According to the Bible, the golden calf (עֵגֶּל הַזָהָב ‘ēggel hazāhāv) was an icon (a cult image) made by the Israelites during Moses' absence, when he went up to Mount Sinai. In Hebrew, the incident is known as ḥēṭ’ ha‘ēggel (חֵטְא הַעֵגֶּל) or "The Sin of the Calf". It is first mentioned in Exodus 32:4.
Bull worship was common in many cultures. In Egypt, whence according to the Exodus narrative the Hebrews had recently come, the Apis Bull was a comparable object of worship, which some believe the Hebrews were reviving in the wilderness; alternatively, some believe the God of Israel was associated with or pictured as a calf/bull deity through the process of religious assimilation and syncretism. Among the Egyptians' and Hebrews' neighbors in the ancient Near East and in the Aegean, the Aurochs, the wild bull, was widely worshipped, often as the Lunar Bull and as the creature of El.
In the Book of Exodus
When Moses went up into Biblical Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:12-18), he left the Israelites for forty days and forty nights. The Israelites feared that he would not return and demanded that Aaron make them "gods" to go before them (Exodus 32:1). Aaron gathered up the Israelites' golden earrings and ornaments, constructed a "molten calf" and they declared: "These [be] thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt." (Exodus 32:4)
Aaron built an altar before the calf and proclaimed the next day to be a feast to the LORD. So they rose up early the next day and "offered burnt-offerings, and brought peace-offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play." (Exodus 32:6) God told Moses what the Israelites were up to back in camp, that they had turned aside quickly out of the way which God commanded them and he was going to destroy them and start a new people from Moses. Moses besought and pleaded that they should be spared (Exodus 32:11-14), and God "repented of the evil which He said He would do unto His people."
Moses went down from the mountain, but upon seeing the calf, he became angry and threw down the two Tablets of Stone, breaking them. Moses burnt the golden calf in a fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on water, and forced the Israelites to drink it. When Moses asked him, Aaron admitted collecting the gold, and throwing it into the fire, and said it came out as a calf (Exodus 32:21-24).
Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said: 'Whosoever is on the LORD's side, let him come unto me.' And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. And he said unto them: 'Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel: Put ye every man his sword upon his thigh, 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 neighbour.' And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. (Exodus 32:26-28)
Other mentions in the Bible
The golden calf is mentioned in Nehemiah 9:16–21.
"But they, our ancestors, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and they did not obey your commands. They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery. But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them, even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf and said, 'This is your god, who brought you up out of Egypt,' or when they committed awful blasphemies. "Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the wilderness. By day the pillar of cloud did not fail to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take. You gave your good Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them water for their thirst. For forty years you sustained them in the wilderness; they lacked nothing, their clothes did not wear out nor did their feet become swollen."
The language suggests that there are some inconsistencies in the other accounts of the Israelites and their use of the calf. As the version in Exodus and 1 Kings are written by Deuteronomistic historians based in the southern kingdom of Judah, there is a proclivity to expose the Israelites as unfaithful. The inconsistency is primarily located in Exodus 32.4 where "gods" is plural despite the construction of a single calf. When Ezra retells the story, he uses the single, capitalized God.
Conversely, a more biblically conservative view offers a tenable explanation accounting for the discrepancy between "gods" in Exodus 32 and "God" in Nehemiah 9:18. In both instances, the Hebrew 'elohim' is used. Since ancient Hebrew failed to distinguish 'elohim' God (known as the majestic plural) from 'elohim' gods, Biblical translations are either determined by a) context or b) the local verb(s). In the original account in Exodus 32, the local verb is in the 3rd person plural. In Nehemiah 9, the verb connected to 'elohim' is singular. For the JEDP (i.e. Deuteronomistic) theorist, this inconsistency is confirmatory since the theory maintains a roughly equivalent date for the composition of Exodus and Nehemiah. More conservative scholarship would argue that these two texts were composed about 1000 years apart: Exodus (by Moses) circa 1500 BCE, and Nehemiah circa 500 BCE. The biblically conservative framework would therefore account for the verbal inconsistency from Exodus to Nehemiah as a philological evolution over the approximate millennium separating the two books.
