Exodus 32:1-29
The Necessity of True Worship

American Journal of Biblical Theology, www.biblicaltheology.com
Copyright © 2017, Dr. John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV


Micah 6:8.  He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

What does the LORD require of us? You might ask the question, “What does the LORD require of me?”  People of faith have a desire to be obedient to God, but the reality of that desire is certainly characterized as a broad range of responses.  For some, obedience to God is demonstrated by their submission of virtually every decision in life to the Word of God.  They are always measuring their behavior by the “plumb line” of God’s Word.[1]  Yet others feel that they have met their “obligation” to their faith by their endurance of a weekly worship service.  Most of us are probably somewhere along a spectrum between these two extremes.

The writer Micah’s prophecy describes our “obligation” to God as one of both relationship and behavior.  The LORD desires a relationship with us as we “walk humbly” with Him.  This humility comes from our limited understanding of the inestimable power and glory of God, and yet He desires that we would “walk” with Him.  To walk with God means to inform every event and circumstance of our lives with the knowledge of His presence and purpose for our lives. 

This can be a tall order for us, particularly when our faith is young.  There are many distractions in this world that can serve to draw us away from our faith, and when we first come to faith, our experiences prior to that decision can dramatically influence our growth in Him.  The Old Testament historical narrative describes the beginning of the restoration of faith to the nation of Israel, a faith lost soon after Israel and his sons came to Egypt almost 400 years earlier.  Moses has come to Egypt following the LORD’s command to lead the Israelites out of grievous bondage, doing so by following the LORD’s direction and, with Israel, witnessing the LORD’s miraculous intervention on their behalf.  The circumstances and events immediately following their Exodus from Egypt led the nation to faith in God. However, theirs was a young faith, and they did not yet sufficiently understand the nature of God or His purpose for them.

Exodus 32:1.  And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.

Moses’ journey had now come full-circle.  It was on Mt. Horeb that Moses heard the voice of God from the burning bush, commanding him to go to Egypt and bring the nation of Israel back to this mountain.[2]  Leaving the people in what he considered the capable hands of his brother Aaron, Moses retreated to the mountain, remaining there for “forty days,” accompanied by Joshua, as the LORD laid down for him much what would become the worship practices under the “Mosaic Law,” as he received the tablets of the Ten Commandments from the LORD.[3] 

Recognizing their lack of understanding, it is not unreasonable that the people would respond the way they did to Moses’ absence.  Their generational understanding of culturally accepted pagan gods closely linked a nation’s leader with their most significant mythical god.  The Pharaoh was considered to be a god, and the representative of their primary God, Ra, the god of the sun and god of all gods.  Likewise, it was natural for them to perceive Moses, like the Pharaoh, as a representative of the LORD, which he was.  However, this assumption misrepresents the true nature of the LORD, making him simply another pagan god that can be easily replaced.  Moses’ absence was considered by some of the Israelites to be an indication that this new god is also absent.  To fill the void for this god “who would go before” them, they asked Aaron to create one.

Though the nation found “faith” in God following the crossing of the Red Sea, that faith was still poorly informed.  The Israelites had much to learn about the identity and the nature of this “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”  Though their understanding of the nature of the LORD was not yet developed, Aaron’s should have been.  Aaron could have used this as a teaching moment to tell the people to be patient for Moses’ return and to remind them of the presence of the LORD and His continued provision for them.  Instead, Aaron’s response to the request of the people seems unreasonable, and has inspired many differing opinions concerning the event.

Exodus 32:2-4.  And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me. 3And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. 4And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.

Aaron’s response to their request is certainly curious.  Like Moses, though familiar with Egyptian mythology, he was not immersed in it as were those who came out of Egypt.  Moses had spent forty years in Midian with his father-in-law, Jethro, who was a priest of the LORD, and by this time Aaron would have been nearly as familiar with the LORD as Moses was.  However, his response to the request is uniquely framed from the most prominent Egyptian mythology.  Instructing the people to bring their golden jewelry, he melted it and used it to overlay a large, carved image of a calf, most likely made of wood. 

