Poussin, N. (1633-34) The Adoration of the Golden Calf [oil on canvas]. London: National Gallery
From Exodus 32 in the bible.
The children of Israel had been in bondage in Egypt for over two hundred years. God called Moses, the deliverer, and told him that He had heard their cries and was about to deliver them (Exodus 3:6–8). During their time in Egypt, the Israelites had apparently begun to doubt the existence of the God their fathers worshiped because Moses anticipated some hard questions from them (Exodus 3:13). To help Moses prove the existence and power of God, he was given a number of miraculous signs to help the Israelites believe. After all of these miracles were done, including the ten plagues on the Egyptians, the Israelites came out of Egypt with a renewed belief in the God of their fathers. They passed through the Red Sea on dry land, while the Egyptian army was drowned, and they were brought to the mountain of God to receive His laws. ( Houdmann, M.S. (2002 – 2014). Golden Calf incident Exodus 32. retrieved from http://www.gotquestions.org/golden-calf.html)
While Moses was up on the mountain receiving God’s laws, the people were getting anxious down on the plain. Moses spent forty days (Exodus 24:18) up on the mountain with God, and by the end of that time, the people were beginning to think Moses had died or left them. The people urged Aaron, their temporary leader, to make gods for them to follow. Since they were accustomed to having visual representations of gods, this was the natural result of their thinking. Aaron took their gold earrings, which they had brought from Egypt, and melted them down to make a golden idol. The idol he crafted for them was a calf, but Aaron maintained the name of the Lord in connection with it (Exodus 32:5). He was merging the pagan practices they were familiar with and the worship of the God they were just beginning to be re-acquainted with. Aaron called the people together and told them that the golden calf was the god who delivered them from Egypt. The people offered sacrifices and then engaged in pagan rituals, including orgies (Exodus 32:25) to worship this new god. ( Houdmann, M.S. (2002 – 2014). Golden Calf incident Exodus 32.retrieved from http://www.gotquestions.org/golden-calf.html)
The bull was a symbol of strength and fertility, and the people were already familiar with bull gods from Egypt. Bulls were also typical animals of sacrifice, so to use their image as a symbol of the god being worshiped was a natural connection. Aaron’s bull was a mixture of the powerful God who delivered the people through mighty works and the pagan methods of worship that were borrowed from the people around them.
God certainly held the people accountable for their corruption (Exodus 32:7–10) and was ready to destroy them for their sin. Moses’ personal intercession on behalf of his people saved them. Moses indicated that Aaron at least should have known that his actions were sinful (Exodus 32:21) and didn’t let him off the hook. As with any other sin, the punishment is death, and the only proper response is repentance. Moses called for those who were on the Lord’s side to come stand with him (Exodus 32:26). The Levites stood with him and were commanded to go through the camp and kill anyone who persisted in the idolatry. Three thousand men were killed that day. The next day, Moses went up and confessed the people’s sins before God, asking for His forgiveness. God declared that the guilty ones would yet pay with their own deaths and be blotted out of His book. These were the same ones who, on the verge of entering the Promised Land, would deny God’s promises and be sent into the wilderness to die for their sins. Their children would be the ones to receive God’s promised blessings. ( Houdmann, M.S. (2002 – 2014). Golden Calf incident Exodus 32. retrieved from http://www.gotquestions.org/golden-calf.html)