No scene in the Old Testament characterizes the Israelites’ frequent apostasy more vividly than the Golden Calf incident in Exodus. Like so many other biblical stories, however, this tale reveals a complicated history of development and other problems that render its intent ambiguous.
The Golden Calf story does not stand in isolation, for 1 Kings tells a very similar story about the creation of two golden calves by king Jeroboam, and there are additional references to the golden calves in Hosea, Psalms, Deuteronomy, and elsewhere. The two incidents appear to be related, but how exactly?
The situation becomes more complicated still when we bringing historical and archaeological evidence. Having skimmed several dozen books and articles that discuss the golden calves of Exodus and 1 Kings, I will attempt to summarize the most widespread academic views.
The Golden Calf Story in Exodus 32
The Exodus calf story spans the entirety of chapter 32, which you can read here. It can be summarized as follows:
Moses is up on the mountain receiving the tablets of the covenant from Yahweh. The people get tired of waiting and ask Aaron to make new gods to lead them, so Aaron collects their golden rings and makes a “molten calf”. The people then proclaim, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” Aaron builds an altar for the calf and establishes a new festival, which is celebrated the following day.
Back on the mountain, Yahweh tells Moses what is going on and threatens to destroy the people. Moses intercedes and changes Yahweh’s mind.
Moses heads down the mountain with the tablets, and he and Joshua hear the people celebrating. When Moses sees the calf, he smashes the tablets, burns the calf, grinds it to powder, sprinkles it in the water, and makes the Israelites drink it. He confronts Aaron, who blames the people, and then says the calf formed itself after the gold was thrown into the fire.
Moses gathers the Levites and has them march through the camp, slaughtering the Israelites. This act ordains them as priests and earns them Yahweh’s blessing.
Then Moses, acting as if the previous pogrom had not happened, returns up the mountain to once again intercede for the people. Yahweh agrees to let the people reach the promised land, but says that “when the day comes for punishment”, he will punish them.
The story ends with Yahweh suddenly sending a plague on the people for the calf.
Numerous contradictions and oddities are immediately apparent when one reads the story, pointing to a complicated history of revision. For example:
- Twice Moses intercedes for the people. The first time, Yahweh agrees to withhold punishment — yet the people are punished three times anyway. They are slaughtered by the Levites, struck by a plague, and then put on notice for punishment on an unspecified future date.
- Moses is told about the incident while on the mountain, yet is apparently caught by surprise when he returns to the camp.
- Aaron escapes all judgment and blame despite making the calf and altar and instituting the festival.
- According to the Hebrew, Aaron makes a “molten” calf with an engraving tool of some kind. It is hard to know exactly what process is being described.
- Only one calf is made, yet the proclamation speaks of gods in the plural.
- Why does Aaron claim the calf formed itself and emerged from the fire?
- V. 25 says the people’s revelry had become a “derision” to their enemies. Already? What enemies?
- The episode itself makes little sense in context. Why would the Israelites randomly choose a calf of all things to worship? Why pretend it had brought them out of Egypt? How is it supposed to replace Moses as their leader?
Leaving these issues aside for the moment, let’s look at the story of king Jeroboam’s golden calves.
Jeroboam’s Golden Calves in 1 Kings 12
You can read the entire passage here. I would summarize it as follows:
Jeroboam son of Nebat has returned from Egypt and become king of Israel (Samaria) by popular demand. He wants to prevent the people from offering their sacrifices to Yahweh in Jerusalem, lest they desire to rejoin the house of David, so he makes two golden calves, telling the Israelites “Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” He places them in Dan and Bethel, establishes new temples, and appoints non-Levitical priests to serve at the altar in Bethel. He also establishes a new festival day for worship in Bethel.
