In attempting to understand the Sin of the Golden Calf, exegetes find themselves in a quandary. On one hand, the sin must have been egregious enough to merit the nation's near-destruction, yet on the other hand it is difficult to fathom how they, and especially Aharon, could blunder so greatly so soon after the Revelation at Mt. Sinai. Commentators find different balances between these competing issues, leading to varying understandings of the people's sin and their degree of guilt.
R. Saadia Gaon prefers to read the nation as having actually betrayed Hashem. He presents them as viewing the Calf as a god and ascribes to them the sin of belief in idolatry, while trying to defend only Aharon's role. The Kuzari, in contrast, attempts to minimize both Aharon and the people's sin, portraying them as having positive, albeit misguided, intentions. The nation desired a tangible object which could represent Hashem and to whom they could direct their worship. They erred only in not recognizing that all graven images are prohibited, even of Hashem Himself.
R"Y Bekhor Shor goes the furthest in his defense of the nation, divorcing the people's actions from any form of idolatry or disloyalty to Hashem. He has the people ask to replace only the missing Moshe, not Hashem. Finally, it is also possible that different portions of the nation viewed the Calf in different ways, and that the above approaches are not mutually exclusive.
The nation viewed the Calf as a god and worshiped it either together with or instead of Hashem. In doing so, they transgressed the commandment, "You shall have no other gods before Me".
- Lost access to the Divine – R. Avraham b. HaRambam claims that the Israelites believed that only someone as perfect as Moshe could access Hashem, and that without him, they did not have the power to do so. As such, when they assumed that Moshe was not coming back,3 they decided to return to the idolatry they had known in Egypt.4
- Lost a perceived deity – Alternatively, this position could posit that the nation had actually perceived Moshe Himself as a god, thinking that all the miracles he performed stemmed from his own powers. Thus, when they believed that he was not returning, they created a new god to take his place.
- Egyptian god – Philo maintains that the people chose a bull to imitate the Egyptian God, Typhos, with whom they would have been familiar.6
- Astrological sign – R. Avraham b. HaRambam cites his father who posits instead that the people might have asked for a calf, thinking that it was under the influence of that astrological sign that they left Egypt. Thus, they refer to it as, "אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם".
- People's shorthand – This approach could understand this phrase to mean that "tomorrow there will be a feast for [the god who is replacing] Hashem".
- Aharon's perspective – Rashi, however, asserts that, in contrast to the nation, Aharon had no idolatrous thoughts, and was really speaking about Hashem Himself when he said "חַג לַי"י מָחָר". He was certain that by the morrow, Moshe would arrive and the people would return to serving Hashem.
- Test the people – R. Saadia compares Aharon to Yehu,12 who similarly pretended to promote idolatry, but only in order to discover and eliminate those who were guilty of Baal worship. Even though Yehu allowed the people to bring their sacrifices before punishing them (presumably to ascertain true guilt), he was nonetheless praised for his actions. So, too, Aharon acquiesced to the nation's request only to determine who was guilty of idolatry.13
- Delay tactics – Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer and Rashi instead maintain that throughout Aharon tried to delay the people, hoping that Moshe would arrive before they sinned. Thus, he asked specifically the women for their jewelry, assuming they would not give them up so easily14 and pushed off the feast until the next day. This defense, however, encounters difficulty in explaining why Aharon did not simply refuse to make the Calf, given the capital nature of the crime.15 Moreover, it is not at all clear how afterwards he, not only avoids all punishment,16 but also merits the priesthood.17
- Influence of mixed multitudes (ערב רב) – Tanchuma, Rashi, and R. Avraham b. HaRambam (in the name of his grandfather) attempt to defend the people by suggesting that the idolatry was not really their initiative, but that of the mixed multitudes who had joined the nation upon leaving Egypt. Tanchuma claims that it was their sorcery which produced the Calf and animated it leading the people to believe in it.18 As support, Rashi points to the fact that the people say "אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל", speaking from the perspective of outsiders and non-members of Israel.19
- Influence of Satan – Tanchuma, Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer and Rashi also suggest that the Satan further negatively influenced the nation, either by deceiving the people into believing that Moshe had died or actively helping fashion the Calf.
