Nearly all people raised in Christian countries have heard the story of Moses and the Golden Calf. A close examination of this story and associated Biblical passages clearly reveals two things.
This article discusses how Moses cold-bloodedly exploited the incident of the Golden Calf to institute a bloody pogrom of his opponents, so as to firmly consolidate and maintain power for himself, his brother, as well as his tribe - the tribe of Levi. In fact this incident reveals Moses to be the merciless leader of an isolated itinerant religious sect - the Jews.
Moses was the son of two Levite parents, born in Egypt somewhere about 1392 BCE, at a time that the Pharaoh had ordered all newborn male Jewish children to be drowned. His mother abandoned the three month old Moses in a waterproof basket in the bulrushes along the Nile River, where he was found by a princess of Egypt and subsequently given a princely upbringing and education (Exodus 2:1-10). His mother also bore another son, the brother of Moses, called Aaron, who was not raised as a foundling and had not received a royal education, but even so could speak extremely well and persuasively (Exodus 4:14).
At one point during the wanderings of the Jewish people through the desert, Moses received instructions from God to ascend Mount Sinai to commune with God. He left the Jewish nation camped at the foothills of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19). But the Israelites grew impatient because Moses was taking so long to commune with God. And the Bible tells us what happened:
When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, "Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him."Aaron answered them, "Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me." So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt." When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, "Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD." So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry. (Exodus 32: 1-6).
In summary, Moses stayed away too long, so the restless people got Aaron to make them a tangible god, the Golden Calf, which they then proceeded to worship with sacrifices and a really good party. Mose came down the mountain, saw this and was so angry, that he smashed the instructions of God written on the tablets of stone. He then seized the Golden Calf, burned it, ground it into powder, mixed the powder with water and forced the Israelites to drink this mixture (Exodus 32: 19-20). The latter was a good exercise in humiliation, and for some of the Israelites with Rheumatoid Arthritis, drinking this gold was certainly therapeutic. He then soundly berated his Aaron for letting things get so out of control. Aaron could only manage a very lame excuse about the Golden Calf suddenly appearing out of the fire after the golden ornaments had been thrown into the fire (Exodus 32: 21-24). Moses realized that once known, this incident would make them the laughing-stock of the Middle-East, and resolved to undertake drastic actions to correct and exploit this incident.
Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, "Whoever is for the LORD, come to me." And all the Levites rallied to him. Then he said to them, "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.' " The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. Then Moses said, "You have been set apart to the LORD today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day." (Exodus 32: 25-29).
This was a stroke of ruthless genius! In one swoop, Moses was able to rid himself of all who challenged his authority, kill the major participants in this idolatry, exterminate anyone else who objected to this way of managing idolatry, murder a few innocents randomly to terrify all the other people, and finally, because all the killers who supported him were from the tribe of Levi, he established the authority of the tribe of Levi. The tribe of Levi was now established as the leading tribe, a tribe with a more direct association with God, and a tribe with a mandate from God to punish the errant and unbelieving. God had blessed the tribe of Levi with a new function - they were now God's goons! So after letting Moses and his goons kill 3000 people in one day, God decided to punish the rest of the tribes of Israel with a jolly good pestilence!
And the LORD struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made. (Exodus 32:35)
No one ever questioned the superiority of the tribe of Levi, or the authority of Moses again after undergoing this wondrous example of God's "mercy". Subsequent to this incident, at the request of God, Moses appointed Aaron as high priest (picture below), and pronounced that only members of the tribe of Levi could serve God in the temple and places of worship (see Numbers 18: 1-7 & 20-24). So after the conquest of Canaan, when the land was divided among the twelve tribes of Israel, members of the tribe of Levi received no land. This was because members of the tribe of Levi had the God-given, full-time important function of interceding with God for the tribes of Israel, and accordingly had to be supported by the other tribes of Israel (see also Joshua 13:33).
At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the LORD, to stand before the LORD to minister and to pronounce blessings in his name, as they still do today. That is why the Levites have no share or inheritance among their brothers; the LORD is their inheritance, as the LORD your God told them. (Deuteronomy 10: 8-9)
In conclusion, careful reading of what is actually written in these passages reveal Moses to be a ruthless tribal leader, who made very good use of the opportunity presented him by the Golden Calf incident to establish his power and that of his tribe. God was indeed good to Moses and Aaron, and the treatment of the tribes of Israel was certainly richly deserved!
Read more about wondrous and astounding things in the Bible in the book, The Unholy Legacy of Abraham.
This page last modified 4 April 2009