In response to the cover story of the Christianity Today (CT) January-February ’13 issue entitled “Worshipping Jesus in the Mosque” I would like to take a close look at the subject of worship by the Israelites. Perhaps it will shed light on what appears to be a number of articles that justify “do it yourself religion.”

                  The famous song by the American singer, Frank Sinatra goes”…. I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway and more, much more than this, I did it my way…” This too might have been the theme song of the people of Israel at the base of Mount Sinai as they designed their own religion. In a day and age when it is popular to assert that whatever I think or believe it true, do it yourself religion is very much alive and well.

                  In 1 Corinthians 10 the Apostle Paul gives a teaching on idolatry and summarizes his analysis of the errors that Israel made in the past with these words: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10: 11). This article will examine the golden calf incident of Exodus 32 and look for instruction for today. Specifically it will look closely at one verse, and then ask the question, “how did Israel go from being in a honeymoon state to an adulterous wife in the course of 40 days?”  

We begin our examination with Exodus 32: 31:

Egyptiansymbolscow So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold.

 Humble entreaty, spiritual adultery and idolatry.

Alas…In the role of a mediator, Moses approached a furious YHWH who only by an act of sheer mercy had not incinerated the Israelites.  He uses a word which one commentator rendered  “I beg You!” as a means of showing humble pleading[i]

This peoplea group of freed slaves, called by YHWH to be his ‘first-born sons’, a nation of priests, the national treasure, the apple of God’s eye (Exod 4:22; 19:6; Deut 32:10) are now referred to generically. Moses uses the term that God had used for them in verse 9 where he refers to them as “this people…a stiff-necked people”. Clearly, Moses is using God’s own words and it is as if Moses cannot dare to push the point that God has refused to use the affectionate term ‘my people’ as He always did.[ii]

..has sinned a great sin This is the third time that Moses has referred to Israel’s action as a ‘great sin’ (vv. 21, 30 and 31) and YHWH will make a reference to it in 34b when he says that He will punish them “for their sin.” A quick reading might miss the importace of this word, as it could be literally rendered ‘missing the mark.’ Behind the phrase ‘great sin’ is the concept of adultery.  In Genesis 20:19 Abimelech referred to sexual adultery as such, and Ugaritic and Egyptian texts use the same word.  Jeroboam’s idolatry with golden calves is described as driving Israel from following the Lord and making them “commit great sin” (2 Kings 17:21; 1 Kgs 12:29-30a). In short, Israel has committed spiritual adultery with YHWH.


The horror of this act is encapsulated by R.W. Moberly who remarks that no sooner had the wedding service of holy consecration at Sinai ended than we observe Israel acting in a way “like committing adultery on one’s wedding night.”[iii]  Even Moses’ question to Aaron reflects this same wonderment: “What did  this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?” which the  Jewish commentator Rashi rendered “How did the people torture you to the point that you helped bring this sin upon them?”

The irony is that the spiritual adultery was aided by gifts that YHWH had given his own people when he liberated them and this makes the following statement all the more poignant.

They have made for themselves           In clear defiance of the words “You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold” (Ex 20:23) the children of Israel have “made for themselves” a god of gold.  That command was no more than 40 days old, and still bore the echoes of Israel’s audacious statement: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (19:8).

goldcalfheadYHWH had clearly stressed that he would not permit two-timing, with the words that he would permit no other gods “to be with me” (cf. Exodus 20:3). The evidence was that their hearts had already strayed so far that they decided to take matters into their own hands.  Frequently the Hebrew Testament describes idols as something that they made for themselves, or which were the work of their own hands or their own skill. [iv] In Deuteronomy 9:21, for instance, Moses describes the calf as “the sinful thing…that you have made.”  It would seem that this is a return to Genesis 1:7 where Adam and Eve, seeking to find solutions for their problem of shame, also made for themselves fig leaf coverings.  These human creations stand in sharp contrast to the tables of the Law which are described in Ex 32:16 as “the work of God.”

