Day 47: The Golden Calf

Exodus 32:11-35 Although the Israelites turned to the worship of the golden calf, God forgave them and remained faithful to them because of the INTERCESSORY PRAYER OF MOSES. He stood “in the breach” between humanity and God, and in doing so provided a model that would inspire Israel’s leaders for years to come. God had always been a just God, and now he began to manifest more clearly his unbounded forgiveness. (CCC 210, 2112-2114, 2577)

Ch 32:25-29 The execution of the men who committed idolatry is a manifestation that the mercury of Christ’s New Covenant was NOT YET a moral standard. These harsh measures were meant to preserve the purity of the Jewish faith and moral life. (CCC 1459)

Leviticus 23:1-22 Here we find, in effect, a liturgical calendar for Israel. The Sabbath is the weekly day for worship and rest, and the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, already prescribed in Exodus, comprise the most sacred feasts of the year. The Feast of the First Fruits and the Feast of Weeks are harvest festivals timed in relation to the Passover. (CCC 1164)

Ch 23:23-44 The new year was to be celebrated in the seventh month with three feasts: The Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement (in Hebrew, Yom Kippur), and the Feast of Tabernacles, during which the people would live in tents for seven days to recall their forty years of sojourning in the desert after God had led them out of Egypt. (CCC 728)

Psalm 79 This psalm laments the destruction of the Temple and the havoc caused in Jerusalem by the invading Babylonians. The psalmist knew these things happened due to the sins of Israel and sought forgiveness for those transgressions. However, he immediately asked for vengeance against the Babylonians, whose desecrations and bloodlust were far worse sins. Christians who pray this psalm should try to FORGIVE their persecutors following the example of Christ.

Help us, O God...your name’s sake: God sought not only to liberate Israel from oppression but also to purify them from sin. He was instructing the Jewish people on the gravity of infidelity. Through the consequences of their rejection of his Law, the Chosen People were being formed in the pursuit of forgiveness and repentance from a God rich in mercy. (CCC 431)

(*The Didache Bible RSV-CE Ignatius Edition, 2006)

Key Event 22: Golden Calf (Exodus 32:1-35)

Israel’s worship of the golden calf represents a violation of the first commandment and a return to Egyptian idolatry. Though the Israelites are removed from Egypt physically, their hearts remain behind spiritually. Here, as often throughout the Bible, idolatry is accompanied by sexual immorality.

Key Event 23: Appointment of Levites (Exodus 32:25-29)

After the golden calf idolatry, Moses asks who is on the Lord’s side, at which point the Levites step forward (Ex 32:29). Here, the Levites receive the privilege of serving in the sanctuary alongside the priests, who are descended from Aaron

The Golden Calf:

  • While Moses is on the mountain receiving the liturgical instructions, the hearts of God’s people stray.

  • In Moses’ prolonged absence, they turn to Aaron to build an idol and lead them in a liturgical feast.

  • The goal of a journey into the wilderness was to hold a feast to God at Mount Sinai.

  • Now, Israel holds a feast at the mountain but to the wrong god.

  • Taking the gold despoiled from the Egyptians, they fashion a golden calf.

  • In making the golden calf, Israel is not forging a new cult but returning to Egyptian worship of the god APIS, often depicted in the form of a bull.

  • Taking up the ominous language of Pharaoh, they declare that they do not “know” what has become of Moses (Ex 32:1).

  • This stunning apostasy, occurring in the shadow of God’s mountain and following so quickly upon the heels of oath and covenant with God, illustrates how deeply embedded Egyptian idolatry was in Israel’s heart.

  • This realization recalls the lessons of the plagues in which God was not simply teaching Egypt to know that he was the ONE TRUE GOD, but, more importantly, God was teaching Israel the vanity of Egypt’s gods and the truth of the traditions of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

  • Up on the mountain God tells Moses, “Go down; for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves” (Ex 32:7).

  • Note the pronouns used as a result of Israel’s breaking of the covenant: “your people” whom “you” brought up out of Egypt.

  • The declaration that Israel has “corrupted themselves” is ominous, for this is the very term used to describe the fallen state of humanity that brought down the flood (Gn 6:12).

  • The word “corrupt” (in Hebrew, shechet) is also used in the liturgical legislation of Israel for an animal or priest that has a blemish, disqualifying the animal for liturgical use or the priest from offering sacrifice.

