The Golden Calf of Israel and the True and False Worship Today

This paper has been written by me in the course of my theological studies at European Nazarene College ( You may use this text as a part of your work provided that you give credits to its author – Petar Neychev. If you have questions – please, leave a comment or contact me through the Contact Us page.

One of the corner stones of Christianity is the personal relationship between men and God. This intimate relationship is also one of the basic needs in our life. Understanding all this, we come to the question “How do we reach and maintain it – this crucial connection with God?” The answer is: through bowing down, prostrating, serving, venerating… worshiping God (ISBE, WORSHIP). Worship, true and false – today many find it rather simple, but as we will see later, it is not. Often, it is very difficult to distinguish true from false worship, but this is not to say that it is impossible. There is enough information in the Bible, concerning the basics of true and false worship, and some of them will be presented later in this paper.
The goal of this work is to present a comparison between the false worship, which we find in the Bible, more specifically in the book of Exodus, chapter 32, and the problem of false worship in contemporary Christianity. In the process of comparison, true worship will also be discussed.

One of the major causes for the great complicity of worship is the variety of people’s inner personal experiences and external expressions. A good example of inner experience would be “an imaginative event which brings us before … God” (Webber 46). On the other hand, body language is one way of externally expressing worship – physically bowing down, or even laying down (Webber 46). Christian worship, however, does not confine simply to imagination and body language, although one of those aspects of worship is often thought to be more important than the other, but still not excluding the latter from the list, and thus shrinking the concept of worship. Christian worship is a lifestyle. Thus, the question becomes – how do we maintain a life, which is pleasing to God? With all those differences and complicities in mind, sometimes it may be very difficult to discern true from false worship. This, however, does not mean that it is impossible. In fact, if one considers the examples of worship, which are found in the Bible, they will notice many clear guidelines.

The True and False Worship According to the Bible

Before I continue with the passage from Exodus, chapter 32, I would like to present to the reader a brief definition of true and false worship, derived and based on examples from the Bible, and information from secondary sources. Having in mind the desired size of this paper, only a short overall overview of the true and false worship in the Bible will be sufficient.
In general, there are two types of false worship in the Bible: worshiping the false god, and worshiping the true God in a false or unpleasing way (Godfrey 3). A clear example of the first type of false worship I mentioned, is found in Exodus, chapter 32. In this passage we are told, that the people of Israel are waiting on Moses to come down from Mount Sinai, where God is giving him the tablets of the Ten Commandments. They have already been waiting for forty days when they ask Aaron “Come, make us gods who will go before us” (Exodus 32:1, NIV). This act is a violation of the first commandment, which God gives to the same people earlier in Exodus, chapter 20:3.

An illustration, which is related to worship of the false god can also be found in the New Testament. The narrative about the temptation of Christ in the book of Matthew, chapter 4:1-11, tells us about how Jesus refused to worship Satan, a false god. Verses nine and ten are the culmination of the story: “All this I will give you,” the Devil said, “if you kneel down and worship me.” Then Jesus answers, “Go away, Satan! The scripture says, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him!’ ” (Mathew 4:9-10, GNB). Jesus shows us that this worship is to be avoided.

On the other hand, there are multiple occasions in the Bible where people worship the right God in a false or unacceptable way. One of them is found in Genesis chapter 4:3-7. Here is the first sacrifice mentioned in the Old Testament. Abel gave the richest of his flock to the Lord, and He was pleased. The Bible does not mention how and when, but the two brothers must have known in advance what should be given as a true offering. Cane, however, did not worship God truly through his offering, and his sacrifice was not accepted. We read in verse five that Cane became angry because of God’s response. God answers with the following words: “If you had done the right thing, you would be smiling; but because you have done evil, sin is crouching at your door.” (Genesis 4:7a, GNB). Sin is a result of false worship.

Interestingly enough, the second of the Ten Commandments refers to the second type of false worship – worshiping the true God through false methods: “Never make your own carved idols or statues that represent any creature in the sky, on the earth, or in the water. “ (Exodus 20:4, GW). An example of worship through false methods we can find in the book of Leviticus, chapter 10:1-2, where the sons of Aaron offer burnt incense to the Lord in an unacceptable way, and because of this they are burnt to death, in the presence of God.

