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Aaron, the Golden Calf, and an Inexplicable Decision in Exodus 32

Yes, this story is as flabbergasting as we think it is.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Exodus 32

Aaron's birthright and charisma made him a leader, but it didn't make him a good leader. There are many theories as to why Aaron made a golden bull idol and what the people thought it meant, but there is no argument that the people were rejecting God's instruction and acting to please themselves. As an observation, Christians are not immune to this...

Then they said, “Israel, these are your gods, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”.

[This post started as a printed supplement to help our teachers prepare for Bible study. It has been modified to make more sense as a blog post.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About


If you need a lighter fare topic to get your group off on the right foot, have I got the subject for you. Split your group into two teams. Each team comes up with their ultimate football team made up of animals. (My offensive line is all hippos, my running back is a rhinoceros, and you can’t stop me.) And then you give each team 60 seconds to make their case. It would be utterly meaningless, but also super fun. (Change the sport if you want.)

I actually have a really devious purpose for this discussion topic. In the ancient world, people picked animals who were strong or fast or large, and they worshipped them. We will learn that bulls were commonly worshiped throughout the ancient world. How different is that today, really? We find people who are bigger or stronger or faster and we put them on a pedestal. We don’t think of that as “worship”, but it is the very definition of worship.

Sports Superstitions/Fan Superstitions/The Baseball Gods.

It’s baseball playoff season, and that kicks off a round of very odd behavior among fans and players alike. (Obviously, this applies to every sport or hobby.) I have previously said that superstitions are worthless and even anti-Christian, but be sweet about that if you’re going to ask them to share their superstitions! You have the fans (and players) who don’t change their clothes while on a win streak. Or who put on “the rally cap”. Or who think they can’t change seats until something bad happens to their team. Or who don’t watch the game at all for fear of jinxing their team (both Shelly and I have done this. Go ahead, judge).

A bizarre side effect of these superstitions is a semi-joking belief in the “baseball gods” (or the golf gods or the soccer gods or whatever). If you make the baseball gods angry, they will make the wind blow in from left during your half of the inning, they will make the ball travel right in front of the sun when your fielder is trying to catch it, and so on. This is all reinforced by the various “baseball curses” out there: “the curse of the Bambino” which supposedly kept the Red Sox from the pennant for 90 years (just say Bucky Dent or Bill Buckner); “the curse of the billy goat” which kept the Cubs from the pennant for even longer (just say Steve Bartman). And so on.

They’re silly and fun. But the moment you take them the slightest bit seriously, you’ve fallen into idol worship. That’s all they were doing in the ancient world—paying attention to superstitions in hopes it kept them alive just a little bit longer.


This Week's Big Idea: Bull Worship in the Ancient Near East

If you choose to do any of the animal illustrations I have scattered throughout this handout, you will know that bulls and cows are super-important. Bulls are very strong and virile. Cows are fertile. And the Hebrews would have been very exposed to bull worship during their time in Egypt. Egyptian gods were in constant flux. In the Old Kingdom, the bull (Apis) was the son of the creator god. In the Middle Kingdom, the bull was Amon-Re. Further south, the bull was Atum-Re. Those were primary gods in their respective pantheons. Some scholars have tried to argue that Aaron was encouraging the Hebrews to go back to worshiping one of those gods, but he kept calling God “Yahweh”, so that’s unlikely.

We can trace this bull worship back even further. The ancient Hittites (who had contact with Abraham) worshiped a storm god who was a bull. The ancient Sumerians made their moon god a bull (the shape of bull horns looks like a crescent moon). This is reflected in the Canaanite gods Baal and El, both of whom were bulls! When bad King Jeroboam set up temples at Dan and Bethel (1 Ki 12:29), he placed golden bulls in them for the people to worship. In other words, the Hebrews had been around bull idols their entire existence, so it wouldn’t have been something strange for them to see.

So . . . What Was Aaron Thinking???

In our passage this week, Aaron gives the people a golden calf to worship in Moses’ absence. But believe it or not, there are a lot of Christian scholars who are semi-sympathetic to Aaron here. Moses had been gone for a long time. The people had begun to fear that Moses (and God) had abandoned them. Aaron perhaps wanted to give them a physical symbol of God’s presence to reassure them. Some have argued that the idol actually represented Moses and this was a kind of ancestor worship. A common interpretation is that Aaron did not intend the calf to represent God at all but rather to be His pedestal—the people should imagine God riding on top of this bull. Any of those theories could be true, but they would not change the most important fact: God knew that their intentions were pagan. The people were going to worship this calf in direct disobedience to His commands.


