Sin of the Golden Calf

Exegetical Approaches

Overview

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.

Alternative Deity

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".

"עֲשֵׂה לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים" – These sources understand the word "אֱלֹהִים" to mean deity.  However, they disagree whether, in making the Calf, the nation was totally forsaking Hashem in favor of a new god,1 or if they were planning on worshiping the Calf together with Hashem (שיתוף).‎2
Impact of Moshe's delay
  • 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.
Why a calf? Philo and R. Avraham b. HaRambam assert that the choice was intentional, as a bull held special significance for the Israelites from their stay in Egypt:5
  • 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".
"חַג לַי"י מָחָר" – This position must explain why Hashem's proper name is used here, if the people were looking to the Calf as an alternative deity:
  • 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.
Offering sacrifices and "צחוק" – The fact that the people prostrate themselves7 and offer sacrifices before the Calf supports the idea that they were worshiping it as a god.  Rashi maintains that the "צחוק" refers to sexual relations,8 which may also have been part of the idolatrous rite.
"וַיָּמִירוּ אֶת כְּבוֹדָם בְּתַבְנִית שׁוֹר" – According to this approach, the "honor of the people" referred to in this verse is Hashem.  The psalmist, too, reads the sin as one of foreign worship, claiming that, in creating the Calf, the nation replaced Hashem with the likeness of an ox.
Breaking of the Luchot – According to Rashi, after Moshe saw how the people had betrayed Hashem he considered them unworthy of receiving the Torah.  This position might also suggest, like Ibn EzraShemot Short Commentary 32:19About R. Avraham ibn Ezra below, that the Tablets were like a marriage document; when the people proved to be unfaithful, it was torn up.9
Drinking of the Calf's ashes – Rashi, following R. Yose in Bavli Avodah ZarahAvodah Zarah 43b-44aAbout Bavli Avodah Zarah, asserts that this was comparable to the test of a suspected adulteress (סוטה).  Moshe used the water to test and punish those who had been unfaithful to Hashem.10  One might also posit that, in destroying the Calf and having the people actually consume its ashes, Moshe highlighted how powerless and unworthy of worship it was.11
Role of Aharon – These sources agree that Aharon did not worship the Calf, but defend his active role in different ways:
  • 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
Severe sin so soon after revelation – These sources offer several defenses of the nation:
  • 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.
Severity of the punishment – According to this approach, Hashem's initial desire to wipe out the nation is understandable, as the sin was heinous.  In fact, both Rashi and R. Avraham b. HaRambam assert that, even after Moshe's prayers, many people were punished by death. Though only 3,000 were killed by the Levites, many more died at Hashem's hand through a plague.
Polemical motivations – R. Saadia's full-throated defense of Aharon's actions may be partially motivated by an attempt to counter Muslim claims that passages in the Torah which portray sins of prophets are forged insertions.22

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.

