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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
A portable image overlaid with gold, made by Aaron at Mount Sinai (Exodus 32). As the text stands, it narrates how Moses had gone up into the mountain to receive the Ten Words, and remained forty days. When the people found his return delayed they asked Aaron to make for them gods which shouldgo before them. At Aaron's request they took off the gold rings worn by the women and children in the camp. These he took and "fashioned it with a graving tool and made it a molten calf." An altar was built before it and a feast to Yhwh celebrated.
Meantime Moses in the mountain had been warned by Yhwh of the defection of the people, and he now came down. Much surprised and angered when he found what was actually going on, he cast the tables of the Ten Words to the ground and broke them. He took the calf—which seems to have really been of wood overlaid with gold—and burned it till the wood was charred, and then pulverized the gold and strewed it on the water of the brook they drank from. Moses then demanded of Aaron an explanation of his conduct, and received one truly Oriental in character (see Exodus 32:22 to 24). Then, seeing that the people were "broken loose," Moses called for all on the side of Yhwh to come and stand by him, whereupon all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together, and at the command of Moses went throughout the camp and slew 3,000 men—apparently all those that had been leaders in the image-worship. At Moses' command these avengers then gathered to receive the blessing of Yhwh.
On the morrow Moses assembled the people, and told them that they had grievously sinned, but that possibly he could atone for them. He then prayed that he might himself be punished and the sin of the people forgiven, and was told by Yhwh to go on and lead the people forward; that those who had sinned should bear their own sin, and that one day He would punish them.
—In Rabbinical Literature:
Next to the fall of man, the worship of the golden calf is, in rabbinical theology, regarded as the sin fraught with the direst consequences to the people of Israel. "There is not a misfortune that Israel has suffered which is not partly a retribution for the sinof the calf" (Sanh. 102a). The very seriousness of the offense leads the Rabbis to find circumstances extenuating the guilt of the people, and to apologize for Aaron's part in the disgraceful affair. The initiative was taken not by the Israelites, but by the Egyptians who had joined them at the time of the Exodus (Exodus 12:38), and who were the source of a great deal of trouble to Moses and the Israelites (Numbers 11:4); for the Egyptians, when the time fixed for Moses' descent from the mountain had expired, came in a body—forty thousand of them, accompanied by two Egyptian magicians, Yanos and Yambros, the same who imitated Moses in producing the signs and the plagues in Egypt—to Aaron, and told him that it was the sixth hour of the fortieth day since Moses left, the hour he named for his return (a play upon the word , Exodus 32:1= , "the six [hours] have come"), and that Moses had not yet returned: he would never come. Satan took advantage of the opportunity, and brought gloom and confusion into the world to alarm the people. Then he told them Moses was dead, as the sixth hour had come and he had not arrived. Seeing he was not believed, he showed them a bed in the mountain with Moses in it. This convinced them that Moses was really dead; and they demanded that Aaron make them a god (Shab. 89a; Tan., Ki Tissa, 19). Hereupon Hur stepped in and rebuked them for their ingratitude to the God who had performed so many miracles for them. He was at once put to death, and Aaron was threatened with the same fate. The latter saw that he must accede to their request, but he sought a device whereby the execution of their demand would either be made impossible or at least be delayed until Moses came; for he was not ensnared by the wiles of Satan. So he ordered them to bring the golden ornaments of their wives; knowing that the women would be more grateful to God, and would refuse to part with their jewels for idolatrous purposes. His expectation was realized. Their jewels could not be obtained; and the men had to give their own. Aaron had no choice but to put the gold into the fire. A calf came out alive and skipping!
One explanation is that this was due to the magical manipulation of the Egyptian sorcerers. Another is more ingenious: On the night of the Exodus, Moses searched all Egypt for Joseph's remains, but could not find them. At last Serah, the daughter of Asher, pointed out to him the place in the Nile where the Egyptians had sunk an iron chest containing Joseph's bones (Tan., c.; Ex. R. 41:7). Moses took a splinter, wrote on it the words ("Come up, ox"; Joseph being compared to an ox; see Deuteronomy 33:17), and threw it into the water, whereupon the chest rose to the surface (Tan., Beshallaḥ,; Tosef., Soṭah, 4:7; Soṭah 13a). This splinter was secured by Micah, and when Aaron cast the gold into the fire, he threw the splinter after the gold, and as a result a calf came out (compare see MICAH).