Starting at Sinai, the creative imagination of humans is used to create their own form of worship on their own terms. This stands in sharp contrast to the tabernacle which was said to be made exactly “to the pattern” that God had given (Ex.25:9, 40; 26:30; 27:8) which was a result of obeying “all that God had commanded” (Ex.40:16-30). In effect the creature becomes the Creator and thus can form a god in their own image.  These gods then are described as being owned by the people who made them, such as in Judges 8:33  where the people’s action is described as prostitution: the people of Israel turned again and whored after the Baals and made (for themselves) Baal-berith their god.” The problem was that the very gods that Israel thought they possessed, now literally possessed–in a demonic way–them.


…gods of gold.        No less than 34x is the word gold mentioned in the detailed instructions for making the tabernacle and all of its fittings in Exodus chapters 25 to 31. There it was to be used for consecrated objects under the specific instructions of Yahweh, for his service alone and now it has been used in a defiled way. What makes this more damning is the fact that the gold for this god came from earrings which beautified the organ of hearing, namely the ears which are associated with obedience.

Secondly, the gold had been a gift from YHWH to Israel via his deliverance of his people from Egypt. Ezekiel makes an allusion to the same when he sketches out a brief history of how YHWH found Israel and cared for her even though she was completely undeserving. In his love he had showered her with fine jewelry and instead of using it for her noble bearing she used it for spiritual adultery. We read: “You also took your beautiful jewels of my gold and of my silver which I had given you, and made for yourself images of men, and with them played the whore ” (Ezek. 16:17), or we might say “committed great sin.” That is to say, they wanted worship on their terms, with whom they felt like, irregardless of the fact that YHWH had made it abundantly clear just who He was, why He demanded and deserved unique worship, and how He was to be worshipped. The gold which was to be a symbol of purity as it covered the tabernacle and the ark, now was a symbol of prostitution to other gods.


The million dollar question: How did Israel stray so far so fast?

The text gives a number of clues as to what was in the hearts of the Israelites, and I would venture to say, that their actions demonstrate that–you can get the people out of Egypt, but to get Egypt out of the people is another thing. A few background details of Egyptian religion might be helpful at this point.


Egyptian religious background: 

Among the many gods of Egypt, the cow/bull was said to be one of their visible representations. The supreme God, Ptah, could be found in the Apis bull, and the mother of Horus the sun god was found in Hathor the cow-goddess. When Monthu the war-god was angry he was said to be a raging bull.   All of these can be seen in paintings and statues dating to the time of Israel in Egypt. Frequently these gods are shown as a cow with a sun-disk between the horns, that indicate that they are almighty, and also with a snake figure on the sun-disc that show they can instill fear in their enemies.


(Monthu the god of war)

The Apis bull was a figure of strength and virility and could deliver oracles to the people, while Hathor was a symbol of motherhood, sustenance and even music. Even the Pharaohs of the time had the name “the strong bull” victorious over all their enemies with their “mighty arm,” in their names.

For a people who were out in the wilderness and who needed protection, strong leadership, the ability to fight in battles, provision and closeness with a god who could deliver oracles, what better figure could they have?  Yet it was a god of their own making and an insult to YHWH.


Ten possible factors leading to apostasy:

1. Incredulity at heart.  In Exodus 17:7 the people were said to have tested the Lord by asking “Is the Lord among us or not?” This is a definite act of insurrection just after the miraculous deliverance by the Lord and already represents the 3rd ‘rebellion story’ after the Red Sea crossing: Marah (Ex 15: 22-26); manna and quail (Ex. 16: 1-36)and water from the rock (Ex. 17: 1-7). ).  Likely this was the reason that they took matters in their own hands when they saw that Moses, according to their schedule and their sentiments, was disappointingly delayed on the mountain (Ex 32:1). Now the 4th ‘rebellion story’ is underway.  Later, when Moses recapped the life of the children of Israel in Deuteronomy he told them:  “You did not trust him or obey him. You have been rebellious against the Lord ever since I have known you” (Deut 9:21-22).


2. Questioning of the authority of leadership. WhenStephen reflected on the attitudes of Israel to Moses’ leadership he used words: “This Moses whom they rejected… Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside…” (Ac 7:35,39). Clearly their words of disdain for their leader “…this man Moses…” (v.1)  in the golden calf story, led to the quickly descending slippery slope they were on.