Both in the Old and New Testament there are examples of people, who worshiped God in pleasing ways. Starting with Noah, whose story of righteousness and trust in God from Genesis 6-8 tells us how he built an enormous boat, and gathered animals from all shapes and sizes in it. Then continuing with Abraham, who was ready to bring his son as a sacrifice to God as being obedient to Him in the book of Genesis 22:1-18. These figures are only a warm up, a preparation for Moses’ appearance on the stage in Exodus 2 and his role from then on. In the New Testament narratives we find people like John the Baptist, who faithfully obeys God’s commandment to baptize and prepare the way; and Jesus – although his status of Man-God, and one who is worshiped makes his worship different, one of his main tasks in ministry is to set an example of true worship.

Both in the Old and New Testament we see examples of personal and public worship. Although there are some changes in the sacrificial system of the New Testament worship, the main problems of false worship still remain, together with the question “How can we tell true from false worship?” From the examples above, one could conclude that in relation to those situations, from our point of view, it is rather easy to distinguish which is true and which is false worship. One main thing, which needs a serious consideration is that the people who were waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain, and Aaron’s sons – they all knew what to do and what not to, but yet they committed sin. In my opinion, the same is still valid for us today – Christians today are as informed as the people of Israel in the Old Testament, and the Christians from the church in the first century, and yet we make mistakes. The issue of true and false worship is still relevant, and through the following exegetical analysis on the text from Exodus 32, I would like to present some of the main problems of false worship, which could be applied to the Christian life today.

The Golden Calf Today

Tracing back the origin of the name of the second book from the Pentateuch – Exodus, we come to see that it is meant to be a crucial component of the story which begins with Genesis, and is brought to completion in Deuteronomy (NIV Study Bible 85).(1) Most scholars agree that there is a certain Mosaic authorship trait in several statements in the book, but they also recognize some influence from the four underlying sources of the Pentateuch, known as J, E, D, and P (NIV Study Bible 2).(2)

Liberation, law, covenant, and God’s presence are the four main theological themes in the book of Exodus (Keck 678-680). An important fact is that the whole second half of the book is focused on God’s presence – the building of a house of worship, which is pleasing to God, and which could ensure God’s presence among the people of Israel, even when they travel.

Chapter 32, which is in the main focus of this paper, is a part of this second half of the book, which deals with the topic of God’s presence. The chapter itself, together with chapters 33 and 34, creates an intended theological arrangement of the book of “command-disruption-implementation” (Keck 927). The block of chapters 32-34 is the disruption of the natural flow of command, followed by performance, suggested by the content of chapters 25-31 and 35-40 (Keck 927).

As we read chapters 32-34, we clearly see a significant development within it. Beginning with the disobedience of God’s commandment in the first six verses of chapter 32, the people of Israel set Moses in a position of asking for forgiveness from God. Towards the end of Exodus 32 we see the authority of Moses, and God’s punishment in action, as the Levites, under Moses’ commandment, go through the camp, “each killing his brother and friend and neighbor” (Exodus 32:27 NIV), and finally the people are struck by a plague because of what they have done. Chapters 33
and 34 present the narrative of Moses pleading for the Lord’s guidance throughout the journey which God led them on. The renewal of the covenant between God and the people of Israel in Exodus 34 makes the transition to the next block of chapters – 35-40.

Due to the limited size of this paper, I would like to focus the reader’s attention mainly on Exodus 32:1-6, and also several brief references from the book of Exodus, which will later help clarify the application of the passage to the contemporary setting.

The first verse of chapter 32 alone introduces several aspects of the situation that the people of Israel faced before Mount Sinai. As the text suggests, Moses brought them out of the land of Egypt. This is not to suggest that Israel did not believe God intervened in this exit from Egypt. On the contrary – the problem is not with Moses’ leadership, but with Moses’ absence. Thus we see that the leadership is still God’s. The issue, however, is that God exercised His leadership through Moses. In the verse preceding the conversation between God and Moses up in the mountain, we are told that “he stayed on the mountain for forty days and forty nights” (Exodus 24:18 NIV), which is the phrase used to express a long period of time (Durham 419). When suddenly the people lost their direct connection with God for a long time, they also lost their peace. Patience was hard to maintain.

This tense situation partially explains the people’s attitude towards Aaron. The modern NIV translation suggests that the people “gathered around” (Exodus 32:1 NIV) Aaron, which is not as clear as the original word in Hebrew. The Hebrew word may be translated better as “come together upon, to, against” (Durham 416). Using this pressure as an advantage, the people of Israel urged Aaron to make them gods, who will lead them, because Moses is no more there to do it. The analysis of the Hebrew text clearly shows that the word translated today as “gods is truly a plural form of “god”. The God of Israel was gone with Moses’ absence. Another leading deity was needed (Durham 419). Thus, Israel violates the first commandment of God.

