Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss


The Golden Calf:

"When the people saw that Moses had not come down the mountain, they gathered round Aaron and said to him, 'come make for us a god (plural) to go before us [to lead us]; for that man [Moses] who brought us here from Egypt - we do not know what has become of him'." (32:1) They sought a new Moses, a new god.

Moses their most powerful leader, more powerful than the Pharaoh - the god of Egypt - has disappeared. They had not seen him for 47 days and did not know when he was scheduled to reappear. The people say make for us a god, but they really want another Moses, one who is a 'god of God'. It is God who made Moses a god (Ex. 4:16; 7:1). The people had more faith in Moses than in God. They believe in God, but more in his `Servant Moses' (Ex. 14:31). The idea of God, the creator of the world, an invisible God was too difficult to conceive. They need an intermediary, an intercessor to God. Even God says to Moses look what 'your people who you brought out of Egypt’ (Ex. 32:7) are doing. While Moses, of course, rejects the 'your people' and says to God that they are 'Your people, not mine’, the fact remains that God would say that means that He understands that in a sense they are Moses' people. And if Moses has disappeared what are these recently freed slaves and terrified people to think. We need another Moses.

Aaron understands the power his brother Moses has over the people. He understands they need a substitute Moses, - a leader not a God - but an intermediary between them and God. The difference between God and god - the latter a visible god as an agent of God will continue to be a problem for human beings. Despite Moses saying to the people ‘Aaron and Hur [Miriam’s son] are with you’ (24:13), they were not Moses. The people felt abandoned. They needed ‘a god to go before us . . .[like] the Moses the man who brought us here from Egypt’ (32:1). So Aaron failing as a substitute for Moses builds them a calf to act for his brother, not as a God. 1 Was he simply appeasing the people; likely. After building the calf he makes his position clear. He builds an alter to God and says "Tomorrow will be a feast in YHVH's honor" (32:5). But some of the people misunderstood this distinction between God and the calf. In Egypt the Pharaoh - sometimes symbolized as a calf - was worshipped as a god.

God was angry at those who saw the Calf as a God and not as a Moses substitute. This issue of confusing a transcendent God for an immanent substitute comes up again and again. 2 He says to Moses I will reject these people and make of you 'a great nation' the blessing he had given to Abraham. He is not rejecting Abraham, but taking a shoot of his branch - Moses - and creating a new people. God says I will kill the people and start over with you (Ex. 32:9-10).  Moses says 'You brought them out', implying not me but You, they are Your responsibility I do not wish to be a new beginning. What will the world say? You promised Abraham, Isaac and Israel forever. Moses used the name Israel, not Jacob, because the Hebrews had said 'this is your god, O Israel' (Ex. 32:4) and God repeated that to Moses (Ex. 32:8). In an extraordinary Midrash the Zohar has Moses say ‘For the sake of my own success, should I abandon the cause of Israel? Now all the nations will say that I have killed the Israelites, as Noah [killed the people of his generation]. . . It is better that I die and Israel not be destroyed. Noah’s obedience – he should have said no to God - is considered killing the world’s population!  “Noah becomes the paradigm, then, of an unimaginative literalism, which is harshly judged as murder’. 3 Does this imply that Abraham should have said no to God rather than consider murdering his own son?

Moses rejected the Oedipal concept of killing his children - the people of Israel. God gave god the right to start again, Moses refused. Moses asked God why are You so angry - did you not know how difficult my task would be? (32:11) God agreed and allowed Moses his request to continue his task.

Moses descends the mountain in anger as if he knew nothing about the golden calf. But of course he not only knew, but had already had God forgive the people. As he descends the mountain he sees Joshua who says `the sound of war can be heard from the camp’ (Ex. 32:17). Moses responds with a word play in prose. 'It is not the sound of victory, nor the sound of the vanquished, but the sound that I hear' (Ex. 32:18). The Hebrew word for voice or sound `anoth' is repeated three times. The first two appear with modifiers, victory and vanquished while the latter stands alone with no modifier to define it.  Moses apparently is criticizing Joshua for not knowing what has transpired. The last 'anoth' has a slightly different punctuation 4 than the first two. The punctuation under this 'a' is different, the first are punctuated by a patach and shvah, while the third `anoth’ has only a patach and the 'n' has a dot (dagesh, in Hebrew) which sometimes indicates that a letter is missing and sometimes changes the word to a more active and powerful stance.