Jeroboam's golden calves at Bethel and Dan
Jeroboam thought to himself, "The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David. If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam." After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, "It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt." One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan. And this thing became a sin; the people came to worship the one at Bethel and went as far as Dan to worship the other.
His concern was that the tendency to offer sacrifices in Jerusalem, which is in the southern Kingdom of Judah, would lead to a return to King Rehoboam. He makes two golden calves and places them in Bethel and Dan. He erects the two calves in what he figures (in some interpretations) as substitutes for the cherubim built by King Solomon in Jerusalem.
Richard Elliott Friedman says "at a minimum we can say that the writer of the golden calf account in Exodus seems to have taken the words that were traditionally ascribed to Jeroboam and placed them in the mouths of the people." Friedman believes that the story was turned into a polemic, exaggerating the throne platform decoration into idolatry, by a family of priests sidelined by Jeroboam.
The declarations of Aaron and Jeroboam are almost identical:
- 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt' (Exod 32:4, 8);
- 'Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt (1 Kings 12:28)
The incident of the worship of the Golden Calf is narrated in the Qur'an and other Islamic literature. The Qur'an narrates that after they refused to enter the promised land, God decreed that as punishment the Israelites would wander for forty years. Moses continued to lead the Israelites to Mount Sinai for Divine guidance. According to Islamic literature, God ordered Moses to fast for thirty days, and upon near completion of the thirty days, Moses ate a scented plant to improve the odour of his mouth. God commanded Moses to fast for ten more days, before receiving the guidance for the Israelites. When Moses completed the fasts, he approached God for guidance. During this time, Moses had instructed the Israelites that Aaron (Harun) was to lead them. The Israelites grew restless, since Moses had not returned to them, and after thirty days, a man the Qur'an names Samiri raised doubts among the Israelites. Samiri claimed that Moses had forsaken the Israelites and ordered his followers among the Israelites to light a fire and bring him all the jewelry and gold ornaments they had. Samiri fashioned the gold into a golden calf along with the dust on which the angel Gabriel had trodden, which he proclaimed to be the God of Moses and the God who had guided them out of Egypt. There is a sharp contrast between the Qur'anic and the biblical accounts the prophet Aaron's actions. The Qur'an mentions that Aaron attempted to guide and warn the people from worshipping the Golden Calf. However, the Israelites refused to stop until Moses had returned. The righteous separated themselves from the pagans. God informed Moses that He had tried the Israelites in his absence and that they had failed by worshipping the Golden Calf.
Returning to the Israelites in great anger, Moses asked Aaron why he had not stopped the Israelites when he had seen them worshipping the Golden Calf. The Qur'an reports that Aaron stated that he did not act due to the fear that Moses would blame him for causing divisions among the Israelites. Moses realized his helplessness in the situation, and both prayed to God for forgiveness. Moses then questioned Samiri for the creation of the Golden Calf; Samiri justified his actions by stating that he had thrown the dust of the ground upon which Gabriel had tread on into the fire because his soul had suggested it to him. Moses informed him that he would be banished and that they would burn the Golden Calf and spread its dust into the sea. Moses ordered seventy delegates to repent to God and pray for forgiveness. The delegates traveled alongside Moses to Mount Sinai, where they witnessed the speech between him and God but refused to believe until they had witnessed God with their sight. As punishment, God struck the delegates with lightning and killed them with a violent earthquake. Moses prayed to God for their forgiveness. God forgave and resurrected them and they continued on their journey.
In the Islamic view, the Calf-worshipers' sin had been shirk (Arabic: شرك), the sin of idolatry or polytheism. Shirk is the deification or worship of anyone or anything other than the singular God (Allah), or more literally the establishment of "partners" placed beside God, a most serious and unforgivable sin, with the Calf-worshipers' being ultimately forgiven being a mark of special forbearance by Allah.