This story is shorter and has no obvious internal problems (though there are some narrative issues I will point out shortly). What immediately stands out is how similar the story is to the Exodus one. Aberbach and Smolar, in a widely-cited 1967 paper, identified thirteen significant points of similarity between the two stories that show a direct relationship. These include the creation of the molten calves themselves, the similar proclamations, the establishment of altars and feast days, the contrast between Levite and non-Levite priests, and more. The most decisive evidence identified by Aberbach and Smolar is the intriguing fact that the sons of Aaron and the sons of Jeroboam are given the same names — Nadab and Abihu/Abijah! The authors note:
Viewing the problem from a more critical angle, one can hardly escape the conclusion, startling though it may be, that the figure of Aaron as he appears in the golden calf story is, to all intents and purposes, identical with Jeroboam.
The most widely held position among biblical scholars today (though not unanimously) is that the story of Jeroboam’s golden calves, which is part of the Deuteronomic History (DH), predates Exodus 32¹ and was used as a source to invent a similar story about Aaron. This explains some of the oddities in the Exodus account. For example, the plural mention of “gods” can be understood as a polemic allusion to Jeroboam’s two calves. Written perhaps in the post-exilic period, the author has taken the apostasy that was regarded by the Deuteronomists as responsible for Samaria’s downfall, and retrojected it into Israel’s ancient past as the cause of the Judean exile as well. Describing the mainstream view, Wyatt (1992, p. 72ff) writes:
The golden calf episode of Exod 32 is thus to be seen as a later narrative, however complex its own inner history, which takes “the sin of Jeroboam” by which the entire history of (northern) Israel had been damned, and presents it as an archetypal fault in the whole people, which justifies the exile to come.
With that in mind, we must take a closer look at the golden calves in Dan and Bethel.
Which God(s) Did the Calves Represent?
Although attempts have been made to identify the calves with Egyptian bovine deities like Hathor and Apis, with the moon god Sin, or with Yahweh’s chief rival Baal, the great majority of scholars believe the golden calves represented Yahweh himself. Reasons for this include the following (from Day 2002, pp. 36ff.):
- There is no evidence for any tradition that named a god other than Yahweh as Israel’s deliverer from Egypt.
- Aaron’s festival to celebrate the golden calves is specifically a festival for Yahweh (Exod. 32:5), and Jeroboam’s festival (1 Kgs 12:32) is said to be “like the festival that was in Judah”, i.e. a rival Yahwist festival.
- Jeroboam’s son, Abijah, has a Yahwistic name.
- Samarian ostracon 41, dated roughly to the time of Jeroboam II, contains a personal name meaning “calf of Yahweh” or “Yahweh is a calf”.
- The Canaanite god El, whose characteristics were eventually subsumed by Yahweh, was identified as a bull in Ugaritic texts.
- The earliest Jacob traditions associated him with Bethel, and the Bible refers to Jacob’s God as ‘abir ya’aqob (“the Mighty One of Jacob”) which may have originally read ‘abbir ya’aqob, “the Bull of Jacob”.
Furthermore, even the Yahwists in Jerusalem used bull imagery. The “molten sea” in the temple (1 Kgs 7:23-26) was a bronze cauldron carried by bulls that symbolized the primal sea conquered by Yahweh the weather-god (Keel & Uehlinger 1998). The Hebrew of 1 Kgs 10:19 originally described the throne of Solomon resting on the head of a calf — a description still evident in the LXX that was changed by the Masoretes, possibly due to the bull’s later association with idolatry (Nodet, p. 51).
Many scholars hold that the bulls were supposed to be “pedestals” upon which the invisible Yahweh was enthroned — the same function performed by the cherubim on the lid of the Ark in Jerusalem. Day (op. cit. 40) disputes this, however:
…in Hos. 8.6 we read of the calf of Samaria that ‘A workman made it; it is not God’, which is a pointless statement unless there were those who did consider the calf to be a god.
