After considerable time had passed and Moses had not returned from Mount Sinai, the people seem to have become impatient. Apparently through certain representatives, they requested or demanded that Aaron make “gods” for them to lead them, for they did not know what had happened to Moses, the man who had brought them out of Egypt. Aaron told them to bring to him the gold rings on the ears of their wives, sons, and daughters. Perhaps he reasoned that they might not be willing to part with their ornaments. If this was a stalling measure, it failed in dissuading the people from desiring to have a tangible representation of gods or of a deity because of then not having Moses with them as their visible leader. The people brought the gold earrings to Aaron, and he used the gold to construct the image of a calf, probably a young bull, and said to the people, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” (32:1-4; see the Notes section.)
While in Egypt, the Israelites had become contaminated with the idolatrous practices of the Egyptians who associated their deities with a great variety of animals, including cows and bulls. (Psalm 106:19-21; Ezekiel 20:7, 8; Acts 7:39-41) The people must have regarded the image of the calf as representing YHWH, for Aaron, after erecting an altar before the idol, announced that there would be a festival to YHWH the next day. Early in the morning of that day, the Israelites began to offer burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being or communion sacrifices. They sat down to eat meat from the sacrificed animals and drank, getting up thereafter to enjoy themselves in playing or merriment, probably wild dancing. (32:5, 6)
By engaging in idolatry in total disregard for YHWH’s command, the Israelites ceased to be his people. This may be why YHWH is quoted as telling Moses, “Go down, for your [not my] people have corrupted themselves.” After thus distancing himself from the Israelites, he also identified them as a “stiff-necked” or stubborn people. YHWH then granted Moses an opportunity to choose to act as a mediator for the Israelites, saying to him, “Let me be [or allow me], that my wrath may blaze against them and that I may consume them. And of you, I will make a great nation.” (32:7-10; see the Notes section.)
In response, Moses pleaded for his people on the basis that the Egyptians would wrongly conclude that YHWH, with evil purpose, had led them into the mountainous region to destroy them. He also made his appeal on the basis of the oath-bound promise YHWH had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel or Jacob, that their seed or descendants would become numerous and receive the land of Canaan as their inheritance. YHWH thereafter “repented of the evil” (or the punishment of annihilation he had threatened to bring upon the Israelites). This “repentance” was not a change of mind respecting an established predetermined purpose, for YHWH had granted Moses an opportunity to express himself about the outpouring of wrath against the Israelites and Moses had done so. (32:11-14)
When Moses descended from Mount Sinai, he carried in his hands the “two [stone (LXX)] tablets of the testimony” or the tablets on which the “Ten Words” or “Ten Commandments” were written on both surfaces. These tablets are identified as the “work of God” and the writing on them as the “writing of God.” (32:15, 16)
After meeting Joshua where Moses had left him much earlier at the time he continued his ascent on Mount Sinai, both men heard the sound of shouting among the Israelites. Joshua concluded that it was the “sound of war in the camp.” Moses, however, explained that it was not the sound of chanting over triumph or the sound of chanting over defeat but the “sound of chanting” or singing. The Septuagint rendering could be understood to indicate that it was the sound of singing under the influence of wine. (32:17, 18)
When Moses came close enough to the Israelite camp to see the golden calf and the people dancing, he became furious to the point of throwing down the two tablets he was carrying and breaking them at the foot of the mountain. He seized the golden calf, burned it, pulverized all that remained, scattered the particles upon the water, apparently of a nearby stream, and made the “sons [or people] of Israel” drink the water in which the residue of the golden calf floated. In effect, Moses made them drink the idol that they had treated as their god. In view of what he did with the golden calf, it could not have been fashioned from solid gold. It probably was constructed from wood and then overlaid with gold. Otherwise, Moses could not have burned it, for gold does not burn and would not have mixed with water. Even small particles of gold would have sunk to the bottom. Wood, however, would have been reduced to charcoal, leaving only tiny bits of gold on the charcoal after the burned image had been pulverized. Moses may well have had the assistance of others in destroying the golden calf, but everything would have taken place at his direction. (32:19, 20)
In view of his brother Aaron’s failing to restrain the people from engaging in idolatry, Moses asked him, “What did this people do to you that you have brought a great sin upon them?” Aaron was fully aware that he had permitted himself to cooperate in carrying out a very serious sinful act and could see that his brother was angry with him. Therefore, he addressed his brother respectfully as his “lord” and appealed to him not to let his anger blaze against him. Aaron’s next words reveal that he had succumbed to the pressure of the people, for he said to his brother, “You know the people that they are set on evil.” He related their demand for him to make “gods” for them to lead them, for they did not know what had become of Moses who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. Aaron, however, minimized his own role, telling Moses that, into the fire, he tossed the gold the people had brought to him at his request, and the calf came out. Obviously, the idol could not have fashioned itself in the fire, and Aaron would have known that his brother would not accept such a lame excuse. (32:21-24; see the Notes section.)
