Three “golden calves” appear in the Bible. The first is fashioned by Aaron at Sinai to replace Moses and Yahweh (Exod. 32; Deut. 9.8–21; Ps. 106.19–20; Neh. 9.18; Acts 7.39–41), and the second and third are a pair commissioned by Jeroboam, leader of the northern secession, to replace the ark; they were worshiped respectively at Dan and Bethel (1 Kings 12.26–33).

Hebrew ʿēgel is generally rendered “calf,” but a more mature beast may be intended. On the one hand, an ʿēgel can be a prancing (Ps. 29.6), untrained (Jer. 31.18) one‐year‐old (Lev. 9.3; Mic. 6.6). On the other hand, the feminine ʿeglâ can denote a three‐year‐old heifer (Gen. 15.9), trained (Hos. 10.11) for plowing (Judg. 14.18) or threshing (Jer. 50.11 [translation uncertain]). Hosea 10.5 calls Jeroboam's images “heifers,” although the reading is uncertain; elsewhere, Hosea describes the animals as male (8.5–6; 13.2). Most likely, the golden “calves” are young bulls, as the Septuagint renders in 1 Kings 12.

It is uncertain from 1 Kings 12.28 whether Jeroboam's images are solid gold or gold‐plated wood; 2 Kings 17.16 calls them “molten.” Aaron's image is “molten” (Exod. 32.4, 8; Deut. 9.16; Ps. 106.19; Neh. 9.18), yet it is destroyed by grinding and burning (Exod. 32.20), as if partly wooden. Hosea 13.2 refers to molten image(s), idols, and calves (it is unclear whether these are the same), and speaks of silver, not gold, while Hosea 8.4 mentions both silver and gold, probably the constituents of the calf in 8.5. Judges 17–18 describes a molten silver image worshiped in Dan, conceivably a forerunner of Jeroboam's calf. In 1990 a silver‐coated molten bronze bull 10 cm (4 in) high dated to ca. 1550 BCE was discovered at Ashkelon.

Aaron's and Jeroboam's calves are symbols of Yahweh; Aaron declares a “festival to Yahweh” (Exod. 32.5) and, throughout its history, the northern kingdom of Israel worshiped Yahweh, even while venerating the calves (2 Kings 3:3, 10.29; etc.). But it is unclear whether the calves represent Yahweh himself or a supernatural bovine on which he stands; Jeroboam's calves may even constitute the armrests of God's throne. All three interpretations have parallels in ancient Near Eastern art and literature, and perhaps more than one was current in Israel. The nonbiblical name ʿEgel‐yo appears in the Samaria ostraca (eighth century BCE) and could mean either “calf of Yahweh” or “Yahweh is a calf.”

The calf stories in Exodus 32 and 1 Kings 12 are closely related. Both extol “your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt,” and both culminate in priestly ordination. The simplest explanation is that Exodus 32 is a polemic against Jeroboam's movement; this would explain the plural “your gods” in Exodus 32.4 (contrast the singluar in Neh. 9.18). Alternatively, Exodus 32 might be a polemic against an older cult revived by Jeroboam—conceivably that of Judges 17–18.

See also Graven Image; Idols, Idolatry


William H. Propp