52. Why did the Israelites worship a golden calf? (Exodus 32)

Golden CalfWho 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. 

Baby GoatFrom 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. 28:42Ex. 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. 20:4-6Ex. 20:22-23Ex. 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.

Golden CalfThe 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.”

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26 Responses to 52. Why did the Israelites worship a golden calf? (Exodus 32)

  1. rautakyy says:

    Indeed, a great analysis!

    Where is the picture of the “sitting bull” from? It looks a lot like Apis of the Egyptians, but it could just be a generic Bal frequently found from the Levant, or somewhere in North-Africa. By the way, did you know that one of the original names for the god of the ancient Hebrew was actually Baali? The direct relation of the Abrahamic god and the local polytheistic culture is more obvious than often accepted…

    • That one was actually a prop from the 1956 movie “The Ten Commandments.” I’m guessing they added the headdress of Isis to give it a more Egyptian feel. It sold a few years ago at action for $19,000.

      • rautakyy says:

        Well, that explains the pristeen condition. However, there are actual historical artefact statuettes like this one. For example the silvered one found from Akko a couple of decades ago. Apparently the bull calfs were images of the Canaanite gods El and Baal, both of which are names used in the Bible to supposedly describe the monotheistic Abrahimic god, even though to the early Canaanites these were clearly separate gods a father and a son… Now, where was it that this particular concept of divine families comes up again? The Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Babylonians and all the nations in the area have it. Heck, even the Norse gods are divided into dads and sons. Most of those have some mother and daughter goddesses there somewhere too. Funny that. Some serious andropomorhising of gods, would you not say?

        • Indeed. I recently heard about some archaeological evidence that suggests some early Hebrews/Jews believed God had a wife. (I believe she was mentioned on a piece of pottery.)

          • Randall Stevenson says:

            The word Ba’al meant “lord”, “master” or “husband” and was used as a name for most of the local gods of the Canaanites, which later some of the Israelites also worshipped (Ahab and Jezebel). The pre-exile Israelites were polytheistic and some Biblical scholars believe Asherah, an Akkadian goddess who appeared throughout the fertile crescent, was considered the consort of the God of Israel (Samaria, not Judea). Sometimes she is apparently associated with Ba’al. According to sources reference in Wikipedia (see ‘Asherah’ for references), there has been pottery found depicting “Yahweh … his Asherah” and also “Yahweh of Samaria, Ba’al and Asherah”. It was a custom to offer her the meat of a calf boiled in the milk of its mother. The prohibition against this led to the Jewish law against eating meat with dairy products.

  2. Maybe it was that they needed instant gratification?

    It is the stories such as these that play so much on my mind. Yeah it makes no sense that some of the ignorant in the group are slaughtered and yet the designer and builder of the golden calf is let off the hook. Seems like a case of pure Nepotism. Didn’t God want to do away with everyone (Moses excluded) but Moses argued what would “others” say when they were rescued out of Egypt only to die by the hand of their own rescuer? Was God actually persuaded by a man to come up with this compromise?

    Maybe we are somewhat let off the hook in our own time in history because we are not allowed to have any concrete experiences of miracles. You get to see an actual miracle and then if you disobey, you will certainly most pay. Either be killed by someone through God’s instructions or by God directly (make sure you don’t touch the ark or pick up firewood on the wrong day). Going through the territory of the Promised Land the Hebrews were instructed to kill all who resided. It was okay because for one thing some of them sacrificed their own children to the wrong God. Of course the Israelites are okayed to cut off the heads of these same children in the genocidal cleanup.

    Did Jesus see all of this as wrong too? Seems like a different God was around during his time. Not sure, but the only time I can think of a killing by God in the New Testament, is when the couple did not give all their money to be shared with their fellow Christians. When they decided to hold some back they were supposedly extinguished by God’s direct action.

    This Golden Calf thing though does bring up some modern day comparisons on what we worship. We do have this Capitalistic system that maybe puts our minds on gaining more wealth than we need. To me the symbol of the New York Stock exchange sits out there as our own modern day Baal.

