The Sin of the Golden Calf
Exodus 32:1-7
And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron…

Disastrous effects followed in the camp of Israel on the withdrawal of Moses' to the mount. Moved as by a common impulse, the people "gathered themselves together," and demanded of Aaron that he should make them "a god," i.e. an idol, that it might go - be carried in procession - before them (cf. Amos 5:26). It was a case of "hand joined in hand" to do iniquity (Proverbs 11:21). Many, doubtless, looked on the movement with dismay and horror (cf. ver. 26); but their voices were drowned in the general clamour. The "lewd fellows of the baser sort" (Acts 17:5) had, for the moment, the upper hand in the host, and swept all before them. Intimidated by the show of violence, Aaron weakly acceded to the people's request. The whole incident strikingly illustrates the commanding space which must have been filled in the camp of Israel by the personality of Moses, and affords some measure of the turbulent and refractory dispositions of the multitude whom ordinarily he had to deal with. It sheds light, also, on the greatness of Moses' character, set as that is in contrast with the weakness and irresolution exhibited by Aaron. Consider -

I. THE PEOPLE'S TRIAL (ver. 1). Every situation in which we can be placed has its elements of trial. These are purposely mingled with our lot

(1) that dispositions may be tested, and

(2) that life may be to us in fact, what it is needful that it should be for the proper development of character, viz. a succession of probations. The trial of the Israelites consisted:

1. In the delay in the return of Moses. Moses had disappeared in the mountain. Weeks had passed without his return. It had not been told the people how long his absence was to last. This constituted a trial of faith and patience. It gave colour to the allegation that Moses had perished - that he had gone from them for ever. Cf. what is said in Luke 12:37-49 of the uncertainty left to rest upon the time of the Lord's second advent. Faith has its trial here also. Because Christ's coming is delayed, there are those who would fain persuade themselves that he will not return at all (2 Peter 3:4).

2. In the scope given by his absence for the manifestation of character. On this, again, compare Luke 12:37-49. It was the first time since the departure from Egypt that the people had been left much to themselves. Hitherto, Moses had always been with them. His presence had been a check on their wayward and licentious tendencies. His firm rule repressed disorders. Whatever inclinations some of them may have felt for a revival of the religious orgies, to which, perhaps, they had been accustomed in Egypt, they had not ventured, with Moses in the camp, to give their desires publicity. The withdrawal of the lawgiver's presence, accordingly, so soon after the conclusion of the covenant, was plainly of the nature of a trial. It removed the curb. It left room for the display of character. It tested the sincerity of recent professions. It showed how the people were disposed to conduct themselves when the tight rein, which had hitherto kept them in, had been a little slackened. It tested, in short, whether there were really a heart in them to keep all God's commandments always (Deuteronomy 5:29). Alas! that in the hour of their trial, when so splendid an opportunity was given them of testifying their allegiance, their failure should have been so humiliating and complete.


1. The sin itself. They had made for them "a molten calf" (ver. 4), which, forthwith, they proceeded to worship with every species of disgraceful revelry (ver. 6). The steps in the sin are noted in the narrative.

(1) They approached Aaron with a demand to make them "a god." The light, irreverent way in which, in connection with this demand, they speak of their former leader - "As for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wet not what is become of him" (ver. 1) - betrays an extraordinary levity, ingratitude, and callousness of nature.

(2) They stripped themselves of their ornaments of gold for the making of the "god" (ver. 3). They did this gladly. People, as a rule, spend freely on their vices. They are not so ready to part with their valuables for the service of Jehovah.

(3) They mixed up their calf worship with the service of the true God. On the supposed connection with the ox- and calf-worship of Egypt, see the exposition. The calf made by Aaron was evidently intended as a symbol of Jehovah (ver. 4). The result was an extraordinary piece of syncretism. An altar was built before the calf, and due honours were paid to it as the god which had brought Israel out of Egypt (vers. 4, 5). A feast was proclaimed to Jehovah (ver. 5). When the morrow came, the people "offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings," only, however, to engraft on the sacrificial festivities the rites of the filthiest heathen worships (ver. 6; cf. ver. 25). It was their own passions which they sought to gratify; but, in gratifying them, they still endeavoured to keep up the semblance of service of the revealed God. Strange that the wicked should like, if possible, to get the cloak of religion even for their vices. But light and darkness will not mingle. The first requirement in worship is obedience. "To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams" (1 Samuel 15:22). "The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord" (Proverbs 15:8). It was monstrous to propose to worship the spiritual Jehovah, who had expressly forbidden the use of graven images in his service, under the symbol of a calf, albeit the idol was of gold. It was worse than monstrous, it was hideous, to employ the name of the Holy One to cover the shameless and revolting orgies with which their calf-worship was associated.

(4) They were eager in this worship. They rose up early in the morning to engage in it (ver. 6). Would that God's people were as eager in his service as these servants of Belial were in the service of their idol!

2. The sin in its generic character. The sin at Sinai was a case

(1) of sense reasserting its supremacy over faith. "As for this Moses, we wot not what has become of him" (ver. 1).

