Chapter Seven: The Golden Calves: False Pictures of Christ

“God is a Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24)

The Golden Calves Served the Same Function As Do Pictures to Represent Christ
What would happen if Christians would use calf images to represent their Master? What if they placed such an image in their places of worship to have an image to represent the God they worship, as an aid in worshiping?

That is what Israel did.

What would happen if Christians (as educational aids) to teach their children and their converts about their Lord, would use golden calf pictures? For instance, when they tell their children the Bible stories about the Lord, what would happen if the parents, teachers and preachers would point to the calf pictures to illustrate God’s presence?

This is what Israel did with their calf images. As the children saw their parents worship God before those images, the children understood that the images represented God. The images became the children’s concept of God. The images became imprinted in the minds of the children.

The images answered the question, “What is Israel’s God like?” a question in the minds of all the Gentile nations surrounding Israel. The image was the answer: the medium was the message.

What if Christians tried to do the same thing today? Would it work any better for us than it did for Israel?
If the church today recognized (1) that Israel made the golden calves as images to represent God, and (2) that Jesus is that God that Israel made images to represent, it would give the church an entirely different perspective on the pictures and images that the church almost universally uses to represent Jesus today. Today’s pictures to represent Christ serve the same function in the church as did the golden calves in the time of Israel.

Israel tried several times to make images to represent God. The classic example is the golden calf made by Aaron, the High Priest. Likewise, the pair of golden calves made by Israel’s King Jeroboam are prime examples. The people made those images to represent God, say the Scripture accounts. Did God approve when people made those images to represent Him? Was He pleased? Did He accept the images as legitimate likenesses or symbols of Himself?

Everybody today knows that those golden calves were rejected by God and called idols.

But not everybody today knows that Israel made those golden calf images for the purpose of representing Yahweh, the true God. People today seem to think that Israel made the golden calves so they could worship a different god than Yahweh.

This error needs to be corrected: the church needs to know that Israel made the golden calves to represent God. The Bible shows that the people made these images to remind them of Yahweh who had saved them from slavery in Egypt. Clear statements of the people who made and set up these images, plus the circumstances in which the images were erected, prove that the golden calves were made to symbolize God, and were not intentionally made to lead people away from God.

Aaron’s Golden Calf Was Made to Represent God

Moses, who had gone up the mountain into the smoke hiding the top of Mt. Sinai, was no longer with the people. Down below in the desert, the homeless children of Israel waited endless days for their leader to return. Weeks passed. A month. Another week. Moses did not tell them it would be forty days. They only knew that he was gone for over a month. The people had followed Moses out of Egypt, but now their God-given leader was long gone.

Eventually the people went to Aaron, Moses’ spokesman brother. They did not ask for a new leader. They asked only, now in the absence of their leader, for Aaron to give them an image of God. They asked for an Elohim, the Elohim who had delivered them from Egypt. They said, “Up, make us gods (“Up, make us Elohim,”) which shall go before us ...” (Ex. 32:1.)

While many English translations say they asked for “gods” (meaning “idols” or “other gods”), in Hebrew they literally asked for the “ELOHIM” that delivered them from Egypt. The Hebrew word Elohim is the word for God or gods. It is translated “God” about 2500 times in the Old Testament. It is also sometimes “gods,” depending upon the context where elohim is used. All the letters were capitals in the Hebrew scriptures.

So the literal wording in Hebrew says that Israel asked Aaron to make them ELOHIM that delivered them out of Egypt. The obvious meaning is that Israel wanted an image to stand for their Elohim, now that Moses was absent.

Since translators must choose whether to translate Elohim as singular or plural (God or Gods) and whether to capitalize “G” or make it a small “g”, why do so many translators call this calf image “gods” (plural and small “g”)? Why use the plural form (“gods”) for a single image? Why is it that elsewhere this Hebrew word elohim is translated into English as “God” twenty-five hundred times, but here when it applies to the golden calf it is translated “gods”? Obviously translators know that the people could not create the God who delivered Israel or they would have translated it “God.”

