Chapter 15: The Golden Calf: The Road to Idolatry

Moses Responds to the Golden Calf

When Aaron forges the golden calf, Moses is still off visiting with God atop Mount Sinai. God informs him of what his people are up to and urges him to return to them at once. God is angry. He threatens to destroy this “obstinate” people and start over, fashioning a new race with Moses as the prototype.4 But Moses reasons with God, asking Him to “turn from Your burning anger” (Exod. 32:12), and God changes His mind.

Moses comes down from the mountaintop to confront his people. He sees the calf and the Hebrews dancing around it, and he becomes enraged.

. . . Moses’ anger burned, and he threw the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf which they had made and burned it with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it over the surface of the water and made the sons of Israel drink it (Exod. 32:19–20).

Moses’s first response to the idolatry of his people is to throw down and smash the tablets of the law. This is fitting. Moses breaks the tablets, but the Hebrews broke the law by forging the golden calf. In shattering the tablets, Moses symbolically demonstrates the fallibility and impermanence of the law. Though carved in stone, it’s easily fractured. The law is no substitute for God’s direct guidance.

Moses’s second response is to burn the calf and scatter its powdered remains over water. Of course, there is no water in the wilderness of Sinai. It could only have come from Miriam’s Well (the rock). Therefore, Moses negates the toxic effect of the idol with its antidote, a miracle.

But the Hebrews haven’t yet appreciated the gravity of their transgression. Moses forces them to drink the mixture, to swallow it down, so they can literally digest the full impact of their deed. Should they vomit it back out, then the idol will serve as its own emetic, flushing the poison from the system. And because it made them sick, they’ll be very reluctant to try it again.