  3. Jim says:

    I think this is best explained when looking at when this was written. Once Israel and Judah were separated i would look at this passage as a dig against Israel because of Jeroboam’s golden calves at Bethel and Dan in later history and also the Prominence of the Bull that represented El, the Canaanite form of YHWH. To me this entire passage belittles the Northern tribes, the Arron’s Priesthood and Puts down the idea that their God YHWH is the same as the El. I look at this a blatant political statement to all the people. This was probably written either right before being taken to Babylon or around the time of Josiah when Judah was working on major religious reformation. Most Israelite were not interested in the Jerusalem, temple only cult worship the Levites were pushing in the south, yet we see this prominently throughout scripture. This is evidenced by the sheer mass of sculptures to Asherah, Ba’al, and other Canaanite Gods in all the rural areas throughout Israel and Judah. These “Idols” are found everywhere until after the destruction from the Assyrians and Babylonians. This would indicate that the centralization of worship in Jerusalem wasn’t the case until after that point. Either way I mean really it’s not hard to see who won the how to worship battle after the return from Babylon.

    • Thanks Jim, you’re probably right.

      The similarity between what Jeroboam does in 1 Kings 12:25-33 and what takes place in Exodus 32 is pretty unmistakable. Jeroboam not only makes a golden calf to worship (two of them), but then goes on to say, “Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” It’s the exact same story all over again.

      It would’ve been insane for Jeroboam to try and repeat this stunt knowing what happened during the Exodus, but the events are so identical that it’s highly unlikely he was somehow ignorant of them. So I’d have to agree, it seems most likely that either Exodus 32, or 1 Kings 12, was later written for the express purpose of making Jeroboam and/or the northern tribes look bad.


  4. Joe de Kadt says:

    Hey 500! That’s a groovy take on the stories. I especially like the idea of using these narratives to place liens against land. It’s clearly socio-political use of mythology to divide and rule. No different in essence to what happens with modern media but it’s great to have the absurdity spelled out so playfully. Yet there’s also the elements of these stories that are based in actual events that can be really interesting to speculate on. Actually I found your blog by chance and it spurned me to post up a video clip on just this passage, part of a film I made last year. You might like the angle : )



  5. Bible Verses says:

    I enjoyed your study into this. It was a great read thanks!

  6. This is a very interesting post. I can’t wait for the host to post another question. I did read all the post and comment. expect for my comment on your following post

  7. chaosfive55 says:

    One small pedantic but important correction to your dissertation, which I enjoyed: you keep making the mistake of calling the Israelites “Jews”; this is an anachronism. The people of Israel were not called Jews until after the exile in Babylon centuries later.

  8. Meghan says:

    I came upon you blog when I was researching Exodus and when God warns the people to not worship idols multiple times before the actually do worship idols…..I actually love this because God warns us before we commit the same sins he warns us about. I’ve seen him do this in my life, the life of others and it’s also in scripture. You questioning why the Israelites who witness the miraculous acts of God would turn their back on him and worship the golden cow….isn’t that what your doing now? Being a former Christian yourself I’m sure you’ve seen and experienced Gods miraculous ways it’s when your doubt became more than your faith when you turned away. When the Israelites build the golden cow maybe they let doubt consume them as they were waiting for Moses for 40 days! Their faith in God and his work was not as strong as their doubt so they built something else to have faith in…..and God warned them beforehand. The reason I write this is I to have faced and turned my back on God after he did awesome things in my life huge awesome things and I let doubt seep in and thank God it did not consume me!! I pray for you because you are in a season of questioning. I know you will find the answer you seek and you will know the one true God and reconcile to him!! God bless you on your journey…

  9. consultgtf says:

    It is not only Israelites, it is we the humans on the whole, We all are turning away from our Creator and Worshiping the creatures and have forgotten the Creator!
    Show me one person, who does not covert for others goods, from a child to a parent. We all need to change our present way of living and go back to our Creator!!!
    He is still waiting… from the time of Creation.

