a Bible passage

Click a verse to see commentary
Select a resource above

The Golden Calf


When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, 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.” 2Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the L ord.” 6They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

7 The L ord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ” 9The L ord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

11 But Moses implored the L ord his God, and said, “O L ord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” 14And the L ord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. 16The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. 17When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” 18But he said,

“It is not the sound made by victors,

or the sound made by losers;

it is the sound of revelers that I hear.”

19 As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.

21 Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?” 22And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. 23They said to me, ‘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.’ 24So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

25 When Moses saw that the people were running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies), 26then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on the L ord’s side? Come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27He said to them, “Thus says the L ord, the God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.’ ” 28The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day. 29Moses said, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the L ord, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.”

30 On the next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the L ord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” 31So Moses returned to the L ord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. 32But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” 33But the L ord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; see, my angel shall go in front of you. Nevertheless, when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin.”

35 Then the L ord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf—the one that Aaron made.

7. And the Lord said unto Moses, Go, get thee down. This was a violent temptation to shake the faith of Moses. He thought that his own and the people’s happiness was absolutely complete, when God’s covenant was engraven on the tables to secure its perpetuity; whereas now he hears that this covenant was violated, and almost annihilated by the perfidy and rebellion of the people, whilst its abolition involved the loss of salvation and all other blessings. Moreover, that God might more sorely wound the mind of the holy man, He addresses him exactly as if part of the ignominy fell upon himself; for there is an indirect reproach implied in the words, “thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt.” Yet Moses had only taken this charge upon him by God’s command, and, indeed, unwillingly; how, then, is this deliverance thrown in his teeth, wherein he had only obeyed God? and why is his devotedness spoken of in mockery, as if he had bestowed his labor amiss, when no part of the blame attaches to him? I have already said that God sometimes thus pierces the hearts of the godly to the quick, in order to prove their patience, as if their well-directed zeal had been the cause of the evils which occur. Some 335335     This seems to be a very general opinion of the Commentators, from Jerome downwards. “Though Calvin mislikes this sense, yet it is warranted by that place, Deuteronomy 32:5. They have corrupted themselves, not being his children.” — Junius in Willet. give too subtle an exposition to this, viz., that they are called the people of Moses, because they had ceased to be the people of God; and suppose that there is an antithesis here, as if it were said, — your people, and not mine; but I fear this is not well founded; for, since they had broken the covenant, they were not more alienated from God than from Moses the minister of the Law. I do not deny that it is an implied renunciation of them; but we must bear in mind that design of God, to which I have already adverted, that Moses was in a manner implicated in their crime, in order that his patience might be tried, and also that he might be more grieved at its enormity. Meanwhile, it is obvious that God refers to His recent grace, because it was a monstrous and incredible thing that those who had been lately delivered by this amazing power, and with whom He had just renewed His covenant, should be so suddenly drawn away into rebellion. He adds also, in aggravation of their crime, that they had immediately turned aside from the way which was pointed out to them. Forty days had not yet elapsed since Moses left them, when they were impelled by their depravity to such madness as this. A little time ago they had manifested a wonderful zeal for God’s service, by abundantly contributing what was required; the glory of the tabernacle was presented to their eyes to restrain them; and yet they burst through all these barriers, and rush impetuously after their own lust, when scarcely six months had passed since the promulgation of the Law. The verb שחת shicheth, being in the Pihel conjugation, is active; and yet is employed without being intensive; I have, therefore, rendered it, corrupted themselves, though it might be appropriately taken passively, viz., that the people had been corrupted.

8. They have turned aside quickly out of the way. So speedy a transgression, as I have said, aggravates their crime. God then states the nature of their corruption, that they have worshipped a molten calf, that is to say, the work of their own hands. But it is to be observed, that what they had put forward as a colouring for their ungodliness is alleged last, as the climax of their sin; for, when they said that these were their gods which had brought them up, their object was to advance a legitimate excuse, as if they were not falling away from the worship of the true God, and their Deliverer, but that rather it was an evidence of their more fervent zeal, that they should fall down as worshippers before the calf in honor of Him. But God retorts this upon them, and complains of the gross indignity which was put upon Him, when the dead image of a calf was substituted in the place of His glory.

