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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Calf, Golden

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CALF, GOLDEN . The incident of ‘the golden calf, is related in detail in Exodus 32:1-35 (cf. Deuteronomy 9:7-21 ), a chapter which belongs to the composite Prophetic source of the Pentateuch (JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] ). At the request of the people, who had begun to despair of Moses’ return from the mount, Aaron consented to make a god who should go before them on the journey to Canaan. From the golden ear-rings of their wives and children he fashioned an image of a young bull; this, rather than ‘calf,’ is the rendering of the Heb. word in the present connexion. The view that ‘calf is diminutive and sarcastic for bull’ is precluded by the use of the word elsewhere to denote the young but mature animal. A ‘feast to J″ [Note: Jahweh.] ’ was proclaimed for the following day, and an altar erected on which sacrifice was offered. The sequel tells of Moses’ return, of the destruction of the image, and finally of Moses’ call to his tribesmen, the sons of Levi, to prove their zeal for the pure worship of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] by taking summary vengeance on the backsliders, 3000 of whom fell by their swords.

Two to three centuries later, bull images again emerge in the history of Israel. Among the measures taken by Jeroboam I. for the consolidation of his new kingdom was one which was primarily designed to secure its independence of the rival kingdom of the South in the all-important matter of public worship. With this end in view, perhaps also with the subsidiary purpose of reconciling the priesthood of the local sanctuaries to the new order of things, Jeroboam set up two golden ‘calves,’ one at Bethel and the other at Dan, the two most important sanctuaries, geographically and historically, in his realm ( 1 Kings 12:26-33 , 2 Chronicles 11:14 f.). Of the workmanship of Jeroboam’s ‘calves,’ as of that of Aaron, it is impossible to speak with certainty. The former probably, the latter possibly (cf. Exodus 32:20 ), consisted of a wooden core overlaid with gold. The view that the Heb. term necessarily implies that the images were small, has been shown above to be groundless. It is also uncertain whether the other chief sanctuaries of the kingdom were at a later period provided with similar images, the leading passage ( Amos 8:14 ) being capable of another interpretation.

With regard to the religious significance of this action on the part of Jeroboam, it is now admitted on all hands that the bulls are to be recognized as symbols of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] . He, and He alone, was worshipped both in the wilderness (see Exodus 32:5 ‘a feast to J″ [Note: Jahweh.] ’) and at Bethel and Dan under the symbol of the golden bull. For the source of this symbolism we must not look to Egypt, as did the scholars of former days, but to the primitive religious conceptions of the Semitic stock to which the Hebrews belonged. Evidence, both literary and monumental, has accumulated in recent years, showing that among their Semitic kin the bull was associated with various deities as the symbol of vital energy and strength. Jeroboam, therefore, may be regarded as having merely given official sanction to a symbolism with which the Hebrews had been familiar, if not from time immemorial, at least since their association with the Canaanites.

A comparison of Exodus 32:8 with 1 Kings 12:28 shows that the two narratives have a literary connexion, of which more than one explanation is possible. In the opinion of most recent scholars, the author or editor of Exodus 32:1-35 has adapted the traditional material on which he worked so as to provide a polemic, in the spirit of Hosea, against the established worship of the Northern Kingdom, which is here represented as condemned in advance by J″ [Note: Jahweh.] Himself ( Exodus 32:7 f.). The attitude of Amos to this feature of the established worship at Bethel is not so evident as might have been expected, but of the attitude of Hosea there can be no doubt. It is one of profound scorn and bitter hostility (see Hosea 8:5 f., Hosea 10:5 , Hosea 13:2 the last passage gives the interesting detail that the bulls were kissed like the black stone in the Kaaba at Mecca). In the same spirit, and in harmony with the true character of the religion of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] ), as revealed through the prophets who succeeded Hosea, the Deuteronomic editor of the Books of Kings repeatedly characterizes the introduction of the bull images into the cult of J″ [Note: Jahweh.] as the sin wherewith Jeroboam made Israel to sin ( 1 Kings 14:18 ; 1 Kings 15:26 etc.).

A. R. S. Kennedy.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Calf, Golden'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/c/calf-golden.html. 1909.

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