The Golden Calf - Part 2

  • Rav Zvi Shimon







The Golden Calf (Part 2)

By Rav Zvi Shimon



            The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) agrees with the Ibn Ezra that the sin of the golden calf was not idolatry in the pure sense of the term. However he rejects Ibn Ezra's interpretation that the calf was a corporeal manifestation of God. Instead the Ramban suggests that the golden calf was meant to be a replacement for Moses.


... they wanted another Moses, saying: "Moses, the man who showed us the way from Egypt until now,... he is now lost to us; let us make ourselves another Moses who will show us the way at the commandment of God."  This is the reason for their mentioning, "Moses, the man that brought us up," rather than saying "the God who brought them up," for they needed a man of God...


... they did not want the calf to be for them in place of a god who killeth and maketh alive, whom they would take upon themselves to serve as a deity; instead, they wanted to have someone in place of Moses to show them the way.  And this was the apology of Aaron.  He argued that "they merely told me that I should make them elohim who would go before them in your place, my lord, because they did not know what had happened to you and whether you would return or not.  Therefore they needed someone who would show them the way as long as you were not with them, and if perchance you would return they would leave him and follow you as before."  And so indeed it happened, for as soon as the people saw Moses, they immediately left the calf and rejected it, and they allowed him to burn it and scatter its powder upon the water, and no one quarreled with him at all.  Similarly you will note that he did not rebuke the people nor say anything to them, and yet when   he came into the camp and he saw the calf and the dancing, they immediately fled from before him; and he took the calf and burnt it [and scattered its powder upon the water] and made them drink of it, and yet they did not protest at all.  But if the calf were to them in place of a god, it is surely not normal that a person should let his king and god be burnt in fire. (Ramban 32:1)


            The Ramban offers several textual supports for his interpretation. The people predicate their request on Moses' absence. They want a replacement for Moses, not a god. Their passivity upon Moses' return and destruction of the calf is also proof that they did not regard it as a god. Had they regarded it as a god they would certainly have protested.


            Why were the people so adamant about finding a replacement for Moses? How did they expect an idol to fill the gap left by the disappearance of Moses? Rabbi Hirsch (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Germany, 1808-1888) offers the following explanation:


It was the demigod nature of the man Moses which was the necessary link for their connection with God, and his presence the pledge for the Divine protection.  As then, they saw the initiative for the relation of Moses to God, in Moses, and not in God, they thought that even after the supposed departure of Moses, they would be able to exercise some similar compelling influence on God by means of some object which they would put in his place.  They had not yet completely and clearly absorbed the Jewish conception that Man has free access directly to God, without the necessity of any intermediary, and that the one and only necessary condition is acting in obedience to the behests of God. (Hirsch 32:1)


            The people's connection to God was through Moses. When they lost their leader, they feared their link with God was in jeopardy. They did not yet recognize the capacity of every individual to independently connect and communicate with God.


            Both the Bechor Shor (Rabbi Yoseph Ben Yitzchak Bechor Shor, France, 12 century) and the Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiya ben Manoach, France, mid-thirteenth century) agree with the Ramban that the function of the golden calf was to replace Moses as the leader of Israel. They interpret the word 'elohim' in the people's request, "make us a god" (32:1) not as a god but rather a judge and leader. They also offer an explanation for why Aaron agreed to make an idol, an act which involved great risk and danger of pure idolatry. Why not designate himself or some other influential figure as a replacement for Moses? The Chizkuni and the Bechor Shor (see 32:2) suggest that Aaron feared the possibility of a conflict, a power struggle, which would erupt upon Moses' return. He feared that the replacement for Moses would not step down when Moses would return and this would lead to a division of the people into rival camps, each supporting a different leader. He himself was unwilling to serve as leader so as not to betray Moses. He therefore decided to create a harmless figurehead which could be disposed of with little opposition when Moses would return. Otherwise, Aaron feared the people would designate a king to lead them instead of Moses (see Chizkuni 32:22).


            To summarize, the commentators disagree as to the nature of the request by the people for an idol. They can be divided into two main groups: those, such as Rashi and the Rasag, who regard the golden calf as a form of pure idolatry, and those, such as the Ibn Ezra, Kuzari, Ramban, Chizkuni, Bechor Shor and Shadal, who reject this idea. In the first group, Rashi is of the opinion that Aaron was coerced into making the idol while Rasag maintains that it was a plot to differentiate between the idolaters and those of true faith. In the latter group of commentators, the Ibn Ezra and the Kuzari posit that the calf was a corporeal manifestation of God while the Ramban, Chizkuni, and the Bechor Shor regard it as a replacement for Moses.


            We must now attempt to answer two questions according to each of the interpretations offered by the commentators:


1. Why did Moses command the Levites to go slay their kin, three thousand Israelites in total?


2. Why was God angry at Aaron as evidenced by the verse: "And the Lord was angry enough with Aaron to have destroyed him, so I also interceded for Aaron at that time" (Deuteronomy 9:20).


