I’ve been really troubled by the story of the Golden Calf. More specifically, about what was the point – theological or social – in having the future high priest of the Hebrews, first of all priests to come, be so involved in the betrayal of the covenant.

As Baruch Davidson points out:

This book has to make some sense, and I don’t think that it’s trying to teach a lesson in shirking responsibility and getting away with it through nepotism. If that were the case, then these two brothers serve as the worst example of leadership, and should go down in history as crooked and evil.

Aaron was stalling

Davidson goes on to argue that Aaron only seemed like an enthusiastic participant, that he was actually just trying to sabotage the efforts from the inside. His argument hinges on Aaron telling the people that “tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord” (Exod. 32:5). Why say tomorrow when they could have had a feast right away? Clearly, he was trying to delay the Hebrews long enough for Moses to be able to come down from the mountain and put an end to the shenanigans before they got too out of hand.

Well, maybe. But this relies on speculation. When Moses demands to know what has been going on, Aaron doesn’t say: “Oh, Moses! Thank the Lord you’re here! Listen, these guys have been totally messing up. I’ve stalled them, they haven’t crossed the line yet, but you better stop them quick!” No, instead Aaron just tells Moses about how the people “are set on evil” (Exod. 32:22), and then feeds him a bogus story about the calf just spontaneously shaping itself.

So if we’re speculating, we have just as much cause to believe that Aaron asked the people to wait because time was required to prepare the feast.

Democracy is a bad idea

When David Plotz read this chapter, he was troubled by the political implications: “The story suggests that without an authoritarian leader like Moses, the Israelites will easily abandon God. Without a prophet and a dictator, our faith will fail.”

The EnduringWord commentaries seem to have read the same moral in the story: “The episode of sin described in this chapter happened because they people wanted it. This is an example of where it is not good to rule by democracy and to give the people what they want.” (Except in their case, they saw this as a lesson specifically for ministry, where a minister must stick to “The Word” and not be led by what his flock might think they want to hear.)

The calf was a misguided act of devotion to God

When the people came to Aaron, they asked for him to “make us gods, who shall go before us” (Exod. 32:1), and when Aaron makes plans to venerate the calf, he says to the people: “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord” (Exod. 32:5). Despite the use of the plural in the first instance (which doesn’t necessarily mean anything, since we’ve seen God referring to himself with plurals), it’s plausible that the people were just sick of having to rely on Moses as a go-between, and wanted a physical manifestation of God that they could see for themselves. Or, rather, they were seeking to replace Moses, not God.

In other words, the calf may have been an idol of God. Sure, that means that they’d still be breaking the second commandment, but at least they aren’t also breaking the first.

It may be worth noting that El, the chief Canaanite god, is occasionally described as a bull (at least according to Wikipedia).

A story with a story

Dr. Jeffrey Tigay mentions calves built by King Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:2-33), which were meant to be pedestals for God, much like the cherubim decorating the Ark. But as time passed, the people started to worship these calves and they were turned into idols, as described in Hosea 13:2.

Dr. Tigay argues that the story of the Golden Calf originally began as a positive story about the origin of one of King Jeroboam’s calves. And, certainly, I think that there may be evidence in this as the collection of the freewill offering (and the enthusiasm with which the people participated) mirrors that of the constructions of the Ark (Exod. 32:2-3 vs. Exod. 35:5,22-29).

Once King Jeroboam’s calves came to be idolized, the story of the Golden Calf was revised.

What about Aaron?

I’ve been troubled by why Aaron, specifically, is mentioned as a principle actor in this tale. So far in the story, he’s been held up as Moses’ right hand man, but he is shown in less than favourable light in this story.

In A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Collins argues that “the story implicating [Aaron] in idolatry can only have been composed as a polemic against the Jerusalem priesthood. This points to a northern origin for this part of the story” (p.73). It would make sense for the priestly editors who were handed this story to fudge it a bit and at least have Moses and God overlook Aaron’s actions as a way to mitigate them.

It seems that this story is giving us a glimpse into the troubled relationship between the descendants of Aaron and the other Levites. Collins continues:

The Levites were the country clergy, who served the rural shrines especially in northern Israel. They were later displaced when the country shrines were suppressed and worship was centralized in Jerusalem, and they were made subordinate to the Aaronide priesthood. Exodus 32 can be read in part as the revenge of the Levites on the line of Aaron. (p.73)