About that Second Commandment . . .

One last comment about Aaron. Remember that Moses gave the Ten Commandments then went up the mountain. You and I think the second commandment is pretty clear, but the Jews may not have (considering they had never heard anything like it before), which is why God gave the command in the first place. This episode could be a combination of rebellion and willful ignorance. The “why” does not matter, though—Aaron failed. I have one comment about the text: lots of scholars have made a point about Aaron saying “these are your gods” (32:4) focusing on the plural. The word used there for “god” (Elohim) is always plural. It’s just a plural word, like deer or fish. Yes, the pronoun is plural, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. After all, there was just one calf. Aaron was not necessarily rejecting monotheism with this statement. He was just being incredibly daft.

Aside: The Strongest Animals

Because I can't leave well enough alone. According to “themysteriousworld”, these are the ten strongest animals in the world based on a strength-to-weight ratio: (10) eagles; (9) anacondas; (8) grizzly bears (they have a bite strength of 1200 psi!!); (7) oxen; (6) tigers; (5) gorillas (adult male gorillas are 15 times stronger than the strongest humans); (4) African bush elephants; (3) leafcutter ants (they can carry something 50 times their own body weight); (2) rhinoceros beetle (they can carry things 850 times their own body weight!!); (1) dung beetle (they can carry things 1150 times their own body weight—that would be like a person lifting 80 tons).

So let’s place this list in the Ancient Near East. They aren’t going to appreciate the strength of insects. They don’t have giant elephants or bears or snakes or gorillas. They have access to oxen and camels (and the Egyptians knew of crocodiles and hippos). Who do you think they would pick as the animal to worship for strength? Exactly.

The Difference between Ox and Bull

Tbh, I don’t fully understand this one. I used to think that an ox was just a castrated bull (and obviously, oxen would not be worshiped because so much of worship was related to fertility). But that’s apparently not true; an ox is a subspecies of cattle (?) particularly suited for heavy labor. In China, they are treated separately. Not all male ox are castrated. The long and short of it is this: we know that the Jews thought of oxen as very strong; they likely would have seen bulls as more glamorous oxen, which I guess makes the bull the “perfect” animal to worship based on its strength.


Our Context in Exodus

So much happens in these chapters that we aren’t going to cover. God gets really “angry” with the people for their idolatry, but Moses “talks God down” from destroying them. Moses grinds up the idol and makes the Israelites drink it. He then calls on the Levites to kill everyone who was hardened in their idolatry. (Point: this obviously means that the sixth commandment does not rule out every form of killing, which is why we translate it “you shall not murder”.) And then God sends a plague on everyone anyway. Then there is the incredible scene of God “passing by” Moses while in the cleft of a rock, and God meeting with Moses face to face, and then God giving new tablets with the Ten Commandments, and then Moses glowing. Really amazing stuff.

At some point in your lesson, you need to mention the consequence/punishment for the terrible sins of the Israelites. When you do, tie back in the last two lessons: why did God give all of these commands? Why did God give such exact instructions for the Tabernacle? Because He knew that people could not be trusted to get it right on their own. Sure enough, when the Israelites decided to come up with their own worship practices, they came up with a golden idol and a raucous party. Wow. But why is this such a big deal at all? Because it’s not just a bad idea to approach God wrongly in worship—it’s dangerous. People die when they make light of the presence of God. That’s the aftermath of this golden calf incident. That’s why God was so exacting about the Tabernacle; it was for their own good. We don’t appreciate that today because we take our access to Jesus for granted.


Part 1: The People Get Impatient (32:1-4)

When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come, make gods for us who will go before us because this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him!” Aaron replied 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.” So all the people took off the gold rings that were on their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made it into an image of a calf. Then they said, “Israel, these are your gods, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”

Three question ideas for you to ask your group. These come from the ever-useful Serendipity Study Bible.

(1) What do you think was the mood of the Israelites when they asked Aaron to make gods for them? [] bored, [] restless, [] impatient, [] rebellious, [] doubting God.

(2) Why do you think the Israelites were so quick to turn to idolatry? [] They didn’t understand the Ten Commandments, [] they wanted a visible representation of God, [] they reverted to the practices of Egypt. (I really don’t think there’s a reason we can give except for base human sin.)

