The Golden Calf. 1When the people saw that Moses was delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for that man Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.”a 2Aaron replied, “Take off the golden earrings that your wives, your sons, and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” 3So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4He received their offering, and fashioning it with a tool, made a molten calf. Then they cried out, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you* up from the land of Egypt.”b 5On seeing this, Aaron built an altar in front of the calf and proclaimed, “Tomorrow is a feast of the LORD.” 6Early the next day the people sacrificed burnt offerings and brought communion sacrifices. Then they sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.c
7d Then the LORD said to Moses: Go down at once because your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted corruptly. 8They have quickly turned aside from the way I commanded them, making for themselves a molten calf and bowing down to it, sacrificing to it and crying out, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” 9e I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are, continued the LORD to Moses. 10Let me alone, then, that my anger may burn against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation.
11* But Moses implored the LORD, his God, saying,f “Why, O LORD, should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent he brought them out, that he might kill them in the mountains and wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning wrath; change your mind about punishing your people. 13Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self, saying,g ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky; and all this land that I promised, I will give your descendants as their perpetual heritage.’” 14So the LORD changed his mind about the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people.
15Moses then turned and came down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hands,h tablets that were written on both sides, front and back. 16The tablets were made by God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.i 17Now, when Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said to Moses, “That sounds like a battle in the camp.” 18But Moses answered,
“It is not the noise of victory,
it is not the noise of defeat;
the sound I hear is singing.”
19As he drew near the camp, he saw the calf and the dancing. Then Moses’ anger burned, and he threw the tablets down and broke them on the base of the mountain.j 20Taking the calf they had made, he burned it in the fire and then ground it down to powder, which he scattered on the water* and made the Israelites drink.k
21* Moses asked Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you should lead them into a grave sin?” 22Aaron replied, “Do not let my lord be angry. You know how the people are prone to evil. 23They said to me, ‘Make us a god to go before us; as for this man Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.’ 24So I told them, ‘Whoever is wearing gold, take it off.’ They gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and this calf came out.”
25Moses saw that the people were running wild because Aaron had lost control—to the secret delight of their foes. 26Moses stood at the gate of the camp and shouted, “Whoever is for the LORD, come to me!” All the Levitesl then rallied to him, 27and he told them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Each of you put your sword on your hip! Go back and forth through the camp, from gate to gate, and kill your brothers, your friends, your neighbors!” 28The Levites did as Moses had commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people fell. 29Then Moses said, “Today you are installed as priests* for the LORD, for you went against your own sons and brothers, to bring a blessing upon yourselves this day.”
The Atonement. 30On the next day Moses said to the people,m “You have committed a grave sin. Now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I may be able to make atonement for your sin.” 31So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Ah, this people has committed a grave sin in making a god of gold for themselves! 32Now if you would only forgive their sin! But if you will not, then blot me out of the book that you have written.”* 33The LORD answered Moses: Only the one who has sinned against me will I blot out of my book. 34Now, go and lead the people where I have told you. See, my angel will go before you. When it is time for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.
35Thus the LORD struck the people for making the calf, the one that Aaron made.
* [32:4–5] Who brought you…a feast of the LORD: it seems that the golden calf was intended as an image, not of another god, but of the Lord, whose strength was symbolized by the strength of a young bull. The Israelites, however, had been forbidden to represent the Lord under any visible form. Cf. 20:4. In the tenth century Jeroboam made golden calves for the shrines at Bethel and Dan, presumably to function as thrones for the Lord as the ark did in Jerusalem (see 1 Kgs 12:27–30).
* [32:11–13] Moses uses three arguments to persuade the Lord to remain faithful to the Sinai covenant even though the people have broken it: (1) they are God’s own people, redeemed with God’s great power; (2) God’s reputation will suffer if they are destroyed; (3) the covenant with Abraham still stands. The Lord’s change of mind is a testimony to Israel’s belief in the power of intercessory prayer.
* [32:20] The water: according to Dt 9:21, this was the stream that flowed down Mount Sinai.
* [32:21–24] Aaron attempts to persuade Moses not to act in anger, just as Moses persuaded the Lord. He also shifts the blame from himself to the people.
* [32:29] Installed as priests: lit., “fill your hands,” a term for the ordination of priests (see 28:41; 29:9, 29, 33, 35; Nm 3:3). Because of their zeal for the true worship of the Lord, the Levites were chosen to be special ministers of the ritual service.
* [32:32] The book that you have written: a symbolic reference to the list of God’s faithful people.
a. [32:1] Ex 32:23; Acts 7:40.
b. [32:4] Ex 32:8; 1 Kgs 12:28.
c. [32:6] 1 Cor 10:7.
f. [32:11–12] Nm 14:13–19; Dt 9:28–29; Ps 106:23.