But, on the other hand, the people of Israel believed Aaron could make for them an image of God.
Come, make us (Elohim) which shall go before us. As for this fellow Moses, who brought us out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” (Ex. 32:1)
These people certainly must have remembered that God delivered them from slavery only a few weeks before, and they clearly implied that they wanted to follow God. They wanted God to go before them: they wanted to follow to the promised land the God who delivered them from Egypt.

Why then did Aaron cooperate with their request for an image to represent God? Didn’t he know it was idolatry to make an elohim? But he told the people to bring their golden earrings and he melted them all together, making the gold into a calf-like image.

Some people think that Aaron called for their jewelry, thinking the people would not be willing to sacrifice their jewelry; thus, Aaron could get “off the hook” without having to take a stand against their idolatry. But they did bring their gold and when Aaron accepted it, he had crossed the line of compromise too far. He felt compelled to keep his part of the deal, so he made the golden calf.

Another idea has been put forth. When Aaron saw how determined the people were to make an image, he thought it best to go along with them and remain their leader until Moses returned. Maybe later, gradually, he could get them back to worshipping God in spirit and truth. Maybe he feared he would be stoned to death if he took a firm stand at that moment against idolatry. So, reluctantly, he made the image.

Or maybe Aaron really did not know better than to make an image of Elohim, though this is not likely, because God spoke the Law from the mountain. In any case, the Scripture does show that Aaron, though he did make the image, did not intend to lead the people away from God, for it says he called the people to worship God there before the image: he proclaimed, “a feast unto Yahweh.”

Nobody spoke of departing from God—neither Aaron nor the people who came to him. What the church often forgets is that Aaron and the people of Israel really did plan to continue to worship (with the aid of that elohim image) the Elohim that delivered them from Egypt. It wasn’t the image itself that they wanted as their Elohim, it was the Elohim who delivered them from Egypt that they wanted.

How do we know for sure that it was Elohim they wanted, not just the image? Here is the answer: Aaron dedicated the image to Yahweh. When Aaron saw the elohim that he had made, he built an altar before it. Then he proclaimed that tomorrow, before this image and this altar, a feast unto the LORD (Yahweh) would be celebrated.
... 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. (Ex. 32:5-6)
They said they were worshiping the LORD (Yahweh) when they were worshiping before the image. They thought the form of a calf could symbolize God. The people were zealous to worship Yahweh “Elohim” in their erroneous, misdirected worship. They rose up early in the morning to worship. They sang, they danced, they celebrated. They thought they were honoring Yahweh. They had an image to make God seem real and tangible. It seemed so good.

But the consequences of making the God-image soon appeared. First came natural consequences. Their festivities soon led soon to sexual sin: “they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry” (Ex. 32:6). The revelry in their worship ignited fleshly passion. Some indulged in “sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 10:8).

God reacted to their worship with hot jealous wrath; he threatened to destroy the entire nation of Israel and start over again with Moses. God did not accept it as honor or remembrance when the people tried to fellowship with him through an image.
‘I have seen these people,’ the LORD said to Moses, ‘and they are a stiffnecked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation. (Ex. 32:9-10)
Moses interceded for the people until “the LORD relented” (Ex. 32:14). Then Moses went down to the people, carrying the two stone tables of the law. As he came near the camp he heard the singing. Coming still closer, he saw the elohim image and the people dancing about it. Now Moses got very angry. He threw down the stone tables of the law, for Israel had broken its covenant with God.

God Gave the Ark of the Covenant to Be the Place for His Presence

When studying the golden calves, it is helpful to note that back in Moses’ day, the Ark of the Covenant took the place of the forbidden image; it took the place, but gave no image to stand for God.

Notice that God gave the Ark of the Covenant to take the place of the golden calf. It was “at that time” (see Dt. 10:1), the time when they got rid of the golden calf, that God gave Moses the instructions to make the ark of the covenant. (See Dt. 9:7-29.) The ark was part of God’s answer to the golden calf, set in juxtaposition to the calf.

