We’re finally back into the story! Hallelujah!

The Calf

So Moses has been chillin’ with God (and maybe Joshua) on the mountain while everyone else is just hanging around waiting. After many days pass, the people start to wonder if maybe Moses has OD’ed on something and won’t be coming back, so they ask Aaron to make them a God that they can see.

Aaron quickly complies. He collects gold earrings from the people, melted them, and shaped them into a big golden calf. The people were happy, so Aaron built an altar in front of the statue, and they all decided to throw a big party.

It’s a rather amusing detail that the Hebrews stole these earrings from the Egyptians in Exodus 3:22, and now these very same earrings are being used to build an idol and betray God. It almost feels like karma…

In typical comedic fashion, Moses just happens to come home as the people are partying (not really, God sees the party and sends Moses down, but that’s not nearly as funny), and Moses is pretty pissed. Things were said, people were called “stiff-necked,” God threatens to kill everyone and is only just barely talked down by Moses, and everyone came out feeling rather hurt. Mostly because…

The Discovery

Cindy Jacobs leads prayer for economic recovery around the Golden Bull of Wall Street, New York, October 29, 2008.

Cindy Jacobs leads prayer for economic recovery around the Golden Bull of Wall Street, New York, October 29, 2008.

First, God decides to go down and kill all the Hebrews except for Moses so that he can start over again with his whole “Chosen People” project, but Moses convinces him to spare the people… sort of. Mostly by reminding him of what the Egyptians might say if God leads all the slaves out of Egypt just to slaughter them. So God “repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people” (Exod. 32:14).

Before we go on, let’s reflect for a moment on the fact that yes, God is capable of doing evil. Right here in the text, we see that good and evil are independent from God. Okay, moving on…

Joshua and Moses can hear noises form the camp and Joshua thinks that there’s a battle going on. Moses corrects him, saying that it is “the sound of singing that I hear” (Exod. 32:18).

The Punishment

Now we get down to business.

Moses walks down the mountain and then throws the “tables of the testimony” (I don’t believe it’s said that these tables have the ten commandments yet) to the ground, breaking them. This is rather obviously symbolically representing the breaking of the covenant the people had made with God. The narrative does get a bit heavy handed sometimes, but whatever.

Next, he takes the golden calf and melts it down, then grinds it into a powder. He mixes the gold powder with water and makes all the Hebrews drink it. This is, according to my Study Bible, a sort of Trial by Gold, in which the innocence or guilt of the individual is determined by their reaction to the ordeal. Readers may be most common with the Medieval Trial by Fire, in which individuals might have to hold a red hot iron or walk a certain distance on hot coals. If they managed to accomplish this without being burned, it meant that God was protecting them and, therefore, they must be innocent.

The results of the Trial by Ordeal finishes out the chapter when “the Lord sent a plague upon the people” (Exod. 32:35), killing the “guilty” who had ingested the powdered calf (though I’ve had Goldschläger and it really wasn’t nearly as bad as this chapter makes it seem). God may have complied with Moses’ request not to kill the Hebrews, but only in the literalest of senses. He’ll only kill some of the Hebrews.

But before we get to this, Moses calls out for any who is “on the Lord’s side” (Exod. 32:26). All the sons of Levi come to him, and Moses tells them that God commands them to “put every man his sword on his side, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor” (Exod. 32:27). Yes, you read that right. If you are “with God,” you need to kill everyone you love. Have fun unpacking that one.

And with that, the punishment is over, three thousand people dead (Exod. 32:28). Moses goes up the mountain and asks if “we good?” and God says “we good” and tells Moses to lead the people on towards their promised land.

The responsibilities of leadership

Aaron, who has been appointed the spiritual leader of the Hebrews, comes out of this story unscathed. This seems rather problematic. For one thing, he is the one who actually built the calf (Exod. 32:4), but also, he lied about it to Moses. Instead of taking ownership for having bowed to pressure to build the calf, he claims that he just tossed the gold earrings into the fire “and there came out this calf” (Exod. 32:24), all on its own! Which, frankly, ought to win an award for being among the worst lies I’ve ever heard.

But not a word is said about Aaron’s guilt in the Golden Calf Incident. Even though, as the divinely appointed religious leader of the Hebrews, he might be expected to have some responsibility for their religious actions. And the fact that he goes along with them and never, according to the text, tries to dissuade them, we might question just how much responsibility we ought to put on the shoulders of the people who were, in the end, encouraged by the very man who was supposed to be giving them spiritual guidance.

While we’re on the subject, the fact that Aaron lies and claims that the calf just mysteriously created itself kinda seems to speak against the idea that he was coerced by the people. If there really was a mob demanding a god and Aaron complied only out of fear for his life, wouldn’t he have just told Moses this? But he lies about it, and that – to me – says that he was complicit.

Or, as Baruch Davidson writes:

If indeed Aaron went through a weak moment, possibly even in his own faith, then: a) Moses also seems to have turned a blind eye, in one of the greatest shows of nepotism attributed to a Biblical hero; b) not only did Aaron lack in strong leadership, but he was actually dishonest, with no sense of responsibility.

Making this story even more problematic (depending on the timline) is the fact that Moses was, at that time, receiving the commandments. In other words, the people haven’t been told yet that what they’re doing is wrong.