The Golden Calf Incident (GCI) is an infamous biblical account of idolatrous worship. Exodus 32 provides the lengthiest record of what took place on that occasion and informs us that both singing and dancing were part of their worship:
Exodus 32:18 And he said, It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome: but the noise of them that sing do I hear.
Exodus 32:19 And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount.
In spite of the record of their singing and dancing, many people believe that the lack of mention of musical instruments in any of the passages that record the GCI means that there were no musical instruments used in their worship at that time. Is it a reasonable position to hold that these people sang a cappella and danced “a musica”1?
The Relevance of Exodus 15 to the Interpretation of Exodus 32
After the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea and God had drowned Pharaoh and all his hosts, the Israelites sang praise to God for the deliverance that He had provided them (Exod. 15:1-19). Miriam then led all the women in singing and dancing that was accompanied by the playing of timbrels:
Exodus 15:20 And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. 21 And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to the LORD, for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.
Exodus 15 thus establishes an important precedent that the Israelites used musical instruments in corporate worship of God that included both singing and dancing. Because we know that the Israelites had at least timbrels and had used them prior to the GCI in worship that included both singing and dancing, we do not have any biblical basis to hold that the Israelites did not use at least timbrels in the GCI.
Allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture, there is no reasonable basis to hold that the GCI was an occasion of idolatrous worship where the people sang and danced without the use of any musical instruments. Exodus 32 is not a record of singing and dancing without the use of musical instruments.
1“A musica” is a term that I coined to signify when dancing is done without the use of musical instruments to accompany the dancing.