Look at the ark. Its genius was that it did not use an image to represent God. The ark was a chest of acacia wood, small enough for four priests to carry it, each man holding one end of the two poles held in place by the rings on either side of the ark. On top of the ark was the “mercy seat” made of gold. Atop the mercy seat, at either end, stood two images of angelic cherubs facing each other and looking downward toward the mercy seat. God dwelt in the empty, imageless space between the cherubs above the mercy seat. God localized his presence to this empty space and to this empty space alone.

Calvin said, “The Ark of the Covenant indeed is often called ‘His face’ ...” (Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses, Eerdmans, II, 132). The Ark of the Covenant was the one place in the world where the people could come before God and meet with Him.

Thus the ark took the place of the calf. Israel made the golden calf to be an image of Yahweh, the place where people would come before Yahweh. But Moses destroyed the image and in its place God put the ark of the covenant with its imageless space between the cherubs. In that imageless space dwelt the impictureable Yahweh to meet with His people.

But centuries later, King Jeroboam persuaded Israel to leave the Ark of the Covenant and return to using calf images to represent God.

Jeroboam’s Golden Calves Were Made to Represent God


Trojans conquered Sparta by giving them a great image of a horse. In it were hidden warriors who crept out of the image at night and opened the gates of the city for the Trojan army. Then the Trojan army entered Sparta and conquered it.

What physically happened to the Greek city of Sparta happened spiritually to Jeroboam’s nation of Israel. Calf images, instead of a horse image, were given to the land of Israel. These images were given to represent God. But, in fact, the images enabled the Deceiver to defeat the whole country of Israel, not just one city like Sparta.

These images were filled, not with enemy soldiers, but with a real demonic influence that made the people of Israel think they were worshiping God, when in reality, they were opening their worship to demonic influence and to an unbiblical concept of God.
Golden calves made by King Jeroboam were images made by Israel for the purpose of worshiping Yahweh, but they eventually destroyed their nation. This occurred midway between Aaron and Christ, nearly half a millennium after Aaron’s golden calf and more than half a millennium before Christ was incarnated in Mary’s womb. God was still teaching His people not to make false images of Him when He would incarnate Himself and dwell in the flesh with them (as per Dt. 4).

These calf images appeared shortly after King Solomon died, when his son, Rehoboam, became king. Rehoboam raised taxes, causing ten northern states to rebel against the taxes and to start their own kingdom with Jeroboam as king.

Jeroboam saw he soon would lose his new kingdom if the ten tribes would keep on making their religious pilgrimages to Jerusalem’s temple. Jeroboam stopped his ten tribes from going back to the temple to worship by persuading them to stay and worship inside the borders of their own land.

Jeroboam set up worship centers located at Dan in the northern part of the new nation and at Bethel in the southern part of his land. At these local worship centers Israel was to worship God, not go up to Jerusalem to worship.

“It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem,” was the message of Jeroboam. “Worship God here.” In these worship centers Jeroboam set up altars and images for the worship of God, the God whom he said had delivered their forefathers from Egypt.

Jeroboam seemed to make it easier to know and worship God. How nice! Would it not revive their religious life to have their worship centers so near at home and so free of the long trips to Jerusalem?

Israel quit going to Jerusalem and worshiped at Dan and Bethel. They worshiped “the God who had delivered them from Egypt,” bowing before images that made God seem close and real to them. Jeroboam’s images became their sin. The people worshiped before the images (though it does not say they actually worshiped the images): “And this thing became a sin; for the people went to worship before the one (margin: “Or, ‘each of them’), even unto Dan. (1 Kings 12:30)

So Jeroboam “devised of his own heart” (1 Kings 12:33) services of worship. His statement, “Behold thy gods (thy ELOHIM), O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt,” is the very same statement that deceived the people into worshipping Aaron’s golden calf at an earlier date.