Criticism and interpretation
Despite a seemingly simplistic façade, the golden calf narrative is complex. According to Michael Coogan, it seems that the golden calf was not an idol for another god, and thus a false god. He cites Exodus 32:4-5 as evidence: He [Aaron] took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, "Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord." Importantly, there is a single calf in this narrative, though the people refer to it as representative of the "gods." While a reference to singular god does not necessarily imply Yahweh worship, it does not rule out the possibility that it is Yahweh that the people are worshiping, as the reference to a plurality of "gods" would. Additionally, the festival "to the Lord" in verse 5 is sometimes translated as "to Yahweh". It should also be noted that "in the chronology of the narrative of the Ten Commandments" the commandment against the creation of graven images had not yet been given to the people when they pressed upon Aaron to help them make the calf, and that such behavior was not yet explicitly outlawed.
Another understanding of the golden calf narrative is that the calf was meant to be the pedestal of Yahweh. In Near Eastern art, gods were often depicted standing on an animal, rather than seated on a throne. This reading suggests that the golden calf was merely an alternative to the ark of the covenant or the cherubim upon which Yahweh was enthroned.
The reason for this complication may be understood as 1.) a criticism of Aaron, as the founder of one priestly house that rivaled the priestly house of Moses, and/or 2.) as "an attack on the northern kingdom of Israel." The second explanation relies on the "sin of Jeroboam," who was the first king of the northern kingdom, as the cause of the northern kingdom’s fall to Assyria in 722 BCE. Jeroboam’s "sin" was creating two calves of gold, and sending one to Bethel as a worship site in the south of the Kingdom, and the other to Dan as a worship site in the north, so that the people of the northern kingdom would not have to continue to go to Jerusalem to worship (see 1 Kings 12.26–30). According to Coogan, this episode is part of the Deuteronomistic history, written in the southern kingdom of Judah, after the fall of the Northern kingdom, which was biased against the northern kingdom. Coogan maintains that Jeroboam was merely presenting an alternative to the cherubim of the Temple in Jerusalem, and that calves did not indicate non-Yahwehistic worship.
The documentary hypothesis can be used to further understand the layers of this narrative: it is plausible that the earliest story of the golden calf was preserved by E (Israel source) and originated in the Northern kingdom. When E and J (Judah source) were combined after the fall of northern kingdom, "the narrative was reworked to portray the northern kingdom in a negative light," and the worship of the calf was depicted as "polytheism, with the suggestion of a sexual orgy" (see Exodus 32.6). When compiling the narratives, P (a later Priest source from Jerusalem) may have minimized Aaron’s guilt in the matter, but preserved the negativity associated with the calf.
Alternatively it could be said that there is no golden calf story in the J source, and if it is correct that the Jeroboam story was the original as stated by Friedman, then it is unlikely that the Golden Calf events as described in Exodus occurred at all. Friedman states that the smashing of the Ten Commandments by Moses when he beheld the worship of the golden calf, is really an attempt to cast into doubt the validity of Judah's central shrine, the Ark of the Covenant. "The author of E, in fashioning the golden calf story, attacked both the Israelite and Judean religious establishments."
As to the likelihood that these events ever took place, on the one hand there are two versions of the ten commandments story, in E (Exodus 20) and J (Exodus 34), this gives some antiquity and there may be some original events serving as a basis to the stories. The Golden Calf story is only in the E version and a later editor added in an explanation that God made a second pair of tablets to give continuity to the J story. The actual Ten Commandments as given in Exodus 20 were also inserted by the redactor who combined the various sources.
Archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman say that while archaeology has found traces left by small bands of hunter-gatherers in the Sinai, there is no evidence at all for the large body of people described in the Exodus story: "The conclusion – that Exodus did not happen at the time and in the manner described in the Bible – seems irrefutable... repeated excavations and surveys throughout the entire area have not provided even the slightest evidence."
As adoration of wealth
A metaphoric interpretation emphasizes the "gold" part of "golden calf" to criticize the pursuit of wealth.