Because the text of the second verse is not very clear, there are some ambiguities concerning the process of making the calf, and also the material it was made of. Most scholars agree that the context suggests that Aaron made the calf form the gold, which was collected from the people of Israel (Durham 419), using wood with the shape of a calf, or a bag. Although there are uncertainties about the method Aaron used to make the calf, it is for sure that he did that, which weakens his statements in verse 24: “They gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf” (Exodus 32:24 NIV)! By this absurd statement Aaron only makes his situation before God, and before Moses even worse.

It is interesting to see in verse four that it takes but a moment for the people to recognize the calf as their own gods. The newly recognized meaning of the calf becomes even more complicated if verse four is interpreted in the light of verse one, where Moses is presented as the one who brought Israel out of Egypt. At first, one would suggest that the calf adopted the role of Moses – a connection with God, but not a new deity. After a second look, however, especially taking verse eight into consideration, it does not seem so easy to decide whether the calf was a new deity or a new Moses.

In verse eight, God tells Moses about what is happening in the foot of the mountain. There is an agreement among the English translations on God’s words in this conversation from verse eight, which words are the same as in the first narrative about the people before the calf in verse six. NIV translates it as “they have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it” (Exodus 32:8 NIV), and the Good News translation is: “have worshiped it and offered sacrifices to it” (Exodus 32:8 GNB). Also, if we look at a literal translation, the main meaning, which those words carry is the same: “they offered burnt offerings and brought near peace offerings” (Exodus 32:8 LITV). The Strong’s Numbers’ definition of the word worship (Strong 7812), which many translations use in verse eight, is the same as the word used by God in Exodus 24:1, when He commands Moses to come to Him with “Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel” (Exodus 24:1 NIV). This is to say that they worshiped the calf in a sense in which they earlier worshiped the Lord. The Bible does not tell that they have worshiped Moses in the same way. Thus, it becomes very difficult to defend the interpretation that the calf was accepted as a new Moses, rather than a new deity, or new gods.

Aaron announces the feast which takes place before the calf as a “sacred feast for Yahweh” (Durham 421). Those few words, take us back to the question: Are they worshiping new gods, and call them Yahweh, or they are worshiping the true Yahweh through wrong methods? The desired size of this paper does not allow me to go into more details on this topic, but this is not an obstacle for making a conclusion on verse five. Whether worshiping false gods, or falsely worshiping the true God, what the people of Israel did is not true worship.

The results of this act of false worship are revealed partially in the second half of verse seven. There we see how the people eat, drink, and finally rose up to play. The original meaning in Hebrew of the word play carries a sense of a “fornicating and adulterous intercourse” (Clarke Exodus 32:6). In comparison to that, the celebration which the seventy elders and Moses have at the time of confirmation of the covenant with God, does not end with a play (Exodus 24:11). The Bible shows here what are the results of false worship, whether to a false god or to the true God.

The narrative, however, does not end with the sin of Israel. After Moses learns about the disobedience of God’s people, he immediately tries to calm God’s anger. After the Lord relents, Moses comes back to the people and after he accuses them of what they have done, he helps them cleanse themselves (Exodus 32:27-28). In this act, the calf is also destroyed, and the words used to describe this suggest a complete destruction, which is reached when the people drink the grounded to powder calf. Despite all these actions and that Moses seeks the favor of God, there is still punishment for the committed sin. At the end of the chapter we read about a plague which struck the people, because of what they have done. Later, however, God shows his mercy, and the broken tablets with the Ten Commandments are written again (Exodus 34).

The Problem of False Worship Today

As it was shown in the analysis of the passage from Exodus 32, there are several main reasons for the false worship of God. The lack of patience is what first strikes us as we read the narrative. The people of Israel have already been with Moses long enough, and have seen enough miracles in their journey, that they did not have a reason to doubt in his return. Yet, they were anxious and sought a way to substitute what they were missing.

If we hold the view that we offer worship to the Lord through all we do and think, it is not difficult to find examples of false worship from today’s life. How often do we lose our patience – not only for what we are waiting for from God, but also in our relationships with other people? And in those moments, what is coming against us, pushing us towards false worship? When we pray to God, most of the time we expect a quick answer, don’t we? But the reality is that it takes time until the majority of our prayers to God are answered. What is scary is that we, as followers of Jesus, know that this may happen – we hear it in sermons, we teach it in Sunday Schools, we read it in our Bibles. Despite that, often we decide not to wait any longer, and act alone… While at the same time God is preparing something for us.

When we act out of lack of patience, we are not only predisposed to false worship, but this itself is false worship, for it clearly shows how much we trust God. When people are not patient enough, and for long time they do not see an answer from God, they start losing their trust in God, the trust that there will be an answer. Trust is also a form of worship: “Abram put his trust in the LORD, and because of this the LORD was pleased with him and accepted him” (Genesis 15:6 GNB).

