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Golden Calf

Exodus 32.

Aaron the brother of Moses and newly appointed high priest yielded to pressure from the people who thought Moses had forsaken them (Exod 24:18; 32:1) and fashioned a calf out of the people’s golden earrings. The picture is one of stark contrast between Moses on the mount receiving the Commandments and tabernacle details so that Israel could worship God aright, and the debâcle going on at the foot of the mountain.

A careful reading of the narrative makes it clear that Aaron was confused, for v. 5 seems to imply that he still meant to uphold the worship of the Lord in calling for a feast of the Lord and by building an altar of the Lord in front of the calf. In other words, in Aaron’s mind the calf was only the place where Yahweh dwelt. But the people did not understand it, for they cried, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (vv. 4, 8). Moses made very clear the enormity of this sin by showing to the people that this calf was indeed “a god of gold” (vv. 30, 31). Moses in his anger at this sorry sight destroyed the law tablets, for at this point the people were not ready to receive them (cf. ch. 34). He burnt the calf and ground it to powder, forcing the people to drink foul water polluted by this powder (cf. Num 5:17-27).

Despite Aaron’s naïvete he was greatly responsible. His excuse was weak to the point of being ludicrous when he said that he threw the gold into the fire and the calf came out (v. 24). But his responsibility is clear from v. 25 which says that Aaron had removed restraints from the people (tr. “made them naked” in ASV). If, as Aaron said, they were a people “set on evil” (v. 22), then as leader he should have used every moral restraint for their own good. The account is a great lesson on the responsibilities of leadership.

1 Kings 12:26-33.

Jeroboam I, upon breaking with the tribe of Judah and Jerusalem, built two sanctuaries of the Lord, one at Bethel and the other at Dan. His purpose was to obviate the necessity for his subjects to go to Jerusalem to worship (12:27). Jeroboam prob. took as precedent for his golden calves the two cherubim in Solomon’s Temple. Since the invisible Yahweh was represented as enthroned between these cherubim, so Jeroboam considered Yahweh still as an invisible deity standing or enthroned on a calf of gold. W. F. Albright seems to be correct in From the Stone Age to Christianity (Anchor Book [1957], p. 299) where he observes that it is a gross misconception, unparalleled in Biblical tradition, to view these golden calves as direct representations of Yahweh. While it was indeed a common Egyp. practice to represent deities in animal form, this was not the case among the peoples of Syro-Palestine whose iconography often pictured the deity as enthroned or standing on the back of animals. Could Jeroboam have won the confidence of the northern tribes had he called for blatant and outright idolatry? Like Aaron of old he may have rationalized to the point where he convinced himself that he was advancing the cause of Yahweh.

If this is true, Jeroboam like Aaron was involved in the worst kind of duplicity. On the one hand he set up a religious calendar similar to the one in Jerusalem, appointed priests and made the required sacrifices. All this, says the author of 1 Kings, “...he had devised of his own heart” (v. 33). He would not have gone to all this trouble had he been instituting a wholly new religion. On the other hand, the iconography he instituted was so closely associated with the worship of Baal and the vile fertility cult of the Canaanites that it was bound to move in that direction as indeed it did (Hos 13:1, 2). He may have been attempting a synthesis of Yahweism and certain tenets of popular polytheism. According to 1 Kings 12:28 he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”

One may ask why the representations of cherubim (winged sphinxes) in the Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple did not also lead to idolatry. The answer must be that these figures did not have the same insidious association with a long-established idolatrous and immediately present Canaanite cult. The Hebrews viewed them as representing heavenly creatures whose purpose it was to enhance the majesty of Yahweh. As kings of the day were often enthroned between such creatures, so the sovereignty of Yahweh was thus asserted. Not only in visual arts but also in poetry, the Hebrews did not hesitate so to represent their sole God as one who “rode on a cherub” (2 Sam 22:11) or is enthroned between them (2 Kings 19:15).

The Church has repeatedly faced the problem of idolatry versus iconoclasm. Post-Biblical Judaism sought to solve the problem by severely restricting artistic expression. The iconoclastic controversy raged in the Byzantine wing of the Church and the Puritans stripped their churches of every adornment. It appears that the Bible itself indulges in neither of these extremes but reckons with idolatry as that which comes out of the sinful heart of man when he wilfully chooses to glorify the creature more than the Creator (Rom 1:21-23). The psalmist expresses this succinctly in Psalm 106:19-21: “They made a calf in Horeb and worshiped a molten image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt.”