The consequences of Aaron’s choice cannot be understated.  One modern Jewish scholar writes, “No episode in Scripture has been more troubling than the incident of the Golden Calf. It is termed in Exodus 32 no less than three times as chataah gedolah, a sin of the highest magnitude. Its ramifications have been far-reaching. So deadly was its impact on Israelite-Jewish history that, according to the Talmud, every calamity which ever befell Israel contained a small ingredient of retribution for the sin of the Golden Calf.”[4]  Even current Jewish tradition cannot understate the significance of Israel’s behavior.  Another writes, “It is fair to say that nothing angered God more than the capitulation to the Golden Calf, anger to the point of wanting to destroy Israel and start off again with only Moses. This we are obliged to remember.”[5]

Every adult Israelite would immediately understand the significance of the Golden Calf.  Images can have great power to communicate, and images that were associated with pagan gods were well-understood.  Egyptian mythology had established the bull as the icon for the mythical sun god, Ra, the highest god in their large pantheon of mythological deities.  The primary pagan god of the Canaanites was Baal, and he was also symbolized as a bull. 

By fashioning the image of a calf, Aaron was giving the Israelite people the identical idol that they had used as the prominent god in Egyptian pagan worship, literally returning them to something familiar.  There was probably no other image that could have successfully united the rebelling Israelites at this time of angst.  However, Aaron’s choice to revert to an image of Ra would prove to be quite unfortunate.  The people, not Aaron, looking upon the Golden Calf proclaimed, “these are the gods that brought us out of Egypt.”  Their declaration demonstrates their assurance that it was not Moses or the LORD who brought them out of Egypt, but rather Ra and the pantheon of mythical Egyptian gods who had delivered them.  Aaron’s response to their declaration of the voracity of their pagan gods seems almost immediate:

Exodus 32:5.  And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, To morrow is a feast to the LORD.

It is clear that Aaron did not intend upon the Israelites to identify this calf with the pagan god, Ra and the pantheon of lower gods they believed that he, along with the Pharaoh, led.  Aaron declared that this calf was to remind them of the presence of the LORD, (who, by the way was already demonstrating His presence in the Pillar of Fire).  Proclaiming this Golden Calf to represent the LORD, Aaron built an altar of worship and declared a feast to the LORD for the next day.  His choice may have been the result of his ignorance of the intrinsic power of Egyptian pagan worship practices among the Israelites, and served only to encourage many of the Israelites to free-fall into their past paganism when they interpreted “LORD” to be the Golden Calf idol.

Exodus 32:6.  And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.

The pagan practices surrounding the worship of Ra were virtually identical to those of the Canaanite gods Baal and Asherah.  The description of “eat”, “drink”, and “play” that are used here are a mild representation of the ungodly debauchery that surrounded pagan “worship” of both of these cultural deities.  Though Aaron may not have expected it, upon their presentation of the Golden Calf of Ra, the people immediately reverted from behaviors that are consistent with faith in the LORD to their veneration and worship of the idol that Aaron had made, doing so in the same fashion that characterized the pagan worship practices of the region.  The people had taken their attention completely off of the LORD and focused it upon the Golden Calf and upon themselves as they took part in every order of debauchery and lasciviousness that was employed in pagan worship.  Their behavior was no less than egregious self-fulfilling rioting.  Their utter disregard for the LORD and for the work of Moses is quite evident.  The ungodliness of their practice is illustrated in the LORD’s response to their behavior.

Exodus 32:7-8.  And the LORD said unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves: 8They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.

The LORD could have instructed Moses to return down from the mountain before the people engaged in idol worship.  His not doing so indicates His Sovereignty over Moses and the people and His underlying purpose for this event.  The LORD is using this event to teach the Israelites more about His nature and His purpose for His people.  He is also using this to do the same with Moses, and preparing the reluctant leader for the task that will be before him for the next forty years.   

The Israelites have been culturally immersed in idol worship for generations, and mythic idolatry is literally the only form of worship that they know.  This propensity to turn their back on the LORD and return to mythology will continue to be the most significant impediment to their spiritual growth as a nation.  Consequently, this single event became a watershed moment in Israelite history when the LORD would be able to address this specific issue with Moses and with the people of Israel.  Up to this point the LORD had defeated Pharaoh, had defeated thirst, and had defeated hunger.  Now was the perfect time to take on the evil of pagan worship practices among the people.