(2) Of carnal tendencies regaining the ascendancy over temporary religious impressions.

(3) Of engrained evil habits resuming their sway after having been for a time forcibly kept in check. The incident shows that nothing short of a thorough regeneration, of a radical change of heart, can be relied on to keep men in the way of good. It is the heart that needs renewal. David seized the matter at the root when he was led to pray, "Create in me a clean heart" etc. (Psalm 51:10). It was the want of this thorough renewal which was the bane of Israel (Deuteronomy 31:27-30).

3. Aggravations of the sin. The circumstances under which the sin was committed added greatly to its enormity.

(1) It was a sin committed immediately after solemn covenant with God. The transactions recorded in ch. 24. were not yet forty days old. The people had literally heard God speaking to them. They had acknowledged the solemnity of the situation by entreating Moses to act as mediator. They had formally, and under awful impressions of God's majesty, pledged themselves to life-long obedience. Yet within this brief space of time, they had thrown off all restraints, and violated one of the main stipulations of their agreement. A more flagrant act of impiety it would be difficult to imagine.

(2) It was a sin committed while Moses was still in the mount transacting for them. He had gone to receive the tables of the law. He had been detained to receive instructions for the making of the sanctuary - that God might dwell among them. A solemn time, truly! While it lasted, the people might surely have been depended on to conduct themselves with at least ordinary propriety. Instead of this, witness their mad gambols round their calf. The very time when, of all others, their frame of mind ought to have been devout, sober, prayerful, was the time chosen for the perpetration of this great iniquity.

III. AARON'S SHARE IN THE TRANSGRESSION. This, it is to be noted, the narrative makes no attempt to conceal. It tells the story with perfect impartiality. The Bible, like its author, is without respect of persons. If Aaron leads the people astray, he must, like others, submit to have the truth told about him. This is not the way of ordinary biographies, but it is the way of Scripture. It is one mark of its inspiration. It is a guarantee of its historic truthfulness. The conduct of Aaron cannot be justified; but suggestions may be offered which help to render intelligible.

1. Aaron was placed in a situation in which it was very difficult to know exactly what to do. A mob confronted him, evidently bent on gratifying its dangerous humour, its demand was peremptory. To resist its will was to run the risk of being stoned. The temptation which, in these circumstances, naturally presented itself to a timid mind, and to which Aaron yielded, was to put the people off, and endeavour to gain time by some show of concession. In the interval, Moses might return, and the difficulty would be solved. See the mistake of this policy. It was

(1) wrong. It involved a sacrifice of principle. It was temporising.

(2) Weak. Had Aaron been brave enough to take a firm stand, even at the risk of losing his life for it, not improbably he might have crushed the movement in its bud. As it was, his sanction and example gave it an impetus which carried it beyond the possibility of being subsequently controlled.

(3) Self-defeating. A temporising policy usually is. The favourable chance on which everything has been staked, does not turn up. Moses did not return, and Aaron, having yielded the preliminary point, found himself hopelessly committed to a bad cause.

2. Aaron may have thought that by requiring the women of the camp to part with their personal ornaments, he was taking an effectual plan to prevent the movement from going further (ver. 2). They might, he may have reasoned, be very willing to get gods, and yet not be willing to make this personal sacrifice to obtain them. If this was his idea, he was speedily undeceived. The gold ornaments came pouring in (ver. 3), and Aaron, committed by this act also, had no alternative but to proceed further. "He received them at their hands," etc. (ver. 4).

3. Aaron may have thought that, of the two evils, it would be better to put himself at the head of the movement, and try to keep it within bounds, than to allow it to drift away, without any control whatever. He may have argued that to allow himself to be stoned would not make matters better, but would make them greatly worse. On the other hand, by yielding a little, and placing himself at the head of the movement, he might at least succeed in checking its grosser abuses. This is a not uncommon opiate to conscience, in matters involving compromise of principle. It is the idea of the physician who humours a mad patient, in the hope of being able to retain some control over him. The step was a false one. Even with madmen, as wiser doctors tell us, the humouring policy is not the most judicious. With a mob, it is about the worst that could be adopted.


1. The strength of evil propensities in human nature.

2. The fleetingness of religious impressions, if not accompanied by a true change of heart.

3. The degrading character of idolatry. Sin bestialises, and the bestial nature seeks a god in bestial form (cf. Romans 1:21-32). "Men," says Xenophanes, "imagine that the gods are born, are clothed in our garments, and endowed with our form and figure. But if oxen or lions had hands, and could paint and fashion things as men do, they too would form the gods after their own similitude, horses making them like horses, and oxen like oxen." But we have seen that men also can fashion their gods in the similitude of oxen. "They that make them are like unto them" (Psalm 115:8).

4. Mammon-worship is a worship of the golden calf. Cf. Carlyle on "Hudson's Statue" ("Latter-Day Pamphlets"). - J.O.

Parallel Verses
KJV: And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.

WEB: When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don't know what has become of him."

The Right Use of Amusements
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