Toward Fully Understanding the Golden Calf Incident

July 4, 2013

Exodus 32 records at some length the Golden Calf incident, an infamous account of idolatry among God’s chosen people Israel. Because both the OT and the NT refer to this account more than once (Deut. 9; Ps. 106; Neh. 9; Acts 7; 1 Cor. 10), we must carefully compare all six accounts in order to fully understand this incident.

In this article, I treat the first four passages (Exod. 32; Deut. 9; Ps. 106; and Acts 7). In future articles, I will treat the other passages and correlate all six passages carefully.

Exodus 32

While Moses was meeting with God on Mount Horeb (cf. Exod. 31:18), the Israelites corrupted themselves (Exod. 32:1-6). Instigated by the people (Exod. 32:1), Aaron participated in their making a golden calf (Exod. 32:2-4). He also made an altar and declared that there would be a feast to the Lord on the following day (Exod. 32:5).

On the next day, the people sacrificed burnt offerings and peace offerings to the idol and then sat down to eat and drink (Exod. 32:6a-b). They then rose up to play (Exod. 32:6c).

God informed Moses about what had happened and told him to go down quickly to the people whom he had brought out of Egypt (Exod. 32:7-8). He then asked Moses to leave Him alone so that He could destroy them and make of Moses a great nation (Exod. 32:9-10). When Moses interceded earnestly with the Lord for the people (Exod. 32:11-14), the Lord relented of His intent to annihilate them (Exod. 32:14).

While Moses was coming down the mountain (Exod. 32:15-16), at some point he met up with Joshua. When they were yet at some distance from the camp, Joshua heard the sound of the people shouting (Exod. 32:17a). He said to Moses that what he heard was the “noise of war in the camp” (Exod. 32:17b).

Moses, however, discerned that the sound was neither the sound of victory (Exod. 32:18a) nor the sound of defeat (Exod. 32:18b). He declared that instead it was the sound of the people’s singing (Exod. 32:18c).

Arriving at the camp (Exod. 32:19a), Moses saw the idol and the people dancing (Exod. 32:19b). He became incensed and quickly acted to destroy the idol (Exod. 32:19c-20).

He then confronted Aaron about his role in the incident (Exod. 32:21-24). He further observed that the people were publicly (cf. Exod. 32:25c) behaving in uncontrolled lewdness (Exod. 32:25a) because Aaron had failed to deal with them to restrain them as he should have (Exod. 32:25b). Through their openly being so wicked, they were bringing themselves into shame with their enemies in some unspecified manner (“Aaron had made them naked unto their shame among their enemies” [Exod. 32:25]).

In response to Aaron’s sinful inaction, Moses asked whoever among the people was on God’s side to come over to him where he was standing in the gate of the camp (Exod. 32:26a). All the Levites did so (Exod. 32:26b). He then instructed the Levites to go through the camp and execute many of their own people (Exod. 32:27-28).

In the aftermath of this infamous occasion (Exod. 32:29-34), Moses’ intercession spared the people from complete annihilation at the hand of God. God, however, did still plague the people “because they made the calf, which Aaron made” (Exod. 32:35).

Deuteronomy 9

Some years later, Moses commanded the people not to forget, but to remember how they had provoked the Lord to wrath continually in the wilderness from the day that they left Egypt to the day that they arrived across the Jordan in the wilderness in the land of Moab (Deut. 9:7; cf. Deut. 1:1-5). He then recounted what happened at Horeb with the golden calf (Deut. 9:8-21).

This recounting adds that the mountain was burning with fire when Moses came down (Deut. 9:15), which indicates that these people committed this heinous sin while in the very visible presence of God in His fiery glory. The Golden Calf incident, therefore, was an instance of high-handed, presumptuous sinning against God’s visible presence among His people!

Moses also adds in this recounting that God was so angry with Aaron then that He would have destroyed him had Moses not interceded for him (Deut. 9:20). This information that the Exodus 32 account does not supply shows Aaron’s great culpability for what he allowed to take place on that occasion.

