Calf worship was the first form of idolatry mentioned in the Bible to which the Israelites succumbed after the Exodus from Egypt. While Moses was in the mountain receiving God’s law, the people became impatient and approached Aaron with the request that he make a god for them. From the gold earrings contributed by the Israelites, Aaron formed a molten statue of a calf, undoubtedly a young bull. (Ps 106:19, 20) They claimed that it represented God, and the festival held the following day was designated as a “festival to the LORD.” The Israelites sacrificed to the golden calf, bowed before it, ate, drank, and enjoyed themselves in song and dance.—Ex 32:1-8, 18, 19; Ne 9:18.
The molten calf was not necessarily made of solid gold. This is indicated by the fact that Isaiah, when referring to the making of a molten image, mentions that the metalworker overlays it with gold. (Isa 40:19) Hence, the golden calf was perhaps formed of wood and then overlaid with gold. Therefore, when Moses subjected the image to a burning process, the wooden center was reduced to charcoal and the gold layer either entirely or partially melted. Whatever was left was crushed and ground to pieces until it was fine like dust, and this dust, composed of charcoal and gold, Moses scattered upon the surface of the water.—Ex 32:20; De 9:21.
Idolatrous Egyptian worship, which associated gods with cows, bulls, and other animals, likely had influenced the Israelites to a great extent, causing them to adopt calf worship so soon after being liberated from Egypt. This is confirmed by Stephen’s words: “In their hearts they turned back to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make gods for us to go ahead of us. . . . ’ So they made a calf in those days and brought up a sacrifice to the idol and began to enjoy themselves in the works of their hands.”—Ac 7:39-41.
The first king of the ten-tribe kingdom, Jeroboam, fearing that his subjects would revolt and go back to the house of David if they continued going up to Jerusalem for worship, had two golden calves made. (1Ki 12:26-28) The Bible record does not reveal to what extent Jeroboam’s choice of a calf to represent God was influenced by earlier calf worship in Israel, by what he had observed while in Egypt (1Ki 12:2), or by the religion of the Canaanites and others, who often represented their gods as standing upon an animal, such as a bull.
One of the golden calves Jeroboam set up at the far northern city of Dan, the other at Bethel about 17 km (11 mi) N of Jerusalem. He told his subjects that it was too much for them to go up to Jerusalem for worship and that the calf represented the God who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt. (Compare Ex 32:8.) Since the priests of the tribe of Levi stayed loyal to Jehovah’s worship at Jerusalem, Jeroboam appointed his own priests to lead the false worship before the idol calves at Dan and Bethel. (2Ch 11:13-15) He also arranged for a festival similar to the Festival of Booths, but it was celebrated a month later than the festival in Jerusalem.—1Ki 12:28-33; 2Ch 13:8, 9; Le 23:39.
Jehovah condemned this calf worship and, through his prophet Ahijah, foretold calamity for the house of Jeroboam. (1Ki 14:7-12) Nevertheless, calf worship remained entrenched in the ten-tribe kingdom. Even King Jehu, who eradicated Baal worship in Israel, let calf worship remain, likely in order to keep the ten-tribe kingdom distinct from the kingdom of Judah. (2Ki 10:29-31) In the ninth century B.C.E., Jehovah raised up his prophets Amos and Hosea to proclaim His condemnation of calf worship, which included kissing the idol calves, and also to foretell doom for the ten-tribe kingdom. The golden calf of Bethel was to be carried away to the king of Assyria, giving cause for the people as well as the foreign-god priests to mourn. The high places would be annihilated, and thorns and thistles would grow upon the altars that had been used in false worship. (Ho 10:5-8; 13:2; Am 3:14; 4:4; 5:5, 6) Calamity did come when the ten-tribe kingdom fell to Assyria in 740 B.C.E. About a century later, Jeremiah prophesied that the Moabites would be just as ashamed of their god Chemosh as the Israelites had become of their center of idolatrous calf worship, Bethel.—Jer 48:13;
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