Future kings all followed Jeroboam’s precedent. All the kings of the northern kingdom had their work summed up in the statement: “he walked in the way of Jeroboam, and in his sin wherewith he made Israel to sin.” Most of the nineteen kings personally have this terrible epitaph attached to their final records, person by person: 1 Kings 15:26 (Nadab); 1 Kings 15:34 (Baasha); 1 Kings 16:19 (Zimri); 1 Kings 16:26 (Omri) 1 Kings 21:22 (Ahab); 2 Kings 13:10 (Jehoash); 2 Kings 14:23 (Joash); 2 Kings 15:18 (Menahem). The others not mentioned by name are included in a general statement. None of the kings rejected the images that were made to represent God. Some were great men in other respects (King Jehu, for instance, took great pride in his zeal for Yahweh: “Come, see my zeal for Yahweh!”, he said), but all failed to even try to get rid of the false images of God that eventually destroyed their nation.

It took long centuries before Israel learned that they could not make an image of God when he would appear to them (see Dt. 4:9-15). Not until they proved to the world that they would not make images of their God did the Incarnation occur.

Consequences: All the Kings Permitted Jeroboam’s Images (1 Kings 12:28 & following)

Jeroboam’s golden calf images caused Israel to fall, as witness the following Scriptures.

1 Kings 14:16 Ahijah (the prophet) prophesied: “... (God) will give Israel up because of THE SINS JEROBOAM...CAUSED ISRAEL TO COMMIT.”

1 Kings 15:26 King Nadab “did evil in the eyes of the Lord, walking in THE WAYS OF HIS FATHER (JEROBOAM) AND IN HIS SIN, WHICH HE CAUSED ISRAEL TO COMMIT.”

1 Kings 15:30 King Baasha was allowed to kill Jeroboam’s “whole family”—“because of THE SINS JEROBOAM had committed and had CAUSED ISRAEL TO COMMIT...”

1 Kings 15:34 But Baasha himself “did evil in the eyes of the Lord, WALKING IN THE WAYS OF JEROBOAM AND IN HIS SIN WHICH HE CAUSED ISRAEL TO SIN.”

1 Kings 16:2 The prophet Jehu spoke God’s message against Baasha: “you WALKED IN THE WAYS OF JEROBOAM AND CAUSED MY PEOPLE ISRAEL TO SIN ...”

1 Kings 16:7 The prophet Jehu spoke the word of the Lord “to Baasha and his house, because of all the evil he had done in the eyes of the Lord, provoking him to anger by the things he did and becoming like the house of JEROBOAM...”

1 Kings 16:13 King Zimri “... destroyed the whole family of Baasha.” Why? “Because of all the sins Baasha and his son Elah had committed and had CAUSED ISRAEL TO COMMIT, so that they provoked the Lord, the God of Israel to anger by their worthless IDOLS.”

1 Kings 16:19 King Zimri died in the fire “because of the sins he committed, doing evil in the eyes of the Lord and walking in the ways of JEROBOAM and in the sin he had committed and had CAUSED ISRAEL TO COMMIT.”

1 Kings 16:26 King (Omri) “walked in all the ways of JEROBOAM son of Nebat, and in his sin which he had CAUSED ISRAEL TO COMMIT.”

1 Kings 21:22 (The prophet Elijah gave God’s message to Ahab): “I will make your house like that of JEROBOAM ... because you have provoked me to anger and have CAUSED ISRAEL TO SIN.”

1 Kings 22:52 King (Ahaziah) “did evil in the eyes of the Lord, because he the ways of JEROBOAM son of Nebat, who CAUSED ISRAEL TO SIN.”

2 Kings 3:3 King “(Joram) got rid of the sacred stone of Baal that his father had made. Nevertheless he clung to the sins of JEROBOAM, son of Nebat, which he CAUSED ISRAEL TO COMMIT: he did not turn away from them.”

2 Kings 10:28-29 King “Jehu destroyed Baal worship in Israel. However, he did not turn away from the sins of JEROBOAM, son of Nebat, which he had CAUSED ISRAEL TO COMMIT—THE WORSHIP OF THE GOLDEN CALVES at Bethel and Dan.”

2 Kings 10:31 “King (Jehu) was not careful to keep the law of the Lord, the God of Israel, with all his heart. He did not turn away from the sins of JEROBOAM which he had CAUSED ISRAEL TO COMMIT.”

2 Kings 13:2 King “(Jehoahaz) did evil in the eyes of the Lord by following the SINS OF JEROBOAM, son of Nebat, WHICH HE HAD CAUSED ISRAEL TO COMMIT.”

