Unmasking the Golden Calf: Who, Why, and How?

'Worship of the Golden Calf' by Filippino Lippi (1457-1504). Accurately depicting an animated calf, as opposed to a simple golden idol.

‘Worship of the Golden Calf’ by Filippino Lippi (1457-1504), accurately depicting an animated calf, as opposed to a simple golden idol.

This week’s parasha is Ki Tisa, which is most famous for its description of the Golden Calf incident. Following the mass revelation at Mt. Sinai, Moses ascended the mountain for forty days and forty nights during which time he communed with God. The Torah tells us that Moses neither ate nor drank throughout this period, and was solely immersed in divinity. The forty days ended with Moses receiving the Two Tablets, with the text of the Ten Commandments engraved upon them. As Moses descends to deliver the Tablets – essentially a contract between God and the Israelites – the people are mired in revelry around a disgraceful idol. Moses shatters the Tablets immediately (others say they were suddenly too heavy for him to hold, and fell out of his hands).

The first question that most people ask is: How was this incident even possible? How does a people who had just forty days earlier witnessed an incredible Godly revelation first-hand now worship a grotesque idol? How does a people who directly heard God’s word go on to break his command prohibiting idol worship less than six weeks later? What were they thinking? Moreover, how is it that Aaron, the very brother of Moses, and the one destined to be the High Priest, was the one who created the Golden Calf?

Why the Calf?

Since Moses’ arrival in Egypt, the Israelites experienced nothing but spiritual ascent. First, they witnessed Moses’ wonder-working directly before them. Then, they lived through ten miraculous plagues, each progressively more astounding. Following these, they were liberated from their slavery, and experienced an even greater salvation and miracle at the Sea. The nation then reached Mt. Sinai and spent several days purifying themselves before being witnesses to the greatest divine revelation in the history of humanity. And right after this, Moses left them to wait. For forty days, they were without their leader, without guidance, without any further spiritual ascent. The people were hungry for more.

Moses had told them that he would be away for forty days. The people eagerly counted each minute and hour until his return. After forty days, Moses was nowhere to be seen. They had, in fact, miscalculated – and only by six hours or so. The nation was becoming restless and fearful. Had Moses perished atop the mountain?

At this point, two individuals saw an opportunity.

Yunus and Yumbrus

The Torah tells us that when the Israelites came out of Egypt, an erev rav, or a “mixed multitude”, came out with them (Exodus 12:38). These were, for the most part, non-Israelites who were convinced by what they had witnessed in Egypt, and decided to join the Jewish people. However, this group of people found it much harder to shed their past idolatrous ways.

Various Jewish texts describe that among the leaders of the erev rav were two brothers named Yunus and Yumbrus. They happened to be the children of the wicked prophet Bilaam (or Balaam). Although Bilaam is not introduced in the Torah until the later Book of Numbers, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) holds that Bilaam was originally an advisor to the Pharaoh in Egypt. As a matter of fact, it was he who came up with the idea of drowning the Israelite children in the Nile! And his own sons were among the mixed multitude that joined the Israelites.

When Moses’ return from Sinai appeared delayed, the two brothers jumped on the opportunity to take control. They told the people that surely Moses must have been dead by now. The Talmud (Shabbat 89a) tells us that Satan started to play on their fears, and showed them a vision of Moses’ corpse ascending to Heaven.

The people then approached Aaron and told him: “Make us gods that will go before us, because this Moses – the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has become of him.” (Exodus 32:1) The people were looking for nothing more than a replacement for Moses.

Looking for Elohim

The above verse can actually be read in a couple of ways. In English, it is commonly translated as above, with the people asking for Aaron to make them gods. However, the Hebrew states that they told Aaron to make them “Elohim”. Elohim is, of course, one of Hashem’s names, but is also used in the Torah to refer to mighty men, judges, and foreign gods, too. We even saw earlier on that God told Moses to team up with Aaron, and for Moses to be an Elohim for Aaron! (Exodus 4:16) Moses himself was described as an “Elohim”! Therefore, what the people were seeking was not necessarily a foreign idol to worship, but rather a holy and mighty man of Moses’ stature, who was described as an “Elohim”.