3. A return to their old ways. Stephen said that “in their hearts they turned [back]to Egypt” (Acts 7:38) and this echoes Ezekiel 20:7-8 where YHWH told Israel to “forsake” [=leave their former association with] the idols of Egypt but they refused:  rather, “She did not give up her whoring [=spiritual prostitution] that she had begun in Egypt” (Ez 23:8).

And I said to them, Cast away the detestable things your eyes feast on, every one of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.  But they rebelled  against me and were not willing to listen to me. None of them cast away the detestable things their eyes feasted on, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt.  (Ezekiel 20:7-8)

Even in Ex. 23:23 (cf Ps. 106:35) the people had been commanded “not to do” what the other nations did in their idolatry, but they refused. The result was that they mimicked Egyptian beliefs in how to make and use their gods. The gods of Egypt satisfied a human craving for a visible and tangible religion, and this is exactly what the Israelites seized on when they came as a mob to Aaron and demanded that he construct the same. Why should they believe in a mysterious, unseen YHWH who was at the top of the mountain, when they could construct an object of worship as they liked right in their midst. What the people wanted as ‘god with us’ and in so doing made an anti-ark, and anti-tabernacle statement.


4. Unveiled insurrection.  The people demanded that Aaron construct a god “who will go before us” (Ex 32:1) as if all of the actions of YHWH to “go before them” in the pillar of fire (Ex 13:21,22) and to have his Messenger “go before them” (14:19) were worthless. Perhaps the Israelites had a mental picture of having the cobra-snake on the cow’s sun-disc strike fear into all of their enemies, or that the god Amon-Re who was said to be ‘a bull’ and incomparable ‘among the gods’ he had fathered, would go with them. It is no small wonder that Nehemiah (9:18) described this incident as a “great blasphemy” as that they viewed YHWH with disdain or contempt. 


sacrificecow5.  Sacrificial giving for all the wrong reasons.  The text relates that the people “stripped off their earrings of gold” (v.3 cf Judges 8:24-27.) This was not to overlay the tabernacle or the ark, but to construct a god of their own making. This was a corporate rebellious religious action, which was only trumped by the zeal of the people the next day.


6. Religious zeal by rebels.  Whereas Moses had gotten up early to go to meet with YHWH and to present sacrifices on His terms (Ex. 24:4,6), the people also got up early and made sacrifices on their terms. With the height of arrogance, they brought peace or communion offerings which were used to re-enforce the notion of relationship with YHWH, as well as burnt offerings, all on a hastily constructed, and very likely a non-consecrated altar by Aaron as he declared that this was going to be “a festival to YHWH” even though clear instructions for a thrice yearly festival had been given in 23:14.  Better put, it was to be a “self-made worship festival under the guise of a god they would call YHWH.”  It was no small wonder that the real One was furious.


7. Like god…like worshippers. The Apostle Paul suggests that the words “rose up to play” have something more in them than innocent actions of children in the playground (1 Cor 10:7). Rather, as they looked on the metal calf/bull, which was a symbol of virility and fertility, likely they thought they should enact some of the same. As YHWH observed the scene, he told Moses that the people had “become corrupted [morally ruined]” (cf Gen 6:12), had “quickly” left the “straight path” (cf Judg 2:7) and like an obstinate bull who will not do its master’s bidding they were “stiff-necked” (Ex 32:7,8,9). They had become just like the god they worshipped. Moses, in fact, describes the people as those who have lost all restraint (v. 25) which will invariably lead to derision by YHWH’s enemies.


8. A false god replaces the true God. With exactly the same words declared by the people: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (v. 4) YHWH describes the false worship of Israel (v. 8) as He says that they had “sacrificed” [=bow down in worship] to it. Imagine the insult. A newly minted calf, which will need to be carried around has just had all of the powers of the Exodus attributed to it. The lunacy is picked up in Psalm 106 where this action is described as exchanging the glory of God for  the image of a grass eating cow (Psalm 106:20). The Psalmist concludes that “they forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things for them in Egypt.”