C. H. Gordon, Old Testament Times (1953), 180; W. F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (1957), 299.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

kaf, gol’-d’-n:



1. Narrative of Aaron’s Golden Calf

2. Jeroboam’s Golden Calves




I. The Name.

II. Ancient Calf Worship.

The origin of animal worship is hidden in obscurity, but reverence for the bull and cow is found widespread among the most ancient historic cults. Even in the prehistoric age the influence of the bull symbol was so powerful that it gave its name to one of the most important signs of the Zodiac, and from early historic times the horns of the bull were the familiar emblem of the rays of the sun, and solar gods were very commonly represented as bull-gods (Jensen, Kosmologie, 62-90; Winckler, Altorientalische Forschungen, 1901-5, passim; Jeremias, Das Alter der bah. Astronomie, 1909, passim). The Egyptians, close neighbors of the Hebrews, in all eras from that of the Exodus onward, worshipped living bulls at Memphis (not Mendes, as EB) and Hellopolls as incarnations of Ptah and Ra, while one of the most elaborate rituals was connected with the life-size image of the Hathor-cow (Naville, Deir el Bahari, Part I (1907), 163-67), while the sun was revered as the "valiant bull" and the reigning Pharaoh as "Bull of Bulls." But far more important in this connection is the fact that "calf" worship was almost if not quite universal among all the ancient Semitic peoples. If the immediate ancestors of Abraham did not revere this deity, they were certainly quite unlike their relatives, the Babylonians, among whom, according to all tradition, they lived before they migrated to Palestine (Ge 11:28,30; Josephus, Ant, I, vi, 5), for the Babylonians revered the bull as the symbol of their greatest gods, Ann and Sin and Marduk--the ideograph of a young bullock forming a part of the latter’s name--while Hadadrimmon, an important Amorite deity, whose attributes remarkably resemble those of Yahweh (see Ward, AJSL, XXV, 175-85; Clay, Amurru (1909), 87-89), is pictured standing on the back of a bull. In Phoenicia also the bull was a sacred animal, as well as in northern Syria where it ranked as one of the chief Hittite deities its images receiving devout worship (see further, Sayce, Encyclopedia of Rel. and Ethics, under the word "Bull"). Among all these peoples the cow goddess was given at least equal honor. In Babylonia the goddess Ishtar has the cow for her symbol on very ancient seal cylinders, and when this nude or half-nude goddess appears in Palestine she often stands on a bull or cow (see William Hayes Ward, Cylinders and Other Ancient Oriental Seals), and under slightly different forms this same goddess is revered in Arabia, Moab, Phoenicia, Syria and elsewhere, while among the Semitic Canaanites the bull was the symbol of Baal, and the cow of Astarte (see particularly Barton, Hebraica, IX, 133-63; X, 1-74, and Semitic Origins, chapter vii; Driver, "Astarte" in DB). Recent excavations in Palestine have shown that during all eras no heathen worship was as popular as that of Astarte in her various forms (see S. A. Cook, Rel. of Ancient Palestine, 1909). That she once is found wearing ram’s horns (PEFS (1903), 227) only reveals her nature more clearly as the goddess of fertility. Her relation to the sacred fish at Carnion in Gilead and to the doves of Ascalon, as well as to female prostitution and to Nature’s "resurrection" and fruitage, had been previously well known, as also her relation to the moon which governs the seasons. Is there any rational motif which can account for this widespread "calf" worship? Is it conceivable that this cult could so powerfully influence such intelligent and rather spiritually-minded nations as the Egyptians and Babylonians if it were wholly irrational and contained no spiritual content? And is there no rational explanation behind this constant fusion of the deity which controls the breeding of cattle with the deity which controls vegetation? How did the bull come to represent the "corn spirit," so that the running of a bull through the corn (the most destructive act) came to presage good crops; and how did the rending of a bull, spilling his life blood on the soil, increase fertility? (See Fraser, Golden Bough, II, 291-93, 344.) The one real controlling motif of all these various representations and functions of the "calf" god may be found in the ancient awe, especially among the Semites, for the Mystery of Life. This seems to offer a sufficient reason why the bull, which is a most conspicuous example of life-giving power, should be so closely connected with the reproductive processes of the animal and vegetable kingdoms and also with the sun, which from earliest historic times was considered as preeminently the "giver of life." Bull worship was not always an exhibition of gross animalism, but, certainly in Bible times, often represented a concept which was the product of reflection upon one of the deepest mysteries of Nature. Few hymns in Egypt or Babylon express higher spiritual knowledge and aspiration than those addressed to the bull gods or to others honored with this title, e. g. this one to the god Sin of Ur, the "heifer of Anu," "Strong young bull; with strong horns, .... with beard of lapislazuli color .... self-created, full of developed fruit .... Mother-womb who has taken up his abode, begetter of all things, exalted habitation among living creatures; O merciful gracious father, in whose hand rests the life of the whole world; O Lord, thy divinity is full of awe like the far-off heaven and the broad ocean!" (Rogers, Religion of Babylonia and Assyria (1908), 164). Many modern scholars believe that the primitive Egyptians and Babylonians really thought of their earthly and heavenly gods as animals (see especially Maspero, Bulletin critique, 1886; Revue de l’histoiredes religions, 1888), but it seems certain that at least as early as the date of the Exodus these stars and beasts were not regarded by all as being themselves deities, but rather as symbols or representations of deity (Davis and Cobern, Ancient Egypt, 281-89; Brugsch, Die Aegyptologie, I, 135; Chwolsohn, Die Ssabier u. der Ssabismus, II, 134).