Moses saw that the people were out of control, exercising no restraint on their actions, for Aaron had allowed them to become persons who were out of control. The Hebrew wording that expresses the result from the lack of all restraint may be translated, “to their ridicule [or shame] among those rising up against them.” Those “rising up” could designate the enemies who knew that YHWH was the God of the Israelites. Therefore, when the Israelites acted without restraint in a rebellious way against him, they, as persons who despised their own God, made themselves objects of ridicule to or dishonored themselves before their foes. It is also possible that the “ones rising up” were persons who opposed the idolaters, and the idolaters were the ones who resorted to mockery against them or tried to shame them. (32:25) Modern translations make various meanings more explicit than is the Hebrew text. “They were a menace to any who might oppose them.” (Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition]) “They mocked anyone who opposed them.” (NLT, footnote) “And now they had made fools of themselves in front of their enemies.” (CEV) “Aaron had laid them open to the secret malice of their enemies.” (REB) “Moses saw that the people were running wild because Aaron had lost control — to the secret delight of their foes.” (NAB)
Moses positioned himself at the entrance of the camp and called out, “Whoever [is] for YHWH, to me [or to my side].” All the “sons of Levi,” men of the tribe to which Moses belonged, assembled themselves around him. He declared to them the word of “YHWH, the God of Israel,” saying, “Every man place his sword on his thigh [or side], go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.” This could not have been a command to engage in indiscriminate slaughter, for then even those with the weapons would have faced the possibility of death at the hands of fellow Levites. Targum Jonathan is specific in identifying those to be killed as “wicked workers of strange worship” or the chief promoters of idolatry. According to the Exodus account, the Levites did what had been conveyed to them through Moses, and about 3,000 men were slain on that day. (32:26-28)
Moses told the Levites to “fill their hand” for YHWH on that day (or empower themselves as persons set apart for his service), for they had cleared out of Israel serious transgressors, acting against men who were close to them (son and brother) or fellow members of the people of Israel. With the defiled members of the nation having been killed, YHWH could bestow his blessing. This did not mean that the rest of the nation was guiltless, and Moses reminded the people that they had committed a “great sin.” He, however, intended to ascend Mount Sinai to see whether he could obtain YHWH’s forgiveness for their sin. Before YHWH, Moses acknowledged that the people had gravely sinned when they made a “god of gold” for themselves. Moses’ desire was that the people would be granted forgiveness. If they were not pardoned for their sin, he even offered himself as the one to have his name blotted out of the book that YHWH had written. This “book” refers to YHWH’s record of all those whom he regards as approved persons. (32:29-32; see the Notes section.)
YHWH’s response to Moses made it clear that only those who had sinned against him would be blotted out of his book. He then instructed Moses to lead the Israelites to their final destination (the land of Canaan, the Promised Land). YHWH’s angel would go before Moses, guiding him on the way. Nevertheless, YHWH purposed to “visit” punishment upon the people for their sin. The Exodus account adds that YHWH sent a plague upon the people for their grave sin respecting the golden calf, but it provides no details about the nature of this plague. (32:33-35)
In verse 2, the Septuagint does not include a reference to the sons as having earrings.
Although Aaron is represented as responsible for making the golden calf (verse 4), he likely did not perform all the work but directed that it be done.
The Septuagint does not contain the words (verse 9) about the people being stiff-necked.
Apparently to excuse what Aaron did, Targum Jonathan adds information that is not based on the Exodus account. It says that he was afraid because Hur had been slain in front of him, suggesting that Hur strongly resisted the demands of the people and lost his life as a result.
Targum Jonathan does not attribute the fashioning of the golden calf to Aaron, but states that Satan entered into the gold which Aaron had cast into the fire, and the representation of a calf then came out.
The wording of verse 29 in the Septuagint may be understood to mean that the Levites had “filled” their hand on the “son” or “brother” when executing the men who were primarily responsible for the idolatry related to the golden calf.