            According to Rashi and Rasag who regard the calf as pure idolatry, it is clear that the idolaters were deserving of a harsh punishment for rebelling against God. Why, though, was God angry at Aaron? Rashi interpreted that Aaron was forced into making the idol by the threatening mob who had killed Hur. According to this interpretation, perhaps Aaron was at fault for succumbing to the intimidation of the mob. According to Rasag, Aaron purposefully led the idolaters astray so as to prevent the majority from being influenced by their insurrection. The Rasag, cited by the Ibn Ezra, claims that Aaron's fault was that he himself didn't do away with the idolaters and waited for Moses to do so. It was his responsibility to stop the idolaters immediately. I would like to offer an alternative explanation for Aaron's culpability according to the interpretation of the Rasag. Aaron's fault might be his willingness to sacrifice and totally condemn the few for the sake of the many. Aaron should not have given up on the minority.


            The majority of the commentators are of the opinion that the golden calf was not idolatry but rather an image representing God or a replacement for Moses. What according to them was the reason for Moses' command to kill the worshipers of the calf? After all, they were not involved in idolatry. According to the Ibn Ezra, the majority did not commit idolatry but a few misunderstood and related to the calf as a god exclaiming, "This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Israel"(32:4). It was only the idolaters who were killed. Aaron was responsible for causing the misunderstanding which led to the idol worship. Even though this was obviously not his intention, he is nevertheless held responsible for the downfall of those who .


            The Ramban agrees that although this was not Aaron's or the people's original intention, they nevertheless committed idolatry. However, in contrast to the Ibn Ezra, the Ramban interprets that the majority were involved in theological and ideological idolatry but only the few actually performed an act of idolatry:


Now most of the people shared in the sin of the incident of the calf, for so it is written, "And all the people pulled off the golden pendants."  And were it not for this [participation of theirs in the incident], the anger [of God] would not have been directed against them to destroy them all.  For even though the numbers of those who were killed for this sin and those smitten by God were few [in comparison to the total number of the people, this was because] most of them shared in the sin only in their evil thought [and not in action]. (Ramban 32:7)


            It is due to their theological mutiny that God wished to destroy them all. However only those who committed physical idolatry by offering sacrifices to the calf were killed. The Ramban explains that Aaron was aware that the people began regarding the calf as a god. He therefore announced a feast to God to redirect their worship to the true God:


"When Aaron saw"(32:5)- "The meaning of this verse is that Aaron saw them set on evil, intent upon making the calf, and he arose and built an altar and proclaimed, "Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Eternal," so that they should bring offerings to the Proper Name of God upon the altar which he built to His Name, and that they should not build altars to the shameful thing [the calf], and that their intent in the offerings should be [to none] save unto the Eternal only. (Ramban 32:5)


            Although Aaron attempts to correct the horrendous mistake of the people he is not totally successful and is thus held responsible for the actions of those who had gone astray.


            Both the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban believe that those killed in the sin of the golden calf were guilty of idolatry. However certain commentators reject even this suggestion. They find it inconceivable that any of the Israelites could actually believe the calf to be a god. What then was the sin which brought about their death?


            The Chizkuni (32:8) offers two explanations of the sin of the golden calf. The first is that the people rebelled against Moses, the leader chosen by God and assigned themselves an alternative leader. The second explanation is that they transgressed the prohibition: "You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below" (20:4). According to the Chizkuni this prohibition, the second of the ten commandments, forbids not only the worship of a foreign God, but also the worship of God through an idol. Even though they were not worshipping another god they were nevertheless severely punished for disobeying God's command and making an image, an idol. Aaron intended the calf to be a temporary replacement for Moses, but the people regarded it as an image representing God, which is forbidden.


            [The Netziv (Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, Lithuania, 1817-1893) rejects this interpretation. In his opinion the second commandment prohibits only the worship of a different god and the belief that a different force governs the world. The prohibition of making an image as an intermediary for the worship of God was given only after the sin of the golden calf. Its source is the verse: "With me, therefore, you shall not make any gods of silver , nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold"(20:20)]


            Shadal offers a different explanation for the harsh punishment meted out in the sin of the golden calf. Those killed did not actually commit idolatry. However due to the close similarity between the actions performed in the sin of the golden calf and the actual prohibition of idolatry, Moses decided to punish them in the harshest of manners in order to frighten the people of Israel and insure that they would never commit idolatry as practiced amongst all the nations of the period. Moses, at this formative stage in the nation's development, wished to give a warning to future generations to beware of idolatry and to not imitate the ways of the idolatrous world.


            The Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, Italy, 1470-1550) offers a different explanation of Moses' anger at the people. He focuses on the verse which describes Moses' reaction upon descending from the Mountain:


"As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the DANCING, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands" (32:19).


            The Torah emphasizes that it was less the calf which angered Moses than the behavior of those worshipping the calf. Rashi cites a midrash on the word 'letzachek' (translated "to dance") describing the behavior of the people:


"Letzachek" - "This implies incest...and the shedding of blood...and here Hur was killed." (Rashi 32:6)


            The midrash describes a severe moral disintegration among the people to the point of the committing of the worst of sins. Even if we put aside this midrash and relate solely to Scripture, it is clear that the people were behaving in a wild and uncontrollable manner. They were immersed in revelry and behaving in a wanton fashion. Moses was more concerned by the culture of idolatry then by theological mutiny. The behavior associated with idolatry, the total loss of self-restraint and the absence of any rational moral guidance are the antithesis of the Torah's outlook. It is not the golden calf but rather the behavior accompanying it which cause Moses to shatter the tablets and punish those involved so severely.