Impact of Moshe's delay
  • 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 
Why a calf?
  • Image of Hashem seen at Sinai – Lekach TovShemot 32:4About R. Toviah b. Eliezer 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.
Sinning so soon after revelation – According to this approach, Hashem's revelation at Mt. Sinai might itself have contributed to the sin.  The experience left the nation with a desire for continued connection. Having heard Hashem's voice, they had a need for a more tangible expression of His presence.
Aharon's role – This approach presents Aharon as acting in the name of Hashem throughout, making the Calf with the sole intention of using it to serve Hashem. R. Kasher33 portrays him as making an understandable mistake; since Keruvim were allowed in the Mishkan, Aharon thought that they or their equivalent should be allowed outside as well.  R. Kasher34 even suggests that the prohibition of "לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן אִתִּי אֱלֹהֵי כֶסֶף" found at the end of Shemot 20 is written out of place and was given only in the aftermath of the Golden Calf and as a corrective to Aharon's error.35
"עֲשֵׂה לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים" – These sources understand the word "אֱלֹהִים" to refer to Hashem.  The people were not requesting that Aharon create a new deity, but only a vehicle through which they could access Hashem.
"אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם" – The people refer to the Calf as having taken them out of Egypt because they understood the Calf to be the symbol of Hashem who did, in fact, do so.36
"חַג לַי"י מָחָר" – As Aharon and the people never intended to worship anyone but Hashem, Aharon naturally announced that there would be a feast for Hashem tomorrow.
Offering sacrifices – Ibn Ezra explains that the sacrifices were intended not for the Calf, but for Hashem.37
Severity of punishment – If the people were acting for Hashem and not intending any disloyalty to Him, it is not clear why Hashem would have desired to annihilate the nation.  As a result, these sources all suggest that despite their positive intentions, the people did end up worshiping the Calf itself.  It was this minority which led to Hashem's anger.38
"וַיָּמִירוּ אֶת כְּבוֹדָם בְּתַבְנִית שׁוֹר" – This approach would suggest that this verse is referring to those members of the nation who forgot that the Calf was supposed to represent Hashem and instead viewed it as a deity in its own right.
Breaking of the Luchot
  • 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
Drinking of the Calf's ashes – Ibn Ezra, like Rashi above, asserts that this was similar to the test of the suspected adulteress (סוטה).  Since it would have been impossible for the Levites to distinguish which of the worshipers acted for idolatry and which for Hashem, the water tested and marked the former.
Biblical parallels – Cassuto compares this sin to the calves set up by Yerovam,41 which he claims were also originally meant only to represent Hashem's presence. The Efod established by Gidon42 was similarly intended only to remind the people that Hashem was their true King.  In both cases, however, as time passed, the people mistook the representation of Hashem for an alternative god and began to worship it.43
Difference between the Keruvim/Aron and the Calf – The Kuzari suggests that the only difference between the two is that one was commanded by Hashem, and thus legitimate, while the other was not, and thus prohibited.  One might add that Hashem did not fear lest the people come to worship the Ark/Cherubs since they were generally hidden from the public eye.  Cassuto (in contrast to R. Bazak above) further asserts that the Keruvim were intentionally made as fantastical rather than realistic creatures to safeguard against the people worshiping them as deities.
Purpose of the Mishkan – This approach might suggest that the sin confirmed the need for a Mishkan as a physical symbol of Hashem's presence, but also the necessity for it to be structured in a way that would distance the people from coming to mistake it for Hashem or an alternative god.44

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.

Impact of Moshe's delay – According to these sources, the connection between Moshe's delay and the desire to make a replacement is obvious.  Moshe's prolonged absence46 led the people to conclude that he was never returning, prompting them to look for a substitute to lead them.47
Perceptions of Moshe – These sources suggest a variety of possibilities regarding the people's perceptions of Moshe.  Each could have potentially played a role in their actions:
  • 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.
"עֲשֵׂה לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ" – Though all these sources agree that the people were looking for something to guide and literally "go before them" in the wilderness, they differ regarding the nature of the guide requested, the meaning of the word "אֱלֹהִים", and why the people would have thought that a metallic sculpture could lead them at all:
  • 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.
Why a calf rather than a person?
  • 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.
"אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם"
  • 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.
"חַג לַי"י מָחָר" – R"Y Bekhor Shor suggests that Aharon was announcing that on the next day they would celebrate the inauguration of their new leader and that they would have a feast to thank Hashem for it.
Offering sacrifices, feasting, and "צחוק"
  • 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.
"וַיָּמִירוּ אֶת כְּבוֹדָם בְּתַבְנִית שׁוֹר" – R"Y Bekhor Shor understands that the "honor" of the nation mentioned is Moshe, not Hashem.  Thus, the psalm can work with this approach and be understood as saying that the people replaced their leader, Moshe, with a bull. Alternatively, the verse is referring to the part of the nation that actively worshiped the Calf.
Breaking of the Luchot
  • 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.
Drinking of the Calf's ashes
  • 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
Defense of the nation – These sources manage  to absolve the nation of almost all guilt as the people's request for a calf was not a betrayal of Hashem at all and only a transgression in the realm of magical practices.  Even though a portion of the nation strayed and actively worshiped it, this was merely a small minority.
Aharon's role – All of these sources defend Aharon by pointing out that he was not creating the Calf to replace Hashem in any way, and never intended it to be worshiped.  Nonetheless, they have differing views of the degree of his culpability:
  • 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.
Severity of punishment – Since the nation did not reject Hashem, these sources need to explain Hashem's desire to wipe them out:
  • 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.
Polemical motivations – Throughout his comments to the chapter, R"Y Bekhor Shor speaks of the "heretics" who mock Israel for failing and sinning with the Calf, alluding to Christian claims that this sin led to a breaking of Hashem's Covenant with Israel and necessitated the system of commandments as a corrective. It is likely that his reading of the story, which presents the people as not even asking for a physical image at all and hence absolves them of sinning against Hashem, is motivated by a desire to refute these claims.61

Combination

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.

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