1. Narrative of Aaron’s Golden Calf:

The text of Ex 32 is certainly composite (see e. g. Bacon’s "Exodus" in the place cited and DB), and some words and phrases are a verbal dupli care of the narrative of Jeroboam’s calf worship (compare Ex 32:4 with 1Ki 12:28, and see parallel columns in Driver’s Deteronomy). Some Bible critics so analyze the text as to make the entire calf story a later element, without ancient basis, added to some short original statement like Ex 32:7-11, for the sake of satirizing Jeroboam’s bull worship and its non-Levitical priesthood (see e. g. Kuenen, Hexateuch). Most recent critics have however accepted the incident as an ancient memory or historic fact attested by the oldest sources, and used thus by the Deuteronomist (De 9), though the verbal form may have been affected by the later editor’s scorn of the northern apostasy. It seems clearly unreasonable to suppose that a Hebrew writer at any era would so fiercely abuse his own ancestors, without any traditional basis for his statements, merely for the sake of adding a little more which cast reproach upon his northern neighbors, and it seems equally unlikely that any such baseless charges would have been accepted as true by the slandered nation. The old expositors, accepting the essential historicity of the account, generally followed Philo and the early Fathers in supposing this calf of gold was an image of the Apis or Mnevis bulls of Egypt, and this is occasionally yet advocated by some Egyptologists (e. g. Steindorf, Ancient Egypt (1903), 167; compare also Jeremias, Old Testament in Light of Ancient East (1911), II, 138). The objections made to this view by the skeptics of the 18th century, based on the supposed impossibility of such chemical and mechanical skill being possessed at that era, have mostly been made obsolete by recent discovery. The common modern objection that this could not have been Apis worship because the Apis was a living bull, is by no means conclusive, since images of Apis are not uncommon and were probably worshipped in the temple itself. It may be added that a renaissance of this worship occurred at this very era. So Erman, Handbook of Egyptian Rel. (1907), 23-79. Modern Bible scholars, however, are practically unanimous in the opinion that the Golden Calf, if worshipped at all, must have been a representation of a Semitic, not an Egyptian, deity. In favor of this it may be suggested:

(1) It was an era when each deity was considered as the god of a particular country and it would seem impossible that a native Egyptian god should be thought of as joining with Egypt’s enemies and assisting them to reach a land over which he had no control.

(2) The Israelite religion shows little influence from Egypt, but was immensely influenced from Canaan and Babylon, Apis only being mentioned once (Jer 46:20 (translated "heifer"); compare Eze 20:7,8, and see Brugsch, Steininschrift und Bibelwort, passim, and Robertson, Early Religion of Israel, 217).

(3) The bull and cow are now known to have been ordinary symbols for the most popular deities which were worshipped by all the race-relatives of the Hebrews and nowhere more devoutly than in Canaan and in the adjoining districts (see above).

(4) Some of the chief gods of the pasture land of Goshen, where the Hebrews had resided for centuries (Ge 47:6; 50:8), were Semitic gods which were worshipped not only by the Edomitic Bedouin and other foreigners living there by the "pools of Pithom" (compare Ex 1:11) but by the native Egyptians, Ramses II even naming a daughter after one of these. The special god of this district had as its symbol a bull calf, and one inscription actually speaks of the statue of a "golden calf of 600 pounds weight" which it was the custom to dedicate annually to one of these Semitic gods, while another inscription mentions a statue of gold "a cubit in height" (Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt (1905), III, 630-38; Naville, Goshen, Store City of Pithom; Erman, Handbook; 173-74; Brugsch, op. cit.).