Psalm 106

An unnamed psalmist provides a brief recounting of the Golden Calf incident (Ps. 106:19-23). He emphasizes that the people exchanged “their glory into the similitude of an ox that eateth grass” (Ps. 106:20) and forgot God their Savior who did such great wonders for them in Egypt and in the land of Ham and by the Red Sea (Ps. 106:21-22).

This recounting explains how the Israelites robbed God of His glory when they made and worshiped the Golden Calf. They were spared from total destruction only because Moses, God’s chosen one, interposed himself between them and God (Ps. 106:23).

Acts 7

In his marvelous defense before the high priest and those who were accosting him (Acts 7:1-60), Stephen related at some length the life and ministry of Moses (Acts 7:20-41). He included a brief recounting of the Golden Calf incident (Acts 7:39-41).

He specified that the people were disobedient to Moses, repudiated him, and “in their hearts turned back again into Egypt” (Acts 7:39) when they told Aaron to make for them gods to go before them at that time (Acts 7:40). None of the previous accounts specifies this information about what the state of their hearts was when this incident took place.

Stephen then added more information that is also not provided in any of the preceding accounts—in their idolatrous worship, the people “rejoiced in the works of their own hands” (Acts 7:41). This revelation illumines the Mosaic statements about their playing (Exod. 32:6) and their singing and dancing (Exod. 32:18-19) by showing the idolatrous character of these activities.

Furthermore, Stephen’s ending his testimony about Moses with information about the Golden Calf incident highlights the importance of that event in the Mosaic part of the selective history of Israel that he testified to at this time.


Based on our study of these four passages about the Golden Calf incident, we learn the following truths

1. Scripture provides 57 verses about this incident in these four passages (Ex. 32:1-35; Deut. 9:8-21; Ps. 106:19-23; Acts 7:39-41). The large number of verses about the incident and the multiple reports about it show its importance in Scripture.

2. Stephen’s climaxing his testimony about Moses’ life and ministry to Israel with material about the Golden Calf incident highlights its importance.

3. By comparing all the passages together, we learn more about the horrific nature of what took place on this occasion. In spite of visible testimony to the presence of God with them, the people returned in their hearts back to Egypt and engaged in idolatrous worship that featured wicked public lewdness. Doing so, they not only robbed God of His glory, but also brought themselves into shame with their enemies.

In future articles, we will see that the importance of this incident is even far greater than what we have seen so far.


See the rest of the articles in this series under point 11 here

Copyright © 2011-2024 by Rajesh Gandhi. All rights reserved.



Copyright © 2011-2024 by Rajesh Gandhi. All rights reserved.

6 responses to Toward Fully Understanding the Golden Calf Incident

  1. Thanks Rajesh. This is akin to the indictment of the Gentiles in Romans 1 …and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image…

    • You are welcome, Ashish. The parallel with Romans 1 is very instructive; thanks for pointing that out. My next article on this incident, D.V., will bring out a vital dimension of what took place that is a key to unlocking the fuller significance of the incident.

  2. Hey Rajesh,
    I read your conclusion and appreciate it very much. Isn’t the Golden Calf incident ‘typical’ of what happened throughout ALL of Israel’s history? Yahweh seems to be calling Israel out throughout her history on either idolatry or injustice.
    Keep up the great work, brother!

    • Hi Will,

      Great to hear from you! Thanks for the feedback. Yes, tragically, the Golden Calf incident was in one fashion or another repeated many times throughout Israel’s history. Yet, for several reasons, which I hope to bring out more fully in subsequent articles, this account of Israel’s idolatry has special significance. Thanks.

  3. Oh, I was going to ask if you’ve read Greg Beale’s Biblical Theology of Idolatry (We Become What We Worship)? I haven’t yet; it’s on my list.

    • I have not read Beale’s book, Will, but it sounds like it would be a great study. Thanks for mentioning it. I’ll keep it in mind for future reference. The Lord be with you.