Aaron makes a golden calf
Aaron collects an offering—gold only1 Moses stayed on the mountain long enough that the people started wondering if he’d ever come back. They went to Aaron and said, “Moses brought us here, out of Egypt. But we have no idea where he is now. Make a god for us who will take us the rest of the way out of here.” 2 Aaron said, “Okay, let’s take up a collection of gold earrings. Bring me the gold earrings from your wives, sons, and daughters. Bring them all to me.” 3 So the people took off their gold earrings and gave them to Aaron. 4 Aaron took the gold from the people, melted it down, poured it into a mold, and created a golden calf. When the people saw it, they said, “Israel, this is your God, the one who brought you out of Egypt.” 5 When Aaron saw how excited the people were, he built an altar in front of it. He told the people, “Tomorrow will have a festival to honor the LORD.” 6 The people got up early the next morning. They started offering sacrifices: burnt offerings as well as peace offerings. Afterward, they ate together and drank. Then they danced and partied.
God is ready to wipe out the Israelites7 The LORD told Moses, “Quickly, I want you to go down to those people you brought out of Egypt. They have gotten themselves into trouble. 8 They have already started to ignore the laws I gave them. They made a metal statue of a calf. They have started to worship it and sacrifice to it. They said, ‘Israel, this is your God, the one who brought you out of Egypt.’” 9 The Lord also told Moses, “I’ve been watching these people, and I’m telling you they are stubborn and thickheaded. 10 Now, just leave me alone with my anger. I’m furious with these people and I am going to wipe them out. But you’ll be fine. I’ll make you the father of a great nation.” 11 Moses pleaded with God, “LORD, what’s wrong? Why are you so angry with the people you just freed and led out of Egypt, in a wonderful expression of your great power? 12 Why would you load the Egyptians with this kind of propaganda? They could start telling people, ‘This God of theirs freed them so he could take them out to the mountains and wipe them off the face of this earth.’ Please don’t let your anger hurt your people. 13 Remember what you promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They honored and worshiped you. In return, you made them a promise: ‘I will give you a huge family, with more descendants than anyone could ever count—like stars in the sky. And I will give all this land to your family. They’ll inherit it from you, and it will be theirs forever.” 14 The LORD agreed not to hurt the people. 15 Moses trekked back down the mountain. He carried the two stone tablets, inscribed on both sides with the laws God wrote there. 16 The stone tablets came from God. He inscribed the words onto the stones. 17 Joshua, traveling with Moses, heard the distant sounds of the people below. He said, “It sounds like there’s a battle going on down there.” 18 Then he said, “It doesn’t sound like they’re winning, or like they’re losing. It actually sounds like they’re just singing.”
Moses shatters the stone tablets19 As Moses neared the foot of the mountain, he saw the golden calf and the people dancing around it. He got so angry that he threw the stone tablets the rest of the way down the mountain, smashing them to pieces. 20 He grabbed the golden calf and melted it down. Then he ground the gold into powder, mixed it into water, and made the people drink it. 21 Moses told Aaron, “How on earth did these people convince you to lead them into committing such a remarkably terrible sin?” 22 Aaron said, “Calm down, boss. You know what these people are like. If there’s an opportunity to do something wrong, they’ll take it. 23 They told me, ‘Moses brought us here, out of Egypt. But we have no idea where he is now. Make a god for us who will take us the rest of the way out of here.’ 24 So I told them, ‘If you own some gold, give it to me.’ They did. I tossed it into the fire, and whataya know, out came this calf.”
Moses order Israelites executed25 Moses saw that the people were out of control. They got that way because Aaron let them. They looked like fools to anyone watching from outside the camp, including their enemies. 26 Moses approached the camp and stopped just outside the entrance. He called to the people inside, “Any of you who are on the LORD’s side, come out here and stand with me.” Men from his own tribe of Levi came out and stood with him. 27 He told the men from Levi’s tribe, “Here’s what the LORD, Israel’s God, wants me to tell you: Strap on your swords and take a walk through the camp. There are people you need to execute. It could be your own brother or a friend or someone who camps in a tent near you.” 28 The men from Levi’s tribe did what Moses said. About 3,000 men died that day. 29 Moses told the men of Levi’s tribe, “Today, you took a stand for the LORD even though it meant you had to take a stand against your own brothers and sons. In doing this, you ordained yourself into his service. Purify yourselves because today the LORD is blessing you with his kindness.”