- Slow to change – Alternatively, it is possible that the people had never really forsaken the idolatrous beliefs they held in Egypt.20 One-off miracles, even on the scale of Hashem's revelation, were not enough to permanently change their mindset. To instill long lasting belief the people needed continuous education and enduring miracles.21 Thus, as soon as Moshe left, without a teacher to guide them, the people naturally slid back into their old ways.
Image of Hashem
The people viewed the Calf as a concrete object through which they could worship Hashem, akin to the role later played by the Mishkan and Ark. They did not worship foreign gods, but rather transgressed the prohibition of "You shall not make a graven image", which includes any representation of Hashem Himself.
- R. Yehuda HaLevi asserts that when Moshe ascended the mountain, he was supposed to return with the Tablets and Ark which would serve as a tangible object to which the nation could direct their service of Hashem.24 However, when forty days passed, the people feared that Moshe would never return,25 and decided to instead create their own physical symbol of Hashem.
- Cassuto explains similarly, but he suggests that the nation looked to create a throne for Hashem's providence, similar to the role played by the Keruvim (cherubs) in the Mishkan.26
- Image of Hashem seen at Sinai – Lekach Tov posits that the people chose a calf since that was the image of Hashem that they had seen at Sinai.27 R"A Bazak28 supports this idea by connecting the nation's view of the "מַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר" with Yechezkel's prophecy of "מַרְאֵה אֶבֶן סַפִּיר".29 There, Yechezkel describes the four headed creature in his vision as having "the legs of a calf" ("וְכַף רַגְלֵיהֶם כְּכַף רֶגֶל עֵגֶל"), suggesting that at Sinai, too, the people saw a calf.
- Hashem's choice of "throne" – R"A Bazak points to the parallel verses in Yechezkel 1:10 and 10:14 to attempt to prove that a "שור" is the same form known elsewhere as "כרובים".30 If so, in making a throne for Hashem, the people chose the same image that Hashem Himself had designated for his "throne" in the Mishkan.31
- Convention of the time – Throughout the Ancient Near East, deities were often depicted as standing on pedestals of beasts, usually a bull or lion.32 Aharon might have simply imitated the standard artistic convention, with the important difference of not adding any image of Hashem Himself atop the pedestal.
- A lesson to the nation – This approach might claim that Moshe realized that before bringing another concrete symbol of Hashem's presence to the people, he needed to make sure they recognized that the Tablets were just a symbol, and not worthy of worship in of themselves. Destroying the luchot was thus a lesson to the people, dispelling any notion that they had any innate power.39
- Nullifying the covenant – Since the nation transgressed one of the conditions of the covenant, "לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה לְךָ פֶסֶל וְכׇל תְּמוּנָה", they voided the covenant as a whole.40
Guide for the Wilderness
Bereft of Moshe's leadership and his connection to the Divine, the people searched for an alternative to guide them in the wilderness. Their sin was more closely related to sorcery than to idolatry.
- Moshe the prophet – Ramban assumes that the people viewed Moshe as a prophet with special access to Hashem, giving him the ability to perform miracles and knowledge of their future path. Without such access, the nation felt lost, leading them to look for an alternative "איש אלהים".
- Moshe the magician – Abarbanel posits that throughout their travels, the Israelites constantly doubted Hashem, and even attributed the Exodus to Moshe and Aharon rather than Him. They assumed that Moshe on his own had special powers to work miracles. Thus, with his absence, they asked Aharon, whom they thought knew Moshe's secrets, to create a different being which might summon similar powers.
- Moshe the fraud – R"E Ashkenazi, in contrast, asserts that the people did not doubt Hashem but rather Moshe. Aware of the prophecy that they were supposed to be in Egypt for 400 years, they worried that the early Exodus48 was proof that Moshe was not sent by Hashem but rather that he was acting on his own. As such, they took his disappearance as proof that he must not have been Hashem's messenger, and might have even been happy to replace him.
- Human replacement – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor posits that the nation requested a human alternative to Moshe, and that "אֱלֹהִים" here carries its secular connotation of judge or leader.49 It was Aharon who decided to create an object instead of appointing a person.50
- Object of magical powers – Rashbam, Ralbag, and Abarbanel maintain that the Children of Israel requested a talisman which could foretell the future through sorcery or magic, and the word "אֱלֹהִים" refers to something with supernatural abilities.51
- Replacement for the Aron – R. Eliezer Ashkenazi posits that Moshe had promised to bring the people an ark whose job would be to guide and go before them, like a banner, until they reached settled lands.52 It was this "national flag" that they wished to replace.53 According to him, "אֱלֹהִים" might be short for "ארון אלהים", or could simply mean a guide.