According to Na’aman Nadav, there is no distinction to be made between the pedestal and the god itself:
Some scholars differentiated the representation of the calves from their identity, arguing that the calves were pedestals for the invisible god, rather than divine images. However, …no such separation was made in the religion and cult of the ancient Near East, where even the distinction between god and image tended to blur. The calves were considered both statues and pedestals of YHWH, and theriomorphic divine images were part of the official cult in Israel. (Nadav, p. 332)
Once it is understood that the calves of Aaron and Jeroboam were images of Yahweh and not idols of rival gods, these stories take on very different meaning.
The Politics of Samaria and the Deuteronomistic Narrative
The story of Jeroboam’s reforms seems to be a political one. He establishes new temples, new altars, and a new priesthood so that Israelites can continue to worship Yahweh without the need to visit Jerusalem. The golden calves themselves served as images of Yahweh in Bethel and the more distant Dan.
To the Deuteronomist writer, whose primary concern was the centrality of Jerusalem and the proper worship of Yahweh, Jeroboam’s actions were unacceptable. In 1 Kings 14, the prophet Ahijah issues an oracle of destruction against the house of Jeroboam, listing “molten images” among its chief sins. The “sins of Jeroboam” are also explicitly identified as the making of the golden calves in 2 Kings 10:29.
But there are some cracks in the narrative. The very next chapter (1 Kings 13) tells the bizarre story of a prophet of Yahweh from Judah who comes to Bethel to denounce Jeroboam and the altar. However, there is no condemnation of the golden calves in this episode.
Elijah, the greatest exemplar of a faithful prophet in the Bible, was based in the northern kingdom. In 1 Kings, he zealously participates in exterminating the priests of Baal; however, he never once raises any objection to the golden calves. Even his ascension to heaven takes place on the occasion of a visit to Bethel, while a large company of priests of Yahweh from Bethel waits on him (2 Kings 2). His successor Elisha, who is also active in and around Bethel, similarly raises no objection to the golden calf during his prophetic career.
There is also tension in the story of king Jehu, who, out of faithfulness to Yahweh, goes to great lengths to slaughter all the priests of Baal in Israel. In 2 Kings 10:30, Yahweh directly addresses Jehu and promises that his descendants up to the fourth generation will sit on Israel’s throne because he did “what was write in [Yahweh’s] eyes”. But in the very next verse, it hastens to add that “he did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam”.
One starts to get the idea that the golden calf theme and repeated references to the “sins of Jeroboam” are poor fits for the surrounding narrative and might even be insertions from a later redactor.
The Evidence from Hosea
The prophet Hosea supposedly lived in the final decades of the monarchy in Israel (Samaria) — during the time of the golden calves — and the book of Hosea purports to contain oracles and writings by him or his followers. However, it has been preserved by Judean scribes for Judean readers, and has been heavily revised and corrupted, making interpretation difficult. Nevertheless, there are some passages of interest concerning the golden calves.
Hosea 10:5–6 in Francis Landy’s commentary reads:
For the calves of Beth-awen the resident of Samaria shows dread; for his people mourn over him, and his idolatrous priests rejoice/wail over him and over his glory, for it has been exiled from him. Also he has been taken to Assyria, as a present for King Contentious; disgrace Ephraim gains; Israel is abashed because of its policy.
The “he” in these verses seems to be the calf, yet verse 5 refers to “calves” in the plural, which does not accord with the Kings story. It also calls Bethel by a different name (possibly a slur meaning “house of folly” — so Landy p. 146), and it presupposes the conquest of Israel by Assyria in 722 BCE as a past event, so it cannot be pre-exilic in its current form. (Be aware that these verses are highly ambiguous and vary greatly according to the translation.)
A parallel passage in Hosea 8 mentions the “calf of Samaria” and describes it as broken to pieces rather than becoming booty for the Assyrian king. 1 Kings 12 makes no mention of a calf in the city of Samaria, so it is unclear if Hosea refers to another (third?) calf here. If Samaria is meant to represent the entire kingdom, it is hard to reconcile with 10:5, which describes multiple calves in Bethel, and 1 Kings 12, which describes one in Bethel and one in Dan.
Interestingly, Hosea brings us full circle, because chapter 12 concerns an early version of the exodus tradition — one without enslavement, plagues, a sea crossing, or other events associated with the version told in the book of Exodus. According to Römer, de Pury, and others, Israel/Samaria had two competing origin traditions at this time: a story of Egyptian origins, and a Jacob tradition focused on Bethel. Hosea describes Jacob in negative terms as a deceiver (an attribute that is turned into a positive trait by the later authors of Genesis) and promotes the Egyptian view instead (Römer, pp. 306-307). For him, Yahweh is an Egyptian god:
I am Yahweh your God from the land of Egypt; I will make you live in tents again, as in the days of the appointed festival. (Hosea 12:9)
These themes are echoed in the story of Jeroboam’s rise to kingship in 1 Kings 12:
To your tents, O Israel! (1 Kings 12:16bγ)
“Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” (1 Kings 12:28c)
In fact, both 1 Kings and Exodus seem to build on the tradition espoused by Hosea, but in different ways.
Competing Priestly Orders
One very important element shared in common between the Golden Calf incidents of Exodus and 1 Kings is the implied controversy regarding Levite and non-Levite priests.
The development of the priesthoods of Israel and Judah is not fully understood. Many different classes or groups of priests are mentioned in the Old Testament — most prominently, the Levites, Aaronides, and Zadokites. Although some genealogies give Aaron and Zadok Levite ancestry, these are generally regarded as late inventions.
It must be significant that in 1 Kings 12, one of Jeroboam’s sins is the replacement of the Levites with a new (unnamed) priesthood. The Exodus story, meanwhile, seems to provide a foundation legend for the Levites; it is by slaughtering the Israelites out of vengeance for calf worship that they are ordained by Yahweh as his priests. Aaron’s part is complicated; he seems to function as the ringleader for the calf cult, yet he personally escapes any consequences.
Judges 20:27-28 explicitly names the priest of Bethel as an Aaronide (Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron), which can be taken as evidence that the non-Levite priests assigned to Bethel and other cultic sites 1 Kings 12 are also understood to be Aaronides. It is not hard to see, then, why blame for this heresy would be assigned to Aaron in Exodus 32. Exodus as a whole, however, contains numerous passages attributed to the pro-Aaron priestly author, and this raises the question of how such a story could survive in the Pentateuch.
James Watts (2011) proposes that, as it now reads, the calf story in Ex. 32 attempts to exculpate Aaron and place blame the people in his stead. He also notes the absence of Aaron in references to the Golden Calf story in Deut. 33, Psalm 106, and Nehemiah 9.
It has also been proposed that the Aaronide priesthood in Bethel survived the conquests by Assyria and Babylon and was eventually responsible for reestablishing the cult in Jerusalem; thus, the priesthood of Aaron had to be rehabilitated among the Judean religious establishment. (This will have to be explored more thoroughly in another article.)
This view is not without its problems. There are very few references to Aaron anywhere in the DH (including Deuteronomy), and those few that we do find often seem to be later interpolations by a priestly author, including the aforementioned Judges 20 mention. Did the priests of Aaron actually exist in the first temple period, or have they been retrojected into Israel’s past by postexilic writers?
The Conventional Scholarly View of Jeroboam’s Golden Calves
The conventional view developed over the past few decades, then, seems to be as follows: Jeroboam I introduced innovations in the Yahweh cult, including the establishment of calf idols at Bethel and Dan and a new priestly dynasty known as the Aaronides, to remove Israel from under Jerusalem’s religious influence.
The pro-Judean Deuteronomists took umbrage and portrayed this heresy — the rejection of Jerusalem’s religious authority — as the ultimate sin that led to Israel’s conquest. The authors of Exodus² adapted the story in 1 Kings, blaming the golden calf cult for Judah’s exile as well. Despite the polemic attitude these later authors have taken toward the golden calves, they are never connected to the worship of other gods, and contemporary devotees of Yahweh (e.g. Elijah and Elisha) seem to have accepted them.
Archaeology Upsets the Applecart
The viewpoint described above takes the historicity of much of the DH for granted, and new archaeological studies require us to reevaluate 1 Kings yet again. Some of its problems are as follows:
- The chronology of 1 Kings places Jeroboam I, the supposed founder of the kingdom of Israel (Samaria), in the late 10th century, early Iron Age IIA. However, Eran Arie concludes, in a recent analysis of all published results from some 30 years of excavations in Dan, that the site was uninhabited at this time. His reconstruction of the evidence shows that Dan was built in the late 9th century by Hazael, the Aramean king. King Joash conquered Dan for Israel in the early 8th century, and “its peak occurred during the long and stable reign of Jeroboam II” (p. 37).
- An unrelated study by Finkelstein and Singer-Avitz (2009) shows that Bethel was also uninhabited — or at best, a “small, very meager settlement” — at the time of king Jeroboam I. The site only began to prosper as a significant settlement in the 8th century, around the time of Jeroboam II.
- Juha Pakkala (1999), after surveying the iconography and religious artifacts of northern Canaan/Israel, says that the archaeological evidence for Israel’s pre-exilic religion does not agree with what we now read in the DH. For example, bovine figures are rare until the Iron Age IIC, when the kingdom of Israel had already ceased to exist, and they appear mainly in Judah. Pakkala bluntly states that “Jeroboam’s calf … is not supported by archaeology” (p. 210). Conversely, major themes in the archaeological material of Iron Age Israel (animals, horses, seraphim, sun symbolism, etc.) are absent or barely mentioned in the Bible’s historical texts. According to Pakkala, “one receives the general impression that the writers of the DH are not aware of the religious situation of pre-exilic Judah and Israel” (p. 212).
A New Scholarly View of Jeroboam’s Golden Calves
Although some scholars seem to be blissfully unaware of the archaeological situation, others are taking it seriously. Thomas Römer, one of today’s most influential European scholars, believes that it was, in fact, Jeroboam II who made the golden calves and established cult centres at Bethel and Dan. This act has been relocated by biblical redactors to the time of Jeroboam I in order to make it the “original sin” of the Northern Kingdom (Finkelstein and Römer, p. 326).
Dating the golden calves to Jeroboam II coincides with the era of Hosea the prophet, whose oracles provide our earliest attestation of the calves. It also coincides with the dating of an inscription at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud in the Sinai, which mentions “Yahweh of Samaria and…his Asherah” accompanied by a drawing of a male and female with bovine features (Ibid. 328-329; also Jacobs, p. 109). And then there is the aforementioned Samarian ostracon 41 — dated to the time of Jeroboam II — that associates Yahweh with the calf.
Römer (2015) has gone further in suggesting that the first Jeroboam didn’t even exist; he is an invention of the Deuteronomists, who used the historical Jeroboam (Jeroboam II) as the template for the founder of the Israelite monarchy in their own version of Israel’s history (pp. 49–50). It wouldn’t be the first time biblical characters have been divided by legend into multiple personalities, and there is no extrabiblical attestation of any Israelite king before Omri, who apparently founded a ruling dynasty in Samaria.
Perhaps even Römer is being too conservative in his views. Van Seters has long held that the story of Jeroboam’s golden calves is entirely ahistorical. There is no evidence of cult centralization in Jerusalem prior to king Josiah, and thus the entire story of 1 Kings 12 must be seen as anachronistic. He concludes: “The story of Jeroboam and the golden calves is so thoroughly anachronistic and propagandistic that we must suspect it of being a complete fabrication.” (Van Seters, p. 314) Pakkala has concluded from a literary study of 1 Kings that all references to the bulls were later insertions into the narrative, as I hinted at above (Pakkala 2008).
