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Why the Israelites Made a Calf

Why the Israelites Made a Calf

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It was a tense moment. Moses had climbed mount Sinai and had promised to return in forty days. It was now the fortieth day and there was no sign of his return.

The people had been skeptical about his survival on the mountaintop with no food or water. But Moses had a reputation of G‑dliness and they knew him as a miracle worker: they watched him smite the Egyptians, part the Reed Sea, guide them through an uncharted desert, deliver manna from heaven and water from a stone. They saw him stand unflinching on the mountain as G‑d's awesome presence descended.

But now it was the fortieth day -- the day of his promised return -- and there was no sign of their leader. Obviously, he had perished on the mountain.1

The people turned to Aaron, knowing that he, too, was a G‑dly person, destined for the high priesthood, and beseeched him to "make for us a G‑d." Aaron complied and fashioned a golden calf, which they promptly worshipped.2

This was an astounding betrayal of the Second Commandment, "You shall have no other G‑ds but me,"3 within forty days of its issuance. The multitudes were led to idolatry by rabble-rousers, but why did Aaron join in the sin? More pointedly, one might ask: if our ancestors sought a replacement for Moses, why did they replace G‑d?

A Corporeal Intermediary

Our ancestors were, in fact, not guilty of replacing G‑d but of making a corporeal image of G‑d, which is also prohibited but is not on par with outright idol worship. This behavior, though inexcusable, was, due to the circumstances, eminently understandable.4

Our ancestors lived in a world where all cultures related only to corporeal forms of deity. They believed that man must pay homage to G‑d and win His grace, but could not relate directly to an intangible deity. Man must therefore deify objects of his own making that represent his highest idea of the world-directing G‑dhead. These objects would then be invested by G‑d with divinity and become the bearers of man's fate.

Our ancestors, schooled in the Abrahamic belief in an omnipresent, incorporeal G‑d, were nevertheless influenced by surrounding cultures. Contrary to the heathens, they did believe that man could relate to an incorporeal G‑d, but they clung to the notion that a concrete, tangible link is required.

G‑d's corporeal instruments seemingly justified this contention. In the Israelites' experience, the Divine presence often dwelled in tangible, or at least visible, symbols and, indeed, artifacts. At the Reed Sea it was Moses' staff, at Sinai it was a cloud of glory, in the tabernacle it would be a sacred ark and its extending cherubs. The people saw these accouterments as deified links between an incorporeal G‑d and a physical people. Their mistake was that while those objects had indeed been chosen by G‑d to become a vehicle for his manifestation, they could serve as such only by as the result of the Divine choice and action. Man, however, has neither the authority nor the ability to choose his own vehicle and appoint it a link to G‑d, let alone endow it with divine properties.

After their Sinai experience, the people looked to Moses as the primary intermediary. When G‑d uttered the commandments, the people found the experience overwhelming. They asked Moses to stand as their intermediary and transmit G‑d's message to them.5 They saw Moses as endowed with deified properties and perceived in him a link to the true G‑d, creator of heaven and earth.

Again, their mistake was that they saw their "intermediary," rather than G‑d, as the initiative for revelation. For them, it was not G‑d who had brought them out of Egypt by means of Moses, but Moses who had influenced G‑d to redeem them. They had not yet absorbed the Jewish concept that man has direct access to G‑d, but it is G‑d, not man, who established the actions and instruments via which He can be reached.6

A Physical Object

When they thought Moses died, it appeared crucial that a replacement be found. Without one there would be no further access to G‑d and no method of securing his grace. But this time they sought a physical object rather then a living human.

Physical objects, they reasoned, can be safely preserved; they don't walk away and disappear as Moses did.7

Aaron's Role

Aaron understood the people's mistake, but recognized that if he refused or rebuked them, they would proceed on their own, unhampered.8 He decided to engage them and draw out the process so as to gain a little time, certain that Moses would soon return.

He first demanded that they remove their gold earrings,9 hoping that they would hesitate to relinquish their jewelry; but the people promptly complied. After melting down the gold, Aaron began to single-handedly design and mold a calf.10 Aaron then took up an engraving tool and adorned the calf with beautiful images.11

Upon completion of the calf, he set about building an altar for it. Insisting that only the high priest may build G‑d's altar, he refused all help and painstakingly built it through the night, fully expecting that Moses would return in the morning. But Aaron underestimated the people's zeal. They woke early in the morning and, with Aaron still asleep, 12 deified the calf and worshipped it.

Only a handful of Jews were guilty of outright idolatry that morning by actually declaring the calf to be "the G‑d of Israel." 13 Most were only guilty of deifying a physical object in their quest for a link to G‑d. As soon as Moses returned, their need for the calf was obviated and they did not rebel when Moses destroyed it. 14

The Tabernacle

Following the Golden Calf fiasco, the Tabernacle (Mishkan) was errected at the center of the Israelite camp to house the Divine Presence. In G‑d's words to Moses, "They shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell amidst them."15

The Tabernacle succeeded where the calf failed because, in the Tabernacle, physical objects become sacred only when they were so designated by G‑d. Unlike the calf, the Tabernacle was chosen at G‑d's behest and therefore became sacred. Indeed, the Tabernacle was considered an atonement for and rectification of the sin of the Golden Calf.

