Exodus, Lesson 29: The Golden Calf

Golden Calf2 (610x351)Moses has just finished receiving his instructions from God on how He was to be worshiped.  Yet, while Moses was receiving God’s instructions for 40 days (Exodus 24:18), the people at the foot the mountain began to do things their own way, not knowing what had happened to Moses.

The Golden Calf

Read Exodus 32:1-6

–          Why did the people want Aaron to make a god/gods? (vs. 1)


–          What did Aaron make in response to the people’s demands?


–          What did the people ascribe to these gods or god? (vs. 4)


–          Although Aaron makes a golden calf, whom does he say they are worshipping? (vs. 5)


–          How is their worship described? (vs. 6)


Excursus: Gods or a God

If you were to read Exodus 32:1-6 from different translations, you would either read that the people asked Aaron to make them “gods” or “a god.”  The ESV and NIV say “gods” while the NASB and HSCB say “a god.”  Why the difference in these translations?

If one were to translate Exodus 32:1-6 only based on the grammar, “gods” would be the best way to go.  Elohim (gods/god/God) is a plural form with either a singular or plural meaning.  It’s a bit like the English word, “deer.”  However, the verbs in this passage are plural, such as, “These [plural] are your elohim ….”  Thus, based only on the immediate grammar, “gods” is the strongest translation.

If only Bible translation were so simple! 


It has only been a few months since God delivered His people from Egypt.  After crossing through the Red Sea, the Israelites “feared Yahweh” (Exodus 14:31).  Later, the women of Israel joined with Miriam in singing and dancing after the event (Exodus 15:20-21).  While still in their slaves’ clothing, God’s rescue of them had deeply moved them.  But this only highlights the problem, for Israel clearly saw the power of Yahweh.  They were so impressed that countless generations retold the events of their rescue long after they occurred.  Why, then, would the Israelites–who were present at the Exodus–worship a golden calf as their god?  Such a response makes no sense.


In some cases, the Hebrew plural pronoun (elleh), translated as “these,” can carry a singular meaning and modify a singular noun, or the singular meaning of elohim, and thus mean “this.”  In 1 Samuel 2:23b, we see elleh mean “this”: “For I hear of your evil deeds from all this [elleh] people.”  Similarly, in Judges 20:35b, “The people of Israel destroyed 25,100 men of Benjamin, each with an armed sword.”  The phrase “armed sword” is modified by a singular form of “these,” translated here as “an.”  We can also find other plural forms in the Hebrew linked to Elohim with a definite singular, monotheistic meaning: Genesis 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:23; 1 Samuel 17:26, 36; Jeremiah 10:10, 23:36; and Joshua 24:19.

So, although the Hebrew word for “these” in Exodus 32:1-6 is usually plural in meaning, that doesn’t have to be the case.

One Golden Calf

In response to what the people demanded, Aaron makes one golden calf, not two or more (vs. 4).  Then, after the people see the calf, they respond, “These are your gods” or “This is your god.”  It makes no sense for the people to say, “These are your gods” when they are seeing only one calf!  Thus, the people’s own response testifies to a singular meaning for elleh: “this.”

Further, Aaron then says, “Tomorrow shall be a feast day to Yahweh” (vs. 5).  Aaron says that the worship they will have will be for–not some false god–but for the one, true God, the LORD, Yahweh.

Other Biblical Accounts

Nehemiah 9:18, recounting this false worship, has the cry of the people clearly using singular verbs.  They say, “This is your God who brought you out of Egypt.”

For the above reasons, your pastor believes that “a god” is a better translation than “gods.”  That the people see themselves worshiping “a god” or “the God” will become even clearer as we see the events unfold.


God warns Moses

Read Exodus 32:7

–          To whom does God say the people belong?


–          What does this indicate as to how God feels about their false worship?


In this verse, the Lord verbally disowns His people.  His willingness to hand them over to Moses is in sharp contrast to earlier chapters, where He repeatedly called Israel “my people”: Exodus 3:7, 10; 5:1; 6:7; 7:4; etc.