2 Kings 13:6 (Although God delivered Israel from King Hazael of Syria:) “the Israelites...did not turn away from the sins of the house of JEROBOAM, which he had CAUSED ISRAEL TO COMMIT: they continued in them.”

2 Kings 13:11 King (Jehoash) “did evil in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn away from any of the sins of JEROBOAM son of Nebat, which he had CAUSED ISRAEL TO COMMIT: they continued in them.”

2 Kings 14:24 King Jeroboam (son of Jehoash) “did evil in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn away from any of the sins of JEROBOAM son of Nebat, which he had CAUSED ISRAEL TO COMMIT.”

2 Kings 15:9 King Zechariah “did evil in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn away from any of the sins of JEROBOAM son of Nebat which he had CAUSED ISRAEL TO COMMIT.

2 Kings 15:18 King Menahem “did evil in the eyes of the Lord. During his entire reign he did not turn away from the sins of JEROBOAM son of Nebat, which he had CAUSED ISRAEL TO COMMIT.”

2 Kings 15:24 King Pekahiah “did evil in the eyes of the Lord. He did not turn away from the sins of JEROBOAM son of Nebat, which he had CAUSED ISRAEL TO COMMIT.”

2 Kings 15:28 King (Pekah) “did evil in the eyes of the Lord. He did not turn away from the sins of JEROBOAM son of Nebat, which he had CAUSED ISRAEL TO COMMIT.”

Summary Statements in the Bible: Israel Was Destroyed By the Golden Calves
It may be more than coincidence that Jesus chose Samaria as the place to declare that “God is spirit” (John 4:24). Samaria had been the capitol of Jeroboam’s golden calf empire. The golden calves are not mentioned by name here, but the woman of Samaria raised that old question about where people should worship God. She admitted her people’s history of choosing Samaria.

Jesus did not require her to Jerusalem, but he gave her no permission to use images. She must worship God in spirit and in truth.
2 Kings 17:16 “They forsook all the commands of the Lord their God and made for themselves TWO IDOLS CAST IN THE SHAPE OF CALVES, and an Asherah pole.”

2 Kings 17:21-23 “When he tore Israel away from the house of David, they made JEROBOAM son of Nebat their king. JEROBOAM enticed Israel away from following the Lord and CAUSED THEM TO COMMIT A GREAT SIN. The ISRAELITES PERSISTED IN ALL THE SINS OF JEROBOAM and did not turn away until the Lord removed them from His presence, as He had warned through all his servants, the prophets. So the people were taken from their homeland into exile in Assyria.”

These images were called “THE SIN wherewith JEROBOAM the son of Nebat CAUSED ISRAEL TO SIN.”

It was the sin of using images to represent the LORD that destroyed the kings of Israel. Each king of Israel (all nineteen kings) had this golden calf sin recorded against him. This ruined the nation.

The people of Israel accepted the symbols (the calf images) as a message of God’s presence and blessing. But in truth, those images as their representations of God was the sign that they had separated from God. The closer Israel got to the false images, the further they got from the true God.

The Golden Calf Was a False Image of Christ

Who was the Elohim God that Israel tried to picture in their golden calf-shaped elohim images?

In some way it was Christ, pre-incarnate, the second person of the Trinity who was that Elohim that Israel tried to represent in its golden calves. Christ is not just a Son of Yahweh: he is Yahweh the Son. Yahweh the Son was the Elohim of the exodus, the Elohim who gave his Law to Israel, the Elohim who met with Israel from between the cherub images of the ark. (See the study of the Angel of Yahweh, in the chapter on the Deity of Christ, which indicates the involvement of the Second Person of the Trinity in the exodus.)

The calf image was false. Some later references to Aaron’s golden calf elohim classify the image as a falsehood that was “exchanged” for truth—they put a falsehood where truth should have stood. Psalms says that, when they made a calf, they exchanged their glory for the likeness of an ox (Ps. 106:19-20). Who was “their glory” that they exchanged for an image? Elohim was, of course, their “glory” that they traded away for the image.