Exodus 32:9-10.  And the LORD said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people: 10Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation.

Before returning to the people from the mountain, it is imperative that Moses understand the gravity of this situation.  Moses must clearly understand how opposed the LORD is to idol worship.  In order to communicate this, the LORD set up a dialogue with Moses whereby He first stated to Moses that the sin that was taking place in Israel was so grievous that they all deserved death.  To drive this home, the LORD told Moses that He fully intended to do so.  The LORD literally instructed Moses to return to the Israelites where he would witness their deserved destruction.

There are at least four incongruences here that deserve note.  First of all, this form of dialogue is not unique to this event.  There are several situations in the biblical narrative where the LORD expressed an intention to destroy and “repented” after a dialogue with the primary patriarch in the story.  This happened with Abraham in a dialogue concerning the destruction of the righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah.  Again, in this situation, the dialogue was not about the repentance of a LORD who changes His mind, it was a dialogue with Abraham to communicate to him the gravity of the situation.[6]  In these dialogues it is not the LORD who changes His mind, it is the patriarch who learns the important lesson that the LORD is teaching.

A second incongruence is the LORD’s declaration to destroy all of Israel with the exception of Moses’ family.  Even the Abrahamic narrative clearly denotes that the LORD will not destroy the righteous and innocent along with the unrighteousness, and there are many righteous and innocent among the Israelites, which we will find later in the narrative.

A third incongruence is the simple fact that Moses was given the tablets with the Ten Commandments with the instruction to take these to the people.  This could not take place if the nation is destroyed.  There would have been no point in creating the tablets.

A fourth incongruence is simply the immutability and timelessness of God.  God does not “change His mind.”  No person would presume to ever have this capacity to dissuade the LORD from His intention and purpose.

Understanding these four points, we can move away from any argument that Moses is debating with the LORD with the intention of demanding the LORD’s repentance, and move toward an understanding of what it is that the LORD is teaching Moses about Himself, about Moses, about the Israelites, and about us.

Exodus 32:11.  And Moses besought the LORD his God, and said, LORD, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand?

The necessity of this dialogue with Moses is exposed with this surprising and unlikely question from Moses.  It is obvious that Aaron was not truly cognizant of how evil the practice of idol worship is when he instituted a form of it among the people in the absence of Moses.  However, here we see the same response from Moses!  Moses knows that the people are worshiping a Golden Calf idol, the most common pagan worship practice.  It is as if Moses asks, “Why does this behavior make you so angry?”  This is why it was necessary for the LORD to “threaten” to destroy Israel.  Like Aaron, Moses himself did not understand the power that idol worship had to destroy Israel as a nation.  If Israel succumbed to idol worship, they would abandon the worship of the LORD, and would not be in a position to accomplish anything that the LORD will do through them.

Exodus 32:12-13.  Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever.

Moses’ lack of spiritual understanding is revealed in his response.  His statement makes perfect sense when adjudicated in the court of human logic, but nowhere in his response does Moses recognize the spiritual gravity of the situation.  Moses could only argue that (1) the Egyptians would think that the LORD is capricious by bring out the Israelites into the wilderness only to destroy them, and (2) Moses “reminded” the LORD of His promise to Abraham that it would be through these people that the LORD would be blessed.  Of course, neither argument actually has any merit.  First, the opinion of the Egyptians does not supersede the sovereignty of God, and second, the LORD could fulfill His promise through one man rather than through the nation.  In fact, it would be through one man that the world would be blessed: Jesus Christ of Nazareth, a member of the Israelite nation, a son of Abraham, and the Son of God, YAHWEH in the flesh.

We might also be reminded that Moses has just received what is recorded in the previous seven chapters of the book of Exodus:  the LORD’s requirements for worship practices.  Even having heard and understood this in enough detail that He would be able to later write it all down, Moses still did not see the contrast between pagan and true worship, and the evil that is characterized by the former.  Moses (and the people) have a very important lesson to learn.

Exodus 32:14.  And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.