Footnotes
1.
Exodus 32:1. See commentary of Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzchaki, Troyes, 1040-1105) Abrabenel (Don Yitzchak Abrabanel- Spain-1437-1508) and Malbim (Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michael, Russia 1809-1879).
4.
This conception of the Golden Calf was first proposed by R. Yhudah Halevi (Spain, 1075 -1141) in his philosophical treatise the Kuzari and elaborated upon by later commentators such as Ibn Ezra (R. Abraham ben Ezra, Spain, 1089-1167) Ramban (R. Moshe Ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1270). Rabbeinu Bachye (R. Bachya ben Asher, 1255-1340 Saragossa, Spain,) Abarbenel, Malbim, Kli Yakar (R. Ephraim Shlomo of Luntshitz, 1550-1619), Ohr HaChaim (R. Chaim ben Attar, Jerusalem, 1696-1743), R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (Frankfurt,1808-1888) and others.
6.
See R. Samson Raphael Hirsch's commentary on the story of the Golden Calf.
7.
This may explain why they asked for a "leader who will walk before us" (Exodus 32:1) -- not one who climbed mountains and walked away from them as Moses did. This may also explain why they didn't ask Aaron to succeed his brother. See Abrabenel commentary.
8.
Furthermore they may even have killed him as they killed Hur, Aaron's nephew, when he rebuked them. While Aaron did not fear a noble death in sanctification of G‑d, he was concerned for the people's guilt and the inevitable punishment that would follow.
9.
This was also in subtle reproof: the ears that were adorned with the golden opportunity to listen to the Ten Commandments should not now betray them (Malbim).
10.
Several reasons are offered for his choice of a calf. Ibn Ezra argues that it was an arbitrary choice; anything would have worked as long as it was a physical frame endowed with G‑d's glory. Ramban argues (based on Midrash Rabbah Exodus 3:3) that it represented the northern face of Ezekiel's prophetic chariot, which was that of an ox. Our tradition is that evil stems from the north, and by utilizing the ox face on the northern side of the Chariot, Aaron invoked a counterbalance to the forces of evil. Hirsch understood the calf as a weaker version of the ox. The ox, a beast that places himself in the service of man, is a proper allegory for a link that would place itself in the service of man's devotion to G‑d.
11.
This follows Rashi's second interpretation for the word bacheret in Exodus 32:4. Abrabenel and Hirsch, among others, follow this translation. See Malbim for a somewhat different understanding. However, most commentaries follow the Midrashic tradition that the calf miraculously appeared from the fire. See Midrash Tanchumah, Ki Tisa 19 and a slightly different version in Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 45.
12.
Abarbenel and Malbim.
13.
Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 42:6 explains that the impetus for the switch from a link to outright idolatry were the erev rav ("mixed multitudes"), the Egyptians who joined our ancestors when they left Egypt. Nevertheless the commentators agree that the three thousand men who were later executed by the tribe of Levi (less then half a percent of the Jewish population) were Jewish men who were influenced by the Egyptians.
14.
See Nachmanidies' commentary. These Jews were still deserving of punishment for theirs was a heathen approach. Man must not represent G‑d in corporeal form, thereby bringing G‑d closer to him but subordinate the whole of his being to G‑d, thereby bringing himself closer to G‑d.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, and a frequent contributor to The Judaism Website—Chabad.org. He has lectured extensively on a variety of Jewish topics, and his articles have appeared in many print and online publications. For more on Rabbi Gurkow and his writings, visit InnerStream.ca.
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Tank Everywhere July 11, 2016

Why do you leave the "o" out of God? Reply

Jody Ct August 25, 2017
in response to Tank:

Actually, the O is the most important letter! It stands for infinity or God's infinite love.
God would like people to write the O Reply

Anonymous Long Beach, CA/USA March 11, 2010

Non Jews? How do you get non-Jews from references like 'O Israel' and 'your own sons and brothers?'

He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt."

Then Moses said, "You have been set apart to the LORD today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day." Reply

Anonymous March 24, 2009

Golden calf Thank you for this article! I am a Christian and lead a Women's Bible study (we are studying the Tabernacle) in New Orleans and I appreciate your insight! Reply

John Perepchuk Lake Ronkonkoma, 11779 October 7, 2005

The Golden calf Sadly enough, like a one bad apple spoils the whole bunch. The mixed multitude has a bad effect on the children of Israel or Jews. We sometime fall victim to peer peasure and are easily frienden into complying. But G-d is forgiving and knows our weakness's. Reply

REUBEN OHAYON MSIDA, MALTA February 26, 2005

GOLDEN CALF The mixed multitude [non Jews..] were responsible for the sin of the golden calf and they totaled 3000 persons.

3 million Jews went out of Egypt. We read that the 3000 forced Aharon to provide an idol and he had to comply due to there pressure.

I do not understand how a minority can override all the children of Israel and a leader like Aharon at the same time, and be responsible for such a downfall at a time when we had a rise by receiving the Torah .

Moses seems to have the same reaction at Aharon's behaviour.

Couldn't Aharon ,the elders and the nation thwart off such a challenge???? Reply

Dr. John Nocera Puyallup, WA via chabadtexas.org February 23, 2005

Golden Calf As an Assemblies of God pastor I find your articles very enlightening and helpful. Much of the material on the Web regarding Judaism is by Christian authors who tend to twist the Biblical text to fit their interpretation. I for one, want to be accurate in my teaching, and your site helps me do that. Thanks for the great work.

Your Christian friend, Reply

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