  • Both these senses of “corrupt” relate to what follows, as Israel’s existence is threatened and her liturgical privileges are soon to be revoked.

  • Death is the consequence of covenant infidelity, as the blood of the sacrificed animal signified.

  • Thus, God tells Moses to step aside so that his wrath may burn against Israel, promising that he will start over with Moses.

  • In an astonishing move, Moses steps in and intercedes for Israel. (Sound like anyone we know who INTERCEDES for all mankind?)

  • Moses argues that by wiping out Israel, God will discredit his reputation with Egypt and the world.

  • Then, Moses appeals to the covenant promises God had made to the patriarchs to give them numerous descendants: Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel [Jacob], your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven.” (Ex 32:13)

  • God is first mentioned in the Exodus story when he hears the cry of Israel and “remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Ex 2:24).

  • Now Moses’ naming of the three great patriarchs and God’s covenant promises to them saves Israel, the descendants of the patriarchs, even though Israel is guilty of apostasy.

  • In this Book of Names, the names of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob play a pivotal role.

  • Exodus is not a new story, but a new chapter in the story of Abraham begun in Genesis.

  • Israel’s existence hangs by a thread, the thread that connects them to the patriarchs and God’s promises.

A Change in Priesthood:

  • When Moses comes down from the mountain, he finds that Israel has “broken loose” and, in wild revelry, is worshiping the golden calf (Ex 32:25).

  • This idiomatic language indicates that Israel’s worship of the calf idol is in the manner of a cultic orgy, typical of pagan fertility cults, which sought to ensure the fertility of the fields.

  • It is late spring, and Israel, who is still living in the wilderness, is anxious about not having the security of a harvest.

  • Rather than trusting in the Lord, they turn to Egyptian idolatry.

  • Moses stands at the gate of the camp and calls all who will rally to the Lord’s side to come to him.

  • Only one tribe responds, the tribe of Levi.

  • The Levites take control of the camp and end the idolatry, grinding up the molten calf idol and slaying about three thousand men.

  • Moses announces to the Levites that their loyalty and zeal for the Lord have won them the blessing of ordination for the service of the Lord (Ex 32:29).

  • The Levites, from this point on, will be Israel’s priests and lead her liturgy.

  • This is a watershed moment, bringing a major change in the organization of Israel and its priesthood.

  • Up to this point every tribe was priestly, and the father of every family served as a priest.

  • Recall that the father of each family slaughtered the Passover lamb, leading his own family in the Passover liturgy, and that God called Israel a “kingdom of priests” when they first arrived at Sinai.

  • After Israel’s apostasy, however, all the tribes but Levi will be stripped of their priestly privileges.

  • Only one tribe will be priests—the tribe of Levi.

  • Moses and the Levites burn and grind the golden calf to dust, then they mix the dust with water and make the people drink from it (Ex 32:20).

  • Making the people drink the dust of the idol, although it seems rather bizarre, makes sense in light of laws given just a little later at Sinai.

  • Numbers 5 prescribes a trial in which a woman suspected of adultery is made to drink water mixed with dust from the floor of the sanctuary.

  • If she is innocent, nothing will happen to her, but if she is guilty, a curse will come upon her, causing her “bitter pain, and her body shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away.”

  • In this odd ritual, Moses teaches Israel that Yahweh is their bridegroom and that Israel has acted as an unfaithful bride in going after other gods.

  • God will describe himself as “jealous,” referring to his covenant love for his less-than-faithful bride.

  • This scene will tragically replay throughout Israel’s history, as the prophets in times to come repeatedly announce God’s jealous love for his unfaithful people.

  • A plague follows (Ex 32:35), revealing a dramatic reversal of fortunes: ISRAEL IS NOW THE TARGET OF GOD’S PLAGUES!

  • Israel adopts Egyptian idolatry, and as a result, they receive the same treatment Egypt had received.

  • Seen after Israel’s drinking of the dust of the idol, this plague is also a confirmation that Israel has been found guilty of infidelity.

(*Walking With God: A Journey Through the Bible by Tim Gray and Jeff Cavins)

  • The Ten Commandments are written BY THE VERY HAND OF GOD


  • The people become upset and uncertain because Moses is nowhere to be seen for 40 days

  • In the midst of their uncertainty, THEY TRY TO TAKE CONTROL (recurring theme, eh? Do you remember who else we’ve met before tried to take control instead of trust God? She was married to Abram ;) )

  • This is a lesson for all of us

  • God allows us to walk in faith

  • God invites us to walk in faith

  • God invites us to walk in the midst of uncertainty

  • In the midst of that uncertainty, what do we do?