In the latter case the word `sound’ becomes a tortured `scream’. This is a stronger more active sound than the sound of either victory or vanquished. Thus Moshe not only heard the tortured scream but understood where it came from. It is the voice of a tortured people having lost their god-like leader and attempting to create an artificial one. In the case of the dagesh it may imply a double ‘n’. meaning `ananoth', a dark cloud. Thus comparing `anan' the cloud of God that protected the Jews to ananoth', a dark cloud of anger. Lastly `Anos' means rape in Hebrew and it could signify that illicit sexual activities were taking place. The `t' in Hebrew is in some circumstances and pronunciations, sounded as an `s'.  The Calf-Dance may be an erotic joy, a symbol of immediate gratification with no past or future.

Moses then descends the mountain blazing with anger, and he shatters (not just breaks) the Tablets. The Hebrew word for down the mountain is actually under the mountain. Moses coming from above the mountain with God goes under the mountain and sees the people engaged in sin. Only Moses, the Man of God could also be the Servant of the people wherever they are. Moses breaks the tablets which according to the Torah were written by the finger of God. This was an intentional act by Moses (Ex. 32:19), not an act of hurried anger. How could Moses shatter the tablets made by finger of God and symbolizing the connection between God, Moses and the Jewish people? According to Jewish tradition the words disappeared before Moses broke the tablets (Abot de Rabbi Natan A:2) or as he broke them the words flew to heaven (Targum Jonathan 32:19).

Moses considers his smashing of the tablets as the response to the people's breaking the covenant. He must teach the people a lesson. First he destroys and burns the Golden Calf. He then forces the people to drink its ashes. Then the ‘people broke loose . . . for Aaron had let them get out of hand to the derision of the enemies’ (32:25-26) apparently after drinking the ashes. We are not told what precisely happened, it appears that another rebellion was at hand. The only event we are aware of is Moses’ criticism of Aaron ‘What have these people done to you’, Aaron responds they said ‘make us a god like Moses’ (32:21,23).  Gathering the Levites about him, his tribal brethren, (excluding Aaron), Moses has them kills ‘every man his brother, everyman his companion and every man his neighbor’ (32:27) - 3,000 idolaters. Was Moses reacting to his brother’s sin? Aaron cannot avoid having some guilt. Aaron guiltily changes his account of the events. Aaron, made the calf to be as 'your gods' (Ex. 32:4). In Aaron’s version of the event he tells Moses that the people were 'set on evil'. He simply threw the gold into the fire and it came out a calf (Ex. 32:24). He did not make the calf. But the Torah clearly blames Aaron (Ex. 32:25,35). Aaron who can be construed as a 'Majestic Man' could not restrain the people, but the 'Man of Faith' restrained God. 5 Aaron is ultimately forgiven because he was not an idolater, he understood he was building a Moses substitute, not a God. Thus Aaron is never punished for building the Golden Calf. In Deuteronomy, the repetition of the accounts in the desert, it is noted that God was inclined to destroy Aaron, but forgave him for Moses sake (Deut. 9:20).

God subsequently punishes the people, through a plague, despite his earlier forgiveness and Moses again stops God's anger pleading if you do not forgive them 'blot me out of the book You have written' (Ex. 32:33). He pleads their case as mere human beings who in a state of panic mistook me to be You. You gave me a mission to make these people into a holy people - it cannot be done instantly. They are simply ex-slaves - I need time to do the job You gave me. They do not yet understand that through the law - the Torah - they do not need a personal intermediary. When I give them the Torah, over time they will leave this desert and go to Mount Zion and become a blessing for the world.  But in the interim they still need me as their leader. The High Priest - the Temple - and later liturgy will help. Some will always need an intermediary and some will not. 

While chapter 32 seems to end the golden calf incident with its sin, punishment and forgiveness it has not; the tablets, symbolizing the law and the covenant, have been smashed and nothing has replaced them. At the beginning of chapter 33 God says I shall send my angel in front of you, but 'I myself shall not be going with you, or I might annihilate you on the way, for you are an obstinate people (Ex. 33:3). But the angel is not sufficient for Moses. He remembers the angel with flaming sword protecting the Garden of Eden. He fears the threat of annihilation. He needs and will demand God's direct protection, God must protect his people. God's presence is necessary, not an angel of God. Moses moves the tent of meeting out of the camp. God returns as a cloud to the `Tent of Meeting'. There YHVH `talked face to face' to Moses (Ex. 33:11). Thus God responds to Moses request that his presence be known to the people.


