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THE GOLDENCALF

The Sinai traditions



     There are two versions of the story of Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive thetablets containing the Ten Commandments. The story of the Golden Calf been immortalized in Hollywood productions.

     After the split occurred between Israel and Judah, Judahremained in possession of the Temple in Jerusalem and Israel was forced to substitute worship atBethel in the north. In the listing of the tribes of Israel in Judges, Judah is not mentioned,suggesting an early and separate existence for this tribe extending far back into history, andunexplained.

     Jeroboam became King of Israel after the split and he wasworried about maintaining the national cohesion of his new Kingdom, particularly when peopleremained attached to their previous religious customs and the Temple in Jerusalem.

"'As it now stands,' he said to himself, 'the kingdom will revert to the house of David (in Judah). If these people go to sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem, it will revive their allegiance to the Kingof Judah.' After taking counsel about the matter, he made two golden calves and said to thepeople, 'You have gone to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods that brought you up fromEgypt.'" (1 Kings Chapter 12 verse 26) "He alsoappointed priests who did not belong to the Levites." (1 Kings Chapter 12 verse 31)

     Sacrifices and festivals were ordained for his new religiouscenters, one calf at Bethel, the other at Dan.

     Another name for Israel in the north was 'Samaria'. Hoseatestified about the calves saying:

"Samaria, your calf-god is loathsome! My anger burns against them! How long must they remainguilty? The calf was made in Israel; a craftsman made it and it is no god." (Hosea Chapter 8 verse 5)

     And again he refers to a custom of offering
"human sacrifices and kissing the calves." (Hosea Chapter 13 verse 2)

     No doubt the snouts of those two calves were polished andworn down from all those centuries of kissing. As well, one would think that when those twocalves brought the people out of Egypt, they must have been more mobile than they were atJeroboam's shrines. No doubt those calves were running around the camp and giving everyoneorders, and lifting their golden hooves to bless everyone. Based on the testimony of a disgustedand scandalized Hosea, Jeroboam did set up two calves.

     The Golden Calf story is found in Exodus Chapter 32. Moses was gone a long time and thepeople said to Aaron,

"as for this Moses, we don't know what has become of him. Make us a god so we can say, 'hereare your gods (plural) who brought you up fromEgypt.' "
(Exodus Chapter 32 verse 1)

     Aaron made a (single) golden calf, and presented it to the people saying,

'"here are your GODS (plural), who brought you up from Egypt,'" (Exodus Chapter 32 verse 4)
the exact words ascribed to Jeroboam in the book of Kings.

     The tradition in chapter twenty four presents an alternative to the so familiar Golden Calfaccount of Moses and the mountain. It appears to be either a conflation of conflicting sources orhas been heavily edited in an attempt to make it consistent with the second tradition of the tablets,the one everyone is so familiar with.

     The tradition found in Exodus Chapter 24 describes a great crowd going up themountain. This creates two conflicts. First there is an obvious conflict within the account itself which clearly demonstrates the awkward editing process used to create the Bible. The story opens with a strict prohibition against anyone going up the mountain except Moses. This is consistent with the Golden Calf version of events in which Moses went up the mountain alone, as anyone who remembers those movies will recall. An awkward attempt is made at editing this material to make it consistent, and anyonewho carefully reads Exodus Chapter 24 should notice thatit both states that these people all went up the mountain and then later another editorial revision suggests that theydid not, for only Moses went up the mountain. The original source incident contains a reference to the Sabbath tradition in that Moses was on the mountain for six days and met God on the seventhday, with a later editorial revision to refer to forty days (an attempt, like the comment on David'sharp playing, made to reconcile inconsistent accounts). Note that first it is said that no one must go up the mountainwith Moses. (Italics should not be necessary, but are included.)

"And he said to Moses, "Come up to YAHWEH, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventyof the elders of Israel, and worship afar off. Moses alone shall come near to YAHWEH; but theothers shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him." Moses came and told thepeople all the words of YAHWEH and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with onevoice, and said, "All the words which YAHWEH has spoken we will do."" (Exodus Chapter 24 verse 1)

      However, a few verses later, bits and pieces from the earliertradition surface (it is characteristic of the bizarre editing of the Bible that scraps were not thrownout, but rather an attempt was made to submerge and 'harmonize' the various conflicting accounts). Note that it is a constant refrain in the Golden Calf tradition that no one must ever see God (including Moses) or they would die. This theological doctrine has no part in the alternative tradition in chapter twenty four.

"Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and theysaw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, likethe very heaven for clearness. And God's arm was not stretched out against the chief men of thepeople of Israel; they saw God; they ate and drank." (Exodus Chapter 24 verse 9)

     In the famous Calf tradition even Moses was not allowed to see God, for,

"For no man shall see God and live." (Exodus Chapter 33 verse 20)

     The alternative tradition forbids anyone from going up the mountain with Moses and then everyone went up the mountain with Moses.