(3) When you feel God is far away, what are you most tempted to turn your attention to? [] entertainment, [] food, [] possessions, [] a bad habit.

When we put ourselves into the shoes of the Israelites—particularly with that last question—I think we can begin to understand their bad decisions. Not too different from the bad decisions that we tend to make today!

As I mentioned on the previous page, don’t get caught up in the plural form of “gods”—it’s always plural, even if it’s meant to be singular. Also, the phrase “gathered around Aaron” actually means “assembled against Aaron” and includes a connotation of hostility. We see elsewhere from Aaron that he does not respond well to confrontation. As far as the people’s behavior goes, it should only make sense. Even though God has performed many miracles on their behalf, they really don’t know Him, and they don’t trust Him enough to understand His delay. They aren’t necessarily saying they want new gods, they just want a tangible representation of God during His “absence”. Of course, that’s missing the entire point of the speech Moses just gave before going up the mountain. Ask your group a time when they said something only to have the person they said it to immediately misunderstand or forget what they said. It happens. We do it today.

There’s a bit of humor hidden in these verses. “Take off the gold rings” is literally “yank off”. In other words, the heads of the households were to go around and physically remove the rings from their wives and children. You know that would cause a stir! Aaron is being passive-aggressive here. And don’t miss the irony! These are the very items that God was telling Moses to accept as a freewill offering for the Tabernacle. Not so with the golden idol . . . We are given the impression that Aaron molded the gold himself, making him completely responsible (even though he later humorously told Moses, “I just threw the gold in the fire, and out came this calf!”). The word “calf” is masculine, making it a bull.


Aside: Idol Worship

Idol worship comes from the idea that a god inhabits a statue/image that represents it. They don’t believe that the statue is the god, but worshiping it is the equivalent of worshiping the god. Egypt had 40 primary gods. The Canaanites had fewer. Each city had a primary patron god, but most also built temples to other gods. (In Mesopotamia, those temples would be giant pyramid-like ziggurats.) Each temple would be surrounded by a garden for the provision of the god. The idea was that by taking care of the god’s needs, the god could have more energy to combat their enemies and the forces of chaos in the world. The gods themselves "told" the craftsmen what they wanted their image to look like in visions (“I look like a bull” etc.). Every statue had a mouth opening that the people would clean (to symbolize how they spoke and heard and ate). They would “feed” the statue some food, and the priests and king would eat everything else. My favorite tidbit from my research is that they would always make these statues portable so that they could take it to visit other gods in their temples. (Seriously. Does that entertain you as much as it does me?)

If all of that sounds ridiculous, that’s because the gods of the ancient world were not all-powerful or all-knowing (or even eternal). They were simply more powerful than humans. They had the same needs as humans. This is the primary reason why God wanted the Hebrews to put a stop to all forms of idols; it immediately associated their True God with one of these lesser gods and their weaknesses. Even if they meant well, nothing good could come of it. Idol worship is simply inherently wrong.


Part 2: Impatient People Do Regrettable Things (32:5-6)

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of it and made an announcement: “There will be a festival to the Lord tomorrow.” Early the next morning they arose, offered burnt offerings, and presented fellowship offerings. The people sat down to eat and drink, and got up to party.

Note that Aaron still called on Yahweh (“the Lord”)—he was not bringing back any of the Egyptian gods. He was telling the people to worship God. But he was going about it all wrong, and that matters. Tell your group that this is why God gave the second commandment: when left to our own devices, we will always mess up the worship of God. That’s why we still need to be serious and cautious in our worship today, that we don’t let any American “golden idols” into our church services. Here’s what Aaron got wrong: (1) he built the altar directly in front of the idol. That would have been based on the faulty belief that the people needed to help their god “see” and smell the sacrifices being made. In the Tabernacle, the altar was placed outside in the courtyard—because the sacrifices were actually about the people’s guilt, not God’s “needs”. (2) The feast he called involved “revelry” which could have included drunken orgies (not necessarily), but definitely included laughter and mockery. In other words, it was a party for the people, not a feast for the Lord. When we make our events for worship about ourselves and not God, we are essentially committing this same sin as these Jews.

In our church service this week, we will be sharing the Lord’s Supper, the primary act of worship left to us by Jesus. Ask your group how it would be possible to do the Lord’s Supper “wrong” (go to 1 Corinthians 11, especially the part where Paul warns us against doing so in an unworthy manner). Then have them ask God to search their hearts for the same sin as the Hebrews.


