Who would’ve thought that a casual conversation between a man and a burning bush would lead to some of the most spectacular miracles the world has ever seen? But that’s how the exodus began, and the Hebrew slaves who lived in Egypt became firsthand eyewitnesses to many of these amazing miracles, including:
- The ten plagues of Egypt: the Nile turning into blood, the toads, the gnats, the flies, the locusts, the boils, fire raining from the sky, and the death of all the firstborn of Egypt;
- Moses’s staff turning into a snake and back again;
- the parting of the Red Sea;
- God appearing as a magical pillar of smoke and fire that led them day and night;
- bitter water that was turned sweet;
- God appearing as a cloud on multiple occasions, with a voice like thunder;
- manna that magically appeared on the ground each morning, and
- water that came flowing from a rock.
And 70 elders even got to meet God in person!
Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky.
— Exodus 24:9-10
Yet after meeting God and witnessing all these amazing things, these men did something utterly inexplicable, they disobeyed a direct order from God and worshiped a golden idol. Why?
How the Israelites turned against God
After God had performed all these miracles, he led the Jews around the desert for a while, and then appeared at the top of Mount Sinai.
From there, God called to Moses, and began to chat with him for forty days about the kind of sanctuary he wanted. God described to Moses exactly how it should look, and how the ark should look, and the bread table, and the lampstand, and the tabernacle, and the tabernacle court, and the curtains, and the alter, and the basin, and the priestly garments; and then he told Moses who should make this stuff, and how the priests should consecrate themselves, and what sacrifices should be offered, and what blood and guts should go where, and what anointing oils and incense should be used, and how much the Israelites should pay in taxes, and how everyone should conduct themselves on the Sabbath day, and — somewhere between explaining how to make quality men’s undergarments (Ex. 28:42, Ex. 39:28) and why it was okay to kill and eat adorable baby goats but not delicious pigs (Ex. 23:19, Lev. 11:7), God glances down the mountain and exclaims, “Holy Moses! Those nimrods are making a… a… holy cow!”
Moses was taking so long in returning that the Israelites began wondering if he was ever coming back. So they turned to Aaron and said, “It appears as if your little brother is not going to return, would you fashion some new gods for us to worship?” And Aaron (who was second in command and had met God in person) did the unthinkable:
Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.”
— Exodus 32:2-5
Aaron was an idiot.
By this point, God was fuming (though he surely saw it coming), and told Moses he was going to slaughter the lot of them for their insolence (Ex. 32:10). But Moses reasoned with God, and God realized Moses was making some really valid points, and so he relented.
Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
— Exodus 32:14
“Fine,” God said, “you handle this. I’m in no mood to speak to them, anyway. I just — I just can’t believe it! And after I specifically told them not to do that, then they go and do it anyway! What a stiff-necked people!”
So Moses departs and descends Mount Sinai, careful not to damage the heavy stone tablets that God had written upon, so that he might smash them in full view of everyone.
The Israelites had made a graven image, and this was a clear violation of God’s second commandment (Ex. 20:4-5), so in an effort to teach them the importance of obeying God’s commandments, Moses violates the sixth commandment (“Thou shall not kill”), and kills 3,000 of them. God then strikes them with a plague, just to make sure they got the message, and they did: some of God’s commandments are absolute, while others are… well… more like guidelines than rules.
(Fun fact: Moses did not kill his brother Aaron, the person who was actually responsible for making the idol.)
Was it all just one big misunderstanding?
After everything they’d witnessed, why would these Jews disobey God and worship a golden calf? Or to put it another way, why build a cow when you can get God’s milk and honey for free?
One possible explanation is that they saw this as a tribute to the god who did these miracles, and that the Jews just didn’t realize what they were doing was wrong. After all, Moses never said God wasn’t a cow.
But the Bible is clear that God had warned the Israelites about making idols (Ex. 20:4-6, Ex. 20:22-23, Ex. 22:20) and that they understood this warning (Ex. 24:3-7). God also makes it clear that this was an intentional violation of a commandment they’d been given:
“They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’”
— Exodus 32:8
This wasn’t just a simple misunderstanding.
The only reason the Bible gives for this dissent is that these men were prone to doing evil (Ex. 32:22), but this answer isn’t very satisfying. These Jews had just witnessed spectacular miracles and were terrified of God (Ex. 20:18-19), and they were also ordered not to serve other gods under penalty of death (Exodus 22:20). A rebellion under these circumstances would equate more to lunacy than evil.
Today, many (if not most) Christians would be willing to lay their lives down for God, without having observed anything like these great miracles, so how much more would they believe if they had witnessed these things? How much more should the Israelites have believed? Would you run off to find some other alternative god to worship?
So to sum up, God performs a bunch of fantastic miracles, leads his people out of Egypt, feeds them bread and water, gives them direct orders not to make other gods, and so they rebel and make other gods. Even Aaron, a man who’d seen these mighty works and saw God in person, was willing to fashion this false idol, and build an alter to it, and order a festival in honor of it!
Do these sound like the actions of a people who have just witnessed such events firsthand? Like the crowd that chose Barabbas over Jesus, these eyewitnesses do not appear as impressed as one might expect.
That’s not to say there are not some grains of truth to the story. Some Jews may have been enslaved by Egyptians, and they may have even thought God had rescued them. These stories may have become exaggerated over time. I imagine if we were to travel back in time to witness these events firsthand, we would probably return with a much different version of this story.
So what was the author’s motive? How does the author(s) benefit from writing this story? We all like to tell and hear stories, especially stories that have explanatory value; but the author(s) of Genesis and Exodus also benefit by using these stories as a way to place a lien against a particular piece of land, long before property liens existed. In essence, the story says, “The God who created all things has personally promised us this specific piece of land.” But this lien only works as long as the people believe in the God who established it, and so the story insists that only this one God be worshiped, and strict penalties are imposed for those who stray from the official God.
The goal of Exodus 32 may have been to stop any thoughts of dissent before they started. The author is saying: “Don’t bother worshiping other Gods, because this has already been tried, and it didn’t end well. Also… we’ll kill you.”