God punishes Israel with a plague30 The next day, Moses addressed all the Israelites. “You people committed a blatant sin. Now I have to climb back up that mountain and try to make things right with the LORD.” 31 Moses climbed up to the LORD and said, “I’m so sorry. These people committed a terrible sin. They made a gold god for themselves. 32 Now it comes down to this. You can forgive them, and that would be wonderful. But if you don’t, count me among them and erase my name from your book of life. 33 The LORD said, “The only people I’ll erase from my book will be the people who disobeyed me. 34 For now, I want you to go and take my people where I told you. My angel will show you the way. As for punishing the sinful people, that’s not your concern. I’ll take care of that in my own time. 35 The LORD unleashed a plague on the people. He did it because of the calf Aaron had made.
Moses had been on the mountain “40 days and 40 nights” (Exodus 24:18).
In Hebrew, this is literally “these are your gods.” Some scholars speculate that an editor may have turned the singular “god” in the original story into plural “gods.” Scholars say the editor may have done this to show a connection with something that happened later in Israel’s history. King Jeroboam of the northern kingdom of Israel, after the nation split in two, made two calves for the people to worship in two locations (1 Kings 12:28). He did this because he wanted to provide places of worship for people in the northern kingdom, since he did not want them going to worship in the southern kingdom of Judah, at the Jerusalem Temple. He did not want to see the two divided kingdoms reunited into a single Jewish nation. If that happened, he probably feared he would be out of a job, since he was not related to King David. God had promised David that the future kings of Israel would come from his family “forever” (2 Samuel 7:16).
It gets confusing here. It looks as if they’ve built an idol, yet Aaron is talking about honoring the LORD. Is Aaron trying to cover his bets by giving the people an idol while trying to placate God? Some scholars speculate that Aaron’s intention was not to build an idol of another god, but to build either a representation of the LORD, or perhaps something that would draw the LORD to the spot. Archaeologists have uncovered images of gods standing on the back of bulls. This apparently illustrated the god’s power—power enough to ride on the back of one of the strongest animals the people knew. So, some speculate Aaron built the golden calf as a pedestal, or a stage, on which the LORD would stand.
Burnt offerings involved sacrifices to atone for sinful behavior. The entire animal was burned on an altar. See Leviticus 1.
A peace offering, described in Leviticus 3, is one of several prescribed offerings in Jewish tradition. When Jewish people wanted to give thanks to God for something, such as good health or safety, they would sacrifice a sheep, goat, cow, or bull. They would burn part of the animal, including the kidneys and fat covering the intestines. They would eat the rest in celebration, often with family and friends. It takes a fair number of hungry people to eat a cow. But people were eager to eat meat because it was rare in Bible times for common folks to eat meat, many Bible scholars say.
The Hebrew word is sahaq. It can mean “caressing,” as in making out or engaging in sex or in sexual rituals associated with some ancient religions. Some taught that people having sex could entertain the gods, and get rewarded for it. The word can also simply mean to laugh or joke or have fun or make fun of someone.
The Hebrew word is qāšeh. It can mean: difficult, troubled, obstinate, intransigent, stiff-necked.
Literally “Israel.” That’s a name God gave Jacob when Jacob returned to Canaan (Israel and Palestinian Territories today) from his years in Haran, a city in what is now Turkey (Genesis 35:10).
Genesis 17:2, 7-8.
This sounds a bit like the “test of the bitter waters” in Numbers 5:11-31. Women accused of adultery had to drink a dirty cocktail of water mixed with dirt from the floor of the worship center. Getting sick or miscarrying suggested guilt. Here, perhaps, the people were being tested for spiritual adultery. But it’s just an educated guess, intriguing though it is.
The command is more literally, “Kill your own brother, friend, and neighbor.” In the context, some presume the intention is to kill only those who were guilty of worshiping the golden bull and partying too paganly hearty.
Levi’s tribe became responsible for Israel’s worship practices. They provided the priests and their associates who helped operate and maintain the tent worship center and, later, the Jerusalem Temple. They became known as Levites.
More literally, “make atonement.”
The original text mentions only the “book.” But in the context, it sounds like shorthand for “the book of life” (Psalm 69:28). There seemed to be a widespread belief throughout what is now the Middle East there that there was a book with the names of people who were alive. Christians later adopted the idea to talk about people headed for eternal life.
We’re left to wonder why God seemed to kill all the sinful people except Aaron, the high priest who actually made the gold calf, or at least ordered someone to make it. Perhaps Aaron wasn’t as guilty as those who bowed down and worshiped the calf. Others, it seems, took part in in pagan rituals that included having sex. If that’s what happened, the Israelites later became repeat offenders. Numbers 25 says some women from Moab, in what is now the Arab country of Jordan, seduced some of the Hebrew men on the exodus out of Egypt to engage in ritual sex. Some scholars say the idea was to entertain Baal so he would make it rain. It’s a tad gross, but some taught that the rain was Baal’s semen. So, if the sex of worshipers got Baal stimulated enough, he would make it rain. Baal was considered god of fertility in family, flocks, and fields.
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