"...worship afar off. Moses alone shall come near to YAHWEH; but theothers shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him."

"Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and theysaw the God of Israel; ... they saw God; they ate and drank."

The conflict between this statement and the opening sentencesof the story is obvious and indicates that the introduction was a later editorial interpolation.

     After visiting heaven and sitting down for lunch with God, Moses gotthe tablets containing the ten commandments for the first time. Later a tradition would beintroduced during the editorial process to allow the second version to be woven into the tale by concocting a connective fictional device which stated that Moses'dropped and broke' the first set, thus making 'a second trip up the mountain necessary' This is not a description of an historical event but is merely a product of the editing together of two disparate tablet traditions of Sinai, an attempt to weave them together into one unharmonious fictional narrative.

"YAHWEH said to Moses, "Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give youthe tables of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for theirinstruction." So Moses rose with his servant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain ofGod ... Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory ofYAHWEH settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and on the seventh day hecalled to Moses out of the midst of the cloud." (Exodus Chapter 24 verse 12, 15)

     The story begins with a reference to 'no one seeing God,' amotif of the alternate tradition, and after having Moses meet God on 'the seventh day' (anallusion to the Sabbath) a reference to 'forty days' is included, once again in an attempt to'harmonize' the two conflicting versions of events by weaving together bits and pieces of eachtradition.

     Exodus Chapter19 can be considered a prelude to Exodus Chapter32 and the Golden Calf incident. It is a doublet of the introduction to the otherversion of the Tablet story. In both Exodus Chapter 19 and Exodus Chapter24, God announced a covenant and the people replied,

"whatever God has said we will do."(Exodus Chapter 19 verse 8, Exodus Chapter 24 verse 3)

     In the earlier version a big crowd then went up the mountainto eat and drink and see God. In the later version, in Exodus Chapter19, the people have to do some specially ordained purification rites. The mountainis strictly off limits, being far to holy.

"Do not even touch its base. Anyone who touches the mountain will be put to death. No onemust touch him; he must be stoned to death or shot; neither man or animal may be allowed tolive." (Exodus Chapter 19 verse 12)

     Finally, several days later, the people were allowed to approachthe base of the mountain. God instructed Moses to warn the people solemnly that they would notsee God, or they would die. (Exodus Chapter 19 verse 21) Then only Moses and Aaron were allowed to go any further. Even priestswere banned from the mountain. The people could not come up the mountain, and strict bounds wereset,

"for fear that God might break out against them."
(Exodus Chapter 19 verse 24)

     As is so common in Exodus, the narrative is constantlyinterrupted by God giving long speeches about how lengthy rituals must be performed, how toproperly sacrifice an animal (as God had commanded those people when God brought them out ofEgypt, no doubt). Indeed, you will notice that every time God's mouth opens, the long ritualisticmonologue must go on for many chapters before any narrative can resume. This was done tojustify both later Levitical law and the state law of the ancient Hebrew theocratic autocracy bysuggesting Divine imprimatur. These conflicting narrative segments are woven togethersomewhat awkwardly, with the editors doing their best to reconcile the inconsistencies, anexercise, I should add, in futility, but they gamely made the attempt.

     The people started giving whole offerings to the calf, and Godtold Moses to get down the mountain quickly for the people were worshiping a calf. God toldMoses,

"Leave me alone so that I can destroy these people and make a great nation spring from you." (Exodus Chapter 32 verse 11)

     Moses managed to talk God out of doing this with a reminderof how embarrassing it would if the nations heard that God brought people out of Egypt and thenkilled them all. (Exodus Chapter 32 verse 11)

"So God thought better of the evil with which the people had been threatened ." (Exodus Chapter 32 verse 14)

     When Moses reached the bottom of the mountain, he heardsinging and saw revelry around the calf, and he dropped the two tablets and they shattered. Heground up the calf and made 'bitter waters' out of it, which he forced the people to drink, and thenhe turned on Aaron. And God, we are told, was so angry that he could have just about killedAaron.

"Who is on God's side?" (Exodus Chapter 32 verse 26)
Moses asked, and the Levites stood beside him. He then ordered them to
"kill your brother, friend, and neighbor." (Exodus Chapter 32 verse 27)

He then announced that this was the day of the institution of the Levitical priesthood because bykilling their brothers, friends, and neighbors,

"you have brought a blessing this day upon yourselves." (Exodus Chapter 32 verse 29)

Moses went up the mountain a second time, and this is preceded by language mimicking that ofExodus Chapter 19, suggesting again an originalconnection between these two narrative segments.

"No one must go up the mountain with you. No one must be even seen anywhere near themountain, nor must flocks and herds graze within the sight of that mountain." (Exodus Chapter 34 verse 3)

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