The NT provides fuller understanding about many key OT people and events, including Creation, the Exodus, and the ministry of Enoch. In a striking way not specifically revealed in the OT, First Corinthians 10 gives believers the key to a fuller understanding of the Golden Calf incident and its contemporary relevance.*
Prior Revelation about the Golden Calf Incident
Prior to First Corinthians 10, at least five passages give us explicit revelation about the Golden Calf incident: Exodus 32; Deuteronomy 9; Nehemiah 9; Psalm 106; Acts 7. A thorough analysis of these passages shows that the incident was a profoundly important event in sacred history (see the previous articles in this series, which are listed below, for more information).
Fittingly, this prior revelation, however, does not reveal a key facet about the event that is necessary to know in order to understand it fully. God gives us that key through vital Pauline teaching in First Corinthians 10.
First Corinthians 10 and the Golden Calf Incident
Of the two NT references to the Golden Calf incident, Acts 7:39-41 only indirectly pertains to believers today because it is part of Stephen’s defense before the high priest and other Jewish people who accosted and persecuted him (Acts 6:9-7:60). The reference in First Corinthians 10:7, however, is in epistolary teaching specifically directed to Christians.
Because Paul explicitly cites the Golden Calf incident in important epistolary teaching to believers, we know that properly understanding it and its application to us is vital. Moreover, Paul states both before (1 Cor. 10:6) and after (1 Cor. 10:11) his reference to the incident (1 Cor. 10:7) that the account is exemplary for us and was recorded for our instruction.
We must take pains, therefore, to study all the passages about the incident carefully and thoroughly. When we do so with First Corinthians 10, we discover at least three key aspects of the incident that pertain to believers today and need more attention.
Christian Liberty and the Golden Calf Incident
Paul wrote First Corinthians to believers who were facing many problems in the church at Corinth. First Corinthians 10 is part of three chapters (1 Cor. 8:1-11:1) that he wrote to address problems that the Church was facing with issues concerning Christian liberty.
A key feature of the Golden Calf incident was its essential character as an instance of religious syncretism. Paul’s use of that account in First Corinthians 10 to warn Christians must alert us to the profound potential dangers posed by some disputed practices among believers that many regard as involving similar religious syncretism.
Invoking Christian liberty as justification for such practices without bringing to bear pertinent truths from the Golden Calf incident puts contemporary believers at profound spiritual risk. No discussion of such issues about Christian liberty is legitimate if it does not account fully for Paul’s teaching in First Corinthians 10 concerning the relevance of the incident for Christians.
Meat Offered to Idols and the Golden Calf Incident
In First Corinthians 10:7, Paul commands all believers not to be idolaters. He cites Exodus 32:6 as a Scriptural record of some highly privileged people (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-4) who became idolaters in the Golden Calf incident:
Exo 32:6 And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.
1Co 10:7 Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.
By citing this aspect of the incident in his command, Paul made clear that their eating, drinking, and playing on this occasion were all part of their idolatry.
Moreover, the reference to their eating and drinking in Exodus 32:6 is not pointing to ordinary eating and drinking that took place after they worshiped the calf. Rather, it refers to their eating and drinking food and drink that they had offered to the idol.
Based on First Corinthians 10:7, we understand that the Israelites’ eating and drinking what was offered to the idol and their playing afterwards are all key information that must warn us to flee from idolatry (1 Cor. 10:14). We must accept, therefore, that the profound danger that idolatry poses for believers involves much more than a believer’s personally doing homage to an idol by bowing to it or engaging in some other related actions that involve only the believer’s body and no other external objects.
What Paul then explains in the rest of First Corinthians 10 reveals just how this is the case with a believer’s partaking of meat offered to idols. In this concluding material, he gives us the profound revelation that is the key to a fuller understanding of the Golden Calf incident.
Fallen Spirits and the Golden Calf Incident
Paul teaches that believers “know that an idol is nothing in the world” (1 Cor. 8:4) and that food in and of itself does not commend us to God (1 Cor. 8:8). He later reiterates both truths through two questions (“What say I then? that the idol is any thing, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing?” [1 Cor. 10:19]).
What Paul says next brings out the horrific spiritual reality of what takes place when people offer sacrifices to idols:
But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils (1 Cor. 10:20).
Paul reveals that Gentiles who sacrifice to idols in reality offer sacrifices to fallen spirits and not to God! Although neither an idol nor what is offered to it has any innate spiritual qualities to it individually, people who combine the two in a worship context in reality worship fallen spirits—regardless of whether they intend to or not.
Worse yet, not only do they worship the fallen spirits, but they also have fellowship with them! Eating meat offered to an idol in a worship context thus puts those who eat that meat into direct contact with demons.
Moreover, Paul teaches that it is not possible to partake of both the cup of the Lord and the cup of devils (1 Cor. 10:21a). Nor is it possible to partake both of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons (1 Cor. 10:21b).
These statements make clear that believers who engage in worship that features any such religious syncretism are incapable of worshiping the Lord aright. True believers who do engage in such actions must fear provoking the Lord to jealousy (1 Cor. 10:22) because they are not stronger than He is, and He will surely chasten them for doing so.
When these considerations are brought to bear on our understanding of what happened in the Golden Calf incident, we learn that all that the passages record of their shameful debauched behavior after they had eaten and drunk what was offered to the idol was not merely human deviancy on display. Rather, their playing (Exod. 32:6; 1 Cor. 10:7), singing (Exod. 32:18; Acts 7:41), and dancing (Exod. 32:19; Acts 7:41) in unrestrained ways that brought them into shame with their enemies (Exod. 32:25) was the deviant behavior of people who had come into direct contact with fallen spirits and been influenced by them to engage in that shameful debauched behavior!
Moreover, we understand better God’s profound anger with the people on that occasion—they had provoked Him to wrath because their religious syncretism brought them into direct fellowship with demons. Because His people had become profoundly “contaminated” in that manner, He ordered that many of them be executed (Exod. 32:26-29) and would have destroyed them all had not Moses interceded for them (Exod. 32:11-14).
Based on the points covered above, any sound treatment of the Golden Calf incident and its relevance for believers today must account for its being a record of demon-influenced immoral behavior by spiritually privileged people that resulted from their engaging in purported worship of the Lord that included religious syncretism. We must allow God’s profound displeasure with His people on that occasion to underscore Paul’s use of that incident in First Corinthians 10 to warn us to take heed that we not fall similarly in matters concerning Christian liberty because we think that we stand (1 Cor. 10:12).
As I hope to show in future articles, this fuller understanding of the incident has profound relevance for contemporary debates about the propriety of incorporating debauched pagan elements into worship of the Lord.
*If you have not done so, please read the previous articles in this series before reading this article: