Really Terrible Bible Stories vol. 2: Exodus Excerpt – Chapter 16!


The Infamous Golden Calf Episode

(Exodus 32)

Meanwhile, back at the camp…

The people get sick and tired of waiting for Moses to come back down that bloody mountain. He’d left them over a month ago without even a guesstimate as to when he’d return. God’s been so busy waxing enthusiastic over his preferences in furniture, curtains, clothes, barbecue, and petty reasons to murder people that he’s completely neglected them. They’ve been left homeless in the wilderness with no one to lead them to safety. They’re at their wit’s end, fearful and alone. So they ask Aaron to make them some more helpful gods who actually give a shit about them. (Ex. 32:1)

Bear in mind: these are people who’ve been enslaved for generations. They just experienced this bully of a god swanning in with a dude wanted for murder, and proceeding to terrorize the shit out of the countryside, along with pretty much everything in it. This god even hardened their captor’s heart every time he was about to release them, all so it had an excuse to commit more terrorist acts. They were forced to flee into the desert with inadequate food and water, and when they cried out in their suffering, this god who claims to care about them killed a bunch of them for asking to have their basic survival needs met. Now they’ve been abandoned in the desert, surrounded by hostile tribes, for five weeks. Of course they’re going to start looking elsewhere for comfort and protection.

And Aaron, God’s very own intended high priest and Moses’s accomplice/brother, doesn’t hesitate.

He doesn’t try to assure them Moses will be there any minute, or that there’s no need for other gods. He doesn’t counsel patience, or scold them. Nope. The instant the people say, “Hey, Aaron, can you make us some gods that’ll actually, y’know, lead us? Considering we have no idea what happened to that Moses dude who got us out here, that would be great,” Aaron’s all, “Sure thing. Bring me all your gold earrings and I’ll get right on that.”* And he whips them up a nice gold calf to worship. He doesn’t even get upset when they claim it’s the calf gods who busted them out of Egypt. He just builds their new idol an altar and says, “We’ll have a nice feast to the LORD tomorrow, everybody.” Apparently, he figures if he does all of this stuff whilst worshiping God in his heart, it’s all copacetic. (Ex. 32:1-5)

Image is a painting of the Golden Calf on a tall, boxy stand. There is a cloudy sunset sky in the background. Many people dressed in colorful robes are dancing around the calf. The colors in the image are vibrants reds, browns, and blues, with some white and yellow. All of the people are pale-skinned, because of course Middle Easterners all looked like northern Europeans back then.
Nicolas Poussin: “The Adoration of the Golden Calf.”

So when they get up the next day, they all offer some sacrifices, and then settle in for the eating, drinking, and making merry. They’re having a fine old time, probably the best since they got free. Well, by now, we all know how God is – absolutely can’t stand it when people are happy without his permission. It’s got to be all about him. So he completely flips his shit, and tells Moses to get his ass the hell down there and stop these shenanigans. You can tell he’s upset, because suddenly they’re Moses’s people, and it’s Moses who brought them out of Egypt, not God. “They’ve been pretty quick to disobey all my commands,” he sniffs. I suppose that 40 days isn’t all that long to a deity, but I expect an omniscient dude to realize that five weeks and change is actually kind of a long time to people who were already uprooted and upset and thought you’d just nipped out for a quick chat. (Ex. 32:6-8)

God works himself into a lather over this golden calf, and how they gave it all the credit (and all the savory sacrifices). “I see them, those stubborn little shits!” he exclaims. “Why, I oughtta clobber ’em one! Let me alone, Mo. I’m gonna destroy those jerks. Then I’ll make you a great nation.” (Ex. 32:8-10)

Moses isn’t made so starry-eyed by that promise that he can’t see the optics of the situation. “Aw, now, LORD, why you gotta be so mad at ’em? And after all you did getting them out of Egypt with all your power and might, too! You know the Egyptians’ll say, ‘That evil git meant to murder them all along!’ Don’t be like that. You promised Abraham, Isaac, and Israel that you’d give ’em countless descendants and a whole bunch of land that’s theirs to keep forever.” (Ex. 32:11-13)

God’s all, “Oh, shit, you’re right, Moses. Okay. Fine. I won’t smite them.” (Ex. 32:14)

So Moses, having saved his people from genocide-by-deity, takes the tablets God had written a whole bunch of stuff on, and heads down the mountain. At some point, Joshua meets up with him, and as they come within earshot of the party, he says, “Wow, sounds like a war down there!” And Moses is all, “No, dude, that’s singing!” (Ex. 32:15-18)

When they get close enough to the camp to see the shiny golden calf and all the people having a nice dance, Moses gets super pissed. He throws the tablets down so hard he breaks them, ruining all of God’s painstaking work. Then he seizes the calf, burns it, grinds it into powder, dumps the powder into water, and makes everybody drink it. (Ex. 32:19-20)

Let’s just pause a moment to wonder just what, exactly, Egyptian gold jewelry was made of. Gold doesn’t burn at temperatures achievable with a mere wood or dung fire. Could it be that the Egyptians lent their costume pieces, not their family jewels, when the Israelites tried to defraud them?

And even if we overlook that possibility, Moses has just made them drink a bunch of gold. Y’know, the gold that God told them to steal borrow? That gold he wants “freely” given to him so that he can have all his new stuff gold-plated? Yeah. What does Moses expect them to do now, shit bricks of gold and then offer it to God?