It is this verse that, when taken from the literal King James English causes some to hold to a theology that provides for the LORD’s repentance.  However, the term that is translated “repented” can also be rendered in several other ways simply because the Hebrew term, like many, has a range of meaning that is determined by the context within which it is used.  Because of this many modern translations render the term in the English as “relented.”  The same is true for the word that is rendered “thought.”  A literal translation of the phrase could be rendered that “the LORD relented from the (evil) consequence of what He had spoken of” to Moses.

Again, this argument becomes moot when we stand on the sovereignty, timelessness, and immutability of God.

Moses then returned to the camp.[7]

Exodus 32:19-20.  And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount. 20And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.

Many people can probably visualize Charlton Heston’s rendering of Moses in the Cecil B. DeMille presentation of the movie, “The Ten Commandments,” as he was enraged at the egregious behavior of the Israelites and threw the tablets containing the Ten Commandments to the ground.[8]  He then destroyed the Golden Calf idol.  Much controversy has been raised over the details of this destruction since the literal English interpretation of the construction is an object of solid gold, and its destruction involves burning and grinding.[9]  However, some understanding of the mythology surrounding the Israelite’s understanding of the nature of Ra, the mythological God may be helpful. 

When we investigate the mythological stories concerning the death of Mot, the god of death and fertility and the arch-enemy of Baal, we find a parallel to Moses’ destruction, or death, of the Golden Calf, an “arch enemy” of God.  “The depiction of the destruction of the calf should be understood against the background of the similar depictions of the destruction of Mot in Ugaritic literature. One of the Ugaritic texts states that Anat burnt Mot in fire, ground him and strewed him in the field. This depiction ends by noting that Mot's flesh was eaten by the birds.”[10]  Moses was destroying the Golden Calf using a methodology that the Israelites would recognize as appropriate for the destruction of a mythical God.  However, he inserted one aspect of the process that would have had significance: he demanded that the Israelites drink of the water containing the remains of the Golden Calf.  This would be understood as the most grievous insult against the destroyed God.

Moses then turned to Aaron for an explanation.  He gave Moses the same explanation that is described earlier in the chapter,[11] but finished the story with an amazing, and quite obvious, lie:

Exodus 32:24.  And I said unto them, Whosoever hath any gold, let them break it off. So they gave it me: then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.

This may have also been the explanation that Aaron gave to the people after he had made the calf.  By declaring that it “came out” of the fire, he was engaging a fundamental apologetic formula that empowers idol worship:  animating an inanimate object.  By animating an idol, one is giving it a form of life, and consequently, any authority that such a life form is assigned.  Aaron is also declaring the voracity of the idol by declaring that it made itself. 

Exodus 32:25.  And when Moses saw that the people were naked; (for Aaron had made them naked unto their shame among their enemies:)

We might note that there is no record of Moses’ response to Aaron’s behavior.  One might expect him to point out to Aaron the significance of his behavior.  However, the situation was far more significant than what Aaron did.  Moses’ response will be more than enough to teach Aaron what he needs to learn.

First, Moses saw that the people were “naked.”  The term used here does not refer to their state of dress, but rather to their spiritual state.  If we think of one who is not naked as being “clothed in righteousness,”[12] we can understand the term to refer to one who is not.  It was necessary that Aaron and the people understand the gravity of their behavior.

When the LORD spoke to Moses concerning His judgment upon the people, He spoke of their destruction.  Moses understood this declaration to refer to all of the Israelites without regard to their guilt and sin.  However, the message that the LORD communicated to Moses certainly cut him to the heart.  Moses recognized that, upon identifying the guilty group, that God’s judgment was necessary and appropriate.  There is simply no other way that those Israelites who did not take part in this orgy of idolatry would so well understand the consequence of doing so.

Exodus 32:26-28.  Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the LORD’S side? let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. 27And he said unto them, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour. 28And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.

Having destroyed the Golden Calf, Moses executed the LORD’s proclaimed judgment, doing so upon the guilty.  Calling the Levites to arms, Moses instructed them to go through the “Camp” and kill every man in it.  The Camp of the Israelites numbered in the millions.  Those who took part in this idol worship was a comparatively small fragment of the nation.  However, the “sin in the camp” had to be dealt with.  This set the precedent for similar purges that would take place in the future.[13]

Exodus 32:29.  For Moses had said, Consecrate yourselves to day to the LORD, even every man upon his son, and upon his brother; that he may bestow upon you a blessing this day.

