The Golden Calf

As commonly understood, this biblical narrative condemns the first violation of the prohibition against idolatry--but it's not that simple.

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King Jeroboam's Calf Shrines

Some scholars believe that the entire golden calf story is a pejorative recasting--also based on hindsight--of a northern cult legend about the origin of the golden calves that Jeroboam erected in Bethel and Dan (I Kings 12:2‑33). In this view, Jeroboam's calves were originally intended as pedestals or mounts for YHVH, like the cherubs, not as idols.

With the passage of time people began to venerate them, as shown by Hosea's complaint that people were kissing calves (Hosea 13:2). This development may have been facilitated by the fact that the calves were not kept hidden, as the cherubs were in the Holy of Holies, but stood outdoors in sanctuary courtyards and were visible to the public. This development is analogous to what happened with the copper serpent that Moses made as a charm for healing snakebites: by the time of King Hezekiah, people began to worship it and it had to be destroyed (Numbers 21:4‑9, see 2 Kings 18:4).

A Once Positive Story, in a Different Light

According to this theory, the story of Aaron's golden calf originated as a legend about the origin of (one of) Jeroboam's calves, and originally described its manufacture approvingly, comparable to the account in Exodus about how the people contributed raw materials with which Bezalel and his staff fashioned the Ark and cherubs and the rest of the Tabernacle, following designs provided by God (Exodus 25-27, 35-39). Aaron's statement that he threw the gold into a fire and "out came this calf" (Exodus 32:24) implies that the calf was manufactured with supernatural assistance, which supports the view that the story was originally an approving one.

Later, after Jeroboam's calves came to be treated as idols, the manufacture of calves was seen in hindsight to lead inevitably to idolatry and the story about Aaron's calf was revised to show the phenomenon as sinful from the outset. This, the theory goes, is the version that appears in Exodus and is reflected in Deuteronomy.

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Dr. Jeffrey Tigay

Dr. Jeffrey Tigay is A.M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania.