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Why did the Israelites worship a golden calf in Exodus 32?

Exodus 32 records the infamous account of the Israelites and the golden calf. Moses was on Mount Sinai meeting with God. "When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, 'Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him'" (Exodus 32:1). Aaron instructed the people to remove their gold jewelry and bring it to him. They did so, and he "fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!'" (Exodus 32:4). Aaron built an altar in front of it and declared a feast the following day.

Then God told Moses, "Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them" (Exodus 32:7–8). He told Moses about the golden calf. He also said, "Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you" (Exodus 32:10). Moses, who foreshadowed Jesus, interceded for the people. He spoke of God's reputation before the Egyptians as well as God's promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. "And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people" (Exodus 32:14).

When Moses came down the mountain, he saw the people worshiping the golden calf; Moses was angry and he broke the tablets on which God had engraved the covenant He'd given Moses on Sinai. Moses burned the golden calf and ground it into a powder, which he mixed with water and gave the people to drink. He rebuked Aaron and called for the people who would choose the Lord to come to him. The Levites did so, and Moses instructed them to strike down the Israelites who were worshipping the golden calf. About three thousand men were killed that day, and the Levites were ordained for service to the Lord (Exodus 32:15–29).

Moses told the people, "You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin" (Exodus 32:30). Moses confessed the people's sin to God and asked Him to forgive them, asking God to kill him if He would not forgive the people. "But the LORD said to Moses, 'Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them'" (Exodus 32:33–34). We see God's mercy, justice, and holiness throughout this account. We also see hints of Jesus, who is the true mediator between God and humans (1 Timothy 2:5–6; Hebrews 3:1–6; 10:1–18).

Why a golden calf? Some have suggested the golden calf was a copy of one of the pagan gods the Hebrews experienced, either during their captivity in Egypt, or from contact with the Canaanites and other neighboring pagan cultures. Apis, the Egyptian bull, is one possibility. There is also a fertility god named Baal which the Canaanites worshipped. The calf could have been a representation of Baal, who was sometimes represented by a bull. There is also the aurochs, a wild bull worshipped by some ancient cultures. The aurochs was thought to be the particular creature of El (the father god or creator god figure in paganism). Or perhaps the golden calf was chosen simply because bulls are viewed as powerful and thus a fitting image for a god. The people did claim this was the God who brought them out of Egypt and the feast was to be to Yahweh (the name by which God identified Himself to Moses; Exodus 3:15). Interestingly it was also golden calves that Jeroboam chose as idols to place in Bethel and Dan when the kingdom of Israel divided centuries later (1 Kings 12). He said, "You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt" (1 Kings 12:29).

Why create an idol at all? After God led the Israelites from captivity in Egypt, they faced a variety of hardships. Living in the desert is not easy. They suffered hunger and thirst (Exodus 16:1–3, Exodus 17:3). They doubted God's goodness (Exodus 17:7). They were uncertain about Moses. It seems the Israelites wanted something more tangible, perhaps even a god over which they felt they had more control.

Yahweh required trust from the Israelites, just as He requires our trust today. He doesn't always tell us what He's doing. Very rarely can we see the steps ahead. And when things are uncertain it can be tempting to trust something else instead. When we are afraid, we can tend to put our trust in something over which we feel some degree or control or in something that seems predictable—perhaps money, our own strength, our intelligence, a sense of normalcy, an organization, or another person.

The idol itself is not the point. The point is the idolatry—that is, trusting something other than God to save you. This is something with which we can all relate. We, too, can build gods of our own that do not reflect the true God of the Bible. We might start a "quid pro quo" relationship with this god, thinking that if we do one thing, it will be bound to respond the way we want. This dynamic is called "appeasing the gods" and it exists in every religion on earth.

Yahweh, our true God and Creator, is different. He doesn't require or ask for appeasement (Matthew 11:28; Romans 4:4–5). He doesn't require us to do good things in exchange for His love (John 3:16–18; Romans 3:21–24). He wants us to pursue good things because they are good. We aren't asked to save ourselves with good behavior, or with good works. We are asked to confess our inability to save ourselves, and then trust in His power for our justification and sanctification (Romans 1:16; Philippians 4:8; 1 John 1:9; Hebrews 10:10, 14).

We are dead in our sins and can only be rescued by God's grace through faith in Jesus (Ephesians 2:1–10). When we are saved, we become God's child and enter a dynamic relationship with Him, even receiving the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (John 1:12; Ephesians 1:13–14). This God could never be encapsulated in the image of a golden calf. A mere idol—golden or intangible—could never accomplish the works God does or love us with the complete love He does (Romans 8:31–39; Ephesians 3:14–21).

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