Two major stories in the Old Testament deal with golden calves and gods. The Hebrew word is עֵ֣גֶל egel, meaning bull-calf. The following photos may help the modern reader of the text to see these stories the way that the ancients saw them.
Aaron and the Golden Calf
The first “golden calf” story is the golden calf “fashioned” by Aaron in Exodus 32. The story is not complete. We are told that Aaron “took them (the gold rings) from their hand and fashioned it with a stylus and made it a molten calf.” (Exodus 32:4) He then said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4) It was Jehovah who brought Israel out of Egypt, and the author of this text (the “E” or the Elohist author) knew this!
Further on we read, “And Aaron saw, and he built an altar in front of it, and Aaron called, and he said, “A festival to YHWH tomorrow!” And they got up early the next day, and they made burnt offerings and brought over peace offerings, and the people sat down to eat and drink… (Exodus 32:5-6) It would seem from this portion of the text that Aaron is not trying to lead Israel to worship any other god but Yahweh, or the LORD!
What was Aaron doing if he was trying to worship the Lord? Could there be more to the story here than modern readers of the text realize?
It very well could be that Aaron was fashioning a throne for Jehovah, for this is something that would have been familiar to the author or editor of the text here in Exodus 32, which was most likely put together by a northern editor or scribe, the “E” author. There are many connections between Aaron’s golden calf and King Jeroboam’s (a Northern King) golden calf. For instance, King Jeroboam’s sons are Nadab and Abiyah (1 Kings 14:1,20) and Aaron’s sons are Nadab and Abihu. The names of the sons of the two makers of golden calves are nearly identical! Both Aaron and Jeroboam use the same words when presenting the calf, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4 and 1 Kings 12:28).
In the ANE (Ancient Near East), gods were often pictured standing on the back of a bull or animal. The bull was the throne or pedestal for the god. (R.W.L. Moberly, At the Mountain of God: Story and Theology in Exodus 32-34, p. 65. See also: John Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, p. 368.) I propose that Aaron was doing that which he had seen others in the ANE do, he was fashioning a throne for Jehovah!
Jeroboam and the Two Golden Calves
After the division of the kingdom of Israel after the death of Solomon, Jeroboam, king of the northern kingdom of Israel changed the form of Jehovah worship among the Israelites. The account reads:
And Jeroboam said in his heart, Now shall the kingdom return to the house of David: If this people go up to do sacrifice in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, then shall the heart of this people turn again unto their lord, even unto Rehoboam king of Judah, and they shall kill me, and go again to Rehoboam king of Judah. Whereupon the king … made two calves of gold, and said unto them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And he set the one in Bethel, and the other put he in Dan. And this thing became a sin: for the people went to worship before the one, even unto Dan.” (1 Kings 12:26-30)
One can see the similarity between the Exodus 32 account of the rebellion of Israel and the apostasy of Jeroboam. Once again, it does not appear the Jeroboam was establishing pagan worship, rather his calves would have been pedestals or thrones for Jehovah. The problem with this is, like Aaron, he did not have authority to do this. Further, he changed the affairs of Jehovah worship as the rest of 1 Kings 12 reveals. He did this for political reasons. Had the Israelites continued to go to the temple in Judah (the southern kingdom), Jeroboam was afraid that he would lose his authority with those in his kingdom (see 1 Kings 12:27).
So what? How does this even apply to our students?
The way I approach this text really depends on who I am teaching. When teaching adults, I would emphasize that even though a particular belief about God is popular, this does not make it correct. We see this when the Father and the Son address Joseph Smith in the First Vision, informing him that “the creeds (were) an abomination in his sight”. Jeroboam and Aaron were doing something that was popular, but not right.
When approaching this text with teenagers, I like to emphasize that both Aaron and Jeroboam were making their decisions based on their fears. They were afraid of how they would look to others, and this fear drove them to do something that was popular, but not correct. We see this again with wicked King Noah in the Book of Mormon, as well as Herod, when he feared what others would think of him, and by so doing, beheaded the prophet John. Teenagers can relate with this. The more I can illustrate this, the better they can see how this text relates to them in their personal lives