(5) The chief proof, however, is the statement of the text that the feast in connection with this worship was a "feast to Yahweh" (Ex 32:5). When Moses disappeared for forty days in the Mount, it was not unnatural that the people should turn back to the visible symbols worshipped by their ancestors, and should give to them the new name or new attributes which had been attached to deity by Moses. The worship was condemned for much the same reason as that of Jeroboam’s calves (see next section ).

2. Jeroboam’s Golden Calves:

(2) Jehu, though he destroyed all Baal idols, never touched these bulls (2Ki 10:28,29).

(3) The ritual, though freer, was essentially that of the Jerusalem temple (1Ki 12:32; Ho 5:6; Am 4:5; 5:22,23; see, Oettli, Greifswalder Studien (1895), quoted in DB, I, 342).

(4) Even the southern prophets recognized that it was Yahweh who had given Jeroboam the kingdom (1Ki 11:31; 12:15,24) and only Yahweh worship could have realized Jeroboam’s purpose of attaching to the throne by this cult such devout citizens as would otherwise be drawn to Jerusalem to worship. It was to guard against this appeal which the national sanctuary made to devout souls that this counter worship had been established. As Budde says, "A foreign cult would only have driven the devout Ephraimites the more surely over to Jerusalem" (Rel. of Israel (1899), 113). Jeroboam was not attempting to shock the conscience of his religious adherents by making heathenism the state religion, but rather to win these pious worshippers of Yahweh to his cause.

(5) The places selected for the bull worship were places already sacred to Yahweh. This was preeminently true of Bethel which, centuries before Jerusalem had been captured from the Jebusites, had been identified with special revelations of Yahweh’s presence (Ge 13:3,4; 28:19; 31:13; 35:15; 1Sa 7:16; Ho 12:4).

(6) The story shows that the allegiance of his most pious subjects was retained (1Ki 12:20) and that not even Elijah fled to the Southern, supposing that the Northern Kingdom had accepted the worship of heathen gods as its state religion. Instead of this, Elijah, though the boldest opponent of the worship of Baal, is never reported as uttering one word against the bull worship at Da and Bethel.

III. Attitude of Elijah to the Bull Symbols.

This surprising silence is variously explained. A few scholars, though without any historic or textual evidence for the charge, are sure that the Bible narratives (though written by southern men) are fundamentally defective at this point, otherwise they would report Elijah’s antagonism to this cult. Other few, equally without evidence, are comfortably sure that he fully approved the ancient ancestral calf cult. Others, with more probability, explain his position on the ground that, though he may not have favored the bull symbol--which was never used by the Patriarchs so far as known, and certainly was not used as a symbol of Yahweh in the Southern Kingdom, or Hosea the northern prophet would have spoken of it--yet being himself a northern man of old ideals and simple habits, Elijah may have believed that, even with this handicap, the freer and more democratic worship carried on al the ancient holy places in the North was less dangerous than the elaborate and luxurious ritual of the aristocratic and exclusive priesthood of the South, which insisted upon political and religious centralization, and was dependent upon such enormous revenues for its support (compare 1Ki 12:10,14). At any rate it is self-evident that if Elijah had turned against Jeroboam and the state religion, it would have divided seriously the forces which needed to unite, in order to oppose with all energy the much fouler worship of Baal which just at this crisis, as never before or afterward, threatened completely to overwhelm the worship of Yahweh.

IV. Attitude of Amos and Hosea to the Bull Symbols.

It is easy to see why Hosea might fiercely condemn a ritual which Elijah might rightly tolerate.

See also ASTROLOGY, sec. II, 2.


Besides references above, see especially commentaries of Dillmann and Driver on Exodus; Kuenen, Religion of Israel; W. R. Smith, Religion of Semites, 93-113 and index; Konig, Hauptprobleme der altisraelitischen Religionsgeschichte; Baeth gen, Beitr. zur semit. Religionsgeschichte; Kittel, History of Hebrews; "Baal" and "Ashtoreth" in Encyclopedia of Rel. and Ethics (full lit.); "Golden Calf" in Jewish Encyclopedia for Rabbinical and Mohammedan lit.

Camden M. Cobern

gold’-’-n: Probably a representation of the sun in Taurus.

See Astrology, 7; CALF, GOLDEN.