After the Golden Calf era came the Captivity era (the Assyrian Captivity and the Babylonian Captivity) in a cause and effect relationship. Deity images brought captivity. But the people finally understood the golden calves after the Babylonian Captivity. That captivity conclusively taught Israel the terrible consequences that idolatry brings. They remembered their forefathers saying that the calf was their “Elohim” that brought them up out of Egypt. (Note the different ways the word Elohim is translated in Neh. 9:18—e.g., the King James translates it “This is your God...”; NIV has “This is your god...” Translators vary whether to capitalize and pluralize “God” when referring to the images.) The people finally recognized that they could not make an image of their Elohim God.

The New Testament remembers the golden calf. The martyr, Stephen, and the Apostle Paul both called attention to what it teaches and interpreted it for us. Stephen, on trial for preaching Christ, reminded his Jewish leaders that their forefathers “made a calf in those days, and brought a sacrifice unto the idol ... (Acts 7:41)

Stephen’s sermon showed that Jesus is the Lord of the Temple, and that to choose the Temple instead of the Lord was to make the same error that the Golden Calf worshipers made centuries ago. Stephen shocked the Council and angered its members when he called attention to the similarity between these Jewish leaders adopting the temple and their forefathers adopting the image. The Council, with their faith in the temple, thereby rejected the same Lord that their forefathers rejected with their faith in the calf image of God’s presence. The temple and the calf both were forms used to localize God. Ultimately, both forms became more important to their users than God was to them.

They executed Stephen that same day. The Council could not admit that rejecting Jesus meant they were rejecting God and making a golden calf of the temple. Stephen’s preaching that Christ is Lord of the temple, the same Lord their forefathers tried to capture in the calf image, offended them greatly and they would not tolerate it.

This “exchange-God-for-an-image” theme, illustrated so amply in the Old Testament, is explained more in Rom 1:22-23. All users of deity images are called “fools” because they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images. People who use images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles” (RSV) to represent God “exchanged” away not only the glory of God, but also they exchanged away the truth of God for a lie (1:25). Their image is a lie: the image does not truly present the glory of God, nor does it truly present the truth of God. Image-users are foolish. “Fools” “exchange” their images for God; they put the images in the place reserved for God’s glory and His truth. Romans 1:18ff strips away this charade of images, exposing the idolatrous mentality that produces such a religious charade.

This teaching that deity images are in fact lies about God is rooted in the Old Testament (e.g., Hab 2:18). In fact, one of the Old Testament names for an idol is “a lie.” Even though many people accept images as representations of God, the images are declared to be misrepresentations, falsehood, or lies about God. Images that are made to stand in the place of God are lies. Such were the golden calves, prime examples of what happens when people use images to represent God.

To the Corinthians the Apostle Paul explained that Israel’s golden calf idolatry was a lesson for Christians.
Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry. We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. (1 Cor. 10:6-8)
Here, as in Romans 1, Paul shows that sexual immorality follows when people use images to represent God. (It may be significant to note that the modern church, which in its “wisdom” uses so many images to represent Christ, is unable to withstand the plagues of modern sexual immorality. A case could be made that God has delivered the image-using church over, first to heterosexual sin and then to homosexual sin, reminiscent of the progressive description in Romans 1). Idolatry is spiritual adultery; one way idolatry manifests itself is in sexual promiscuity. The golden calf incident warns those who are Christians. The danger for the golden calf type of idolatry and its consequences among Christians was real to the apostle Paul.

Conclusion: The Golden Calves Show What Happens When Images Are Used to Represent Christ

So Jesus is the person that Israel tried to worship in the Golden Calf images. The people said, “This is our God that delivered us from Egypt.” The pre-incarnate Jesus was that Elohim who delivered Israel from Egypt. Israel’s use of the Golden Calves typifies what happens when people use images to represent Jesus. The Golden Calf incidents warn the church that the same consequences can be expected when the church uses images to represent Christ.

Bibliographic References & Notes

Calvin, John. Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses, Arranged in the Form of a Harmony (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1950). Vol. II.

Survey available commentaries and observe how many commentary writers recognize that the golden calves were made to represent God.