  • We get tired of waiting

  • We get tired of the uncertainty

  • We get tired of not knowing what will happen


  • The Israelites DID NOT want to rebel against God

  • They did not say, “We defile the God who brought us out of Egypt.”

  • They basically say, “We don’t know what happened to Moses, so we are going to take matters into our own hands. We are going to take control of the situation.”

  • When Aaron makes the golden calf, how do the people respond?

  • They are not acting as if they are turning away from God who led them out of Egypt

  • They are not replacing God with another false god

  • They are actually saying that the golden calf is the God that led you out of Egypt

  • This is fascinating

  • The Israelites are not “WHOLE CALF” rejecting God who delivered them out of slavery in Egypt (see what I did there? ;) )

  • They are ascribing to this golden calf the very role of God

  • So often for us, we turn to IDOLS

  • We turn to other sources of trust

  • We turn to other sources of confidence

  • We are uncertain and we want control

  • We do this in such a unique way

  • We don’t believe we are turning away from God

  • We are actually MAKING A GOD OF OUR OWN

  • We are actually MAKING A GOD WE CAN CONTROL

  • We can put this “God” away when we are done with “him”

  • We can take this “God” out when we need “him”

  • How often do we treat God like that?

  • How often do we just pray when we want or need something?

  • We end up treating God like “Elf on a Shelf”

  • When we want Him, we take Him off the shelf

  • When we don’t really want Him around, we put Him back on the shelf

  • You can do that with a “God” you have made on your own

  • You can isolate “him”

  • You can dismiss “him” when you feel like it

  • And then “he” is there when you need “him”



  • Fr Mike believes that is true about HIS HEART

  • Oh man, what does that mean about MY HEART then?

  • What does that mean about YOUR HEART?

  • If we have the broken human heart that we all have, we trade in UNCERTAINTY for CONTROL

  • This is the heart of, in so many ways, what God is trying to do and break through to the Israelites

  • We are going to see soon in Numbers and Deuteronomy, as the Israelites journey through the wilderness, that God is training His people TO TRUST HIM



  • God allows us and calls us to WALK IN FAITH

  • Not because God doesn’t want you to know what will happen next

  • God wants us to WALK IN FAITH so that we can LEARN TO TRUST HIM

  • God knows that we live in uncertain times

  • God knows that what is going on in the world is uncertain

  • God knows that what is going on in our lives is uncertain

  • God knows that the temptation is to turn to something that we can control and put our faith in that


  • We don’t have to control God because HE LOVES US

  • Aaron ended up throwing the Israelites under the bus, eh?

  • So after that we have the birth of the Levitical Priesthood

  • Up until this point, the father of the family was the PRIEST OF THE FAMILY

  • Remember Passover?

  • That sacrifice was performed by the FATHER OF THE FAMILY

  • But from now on, the Levites are going to be the priests

  • This priesthood is taken away from FATHERHOOD by nature, and is now GIVEN to the LEVITICAL PRIESTS

  • This is why we have the BOOK OF LEVITICUS

  • The Levitical Priesthood starts in Exodus 32 (which is why it sometimes doesn’t seem to make much sense to us. Think of Leviticus as the companion piece to Exodus.)

  • This will do a lot to shape the future of Israel

  • This also does a lot to reveal to us in the New Covenant what it is to be a priest

  • Leviticus 23 talks about the feasts which we talked about a few days ago.

  • The Bible does repeat itself a number of times

  • That is not a mistake

  • That is on purpose, FOR US

  • We are going to hear about these feasts again, and again, and again, and again

  • Recognize that our hearts can make idols out of ANYTHING

  • Pray for each other to have freedom and trust, that even in the midst of uncertainty in our world, in our lives, and in our hearts, that we have CONFIDENCE to follow after God who has truly revealed Himself.

Prayer by Fr Mike: “Father in Heaven, we thank you for your Word. We thank you for this prayer. We thank you for revealing to us the brokenness of our own hearts when we hear the story of the exodus and the story of the golden calf. We know, Lord God, that our hearts are idol-making machines. We can turn to anything instead of turning to you. Help us ALWAYS ALWAYS to be faithful to you, not just in great things, but, also in small things. Lord God, we want to belong to you. We want to be yours. Help us to be yours fully. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”