Anyway. After Moses gets done making the Israelites drink their gold water as punishment, he rips Aaron a new one. “What’s wrong with you? What on earth did they do to make you fuck them over like this?” And Aaron, the whiny, treacherous rat that he is, snivels, “Don’t yell at me, man, you know these people are determined to cause trouble. They totally made me do it! So I told ’em to bring me gold and stuff, and I sorta threw it into the fire, and suddenly there was this calf!” (Ex. 32:21-24)

Like he hadn’t molded and carved the thing with his own hands. Yeah, it just showed up. Folks, let me remind you: Aaron isn’t actually three years old. He’s an adult with grown sons. And yet he’s using excuses that don’t even work for young children.

Right about then, Moses notices that Aaron let everybody run around naked, right there with their enemies watching and everything, and he has had enough. He gets all up in the gate and demands that everyone who’s on the Lord’s side come over there. And the Levites are all like, “Ooooo, us!” cuz they’re complete brown-nosers. (Ex. 32:26)

Moses looks them over and says, “All right, you guys. Go get your swords, go through the camp, and kill all your brothers, friends, and neighbors.” (Ex. 32:27)

The Levites don’t hesitate. They don’t go, “WTF, Moses?!” or “I know you’re really upset right now, and you have every right to be, but can we at least discuss why we’re supposed to go mass-murder all the people we’re tight with? I mean, it’s just one incident, and it’s not like there weren’t extenuating circumstances.” They don’t question the morality of the order they’ve been given. Nope. They just troop off and murder about 3,000 people. (Ex. 32:28)

Moses is all proud of them. “Good job, you guys!” he gushes. “You’re all consecrated to God, now. Okay, so it cost you a son or a brother, who you had to personally stab to death, but hey! You earned a blessing today. Yay!” (Ex. 32:29)

Yep. This is how you make God happy after you done fucked up: make sure you’re the first in line to declare your piety, then go murder your children, siblings, friends, and neighbors so he’ll like you extra.

The day after the mass murder, Moses tells everybody they’re still horrible sinners, but he’ll talk to God and see if there’s anything he can do for them. So Moses moseys up the mountain and asks God to pretty-please forgive everyone. And God, in his infinite wisdom and mercy, says, “Fuck no. I’m scratching all those jerks’ names outta my book. Look, you lead everybody on to where I told you – I’ll even send my angel to help guide you. But when I come to visit, it’s gonna be to punish their punk asses.” And, since the murderous Levites only managed to bag him a lousy three thousand deaths, God sends a plague on the poor bastards to satisfy his blood lust. (Ex. 32:30-35)

So that’s God: the kind of shitlord who’ll abandon your ass in the desert, then murder you by sword or by disease when you give up hope and try to make your way as best you can after he’s caused you to lose all your trust in him. Such a shining example of leadership.


*Interesting fact: according to this section, the sons wore earrings, too. So if any holier-than-thou sort tells you that earrings on dudes is an abomination, point significantly to this section whilst raising an eyebrow.

Bad news for Christians who think they can trick God: Aaron’s fast one doesn’t work. So if you’re of the Tim LaHaye/Jerry Jenkins school of, “To avoid having to martyr ourselves, we’ll pretend to worship these abominations while really worshiping God in our hearts!” you are completely SOL. Sorry.

Image is the cover for Really Terrible Bible Stories vol. 2: Exodus. The painting is Charles Sprague Pearce's Lamentations over the Death of the First-Born of Egypt, showing an Egyptian man and woman weeping over the coffin of their infant.

Really Terrible Bible Stories vol. 2: Exodus Coming Soon!

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Really Terrible Bible Stories vol. 2: Exodus Excerpt – Chapter 16!

4 thoughts on “Really Terrible Bible Stories vol. 2: Exodus Excerpt – Chapter 16!

  1. 1

    It is puzzling that while the more modern Jews have stayed faithful for over two thousand years with nothing to show for it the OT Hebrews, who had been alternatively saved and thrashed by God their Lord and had seen his miracles on a regular basis would yet drop him in a heartbeat.

    Makes you wonder if it isn’t all make beleive doesn’t it.

  2. 2

    Y’know I’d really wonder about what the hell Aaron thought he was doing here given who he was and what he’d experienced to get where he was in this context – were it NOT for the over-riding thought of WTF God? Seriously? What. The. F —!?!

    Just .. wow. Whoah and talk about bible verses not taught in school.

    Gold doesn’t burn at temperatures achievable with a mere wood or dung fire. Could it be that the Egyptians lent their costume pieces, not their family jewels, when the Israelites tried to defraud them?

    But if not gold then what? What temperature does iron pyrites melt at I wonder?

    Also what does God need with a starship gold / foreskins / burnt offerings anyway?

  3. 3


    The Jews themselves wondered about this discrepancy (idolatry being common in the OT, and nonexistent later), and came up with an explanation:

    The desire for idolatry was much much stronger in the past. It was weakened later.

    Here’s one Talmudic legend about what happened. Basically, the desire became a fiery anthropomorphic (or leomorphic) figure that could be captured and put in a lead container (a proto-djinn story?).

    Yup, seems legit.

  4. 4

    Richard Elliott Friedman discusses the golden calf incident in his book Who Wrote the Bible?, and suggests that this was the work of a priest, of the Mosaic (or Mushite, from “Moshe”) lineage, who lived in the time of Jeroboam, who was upset with that king’s decision to use calf statues in new temples under his control. The story was deliberately written to make Aaron look bad (and there are opposing stories by those by opposing factions of Aaronid priests that try to make Moses look bad).

    Note that the calf, actually a young bull, was a symbol of the god El, and Jeroboam was presumably trying to depict El and Yahweh as being the same.

    Friedman goes into more detail than that, connecting each odd detail in the story to religious politics going on in much later times.

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