- Aharon's initiative – According to R"Y Bekhor Shor, it was Aharon's idea to create an inanimate leader rather than appoint a human one.54 He feared that the people would be quick to switch their allegiance to a different human, leading to fighting when Moshe returned. However, if he made a golden form without any powers, they would abandon it as soon as Moshe returned and re-embrace Moshe.
- Nation's initiative – Abarbanel, in contrast, maintains that the people specifically asked for an inanimate object that could invoke heavenly powers, rather than a human, since humans are mortal and might disappear (as demonstrated by Moshe). He suggests that they might have chosen a bull as that was the astrological sign following that of the ram which was held sacred by Egypt, and they believed that through it Moshe had defeated Egypt.
- Abarbanel asserts that the people did not believe that the Calf they had just made actually took them out of Egypt but rather that a form similar to it might have been the source of Moshe's powers that enabled him to successfully lead the people. Ibn Ezra suggests more simply that the people meant that this new leader was replacing the leader who had taken them out of Egypt.
- R. Ashkenazi, in contrast, assumes that already with its creation, some people strayed after the Calf and actually believed that it was the power who took them out of Egypt. This stemmed from their belief that the God of Avraham who had decreed that they would be in Egypt for 400 years could not have been the One who ordained the Exodus.
- For Hashem – R"Y Bekhor Shor maintains that the sacrifices were for Hashem's honor, a natural part of any inaugural ceremony. He compares it to the celebration of Shaul's coronation, which was similarly accompanied by sacrifices and happiness (the "צחוק" of our verse).
- For idolatry – Ibn Ezra, Ralbag, Abarbanel, and R"E Ashkenazi, in contrast, all assert that part of the nation erred and began to worship the Calf as a deity, bowing and sacrificing to it.
- Intentional – Shadal posits that Moshe might have wanted to shock the nation back to their senses, while Ralbag suggests that this was a nullification of the covenant since the people had turned the Calf into a deity.
- Unintentional – Rashbam, in contrast, asserts that upon seeing the Calf, Moshe's strength left him and he dropped the Tablets. E. Touitou55 suggests that Rashbam's difficult read of the verse56 might have polemical motivations. Christianity believed that the due to the sin, the Sinai Covenant was nullified and subsequent commandments were given to punish the nation for their betrayal of Hashem. As such, Rashbam goes out of his way to show that the sin was not a rejection of Hashem and that it did not involve breaking the Covenant.
- Incidental – R"Y Bekhor Shor posits that Moshe did not actively give the nation of the ashes to drink. He simply sprinkled the Calf's remains in the water to dispose of them, but since this was the nation's water source while in Sinai, they ended up drinking it.
- Intentional lesson – The other commentators who assume that some of the nation actively worshiped the Calf, assert that this action was aimed at them. Ramban and Ralbag maintain that Moshe wanted to demonstrate the Calf's futility, that a god which can be drunk is not worthy of worship.57
- According to R"Y Bekhor Shor, Aharon never even intended to infuse the Calf with any magical abilities and throughout was simply trying to placate the people by providing a powerless leader whom they would abandon as soon as Moshe returned. As such he does not sin at all. This makes his appointment as priest very understandable. However, Hashem's anger at him appear unwarranted.58
- The other commentators portray Aharon as trying to procrastinate,59 both so that the people would recognize that a man-made object cannot be a deity and in the hope that Moshe would return before anyone acted. Despite his intentions, however, the people did stray, making Aharon himself also culpable.
- Zealous for Moshe's honor – According to R"Y Bekhor Shor, Hashem's actions were aimed at avenging Moshe's honor, not His own.60 This might explain why Moshe's prayers in this episode were so readily accepted.
- Angry at idolaters – The other commentators assert that Hashem was angry at the minority who strayed after the Calf and viewed it as a god.
As the nation was not a homogeneous group, it is possible that while some people viewed the Calf as an alternative god, others believed that it was simply a tangible representation of Hashem and yet others looked to it to guide them in their travels.