Moses goes back up the mountain to re-negotiate the broken covenant. Moses said to God you have said that `I know you by name and [I] enjoy your favor' (Ex. 33:12 and 17). Moses connects himself with the people in very personal way `Make the people move on ' but You have not told me whom You are going to send with me' (Ex.33:12), but God did tell him, His angel. Moses then says 'If You do not come Yourself, do not make us move from here ... I and your people'. (Ex. 33:15-16). `Make the people move on' is not sufficient for Moses, he wants God to respond to God's people with His direct protection. God responds `I myself shall go with you and I shall give you rest' (Ex. 33:14). Yes, `but my people must enjoy your favor' (Ex. 33:16), as I enjoy Your favor. God responds, `Again I shall do what you have asked, because you enjoy my favor and because I know you by name' (Ex. 33:17). Thus Moses takes advantage of his position with God to seek God’s glory and he receives it, not for himself, but for his and God's people. Moses uses his personal position to protect his people. He is not only the servant of God, but the servant of his people.

As part of this renewal of the covenant Moses seeks and is granted a mystical union with God. Moses asks God to `show me your glory' (Ex. 33:18). Moses is seeking something never seen by man. Moses says this very apologetically, ‘I pray thee, if I found grace in Your eyes, show me now Your ways, that I may know You’ (33:13). The word ‘know’ has mystical (as well as sexual) connections in Hebrew.  And God responds `I shall make all my goodness pass before you, and before you I shall pronounce the name YHVH; and I am gracious before whom I am gracious and I take pity on those whom I take pity. But my face you cannot see, for no man can see be and survive' (Ex. 33:19-20). Moses is connected to God himself. God retains the freedom to choose beyond that. This is symbolized by Moses hearing God pronounce His name - YHVH. Just as God knows his name, so Moses knows God's name. God says you will come closer than anyone else will ever come. `I shall put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with my hand until I have gone past. Then I shall take my hand away and you will see my back, but my face will not be seen' (Ex. 33:22-23). If God is to take Moses to a cleft in the rock where are they now, on the mountain or in the tent of meeting?  Even for Moses 'the Servant of God', God is imageless. No one can know God, perhaps as Reb Nahman suggested 'To know God is to be God'.

Moses in asking to see God's glory is asking for a mystical union with God. Moses has already received what no one has received - a god-like status, but he wants more. God who knew Moses by his name gives the mystical pronunciation of his name, a knowledge not known before. To know God by his name is the most, under Judaic tradition, one can achieve.  But my face you cannot see. Obviously this term face is different that seeing God 'face to face' as we are told Jacob (Gen. 32:30) and Moses (Ex. 33:11; Deut. 34:10) did achieve. This is a level of understanding that even Moses cannot achieve.

Then Moses receives a private quiet theophany, as compared to the public theophany of chapters 19-20. In the first public theophany there is little that speaks of mercy, but a lot of fear and warning (Ex. 19:21-24) and a terrified people (Ex. 20:18-20). The theme of that theophany was one of fear of God. What the people remembered was I am `a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation' (Ex. 20:6). In this second theophany God speaks first of Mercy and compassion of being slow to anger and of forgiving fault and of `chesed' - or grace. When God talks about punishment, Moses 'immediately  bowed' and said 'If indeed I do enjoy your favor, please my Lord, come with us, although they are an obstinate people; and forgive our faults and sins, and adopt us as your heritage' (Ex. 34:9). God then renews the covenant to 'your whole people' (Ex. 34:10). Again God connects Moses to the Jewish people. The fact that mercy is now the key phrase rather than fear and the new covenant is based on God's mercy and grace shows the enormous impact of Moses not only on the people but on God. The new covenant begins with ‘Lord, Lord, you are a merciful and gracious God, suffering and abundant in goodness and truth’ (Ex. 34:6 and is known as the covenant of the thirteen (attributes of God). (In the Jewish selichot (forgiveness) liturgy prayed in the days before and during the High Holy Days this is the central motif.)

Moses realized that just as the Jewish people could not tolerate God's speaking to them (Ex. 20:6) they could not tolerate his written word, without he, Moses as an intermediary. Under Jewish lore the world was originally intended to be made under the aspect of `din' or law. Under law and without mercy man’s sin would destroy him. This is what the people heard in the first theophany and Moshe realized was represented in the first tablets. Thus he smashed them.

The first Tablets are part of the God-centered Bible, while the second are part of the Human-centered Bible. Both Tablets lie in the holy Ark.  Jewish mysticism considers that God created a ‘primordial Torah. (Torah kedumah). Perhaos the original Torah of God is the latter including a level of spirituality beyond humanity, perhaps for the messianic age.  A Midrash describes it written with ‘white fire engraved upon by black fire. It is fire mixed with fire, cut from fire, and given from fire’. The white fire represents God’s transcendent  mind and the black fire a reflection of the shadows, infinite, awesome and inchoate to the finite human mind.