    • Meghan says:

      Yes and we are to die daily to ourself!! This is a daily battle….it represents how weak we are and why we need a constant relationship with God not a convenient one!! This is such an amazing story to me in the Bible….and it reminds me of our weakness as humans🙂

  10. consultgtf says:

    As,we look for comfort zone in every walk of our life, even in God that is main reason for changing our God?
    My Church, mass timings on Sunday, was (one day only, I used attend) was in the morning starting from 6 am and all 3 masses getting over by 9am and a evening mass. But due to pressure from late comers, who were Sunday sleep lovers, there was one more mass added, and that was called as Children’s mass, but we have late comers even for 10.30 am mass?

    We cannot sacrifice one hour sleep, for hearing the Gods word? but we want God to listen our prayers, immediately, that, God who is attending 7 million requests, from all over the world, from different time zone though, If it is really the need, God will provide it to us,
    Birds of the sky and fishes of the sea, neither sow or reap but they start the day knowing that God will feed them for the day!
    But we humans, that too Christians who pray “Our Father who art in Heaven…doubt his mercy, to feed human, who feed 40,000 people for 400 years? but I am not asking to stay in, and ask for food, which He may, if we have real faith? if that was the level of faith, then…

  11. Anonymous says:

    Thanks loved how you explain this. So ttue to what i read in God’

  12. Melzora Towne says:

    Not to be rude, but aren’t Christians doing the same thing by kneeling before the cross and saying that Jesus is God? It seems if God was so perfectly clear about this in the OT that we would have learned something and not turned around and did the same where Jesus is concerned. Some people even pray to him, which is ironic. I know the “trinity” explains it but that is splitting hairs in my opinion.

    • Anonymous says:

      I’ve yet to hear an explanation of what exactly the trinity is, that actually makes any real sense lol

      • Randall Stevenson says:

        I do not believe a completely logical description is possible. That is why it is called a mystery – a divinely revealed truth which cannot be fully comprehended through reason. Any analogy will fall short, but the best I can imagine is that I am a father, a husband and a son, yet I am one identity. I think the titles given to the three Persons of the Trinity signify the closest relationships we have as humans – parent, child and spouse. But even that model has shortcomings. There is also vine-keeper, vine and sap; there are logos, ethos and pathos (reasoning, character and feeling); and many other triads that are connected into one system. None of them do or can fully reflect the Trinity.

  13. Randall Stevenson says:

    You really put forth some great questions. I appreciate and respect how much you dig into these issues and look for answers.

    The circumstances of the golden calf might add a bit of understanding to why it happened. Moses had grown up in Pharaoh’s court then was exiled at age 40 and spent 40 years in Midia before the 80-year old geezer returned and told the Israelites to follow him into the wilderness. When they reached Sinai, Moses went up into the mountain and disappeared for 40 days. They did not know Moses that well and were not sure he would come back, but Aaron had been with them during all that time of slavery and he was the older brother. I think they felt deserted and wanted to honor the “god” that had brought them out of Egypt, so they had Aaron make what they understood to be a god for them, so they could honor him.

    I laughed at Aaron’s embellished explanation to Moses, “Do not be angry, my lord, You know how prone these people are to evil. They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

    Interestingly the high priest (Kohen), a descendent of Aaron, would go into the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement and sprinkle the blood of a bull as an offering for remission of his sins. This was probably a reminder linked to Aaron and the golden calf incident.

  14. evebroughtanaxthistime says:

    I have this Afrikaans Bible dating back to 1934, where it states that God mourned his harsh words against them that had a party while he and Roses had to work their buts off to make wall-decorations that would now have to be lugged along with the rest of all the stolen…sorry, war-booty. Why was he showing remorse? Because Roses told him to. He also told him that he’d look pretty psychotic in the eyes of the Egiptions if he had abducted their slaves, only to kill them in the mountains. In the ‘Gideon’s Bible’ old Roses sounds almost like an angry school-teacher admonishing a very naughty boy. I would think a personal pants-soiling would have been in order the moment Roses got down the mountain where there was more oxygen to feed his brain.

    Thanx for the insight!

  15. supercool@1 says:

    i agree i think this is really interesting and how it tells about how the israelites turned against god. this is really helpful for teaching to students.

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