I feel like I have barely scratched the surface of the Golden Calf incident; each aspect of the two stories intersects with other complicated issues that need resolving. Nevertheless, at this point, I would make the following observations:
- At some point in Israel’s history, Yahweh was probably worshipped as a bull figure. This may have developed from earlier Canaanite traditions associating first El, and then Baal, with the bull.
- The various temples and cultic institutions of Israel (the northern kingdom) were understood, however anachronistically, as perversions of the proper Yahweh cult in Jerusalem by the Deuteronomist writers.
- An important temple to Yahweh probably existed in Bethel during the reigns of Jeroboam II and his successors. One or more golden calf statues might have been involved in the veneration of Yahweh in Israel, depending on what we make of the references in Hosea.
- Also around the time of Jeroboam II, Israel had developed a tradition of Egyptian origins for itself and Yahweh, apparently in competition to a tradition involving Jacob as a founder figure.
- The Judean Deuteronomists depicted the monarchy of Israel as wicked from its inception by blaming its heterodox cultic sites, priesthood, and festivals on the legendary founder of the monarchy, Jeroboam I — who may have been an invention based on Jeroboam II. At some point, worship of the golden calf and its connection with Egypt became a specific locus for this derision, though such references stand in tension with other stories in 1–2 Kings and may be later interpolations.
- Exilic or post-exilic Judah eventually adopted Israelite customs and the tradition of Egyptian origins, which were used to embellish and establish the cultic origins of Jerusalem’s own religious establishment and priesthood. The golden calf heresy was used by the author(s) of Exodus as a template for a new story about Israel’s apostasy in the wilderness, using 1 Kings as a literary source.
- The general lack of accord between the biblical narratives and the archaeological evidence makes it difficult to establish a historical context for interpreting these passages with confidence.
- In more general terms, the core DH narrative, which runs from Deuteronomy to 2 Kings, is usually understood by modern scholars as an older work to which the Tetrateuch (Genesis through Numbers) was added.
- For this article, I am ignoring the matter of whether the more brief account in Deut. 9 preceded the fuller version in Exodus, as seems likely.
Wyatt, “Of Calves and Kings: the Canaanite Dimension in the Religion of Israel”, SJOT 6 (1992).
John Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 2002.
Othmar Keel & Christoph Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel, 1998.
Étienne Nodet, “The Text of 1–2 Kings Used by Josephus”, The Books of Kings (SVT 129).
Na’aman Nadav, Ancient Israel’s History and Historiography: The First Temple Period, 2006.
Francis Landy, Hosea, Second Edition (Readings: A New Biblical Commentary), 2011.
Römer, “The Revelation of the Divine Name to Moses and the Construction of a Memory…”, Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective: Text, Archaeology, Culture, and Geoscience.
James W. Watts, “Aaron and the Golden Calf in the Rhetoric of the Pentateuch”, JBL 130/3 (2011)
Arie, Eran, “Reconsidering the Iron Age II Strata at Tel Dan: Archaeological and Historical Implications”, Tel Aviv 35: 6–64 (2008).
Finkelstein and Singer-Avitz, “Reevaluating Bethel”, ZDPV 125 (2009).
Juha Pakkala, Intolerant Monolatry in the Deuteronomistic History, 1999.
Finkelstein and Römer, “Comments on the Historical Background of the Jacob Narrative in Genesis”, ZAW 126/3 (2014), p. 326.
Paul F. Jacobs, “Cows of Bashan”: A Note on the Interpretation of Amos 4:1, JBL 104/1.
Römer, “D’Abraham à la conquête. L’Hexateuque et l’histoire d’Israël et de Juda”, Recherches de Science Religieuse 103/1, 2015.
Van Seters, In Search of History, (1983) p. 314.
Juha Pakkala, “Jeroboam without Bulls”, ZAW 120 (2008).