Lassoing the Golden Calf - Torah portion Ki Tisa

Bronze bull, Samaria, c. 1200 BCE
When I go through the Golden Calf narrative through the end of Exodus 34, I tend to find myself fairly disoriented. It's a seeming jumble of retribution, beseechment and forgiveness which I have a very hard time getting straight in my head. So for my own purposes (and I hope it will help you as well), I'm going to outline the events in order, just to give a bird's eye view. Then I'll identify the narrative oddities I find so confusing, followed by a few thoughts on that. After that, I'll mention the source-critical approach and how that (at least for me) doesn't address the narrative confusion. And I'll wrap up by bringing up some more thematic questions about the Golden Calf itself. No "sermons" in this piece, no tidy answers. Mostly a lot of questions. But sometimes it helps just to organize what you don't know, "lasso the calf" as it were.


The following covers the Golden Calf episode through the end of the portion (Ex 32-34):

1. GOLDEN CALF - Moses gone, the people demand Aaron to make them "gods to go before them," and then declare about the calf that "these are the gods that brought you up from the land of Egypt," after which Aaron makes a festival to YHVH around the calf (Ex 32:1-6).

2. YHVH'S THREAT - YHVH tells Moses that the people have made a molten calf and that he wants to destroy them. (32:7-10)

3. MOSES BESEECHES - Moses beseeches on the people's behalf, and God relents (32:11-14).

4. MOSES DESCENDS - Moses descends with the tablets, Joshua hears the sound of war, Moses says he hears singing, no mention of the calf. (32:15-18)

5. SMASHES TABLETS - Moses sees the people's revelry with their molten calf and gets angry, smashes the tablets, turns the calf into powder and makes Israel drink it, then chastises Aaron. (32:19-25)

6. SLAUGHTER OF 3000 - Moses calls up those people "for YHVH," the Levites respond, slaughter 3000 kinsmen, and receive a blessing. (32:26-29)

7. MOSES BESEECHES - Moses tells YHVH that the people made a calf and asks for forgiveness or else that YHVH wipe Moses out of his book. (32:30-32)

8. YHVH SMITES - YHVH says those who've sinned will be wiped out, that he'll send his angel to go before the people, then smites the people with a plague. (32:33-35)

9. ANGEL TO LEAD - YHVH tells Moses to lead the people, that he'll send an angel to drive out the Canaanites but won't go himself lest he destroy the people. The people mourn, and YHVH tells Moses to tell the people it's because YHVH will destroy you otherwise. The people depart Horev. (33:1-6)

10. MOSES' TENT - Moses would pitch his tent outside the camp, YHVH's cloud of glory rested on it, Joshua stayed inside, and the people would bow in reverence. (33:7-11)

11. MOSES BESEECHES - Moses demands that YHVH himself bring them to the land, YHVH agrees. (33:12-17)

12. REQUEST TO SEE YHVH - Moses asks to see YHVH's glory, and YHVH says he'll pass by Moses in the cleft of a rock. (33:18-23)

13. CARVE TWO TABLETS - YHVH tells Moses to carve two tablets (like the first), which YHVH would write on, and to come up to Sinai the next morning, which Moses does. (34:1-4)

14. YHVH REVEALED TO MOSES - YHVH descends, passes by Moses, and declares his attributes of mercy-but-yet-not-erasing-sin. (34:5-8)

15. MOSES BESEECHES - Moses again asks YHVH to lead the people himself. (34:9)

16. COVENANT - YHVH responds by setting forth a covenant of Ten Statements (Ritual Decalogue). (34:10-26)

17. TABLETS OF TEN STATEMENTS - YHVH tells Moses to write the Statements of the covenant, and after 40 days not eating or drinking, "he" (Moses, YHVH?) writes the Ten Statements on the tablets. (34:27-28)

18. MOSES' VEIL - Moses descends with the tablets, the skin on his face beaming, which frightened the people, so Moses wore a veil from then on when speaking to them. (34:29-35)


After getting a more concise picture of events, I realized what was bothering me about the text:
  • Moses beseeches YHVH not to destroy the people (#3), and yet he gets angry (#5) and seemingly on his own accord (no order from YHVH issued) commands the slaughter of 3000 people (#6).

  • YHVH relents about destroying the people (#3), then smites them with a plague (#8).

  • YHVH tells Moses that the people made a calf (#2), then Moses tells YHVH that the people made a calf, as if YHVH didn't know (#7).

  • Moses is told about the calf (#2) and yet seems not to know about it when talking to Joshua (#4).

  • Moses AGAIN beseeches YHVH not to destroy the people (#7), yet right AFTER slaughtering 3000 people (#6).