Another reason given for this aberration of the people is that when God came down on Mount Sinai to give the Law, he appeared in the chariot with the four beasts of Ezekiel. These the people saw; and it was one of them, the ox (Ezekiel 1:10), that they made an image of and worshiped. This was one of the pleas Moses made to palliate the offense of the people (Ex. R. 43:8).
The tribe of Levi did not join in the worship of the calf (Yoma 66b). If all the people had abstained from worshiping it, the tables of stone would not have been broken, and as a result the Law would never have been forgotten in Israel, and no nation could have had any power over the Hebrews ('Er. 54a).
The mysterious way in which Aaron described the origin of the golden calf gave rise to superstitious beliefs; and it was ordained by the Rabbis that this part of the account of the golden calf (Exodus 32:21-25,35) should be read at public worship in the original, but should not be translated by the "meturgeman" (Meg. 4:10; Tosef. Meg.  36; Yer. ib. 4:75c; Bab. ib. 25b).
In the Koran.
—In Mohammedan Literature:
The story of the golden calf is mentioned in the Koran (suras 20:88 et seq., 7:149 et seq.) as follows: "Thereupon [after he had received the Law on the mountain] Moses returned to his people, angry and afflicted, and said: '. . . Did the time [of my absence] seem too long to you, or did you desire that wrath from your Lord should fall upon you because you have broken the promise given to me?' They answered: 'We have not broken our promise given to you of our own authority, but we were made to bring loads of the ornaments of the people, and we cast them [into the fire], and Al-Samiri did likewise.' And he brought forth unto them a living, bellowing calf. And they said: 'This is your God and the God of Moses, but he hath forgotten him.' . . . Moses said: 'O Aaron, what hindered you, when you saw them do wrong, from following me [to the mountain]; have you been disobedient to my order?' Aaron answered: 'Oh, son of my mother, do not lay hold of my beard or my head—behold the people made me weak and almost murdered me.' And Moses said: 'How about you, O Samiri?' He answered: 'I saw what they did not see, and I took a handful [of dust] from the footsteps of the messenger and cast it. Thus did my mind guide me.' Moses said: 'Go away, and this shall be your punishment in life that you say [to every one you meet]: "Touch me not"; and a threat is awaiting you which you shall not escape. And see, your idol which you have worshiped, we shall burn and throw the ashes into the sea'" (compare also suras 2:48-51,86,87; 4:152).
When Moses departed for Sinai he made Aaron his deputy. During the absence of Moses, Aaron reminded the people that the ornaments which they had were stolen booty, and told them that they must bury them in a common hole until Moses should decide what was to be done with them. This they did. Samiri threw a clod of the earth, which the horse of the messenger Gabriel had thrown up, on the spot where they had hidden their ornaments; and thereupon God brought forth the calf (Tabari).
Samiri's Identity with Samael.
This Arabic legend, in describing the fate of Samiri as that of a man compelled to wander, barred from all intercourse with his fellow-men, whom hehimself is bound to warn by his pitiful cry, "Touch me not," to come not near him, seems to be one of the earliest forms into which was cast the later story of the Wandering Jew current among Christians. Yet on the whole this assumption is inadmissible. Samiri according to Geiger, is identical with Samael. According to the Arabic commentators, however, and, lately, according to Fränkel ("Z. D. M. G." 56:73, with especial reference to Hosea 8:5), Samiri is indebted for his name to the fact that he belonged to the Samaritan sect. Mohammed knew, perhaps, how much this sect was hated, and (according to the report of an old but evidently lost Midrash) made the seducer a Samaritan in spite of all chronology. So Baidawi (also Palmer's translation of this sura) holds him to have been "the Samaritan." This accounts at once both for the rôle here ascribed to him and the fate meted out to him. Mohammed carried in his mind many rabbinical conceits, but in a much confused form. He had an indistinct impression of the rabbinical prejudices against the Samaritans, among which the fact that they worshiped an animal idol and poured out libations to it on their holy mountain was not the least (Yer. 'Ab. Zarah 5:44d, at foot; Ḥul. 6a). But the fact that the idol imputed to the Samaritans was a dove and not a calf became confused in his recollection of hearsay rabbinical stories. It was enough for him to know that the Samaritans were looked upon by the Jews as idolaters or even worse (Yer. Ta'anit 4:66b; Yer. M. Ḳ. 3:83b, middle), to make the Samaritan the arch-seducer, and artificer, by "magic," of the idol. That the Jews would hold no intercourse with the Samaritans may also have been among the disjointed fragments of Mohammed's Biblical and rabbinical lore. Hence under the decree his "Samaritan" was condemned to wander and never to permit another to defile himself by close contact.