9. I have seen this people, and behold. This was, indeed, the sharpest and sorest trial of the faith of Moses; when God seemed to contradict Himself and to depart from His covenant. If ever, after having been long oppressed by excessive calamities, we are not only wearied by the delay, but also agitated with various doubts, which at length tempt us to despair, as if God had disappointed us by deceptive promises, the contest is severe and terrible; but when God seems at first sight to throw discredit upon His own words, we have need of unusual fortitude and firmness to sustain this assault. For, since faith is founded on the Word, when that Word appears to be at issue with itself, how in such conflicting circumstances could pious minds be sustained unless they were supported by the incomparable power of the Spirit? Still in the mind of Abraham there was such strength of faith, that he came forth as a conqueror from this kind of temptation. He had heard from God’s own mouth, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called;” he is afterwards commanded to slay him, and reduce his body to ashes; yet, because he is persuaded that God was able to raise him up seed even from the dead, he obeys the command. (Hebrews 11:17-19.) The same thing is here recorded of Moses, before whom God sets a kind of contradiction in His Word, when He declares that He has the intention of destroying that people, to which He had promised the land of Canaan. Nevertheless, we see how successfully he strove, since, trusting in the eternal and inviolable covenant of God, he did not cease to cherish a good hope. If any still should ask whether it was right for him to despise or count for nothing what was said to him in the second place as to the utter destruction of the people, I reply, that the victory of his faith did not consist in subtle disquisitions, but that having embraced God’s covenant with both arms, as they say, he was so fortified by his confidence that he had room for no objections; and, in point, of fact, pious minds which rest on firm assurance, although unable to free themselves from every perplexity which occurs, still do not waver, but keep a tight grasp on what the Spirit of God has once sealed to them; and, if sometimes it happens that they begin to doubt or vacillate, nevertheless they come back to their foundation and break through every obstacle, so as never to desist from calling upon God. Meanwhile, it is certain that, whilst God is trying the faith of Moses, He quickens his mind to be more earnest in prayer, even as Moses himself was led in that direction by the secret influence of the Spirit. Nor is there any reason why slanderous tongues should here impugn God, as if He pretended before men what He had not decreed in Himself; for it is no proof that He is variable or deceitful if, when speaking of men’s sins, and pointing out what they deserve, He does not lay open His incomprehensible counsel. He here presents Himself in the character of Judge; He pronounces sentence of condemnation against the criminals; he postpones their pardon to a fitting season. Hence we gather that his secret judgments are a great deep; whilst, at the same time, His will is declared to us in His word as far as suffices for our edification in faith and piety. And this is more clearly expressed by the context; for He asks of Moses to let Him alone. Now, what does this mean? Is it not that, unless he should obtain a truce from a human being, He will not be able freely to execute His vengeance? — adopting, that is to say, by this mode of expression, the character of another, He declares his high estimation of His servant, to whose prayers He pays such deference as to say that they are a hinderance to him. Thus it is said in Psalm 106:23, that Moses “stood in the breach, to turn away the wrath” of God. Hence do we plainly perceive the wonderful goodness of God, who not only hears the prayers of His people when they humbly call upon Him, but suffers them to be in a manner intercessors with Him.

He assigns as the reason why He should be implacable, that He well knew the desperate and incurable wickedness of the people; for by “stiff-necked,” indomitable obstinacy is metaphorically expressed; and the similitude is taken from stubborn oxen who cannot be brought to submit to the yoke. Now, where such hardness and obstinacy exists, there is no room for pardon. It is indeed an expression which must not be taken literally, that God had learnt by experience that they were a stiff-necked people; but we know that God often assumes human feelings; for unless He should thus come down to us, our minds could never attain to His loftiness. The sum is, that the character of the people was desperate, inasmuch as they had already manifested their inflexible perverseness by many proofs. Still, lest Moses should grieve at the loss of his noble chieftainship, a compensation is promised him; by which trial it appeared that he did not regard his own private interests or advantages.

11. And Moses besought the Lord his God It is clear that this prayer sprang from faith, though in it he seems to fight against the very word of God; for God had said, Get thee down to thy people; but his answer is, Nay, it is thine. But, as I have lately stated, inasmuch as he firmly grasped the principle, that it was impossible for God’s covenant to be made ineffective, he breaks through or surmounts all obstacles with closed eyes as it were. He proves them to be God’s people by the benefit they had so recently received; yet he mainly relies on the covenant; nay, he mentions their deliverance as a result of it; for he proceeds afterwards to say, “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.” We see, therefore, that the first ground of his confidence is the promise, although Moses refers first of all to the fact that the people had been delivered by the hand of God. He so expressly particularizes His “mighty hand,” and “great power,” to signify that the more conspicuous God’s miracles had been, the more was His glory exposed to the calumnies of the ungodly; and this he immediately afterwards explains, “Wherefore should the Egyptians speak,” etc.