Moshe had heard God tell him as he stood on the Mountain of Sinai with the golden calf being worshipped below that He would destroy these people and create a new people from him. 6 But Moses refused when he was with God on the Mountain of Sinai and numerous times as we have seen. Moses realized that man has an inclination to sin and must have choice or free will. Man, with his inclination to sin will often sin but he must have God's mercy or the world cannot survive. Moses negotiation with God was to add the aspect of mercy to the aspect of law. With law alone we have death, with mercy alone we have anarchy; what was necessary was a combination of law and mercy. This is what Moses accomplished. In the last commandment Moses created he decided to add six additional cities of refuge for the non-intentional killing of a fellow human being (Deut. 4:41). These cities were also reserved as the place for the Levites. Thus not only would persons guilty of non-intentional killing have a place of refuge, but also people to teach them repentance.

God says to Moses 'carve you two tablets like the first and I will write upon them' (Ex. 34:1). Who wrote on the second set of tablets God or Moses?  '[A]nd he wrote upon the Tablets' (Ex. 34:4).  7 Whether the 'he' is Moses or God is disputed among Jewish commentators. 8 From the text it could have been God or Moses. Given the mystical union, Moses was so close to God that Moses himself wrote the second set of tablets which included the aspect of mercy. Under Jewish lore this is accomplished by including the oral law whose purpose was to be the intermediary between the people and God, when Moses was gone. Thus the Sages of the Talmud tell that the law is not in heaven, but on earth; that they the Sages have the right to interpret the Torah. This is inherent in the tablets Moses wrote, but not in God's tablets. This is what Moses realized when he saw the Golden Calf. Thus Moses’ second tablets allow for the creativity in the Torah and for ‘arguments for the sake of heaven’ to take place. The first Tablets are part of the God-centered Bible, while the second are part of the Human-centered Bible. Both Tablets are supposed to lie in the holy Ark.

Moses using his enormous prestige with God re-establishes the covenant and God reiterates the importance of the law. God then tells Moses to write down the terms of the covenant that 'I have made with you and with Israel' and the new tablets. Moses goal of intercession, despite the golden calf has been accomplished. 

Moses came down from the Mountain his face was illuminated (34:29). His face reflects the glory of God. He is truly God's servant. ‘The people’s wish for a divine representation, concretely and visually present in the world below, has been actualized by Moses’. 9  Perhaps that is why the last verses in Exodus that Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting when the cloud was over it because the glory of God filled the tent. ‘At every stage of their journey, whenever the cloud rose from the dwelling, the Israelites would resume their march (Ex. 40:35-36). Was this to make certain the people and the reader should be aware that God is God and Moses is Moses?

When ‘Moses came down came down from Mount Sinai with the Tablets of Testimony in Moses’ hand . . . that Moses did not know the skin of his face glowed’ (34:29). Why is the name Moses repeated three times. His illuminated skin made him a different person. Just as Moses destroyed the calf with horns, he now takes on its godly attributes as a true 'Man of God'. Just as the people could not hear directly from God, so Moses became their intermediary they could not look into his face and thus he wore a veil. The face of God was divined and burnt onto his face.

1 According to the Targum Neophyti the ‘rabble’ killed Hur as he opposed the building of a substitute god.

2 Thirteen hundred years later Jesus being a 'god' became a defining moment separating Judaism from Christianity. Certainly his direct disciples led by his brother James did not believe Jesus was a God but an agent of 'God'. The Chasidic movement in the late eighteenth century created a group of Rebbes known as ‘tzaddikim’ who became intermediaries, agents of God, the connection between God and the people.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe died in 1995 and is considered by some of his disciples as a Messiah, an agent of God.

3 Gottleib-Zorenberg, A., The Particulars of Rapture, Reflections on Exodus, Doudleday, N.Y., 2001) pg. 416.

4In the Masoratic text - that is the traditional Jewish reading of text is printed without punctuations.

5 See the author’s Archetypes in the Patriarchal Family, Jewish Bible Quarterly, Jan. – March 2000.

6 As God did with Noah.

7 All Jewish commentators agree that Moses hewed the stone.

8 Moses hewed the stone and God wrote on it (Deut. 10:1-5).

9 Hauge, M.R., The Descent from the Mountain, (JSOR, Vol. 323, Sheffield, 2001) Pg. 171.