Read Exodus 32:8-10

–          How does God describe the people of Israel? (vs. 9)


God originally created mankind in His image.  That image was corrupted by our Fall into sin.  Yet, throughout Scripture, we see that we are to be like God, especially Jesus Christ: Matthew 5:48, Romans 8:29, 1 John 3:1-2, etc.  But here, God describes the people as being “stiff necked,” which is the characteristic of a stubborn bull who does not want to plough a field.  Like an ox that resists the yoke, Israel goes its own way in stubborn defiance (Exodus 33:3, Deuteronomy 9:6, and Jeremiah 7:26).

God then tells Moses to let Him be so His “nose may burn” against Israel.

–          If God’s nose is burning what is not happening concerning what He “smelled” in proper whole-burnt offerings and properly used incense?


–          What is God thinking of doing about His promise originally made to Abraham? (vs. 10)


Moses Responds to God

Read Exodus 32:11-14

God told Moses about the golden calf and the people’s response on seeing it: “These are your gods” or “This is your god/God.”  Moses responds using singular verbs: “Why does your nose burn against your people, whom you have brought out [singular verb form] of the land of Egypt” (vs. 11).

–          What reasoning does Moses use with God?


–          What does God do?


Moses Returns

Read Exodus 32:15-16

–          What does Moses bring down from the mountain?


Read Exodus 32:17-20

–          How does Moses describe the worship the Israelites are having?


–          What happens to the golden calf?


Aaron Makes Excuses for His Behavior

Read Exodus 32:21-24

–          How does Aaron describe the events leading up to their false worship?


The Sons of Levi

Read Exodus 32:25-29

–          Who remained true to God while Moses was up on the mountain?


–          What do the sons of Levi do?


–          How does this show what spiritually happens in false worship?


Moses Pleads to God for Forgiveness for the Israelites

Read Exodus 32:30-35

–          What was the false worship of the Israelites called?


–          What does Moses ask of God?


–          What responsibility does Moses take on himself if God will choose not to forgive the people?


–          What does God promise to Moses concerning going the wilderness? (vs. 34)


–          What happens to the people? (vs. 35)


Excursus: What was False about the Israelites’ Worship?

In our earlier lessons of Exodus, we learned that, through the ten plagues, God was systematically destroying any trust the Israelites may have had in the gods of Egypt.  Even then, God was beginning to take the Egypt out of the Israelites.  Yet, when Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days, the Israelites asked Aaron to make them a god who would go before them, that is, protect them.  Aaron then fashioned a golden calf, an object that represented one of the Egyptian gods.

–          What god of Egypt did that represent?


Yet, the Israelites did not intend to worship that god in place of Yahweh.  For, after the calf was made, Aaron said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to Yahweh” (Exodus 32:5).  The Israelites were not planning to worship a false god but were, instead, planning to worship Yahweh through the golden calf.

Israel’s Response: This is your God, O Israel …

We get this understanding from more than Aaron’s words.  For after the Aaron made the golden calf, the Israelites said, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”  The Israelites knew that the Egyptian god, Apis, did not bring them out of Israel.  They lived through that event and saw God show that He had mastery over Apis in the 5th plague when the livestock died.

However, the Israelites’ response to Aaron after seeing the golden calf is surprising.  Their words were virtually identical to God’s words in Exodus 20:2: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

The Israelites seemed to have thought that as long as they had the right words, they could worship God however they wanted, contrary to all the instructions that God had just given to Moses.

And how could anyone argue with the words that they chose?  They came from the mouth of God!  They simply chose to worship God using the worship forms they were used to in Egypt.  In other words, they let their culture shape their worship of God instead of God.

The Israelites intended to worship the one, true God, Yahweh (Exodus 32:5).  However, Scripture calls their worship “play” (Exodus 32:6) and a “great sin” (Exodus 32:30-31).  They were not having true worship because they chose to worship God based on their preferences, in this case, through the golden calf: “Tomorrow shall be a feast day to Yahweh” (Exodus 32:5).  They had made a false god of their preferences, a golden calf, and placed it before God and expected Him to honor their worship.  After all, that was what they wanted to do!

To make better sense of this, we need to go back to a literal understanding of the 1st Commandment (or God’s second “word”).  God said, “You shall have no other gods before [or in front of] my face” (Exodus 20:3).  But that’s exactly what the Israelites did.  They put the Egyptian god, Apis, before God’s face and wanted to worship Him through that object.  They didn’t so much worship an image in the place of God but put that image in God’s face and then chose to worship Him through it.

–          Discuss: How does false worship still happen today?


Click here to go to Lesson 30.