9. Bad leadership replies religiously. Whereas Moses’ words and holy anger reflect those of YHWH, Aaron replies with a title of exaggerated honor–“my lord”– to smooth things over, and then appeals to his fear of the mob, and the miracle story of how the calf just jumped out of the fire (Ex 32:21-24).  Together they provide a contrast between good and bad leadership.

10. The great divide. Moses asks: “Who is on the Lord’s side?” (v.26). This implies that their worship was false. The people with torn allegiances and guilty consciences do not move.


In summary, the primary elements that led to rapid apostasy were:blackcalf

a. a lack of complete separation from Egyptian religion

b. a lack of trust in YHWH

c. disregard for Moses’ and YHWH’s authority

d. weak-kneed leadership by Aaron

e. a lack of a regulative principle in worship.

The story demonstrates that religious zeal must be tested by the object of its devotion. In this case it was a mask for a rebellious spirit. The resulting insurrection was aided by the people pleasing Aaron, and squelched by the YHWH pleasing Moses. He is not afraid to take drastic action to rid the camp of its ‘cancer.’ The miracle of the story is that inspite of Israel’s spiritual adultery YHWH still has mercy.



The instruction for today is that any religious practice of ‘doing it my way’ will lead to ruin. This might take the form of creating substitute gods for the Living God known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or even trying to combine the worship practices of two religions. Israel tried and failed. John the Apostle’s warning still holds today: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).

Jesus has the last word: But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24)


Questions for today: 

(Family worshipping Mnevis, the cow god of Heliopolis, c. time Israel was in Egypt)

(Family worshipping Mnevis, the cow god of Heliopolis, c. time Israel was in Egypt)


  1. Although the Israelites left Egypt with their bodies, they never left with their hearts.  Do you know of mission practices that hinder people from leaving the ‘Egypt’ of their old religions? What about those who advocate ‘remaining in’ …Islam?…Shintuism…Hinduism?  How would you then respond to John Travis’ article in Christianity Today entitled “Why Evangelicals should be thankful for Muslim Insiders
  2. Israel was told categorically Who they should worship, why they should worship Him alone, and how they should worship Him. The golden calf story demonstrates that this was non-negotiable. Do you know of mission practices that suggest otherwise? Would bowing down to Allah of Islam, who some say is a false god, be such an example? What about the practices that Abu Jaz is advocating in the article “Worshipping Jesus in the Mosque
  3. Moses drew a line in the sand between those who were with, and those who were not with YHWH. Was Moses intolerant and disrespectful? Would you draw such a line?
  4. Leadership is shown to be hugely important in this story. Are you more of a people-pleaser or a YHWH pleaser?



[i]  See Gen. 50:17; Ps. 118:25; Dan. 9:4; Neh. 1:5

[ii] (Exod. 3:7, 10; 5:1; 7:4, 16, 26; 8:16-19; 9:1, 13, 17; 10:3, 4; 22:24)

[iii] R.W.L. Moberly “Exodus” in  Kevin J. VanHoozer ed.  Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament: A Book-by-Book Survey.(SPCK, 2003), p. 48.

[iv] Deut 4:28; 2 Kings 17:16;  Neh 9:18;  PS 115:4;  Is 2:20; Hosea 13:1-2. Both Acts 7:48 and17:24 refer to man-made (cheiropoíētos) places. This term in the LXX is always used in the context of idolatry in the OT. Seven out its nine occurrences are found in Isaiah.  Isaiah 46:6 reads “they hire a goldsmith, who makes it into an idol (cheiropoíētos-LXX) then they fall down and worship.”

1 Comment

  1. Exodus otherwise known as How the Hebrews murmured, complained and moaned their way out of Egypt, ha ha. Despite the description in the HB I’ve always considered that Aaron literally had the golden calf (or filthier a horned molech?) in a tent on stand-by and that he was more than willing (for filthy lucres sake, thus the gold collecting) to blow the dust off it and wheel it out (with a fanfare) for the masses. Don’t forget YHWH (it seems to me) euthanised him (for this despicable crime), I mean, bearing in mind how he died is effectively brushed under the carpet by HB standards (Numbers 20:28)…

    Just my tuppence worth.

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