  • YHVH says he won't lead the people (#9), yet the next part deals with YHVH regularly appearing at Moses' tent, albeit outside the camp (#10).

  • YHVH agrees to lead the people instead of sending an angel (#11), yet Moses feels the need to ask again (#15).

  • Moses is told that YHVH would write on the tablets (#13), yet later (see 34:27) the verse on the face of it might imply that Moses wrote them (#17).


It occurs to me that a number of these difficulties relate to a specific section of text, my #2-3 above (Ex 32:7-14), and if we were to just take out that section, it would clear a lot of things up. Without it, Moses would come down from Sinai, not knowing what was going on, making his conversation with Joshua make more sense. Then he'd be legitimately shocked and angry upon seeing the people with the calf, as opposed to having already been told by YHVH about it and begging forgiveness for it. In that context, it would follow that he'd smash the tablets, and command the slaughter of the perpetrators. Again, we wouldn't have Moses seeming not to know what's going on after he was already told, later telling YHVH about the sin after YHVH already told him about it, and so on.

Now, we're still stuck with Moses asking for YHVH's forgiveness after he'd already slaughtered 3000 people. But one could argue that he was begging YHVH not to destroy ALL the people - after all, he'd already killed the perpetrators themselves. However, YHVH subsequently sends a plague against the people, which would be odd if the perpetrators had already been done in. I'm not sure how that resolves, unless the kinsmen the Levites slaughtered were of their own tribe, and YHVH struck the other tribes, or unless the 3000 didn't represent all the perpetrators, but was more of a retaliation. What's not plausible is to say that the plague was a collective punishment (i.e. more widespread than just the transgressors), since 32:33 makes it explicit that YHVH was going to strike only the perpetrators.

So while there are some other narrative difficulties, by taking out Ex 32:7-14 at least the story would be considerably more comprehensible.


But what does it mean "if we took out" a section of the text? I use that language because Biblical scholarship asserts a number of sources in the text. In the narrative I've outlined, chapters 32-33 are generally attributed to the E source, with 34 attributed to J followed by P (starting at 34:29). Often times, the text flows smoothly when you take out source X that's sitting in the middle of source Y, because Y1 is then "reconnected" with Y2. Point being, I'd expect Ex 32:7-14 to have been that "source X" sitting in the middle of "source Y," since it seems to be interrupting the flow and causing contradictions in the text. Yet the scholarship consensus (at least as articulated by R. E. Friedman) attributes all of chapter 32 to the E source.

In fact, if anything, the source-critical divisions here feel awkward to me. Themes in the E source are picked up and addressed explictly in the J source. For instance, Ex 33 (E source) says that YHVH would "pass in front of Moses." In Ex 34 (J source), YHVH in fact "passes in front of Moses." In Ex 33 (E source), YHVH says he won't be in their midst and lead them. In 34 (J source), Moses begs YHVH to stay in their midst and lead them. (Granted, it's the second time Moses makes this request, and after YHVH already agreed to lead them, which if they were two different sources might explain that redundancy, but what I'm pointing out here is the continuity of the theme.) Also, YHVH refers to Israel as a stiff-necked people in 32:9, 33:3, 33:5 (E source), and Moses' plea to have mercy on them in Ex 34:9 (J source) picks up on that same "stiff-necked" language, and refers to their "sin." There's nothing in the J story (that I've identified) which indicates any major "sin" or the need to forgive a stiff-necked people. It follows from the Golden Calf story, which is supposedly from a different source.

R. E. Friedman (The Bible with Sources Revealed, note on p. 176) explains that the redactor of the text "may have merged the J and E accounts," meaning that at one point there were two full stories, but they simply edited out the redundant parts. Hard to say. Sometimes source criticism has a lot of explanatory power. But in this case, and I admit to being a layman here, I can only say that where I "expected" there to be a switch in sources, there isn't. And were I didn't expect it, there is.


Besides the issue of trying to make chronological sense of the story, there are a plethora of interesting questions about the Golden Calf narrative itself. First off, what did the people think they were accomplishing? Moses leaves, so make a molten god to lead them? They would want a calf to lead them, but YHVH sending his angel to lead them is a cause for mourning? Plus, there's a whole connection between this story and 1 Kings 12:28, where Jeroboam sets up golden calves in Beit El and Dan, and says "Behold your gods, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt," which is nearly verbatim what's said in the Exodus Golden Calf episode. There's the aspect of the plural "gods" used in the story, as opposed to "god." There's the question of how the people would declare this calf the god(s) "that brought you up out of the land of Egypt" (Ex 32:4), when immediately before they referred to Moses as "the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt" (Ex 32:1). Even the switch from "us" to "you" - it's all ripe for investigation!

But time being short, I'll leave that investigation for another time.