That not Aaron, but another, was the real culprit in the making of the calf is also reported in a rabbinical account (Sanh. 102, 2), according to which Micah (Judges 17 et seq.) was its maker. The threatening of Aaron and the bleating of the calf are likewise founded on rabbinical sources (Sanh. 5; Pirḳe R. El. 45).
Before the expulsion of Samiri, Moses (in accordance with Exodus 32:20 et seq.) ordered the calf to be reduced to dust and the powder mixed with their drinking-water (sura 2:87). When they drank the water it caused them great pain, and they called upon Moses for help. Then Moses told them to slay one another (sura 2:51). Thus 70,000 were killed. The Lord sent an intense darkness to prevent their seeing one another, so that recognition of the corpses should not induce them to forbear ("jalal al-din"). Finally, the crying of the women and children moved the heart of Moses, who prayed to God to stop the murdering; and his prayer was answered immediately.
- Geiger, Was Hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume Aufgenommen? pp. 165-168;
- Weil, Biblische Legenden der Muselmänner, pp. 169, 172;
- M. Grünbaum, Neue Beiträge zur Semitischen Sagenkunde, p. 169.
As the Exodus narrative stands, it is clearly composite. For example, in verse 7 Moses is warned that the people have sinned; and in verses 9 to 12 he seems to understand clearly what their sin is, and yet in verses 16 to 19 he is greatly surprised at what has occurred. Again, verses 7 to 12 represent Moses as praying for the sinners before he came down from the mount, while verses 30 to 34 represent him as praying practically the same prayer the day after the destruction of the image was over. Palpably the two are of different authorship. Again, verses 25 to 29 describe the vengeance that was executed on the sinners, while verse 34 regards it as still future. Critics therefore regard the narrative as made up of strata from two documents (Jahvist and Elohist), though they do not altogether agree as to the points of division. The main stratum of the story is, however, thought to come from the Ephraimitish writer (Elohist), though there are a sufficient number of points in the story taken from the Jahvist to show that his work also contained the narrative.
The purpose of the original story seems to have been, as Budde thinks, to account for the selection of the tribe of Levi for the priesthood. A great crisis in the worship had arisen in which the Levites had stood for Yhwh, and punished all that opposed themselves, so that they were consecrated to the service of the priesthood (LEVI (2) and the literature cited below). Many critics see in it a polemic against the calf-worship of Beth-el and Dan, and no doubt an Ephraimitish writer of the prophetic circles of the time of Hosea would shape the tale with a view to the religious reforms in which he was interested. It is probable that at this time there was introduced into the story the view that the offense punished by the Levites was the making of a calf; but it also seems likely that there underlies the present narrative a much earlier form of the tale, a form that pictured some other crisis in which the Levites distinguished themselves and thus were elected as the priestly tribe.
- Kuenen, Hexateuch, p. 251, London, 1886;
- Kittel, History of the Hebrews, 1:199 et seq., London, 1895;
- Bacon, Triple Tradition of the Exodus, pp. 127-138, Hartford, 1894;
- Budde, Religion of Israel to the Exile, pp. 85 et seq., New York, 1899;
- Carpenter and Harford-Battersby, Hexateuch, 2:130-132, London, 1900;
- and the commentaries on Exodus, especially those of Dillmann and Holzinger.
These files are public domain.
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Calf, Golden'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/c/calf-golden.html. 1901.