronomist as a foil to theologically explain why Yahweh brought the Assyrians against Israel and finally wiped them out in 722 BC, and conversely did not destroy Jerusalem. Moreover, in 2 Kings 17, Jeroboam’s sin is referred to with exactly the same words used to describe the sin produced by Aaron in the Golden Calf narrative: “the great sin” (Ex 32:21).
It might be concluded that the Golden Calf narrative is both a parody and a polemic on Jeroboam’s two calf altars in the north. The historical circumstances that prompted the writing of the Golden Calf, and what the narrative polemically targeted, was the establishment of the counter-Jerusalemite Yahwist-El cultic calve altars in the north by Jeroboam in the last half of the 9th century BC. The only question remaining is: why is Aaron depicted as the one leading the Israelites into sin?
The answer to this question gets at the roots of another contradiction—more a rivalry—namely the fierce bitterness between the Levites who traced their lineage back to Moses and the Aaronids who traced theirs back to Aaron (see #333). Both the Levite texts of the Elohist and Deuteronomist place a higher premium on Moses and the Levites. It is surmised that when Jeroboam built the two bull altars, the Levites expected to officiate the sacrifices there, but Jeroboam expelled them. We must infer from the texts that he hired Aaronid priests instead.
The added narrative detail that Aaron is preparing a festival and sacrificing to Yahweh via his “calves” also plays on the parody of presenting the apostate, Jeroboam’s priests, as ‘claiming’ that their bull altars were Yahwistic shrines, which in all likelihood they were.This is a perfect example of how ancient scribes wrote archaized stories as polemical attacks on contemporary rivals.
There is another curious element that ties Jeroboam and the Golden Calf narrative together as well, the similarity of both of their punishments—tomorrow’s contradiction.