Another reason for false worship is disobedience. The nation of Israel did not obey God’s commandment not to make idols, and not to worship other gods, and God was not pleased by that. Despite the fact that today there are not very many golden calves created and being worshiped, there are enough other gods and other types of idols. I would like to focus the reader’s attention on what I consider the two most dangerous gods or idols in today’s life: non-material achievements and self.

As I mentioned earlier, in the beginning of this paper, we tend to think that we can avoid worshiping material idols.(3) The non-material achievements however, such as a high position in the society structure, very often shift our focus away from God, and easily end up being our new gods. And as we saw in the narrative from Exodus, it is not enough to simply say “This is for the Lord!” People have to be reminded often, that building one’s self-assurance and pride, especially through such achievements, can hardly ever be applied for the Lord, but not for us. What happens when people
become self-centered is that they think of themselves as a substitute for God, and for God’s missing answer. Suddenly, we worship ourselves, but not God. Thus, we see how the disobedience of God’s commandment can take us far from God. And what people do when they are far from God is characterized by sin.

The story of Israel does not end at the point where they have sinned, and God is angry. The end of the story comes after Moses’ plea to God. The end of the story comes with the recreation of the the broken tablets of the law – Israel receives what God was preparing for them while they were worshiping the calf. Gad has not changed today – His mercy is big, but repentance is needed, for the strictly negative results of false worship and sin are great. The people of Israel were committing adultery at the end of the feast, which was proclaimed to be for the Lord. Yet they received forgiveness.

It should have become clear by now how important it is to prevent false worship of any type from happening in our life today. How could we achieve this? How could we make sure we offer only true worship to God? In my opinion, that can happen if we stick with what is known – if we practice only what we know for sure is pleasing God. There are enough ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ in the ten commandments, and also in the teachings of Jesus and the apostles from the New Testament. It seems to be very difficult for people to live within those guidelines, and this is where God’s mercy plays its role. This, however, does not mean that people should offer false worship to God with the attitude that they will easily be forgiven after they repent. As we saw, the people of Israel were struck by a plague despite Moses’ request for forgiveness.


To summarize what was already mentioned in this paper, the issue of true and false worship, within the Bible, and also today is a very important aspect of the Christian life. Being of such a great importance, I think that people today should worship in a way which is derived from the Bible or does not contradict with God’s commandments. Many will say that it is rather difficult, but we should accept this challenge, for we have God’s promise that He will not require us to do anything which is beyond our abilities (I Corinthians 10:13). This is why I believe that true worship is still possible, and this is what everyone in their Christian walk should aim for it. Personally, I think that if we avoid anything that we are not sure is true worship we will not lose much, and our worship will still be pleasing to God. How do we distinguish what to avoid from what to preserve? If the Bible is not enough for the complete answer of this question, the rest, in my opinion, is found in God’s personal revelation to each person , who has an open heart, and an open mind to listen.


Clarke, Adam. Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible. LL.D., F.S.A., (1715-1832) Electronic Edition: e-SWORD.

Durham, John I. Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 3. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987.

Godfrey, Robert Dr. “Pleasing God In Our Worship”. The Highway. November 17, 2004. < worship_Godfrey.html>

Keck, Leander E., et al. The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. 1. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1994.

Strong, James. Dictionaries of Hebrew and Greek Words taken from Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance by James Strong. S.T.D., LL.D., 1890. Electronic Edition: e-SWORD.

The Holy Bible, New International Version. NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1984.

Walton, John H., Matthews, Victor H, Chavalas, Mark W. The IVP Background Commentary Genesis – Deuteronomy. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000.


  1. The literal translation of the name of the book of Exodus from Hebrew is “These are the names of”, which suggests the continuation mentioned (NIV Study Bible 85).  Go back.
  2. The so called underlying sources, that many interpreters agree on are “dating from the tenth to fifteenth century B.C., and are called after: J (Jahweh/Yahweh, the personal OT name of God), E (for Elochim, a generic name for God), D (for Deuteronomic) and P (for Priestly)” (NIV Study Bible 2). The block of chapters from Exodus 32-34 is thought as belonging to J and E (Keck 927).  Go back.
  3. On the issue of icons being considered as idols, I would say that icons fit within true worship only as far as they are used with their original intention – to present the Bible to people who are not able to read it and through this help them to understand it. As soon as an icon is being considered an object, which provides healing (as done on many occasions), this is false worship.  Go back.