Moses and the Calf of Many Earrings

Proper 23, Year A
Exodus 32:1-14,
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23,
Philippians 4:1-9,
Matthew 22:1-14

Commentary on Exodus 32:1-14

As with many Lectionary readings, this one is a part of a much larger passage, in fact the entire section this is a part of runs through Exodus 34, and is the story of the loss and renewal of the covenant. The section of that which is today’s reading is divided into three parts.

First, verses 1-6, is the dialogue between Aaron and the murmuring people while Moses is up on the mountain with Yahweh. Aaron, the great paragon of faith, plays the great wuss and capitulates, seemingly without an argument, when the people demand a god they can see and touch. (One wonders why Yahweh did not include him in the “burn ‘em” section later on, but whatever...)

Missing unfortunately from our reading today is Aaron’s all time classic defense of stupidity and idolatry, which occurs just a little further on. That is, when Moses returned from the mountain and saw the mess below, he asks him, “what did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?” And Aaron responds by saying it wasn’t his fault (of course), but his excuse is one of the best ever. He says all he did was to ask them for their gold, “so they gave it to me and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” (33:24). Yes, of course, he had nothing to do with it.

You might notice the little tidbit that the golden calf was made out of golden earrings from the women and children of the male leaders, but not from their own stash. Perhaps it was a connection with Genesis 35:4, where earrings were associated with foreign gods: “so they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak that was near Shechem.” On the other hand, maybe they were just sexist and greedy. Who knows?

The second section, verses 7-10, is mainly Yahweh’s speech to Moses up on the mountain in which Yahweh decides they are not worth it and it’s time to bring out the “burn ‘em” weapons. Notice that when Yahweh does this, the people—the ones whom Yahweh rescued from the fleshpots of slavery in Egypt, carried through the parting of the Nile River, fed with manna and quail in the desert, and did so by great power and a mighty hand, these people—when he describes them to Moses, he suddenly calls them “your people, whom you brought up....”

The third section, 11-14, is mainly Moses chewing out Yahweh for Yahweh’s facile willingness to
send hot burning wrath upon them—ingrates though they are. Notice that his appeals are not for the worthiness of the people (that would be a stretch) because both agree they are scum. But instead, Moses first, appeals to Yahweh’s vanity: “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that [Yahweh] brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? And then second, he makes the argument that, with all that has gone on so far with Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, etc., to bury the crowd now would ruin everything.

The arguments were evidently convincing because “Yahweh repented of the evil that he planned to bring on his people.”

Gene Tucker lists three themes for theological and homiletical reflection that can be found in this passage. If you move fast over them, you could probably construct a three-point sermon using all of them. On the other hand, at least two of them (one and three) could be developed more deeply into individual sermons.

(1) The sin of the people, always a popular topic for preachers. More than simply a violation of the first and second commandments, it was also a lack of trust, both in Moses’ leadership (v. 1) and in God (v. 4).
(2) Moses as mediator. He immediately intercedes for the people even though they obviously don’t deserve it. “Although there is no threat to him (v. 11b), he identifies with the people, the same ones who have grumbled about his leadership so many times.”[1]
(3) God’s capacity to repent. It is the ground of the prayer of confession, and the key factor that makes renewal of the covenant possible.
To this list, I could add:
(4) Idolatry, possibly implied in the first one, but could also stand alone.
(5) Covenant, or their lack of understanding of it.

Here are a few possible titles on the Exodus text. Some I made up, some I borrowed from other, far more creative, people. “Gold Rush,” “Who Done it?” “The Gold Standard,” “Idolatry 101” (implying they need a refresher on monotheism), “Let’s Take it One More Time, From the Top” (implying they need a refresher on the meaning of covenant), “Moses and the Calf of Many Earrings,” and finally, “And Out Came That Calf” (if you spend time on Aaron and his painfully bad excuse for caving to their desires for a second god to worship).

Exegetical Notes

Exodus 32:1-14

1When the people saw that Moses delayed[1] to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
2Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”
3So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold,[2] and cast an image of a calf;[3] and they said, “These are your gods,[4] O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.” 6They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being;[5] and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.[6]
7The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely;[7] 8they have been quick to turn aside from the way[8] that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’”
9The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
11But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember[9] Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven,[10] and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’”
14And the LORD changed his mind[11] about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenantb in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. 16The tablets were the work of God,[12] and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. 17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” 18 But he said,
“It is not the sound made by victors,
or the sound made by losers;
it is the sound of revelers that I hear.”
19 As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.
21 Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?” 22 And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 24 So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

[1] “Delayed”: Everett Fox (The Five Books of Moses New York: Schocken 1993) offers “shamefully late.” He says that the Hebrew word, boshesh, carries with it the connotation of causing shame/embarrassment.
[2] nrsv note: Or fashioned it with a graving tool; Meaning of Heb uncertain.
[3] “Calf”: Or young bull, a symbol of fertility in Canaan. [Fox, Moses] See also 1 Kings 12:28; Hosea 8:5. In ancient Near East iconography, the bulls figure prominently either as representations of gods, e.g. Bull El in the Ugaritic texts, or as animal thrones of deities standing upon their backs. [NJBC]
[4] “These are your gods ...”: In 1 Kings 12:28-30, Jeroboam I uses the same words to lead the northern kingdom into separation from God, an act that to the northern Deuteronomic historian nullifies the divine promise given earlier to Jeroboam’s dynasty: see 1 Kings 11:31-39.  [NJBC] (Northerners are to worship at Bethel and Dan.) Why “gods” and not “God”? (See also v. 8.) Most modern Jewish translations have god in the singular. Two Christian translations, the Jerusalem Bible and the Contemporary English Bible, also have god (and God) in the singular. The Septuagint and Vulgate translations have gods. “Why ‘gods’, when there is only one image? Because to speak of ‘gods’ in the plural is typical of pagans (see 1 Sam 4:7–8; 1 Kings 20:23); the sentence is probably taken from 1 Kings 12:28” (John Barton and John Muddiman, eds., Oxford Bible Commentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)].
[5] “Well-being”: The Hebrew is shalom, a word which includes in its meaning peace (with God and one another).  
[6] “Revel”: There may be a sexual connotation, as in Genesis 26:8 (when Isaac fondles Rebekah); 39:14, 17 (Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses Joseph of sleeping with her). This might support the idea of a calf being used as a divine symbol.
[7] “Acted perversely”: FoxMoses offers wrought ruin. He says that the Hebrew word, shahet, is often used to describe moral decay, e.g. in Genesis 6:11-12 (before the Flood): “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth.”
[8] “Turn aside from the way”: Probably meaning the way of God. Intertestamental Judaism called its system of laws Halakhah, from the Hebrew halokh, to go/walk. Later still, Christianity became known as The Way. [FoxMoses]
[9] “Remember”: The particular form of the Hebrew verb means remember to one’s credit.
[10] “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven”: Recalling the promise to Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 15:5; 22:17; 26:4.
[11] “The Lord changed his mind”: God is free to change an announced plan, as has already been done in saving Noah and others from the Flood (see Genesis 6:5-6) and will do in sparing Israel from a plague of locusts (see Amos 7:1-6).
[12] “The work of God”: Or God’s making, unlike the making of the calf.

[1] Gene M. Tucker, in Fred B. Craddock, Ed., Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year B (1993), p. 470.