This usage can be found in Spanish where Mammon, the Gospel personification of idolatry of wealth, is not so current.
In popular culture
- In Episode 79 Of Batman The Golden Calf Was Nabbed By The Riddler
- Le veau d'or est toujours debout (The Golden Calf is still standing) is an aria in Charles Gounod's opera Faust
- The Cave of the Golden Calf was a notorious nightclub in Edwardian London, created by Frida Uhl
- Moses und Aron (composed 1932-1933), a three-act, uncompleted opera by Arnold Schoenberg, includes the episode "The Golden Calf and the Altar" (Act II, Scene 3).
- Bob Dylan references the Calf in his song 'Gates of Eden'.
- The Band's songs "To Kingdom Come" and "Forbidden Fruit" each reference the story of the golden calf.
- The Golden Calf is the award given at the Netherlands Film Festival, regarded as the Dutch counterpart to the Academy Awards.
- In 2008, conceptual artist Damien Hirst put his sculpture The Golden Calf up for auction at Sotheby's. The dead calf in formaldehyde, complete with gold-plated horns and hooves, sold for 10.3 million pounds.
- Prefab Sprout has a song on the album From Langley Park to Memphis called "The Golden Calf".
- Mooby the Golden Calf is a fictional character featured in Kevin Smith's films, comics and animated series—an indictment of McDonald's, Mickey Mouse and Disney overall. In Dogma, the Angel of Death Loki explicitly links Mooby with the mammon-based implications of the Golden Calf in Exodus.
- The Little Golden Calf is a satirical novel by Soviet authors Ilf and Petrov.
- Rhode Island band The Low Anthem recorded the track "Golden Cattle" for their 2011 album Smart Flesh.
- The Hooters' song "All You Zombies" references the golden calf.
- In the Supernatural season 10 episode "Brother's Keeper", a piece of the golden calf was required as the spell to remove the Mark of Cain. Crowley was able to retrieve the needed piece and the spell was completed with it.
- The early Christian Apostolic Constitutions, vi. 4 (c. 380), mentions that "the law is the decalogue, which the Lord promulgated to them with an audible voice, before the people made that calf which represented the Egyptian Apis."
- Coogan, 2009, pg. 116–7.
- Coogan, pg. 117, 2009
- Friedman, Richard Elliott "Who Wrote the Bible?" 1987 pp 72–3
- Harvey, John E. (2004). Retelling the Torah: the Deuteronomistic historian's use of Tetrateuchal Narratives. New York; London: T & T Clark International. p. 2.: "The subsequent declarations of Aaron's people and Jeroboam are almost identical: 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt' (Exod 32:4, 8); 'Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land ..."
- M. Th Houtsma. First encyclopaedia of Islam: 1913-1936. p. 136.
- Abdul-Sahib Al-Hasani Al-'amili. The Prophets, Their Lives and Their Stories. p. 354.
- IslamKotob, Sayyed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi. Stories of the Prophets - قصص الانبياء. p. 115.
- IslamKotob, Sayyed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi. Stories of the Prophets - قصص الانبياء. p. 113.
- Iftikhar Ahmed Mehar. Al-Islam: Inception to Conclusion. p. 123.
- Coogan, M. A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible in its Context. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2009. p.115.
- Friedman, Richard Elliott "Who Wrote the Bible?" 1987 p 74
- Friedman, Richard Elliott "The Bible with Sources Revealed" 2003 page 177
- Friedman, Richard Elliott "The Bible with Sources Revealed" 2003 page 153
- Finkelstein, Israel and Silberman, Neil Asher "The Bible Unearthed" 2001 p 63
- becerro de oro in the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española.
- The Golden calf from a Jewish perspective at Chabad.org
- Rabbi Fohrman's Lectures on the Golden Calf
- The Golden calf from Ein Hod perspective
- Islamic interpretation of the story of the Golden calf in the Qur'an
- Story of Muses and Aaron in the Qur'an
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