With this act of consecration, the Golden Calf idolatry event came to a close.  Moses called upon all Israel to “consecrate yourselves,” which they were learning meant to commit themselves wholly to the LORD, separating themselves from the idolatry and wickedness of this world and committing themselves to the LORD alone.  Israel was in need of a blessing, and this day, that blessing would be the forgiveness of God.  If this event teaches us nothing else, it teaches us that God hates idolatry.  God’s preference is that anyone who practices idolatry is deserving of death.  Only forgiveness can save anyone who has practiced idolatry in any way. 

Upon calling upon the consecration of Israel, Moses returned to the mountain to call upon the LORD to forgive the nation.  The LORD would not only provide this forgiveness, but He also replaced the stone tablets that Moses destroyed at the foot of the mountain.

WHAT IS AN IDOL?

At this point it would be meet for us to give consideration of how the LORD’s hatred of idolatry affects people today.  First, a definition:  idolatry is the practice of accepting anything as a replacement for the LORD. There is only one God and He is LORD.  For those who are not people of faith, their entire life is characterized by idolatry as virtually everything they know and live finds replacements for the LORD.  Their eternal destiny is well understood: eternal separation from God, the second death.

The practice of idolatry in the lives of people of faith is far more insidious, and is more comparable to the practice of idolatry in ancient Israel.  If anything that replaces the LORD in our lives is an idol, we might take note of how we practice our faith.  There are many examples of ways that people of faith practice idolatry:

A church leader is allowed to usurp the work of the LORD in the body by taking control of the fellowship.  He has replaced much of the LORD’s leadership in the fellowship.

A Christian is so desirous of personal possessions that, living beyond current means, he/she has committed the largess of their income to debt repayments.  Now, those mortgages have displaced the tithes, offerings, and gifts that the LORD deserves and requires.

With only a few moments thought, we can probably extend this short list significantly.  As we do, we should again give consideration of the LORD’s declaration concerning the sin of idolatry, seek to repent of our behavior, and praise God for the forgiveness that He has provided us through the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross of Calvary.

Idolatry is a silent, insidious, and cunning enemy of the LORD.  Let us be wise to recognize and expose its presence, and work within ourselves and within our church fellowships to expunge our lives and the lives of our fellowships of this grievous and egregious sin.


[1] Amos 7:7-8.

[2] Exodus, Chapter 3.

[3] Exodus 24:12 – 31:18.

[4] Langner, Allan. The golden calf and Ra.  Jewish Bible Quarterly, 31 no 1 Jan - Mar 2003, p 43.

[5] Bulka, Reuven P. The golden calves: what happened?  Jewish Bible Quarterly, 37 no 4 Oct - Dec 2009, p 250.

[6] Genesis 18:23-33.

[7] Exodus 32:15-18.  And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, and the two tables of the testimony were in his hand: the tables were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. 16And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables. 17And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said unto Moses, There is a noise of war in the camp. 18And he said, It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome: but the noise of them that sing do I hear.

[8] “The Ten Commandments”, (1956) Cecil B. DeMille, producer; distributed by Paramount Pictures.

[9] Meschel, Susan V. Metallurgy in the Bible: ironworking and the disposal of the golden calf.  Jewish Bible Quarterly, 42 no 4 Oct - Dec 2014, p 262-269.

    Slivniak, Dmitri M. The golden calf story: constructively and deconstructively.  Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 33 no 1 Sep 2008, p 19-38.

    Loewenstamm, Samuel E. Making and destruction of the golden calf.  Biblica, 48 no 4 1967, p 481-490.

[10] Frankel, David Daniel. The destruction of the golden calf: a new solution.  Vetus testamentum, 44 no 3 Jul 1994, p 332.

[11] Exodus 32:21-23.  And Moses said unto Aaron, What did this people unto thee, that thou hast brought so great a sin upon them? 22And Aaron said, Let not the anger of my lord wax hot: thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief. 23For they said unto me, Make us gods, which shall go before us: for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.

[12] Job 29:14; Psalm 132:9; Isaiah 61:10.

[13] Joshua 7:1-13.

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