Reference: Calf, Golden
The incident of 'the golden calf, is related in detail in Ex 32 (cf. De 9:7-21), a chapter which belongs to the composite Prophetic source of the Pentateuch (Jewish Encyclopedia). At the request of the people, who had begun to despair of Moses' return from the mount, Aaron consented to make a god who should go before them on the journey to Canaan. From the golden ear-rings of their wives and children he fashioned an image of a young bull; this, rather than 'calf,' is the rendering of the Heb. word in the present connexion. The view that 'calf is diminutive and sarcastic for bull' is precluded by the use of the word elsewhere to denote the young but mature animal. A 'feast to Jahweh' was proclaimed for the following day, and an altar erected on which sacrifice was offered. The sequel tells of Moses' return, of the destruction of the image, and finally of Moses' call to his tribesmen, the sons of Levi, to prove their zeal for the pure worship of Jahweh by taking summary vengeance on the backsliders, 3000 of whom fell by their swords.
Two to three centuries later, bull images again emerge in the history of Israel. Among the measures taken by Jeroboam I. for the consolidation of his new kingdom was one which was primarily designed to secure its independence of the rival kingdom of the South in the all-important matter of public worship. With this end in view, perhaps also with the subsidiary purpose of reconciling the priesthood of the local sanctuaries to the new order of things, Jeroboam set up two golden 'calves,' one at Bethel and the other at Dan, the two most important sanctuaries, geographically and historically, in his realm (1Ki 12:26-33; 2Ch 11:14 f.). Of the workmanship of Jeroboam's 'calves,' as of that of Aaron, it is impossible to speak with certainty. The former probably, the latter possibly (cf. Ex 32:20), consisted of a wooden core overlaid with gold. The view that the Heb. term necessarily implies that the images were small, has been shown above to be groundless. It is also uncertain whether the other chief sanctuaries of the kingdom were at a later period provided with similar images, the leading passage (Am 8:14) being capable of another interpretation.
With regard to the religious significance of this action on the part of Jeroboam, it is now admitted on all hands that the bulls are to be recognized as symbols of Jahweh. He, and He alone, was worshipped both in the wilderness (see Ex 32:5 'a feast to Jahweh') and at Bethel and Dan under the symbol of the golden bull. For the source of this symbolism we must not look to Egypt, as did the scholars of former days, but to the primitive religious conceptions of the Semitic stock to which the Hebrews belonged. Evidence, both literary and monumental, has accumulated in recent years, showing that among their Semitic kin the bull was associated with various deities as the symbol of vital energy and strength. Jeroboam, therefore, may be regarded as having merely given official sanction to a symbolism with which the Hebrews had been familiar, if not from time immemorial, at least since their association with the Canaanites.
A comparison of Ex 32:8 with 1Ki 12:28 shows that the two narratives have a literary connexion, of which more than one explanation is possible. In the opinion of most recent scholars, the author or editor of Ex 32 has adapted the traditional material on which he worked so as to provide a polemic, in the spirit of Hosea, against the established worship of the Northern Kingdom, which is here represented as condemned in advance by Jahweh Himself (Ex 32:7 f.). The attitude of Amos to this feature of the established worship at Bethel is not so evident as might have been expected, but of the attitude of Hosea there can be no doubt. It is one of profound scorn and bitter hostility (see Ho 8:5 f., Ho 10:5; 13:2
This is described as being fashioned with a graving tool after it had been made a molten image. The ear-rings of the women, of the sons and daughters, and probably of the men, were given up for the object. The Israelites on their leaving had been amply supplied with jewels by the Egyptians and no doubt more trinkets were given to Aaron than those actually being worn. Nothing is said about the size of the calf, but a comparatively small image when on a pedestal would have been seen by the multitude. It is probable that the calf was intended as a representation of God, and would come under the second commandment rather than the first. Aaron said, "This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt" (as it should read); and "To-morrow is a feast to Jehovah." Ex 32:1-6.
This form of idolatry is more specious than that of disowning God altogether and setting up an idol instead, but it is as really idolatry, and it was signally punished by God. There was the same worship in Egypt with the bull Apis, which was said to represent the god Osiris; this may have suggested the idea to the Israelites of making a calf. The same sin was repeated by Jeroboam who was afraid of his people going up to Jerusalem to worship: he set up two calves, one in Bethel and one in Dan, and proclaimed, "Behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt." 1Ki 12:28-33. Idolatry did not stop here with Israel, for they went on to worship 'all the host of heaven, and served Baal.' 2Ki 17:16. The above specious form of idolatry is perpetuated in Christendom in the images in the churches, and on the road-side in any Roman Catholic country.
The fact that the golden calf was burnt by Moses before it was ground to powder has given rise to a great deal of discussion. It has been suggested that the image was really formed of wood and merely covered with gold; but the account will not allow this, for it says it was 'molten,' and then shaped more perfectly by the graver. It sufficiently meets the case if we suppose that the calf was at least softened by fire, if not melted, then beaten into thin plates, before being pounded into dust and strewn into the brook. Ex 32:20.