And so, the people’s concerns and wishes were actually quite legitimate. Unfortunately, Yunus and Yumbrus played on these concerns, and manipulated the people to their advantage. When Hur, one of the Israelite elders, rose to calm the people and prevent them from making a big mistake, Yunus and Yumbrus made him out to be a traitor and had him killed.

'Victory o Lord!' by John Everett Millais (1871) depicting Aaron and Hur assisting Moses at the Battle of Rephidim against the attacking Amalekites

‘Victory o Lord!’ by John Everett Millais (1871) depicting Aaron and Hur assisting Moses at the Battle of Rephidim against the attacking Amalekites

Hur himself is only mentioned directly once in the Torah, in Exodus 17:12, during the battle between the Israelites and Amalekites. It was Hur and Aaron who stood on either side of Moses and supported him throughout the battle. The Torah later says that his grandson Betzalel was the chief craftsman of the Tabernacle. Jewish tradition suggests Hur was the son of Miriam (and therefore Moses’ and Aaron’s nephew), while other sources (such as Josephus) suggest he was actually Miriam’s husband. Either way, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 7a) tells us he was killed for protesting at the Golden Calf incident.

Seeing that the people were becoming enraged and uncontrollable, Aaron agreed to make some kind of new Elohim for the people. The Talmud says that Aaron wanted to prevent even more bloodshed. He reasoned that idolatry is a lesser sin compared to murder. The former could be absolved through repentance, but the people would never be forgiven for spilling the blood of their fellows. Rashi further comments (on 32:5) that Aaron wanted to take the sin upon himself, and so he volunteered to construct some sort of idol to quell the people’s unrest.

Aaron tried to delay as long as possible, hoping that Moses would arrive shortly. He told the people to bring their wives’ and children’s jewelry. Rashi says that Aaron phrased it this way (as opposed to telling them to bring their own jewelry) because he hoped the women and children would not want to part with their precious jewelry. Nonetheless, the men did not waste time going to their women and children, and brought their own precious metals. (Jewish tradition maintains that the righteous women of Israel did not participate in the sin of the Golden Calf.)

Aaron collected it all, and simply threw it in the flames. But Yunus and Yumbrus, described by Rashi as “the sorcerers of the mixed multitude”, recited incantations that transformed the molten gold into an animated calf! The Golden Calf actually emerged from the flames on its own, and was moving around as if it were an actual deity. This is why Aaron later tells Moses (v. 24) that he simply “threw the gold into the fire, and out came this calf!”

(The Arizal goes into much detail about what Yunus and Yumbrus were trying to accomplish by creating a calf in particular. Without getting into the details, they were essentially attempting to elevate the soul of their wicked grandfather, Beor. It seems these two brothers were also trying to usurp the leadership role of the brothers Moses and Aaron.)

Not surprisingly, many of the people were duped by the magic of Yunus and Yumbrus. Aaron tried to delay them further, proclaiming that the festival will be held the next day (v. 5). Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough, and the people descended into revelry and immoral behaviour.

Meanwhile, God’s meeting with Moses was coming to an end. Unfortunately, it concluded with God telling Moses that the people had fallen once more into sin. God offered Moses a new deal: abandon the sinful Israelites, and start a new nation from Moses and his descendants. But Moses, the great leader that he was, refused to abandon his people. He argued and pleaded with God until God relented.

Ultimately, it took Moses two more stints of forty days and forty nights on Mt. Sinai to draw God’s complete forgiveness. Moses descended from Mt. Sinai for the last time on Yom Kippur, now bearing a new set of Tablets. And henceforth, Yom Kippur had become the eternal Day of Atonement.

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  1. Pingback: The Priests and the Aftermath of the Golden Calf | Mayim Achronim

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