The particle, ברעה, beragnah, which the old interpreter 336336     “For mischief.” — A.V.By the old interpreter (C. means the V. which renders the word “callide,” craftily. The version of LXX. is μετὰ πονηρίας, with maliciousness. “Some thus, (says Poole,) malo sidere, under an evil star; because the Egyptians attributed all things to the stars. Fagius, Vatablus.” renders craftily, and others maliciously, I prefer simply to translate unto evil, (ad malum,) as denoting an unprosperous and unhappy issue. The exposition which others give, “under an unlucky star,” seems to me to be too far-fetched. 337337     Addition in Fr., “et profane.” I have no doubt, therefore, but that Moses signifies that this would be a consolation to the Egyptians in their misfortunes if the people should be destroyed, as if God had thus avenged them against their enemies; besides, by this misapprehension, the memory of God’s grace, as well as of His judgment, would have been destroyed; for the Egyptians would have hardened themselves, and would have been untouched by any sense of guilt, deeming that God would shew no mercy to His elect people.

What follows, “repent of this evil,” is spoken in accordance with common parlance, for the saints often stammer in their prayers, and, whilst unburdening their cares into the bosom of God, address him in their infirmity as by no means befits His nature; as, for instance, when they ask Him, How long wilt thou sleep? or be forgetful? or shut thine eyes? or hide thy face? But with God repentance is nothing but a change of dealing, wherein He seems to retrace His course, as if He had conceived some fresh design. When, therefore, it is said a little further on that “the Lord repented of the evil,” it is tantamount to saying, that He was appeased; not because He retracts in Himself what He has once decreed, but because He does not execute the sentence He had pronounced. If my readers 338338     See on Genesis 6:6, (Calvin Soc. Edit., vol. 1, pp. 248, 249,) the latter part of which passage is quoted by Hengstenberg on the Pentat., vol. 2, p. 373, “On the repentance of God,” with the following remark: “These last words show how very deeply Calvin had gained the right point of view in reference to Anthropomorphisms. In his esteem they formed a glorious ornament of holy writ. How totally different the apologists since the times of Deism! One remarks, on all occasions, how gladly they would dispense with Anthropomorphisms. They try to be satisfied only with that which they cannot alter.” See also C. on Minor Prophets, vol. 1, p. 402; 2, p. 61; 3, pp. 115, 126, 408; and Institutes, Book 1, ch. 17. Section 13, vol. 1, p. 263. (Calvin Soc. editions.) desire more on this point, let them consult my Comments on Genesis and the Prophets.

13. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants He does not bring thern forward as patrons, by the assistance of whose voice he might obtain what He seeks; but because the promise was lodged with them, which they transmitted as an inheritance to their descendants. We must observe, then, the quality or character with which God had invested the Patriarchs. For which reason it is said in Psalm 132:1, “Lord, remember David, and all his afflictions.” And hence the ignorance and folly of the Papists are easily refuted, who imagine from these testimonies that the dead are ordained to be intercessors.

He also purposely refers to God’s oath, whereby He had more solemnly bound Himself, so that His promise might be more sure and authoritative. The Apostle, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, 6:13, tells us why God swears by Himself; viz., “because he could swear by no greater;” though sometimes to the same effect He swears by His throne in heaven, or His sanctuary.

In fine, it is uncertain whether there is a ὕστερον πρότερον or not in this prayer, for we shall see as we proceed that when Moses returned a second time, he prayed for the preservation of the people, and was heard. Nor was this done in a moment; but he again occupied forty days in reconciling the people with God. To myself it seems probable that Moses, amazed at the horrible denunciation, immediately offered his prwer; and without receiving a reply promising pardon, came down in suspense to apply a remedy to the evil; for it was by no means likely that, after having heard so severe and weighty a threat, he would have interposed no supplications, when he was so deeply anxious for the safety of the people.

VIEWNAME is study