Aside: Life Lessons from Aaron

Aaron was Moses’ older brother (by 3 years). Aaron is an Egyptian name; they belonged to the most influential of the Levite clans. Being called “The Levite”, Aaron was probably the chief among them; he is described as having impeccable credentials. God chose Aaron to be the “mouthpiece” for Moses, so he could speak well and may have been charismatic, but that did not translate into godly leadership. The people went to Aaron when they wanted someone to manipulate (as with the golden calf). Later, when Aaron and Miriam argued with Moses that they were also prophets of God, Aaron had to plead with Moses to ask for forgiveness when Miriam was struck with leprosy. And Aaron didn’t teach his sons well enough to prevent them from getting themselves killed for negligence. He is a mixed figure (I guess that makes him real). Ultimately, we learn that birthright and charisma are not enough if you don’t back it up with godly character and leadership. Aaron could be an ally to Moses, but also a real thorn. He never saw the Promised Land.


Part 3: Moses Pleads for Grace (32:11-14)

But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God: “Lord, why does your anger burn against your people you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and a strong hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘He brought them out with an evil intent to kill them in the mountains and eliminate them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger and relent concerning this disaster planned for your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel—you swore to them by yourself and declared, ‘I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and will give your offspring all this land that I have promised, and they will inherit it forever.’” So the Lord relented concerning the disaster he had said he would bring on his people.

Frankly, I’m not thrilled that of all the verses they could have chosen to end this lesson, Lifeway chose these. These verses require time to explain how God could be so angry or how God could change His mind (note: this exchange is for Moses’ benefit, and isn’t really about God). God was never going to wipe out the Israelites, but Moses needed to adopt the persona of the selfless leader—because those Israelites were really going to try his patience in the near future.

I would instead suggest reading verses 19-23. Moses, who just made this amazing intercession, actually sees with his own eyes everything going wrong, and he lets the people have it. In other words, it’s not a “good cop bad cop” scenario. Moses wasn’t going to let the people off for their sin; he was going to do everything he could to get them to take God seriously so that God wouldn’t destroy them all (again, God wouldn’t, but God could). If you do go on to these verses, ask these questions:

(1) Why did Moses break the stone tablets?

(2) If you had seen Moses break the tablets, what kind of effect would it have had on you?

And I think this is the perfect opportunity to open a personal discussion based on the Serendipity Bible:

(3) When you sin and get caught, how do you usually respond? [] I confess right away. [] I blame the devil. [] I blame someone else. [] I blame circumstances. [] I try to minimize it. [] I blame my sin nature.

The people did wrong. What were they going to do about it? We don’t like being told when we’re wrong, either. How should we respond when caught in sin? How do we get from what we do to what we should do?

The Quicksource recommends this object lesson: a “do you love me” note like we passed around in grade school. If God were to pass you that note, what would you respond? How could you prove it? Have your group read Exodus 24:3 (from before the golden calf episode). What did that episode show about their love for God? Then have your group read 1 John 5:3. How are we doing in proving our love for God? This week, let’s spend personal time in prayer and worship, asking God to help us prioritize our heart rightly, and remove idols in our lives and worship.


Closing Thoughts: Idolatry in the New Testament

Most references in the New Testament to idolatry deal with the same kind of thing as in the Old Testament: pagan worship of multiple gods represented by statues. For example, the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 recommended that Christians not eat meat sacrificed to idols (which they meant literally). In 1 Cor 5, Paul equates an idolater (meaning someone who worshiped idols) with someone who is immoral, greedy, or abusive. Later in 1 Cor 8, he acknowledges that an idol is nothing—a worthless creation of art—so it really doesn’t matter if meat was sacrificed to an idol or not. But it does matter to some people’s consciences, so Christians are best off staying away from the whole idol-worship culture completely.

But catch this: Ephesians 5:5 “For know and recognize this: Every sexually immoral or impure or greedy person, who is an idolater, does not have an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” Colossians 3:5: “Therefore, put to death what belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry.” Compare with Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” And 1 Timothy 6:10: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” In other words, according to the New Testament, the love of money is actual idolatry. In the golden calf sense! And when you think about it, money is nothing—money is just a representation of the ability to acquire something of value. Money is prestige and power and indulgence. All of those things are idols.

So when your group talks about “not making an idol”, make sure they know that the Bible explicitly includes money in that category, and everything money can buy.


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