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According to the Hebrew Bible, the golden calf (עֵגֶּל הַזָהָב ‘ēggel hazâhâḇ) was an idol (a cult image) made by Aaron to satisfy the Israelites during Moses' absence, when he went up to Mount Sinai. The Quran indentifies the maker as Samiri.
In Hebrew, the incident is known as ḥēṭ’ ha‘ēggel (חֵטְא הַעֵגֶּל) or "The Sin of the Calf". It is first mentioned in Exodus 32:4 (Taha 20.83 in the Quran). In Egypt, whence the Hebrews had recently come, the Apis Bull was the comparable object of worship, which the Hebrews were reviving in the wilderness. Among the Egyptians' and Hebrews' neighbors in the Ancient Near East and in the Aegean, the Aurochs, the wild bull, was widely worshipped, often as the Lunar Bull and as the creature of El. Its Minoan manifestation survived as the Cretan Bull of Greek myth.
Summary of the Biblical narrative
When Moses went up onto Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:20), he left the Israelites for forty days and forty nights (Exodus 24:18). The Israelites feared that he would not return and asked Aaron to make gods for them (Exodus 32:1). Aaron complied and gathered up the Israelites' golden earrings. He melted them and constructed the golden calf. Aaron also built an altar before the calf. And the next day, the Israelites made offerings and celebrated.
The Lord told Moses that his people had corrupted themselves, and he planned to eliminate them. However, Moses argued and pleaded that they should be spared (Exodus 32:11), and the Lord relented. Moses went down from the mountain, but upon seeing the calf, he too became angry. He threw down the tablets upon which God's law had been written, breaking them. Moses burnt the golden calf in a fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on water, and forced the Israelites to drink it. Aaron admitted collecting the gold, throwing it into the fire, and said it came out as a calf. Moses then gathered the sons of Levi and set them to slaying a large number of men (3000). A plague struck the Israelites. Nevertheless, the Lord stated that he would one day visit the Israelites' sin upon them.
As Moses had broken the tablets, the Lord instructed him to return to Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:2) and receive a replacement.
As adoration of wealth
A metaphoric interpretation emphasizes the "gold" part of "golden calf" to criticize the pursuit of wealth. This usage can be found in Spanish where Mammon, the Gospel personification of idolatry of wealth, is not so current.
The Quranic Version of the episode is similar in most respects, except that the golden calf is constructed by a man named Samiri, rather than Aaron. Samiri claims that Moses has disappeared, and the Israelites have to find a new god. To this end, Samiri makes a golden calf from the gold jewelry brought out of Egypt.
Aaron, who is acting as leader in Moses' absence, attempts to prevent them from worshipping the statue, but is unsuccessful. When Moses does return, he is initially infuriated at the pagan ritual and Aaron's inability to stop it. Moses then exiles Samiri and orders the golden calf burnt and its ashes cast into the sea.
In popular culture
- The Golden Calf (award) is the award given at the Netherlands Film Festival, regarded as the Dutch counterpart to the Academy Awards.
- In 2008, Damien Hirst put his sculpture The Golden Calf up for auction at Sotheby's. The dead calf in formaldehyde, complete with gold-plated horns and hooves, sold for 10.3 million pounds.
- Prefab Sprout has a song on From Langley Park to Memphis called "The Golden Calf".
- Mooby the Golden Calf is a fictional character featured in Kevin Smith's films and animated series.
- Torah parshiot or portions dealing with the Golden Calf: Ki Tissa and Eikev
- Red Heifer
- The Golden calf from a Jewish perspective at Chabad.org
- Rabbi Fohrman's Lectures on the Golden Calf
- The Golden calf from Ein Hod perspective
- Islamic interpretation of the story of the Golden calf in the Qur'an
- Story of Muses and Aaron in the Qur'an
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