Golden Calves & Israel’s Origins

A look into the golden calf of Exodus 32 reveals a larger picture of Israel’s history.



The Prince of Egypt cuts to the end credits as Moses triumphantly descends Mount Sinai with the tablets of God’s law. If the film had continued, the very next scene would have been Moses discovering Israel worshiping a golden idol of a young bull, created by Moses’ own brother Aaron. Moses cracks the stone tablets on the ground in anger, having just defended Israel to God. He seizes the idol, grinds it into a fine powder, and forces the idolators to drink the powder mixed in water. Moses then instructs the Levite tribe to kill anyone who failed to repudiate the idol.

Psa 106.19–20 They made a calf at Horeb and worshiped a cast image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass.

The story is infamous, and has become ubiquitous in pop culture for perceived idolatry. Lesser known, however, is a different account of Israel worshiping golden idols of bulls.

The first several chapters of the Book of Kings deal with the transition of royal power from David to his son Solomon, followed by Solomon building a temple for Yahweh in Jerusalem, along with a palace for the king. When we arrive at 1 Kings 12, Solomon’s son Rehoboam has become king, but he faces a revolt. The northern tribes secede and a man named Jeroboam son of Nebat, is chosen to rule the new northern kingdom of Israel, with the south becoming the kingdom of Judah.

To ensure the security of his throne, Jeroboam builds two altars, one each in the towns Bethel and Dan. Placing in a golden idol of a young bull in either sanctuary, Jeroboam’s intention is to prevent the northern tribes from continuing to think of Jerusalem’s temple as their religious capital, keeping their allegiance to the northern kingdom.

It is here that a literary puzzle emerges.

Exodus 32.4

1 Kings 12.28

He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’

So the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold. He said to the people, ‘You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’

Except for the introductory ‘these are’ (ʾêlleh) and ‘here are’ (hinnêh), Jeroboam’s declaration is identical to what Aaron said to Israel. It’s extremely doubtful he would purposely quote the antagonist of an event in Israel’s past, yet even the context is the same: both men say this in reference to golden idols of bulls they have just made for Israel to direct their worship to. There are three possible explanations here: the verbal connection is purely coincidental; when the Jeroboam story was written, the author purposely borrowed from the Exodus story; or, the Exodus story purposely borrowed from Jeroboam’s story.1

Aaron and Jeroboam

Once we notice the verbal echo, a number of other similarities between Aaron and Jeroboam start showing up. ‘Almost no one denies’2 the ‘clear connection’3 between the two stories, but how far does this connection go? We’ll keep the two items we’ve already mentioned in the list for completeness.4

  • Both act on counsel to make the golden calves as idols for Israel.
  • ‘[These/here] are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’
  • Both build altars and ordain feasts.
  • Both perform sacrifices in a priestly role.
  • Levites oppose Aaron; Jeroboam appoints a non-Levite priesthood.
  • Both occasions of idolatry are described as a supreme sin.
  • Both men are threatened with death, but live longer anyway.
  • An intercession is made for the idolators.
  • Aaron’s calf and Jeroboam’s altars are burnt and ground into dust.
  • Aaron’s sons are named Abihu and Nadab; Jeroboam’s sons are named Abijah and Nadab.

This degree of similarity between the two men goes beyond sheer coincidence, ruling out the first potential explanation. This leaves us with direct literary dependence. The question is, which text was dependent on the other? Looking into some of the items from our list above, along with a few other points, will shed light on this.

Bull Idols

The broader story claimed by the Hebrew Bible’s narrative books — that Israel was vaguely monotheistic and iconoclastic before the exodus, and became firmly so afterward, such that polytheism and idolatry were deviations from the norm — finds dissent within both the Hebrew Bible itself and the archaeological record. Ugaritic texts refer to the Canaanite gods El and Baʿal as a ‘bull’,5 and ancient Near Eastern iconography from depict some gods with a bull’s horns on their hat/crown.6 Israel’s culture emerged in continuity with Canaanite culture. The chief deity of the Canaanite pantheon, El, is even identified as the family god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in different parts of the Book of Genesis. Different biblical authors took different methods to conflate El with Yahweh.7 There are even a few instances of Israel’s god being called ‘bull’ in the Bible,8 showing us that such imagery was not considered unusual or deviant until a much later time, when the Hebrew scriptures were being compiled and edited. Jeroboam would simply have been doing what was normal for his time.9

The Book of Kings was written in the mid to late sixth century BCE, by scribes descended from Judah. Two centuries before the Book of Kings was being written, we find the prophet Hosea condemning bull idols. This indicates the practice was falling out of favor in certain circles, but Hosea was two centuries after Jeroboam, hinting that the Israelite king was not doing something unusual for his time period. Some scholars even suggest Jeroboam’s golden calves would not have been understood by his contemporaries as depictions of Yahweh. Rather, they were more of a symbolic representation of his throne (similar to the function of cherubim in other parts of the Bible), or perhaps the bulls represented a pedestal Yahweh stood upon, as was the case for Baʿal.10 The Book of Kings is not bias-free; the sixth century Judean scribes had little problem writing a ‘history’ which favored their theological goals.11

The charge of Jeroboam’s apostasy serves Judean polemical interests. His use of the golden calves did not depict YHWH or any other god per se, but the mount on which YHWH rides.12

One peculiar detail of the golden calves stands out when comparing Exo 32 with 1 Kings 12.

Jeroboam makes two calves because he makes two altars, one each for two different villages, Dan and Bethel.13 Jeroboam says ‘Here are your gods’. While some take this as an indication Jeroboam is supporting worship of Canaanite gods — perhaps El and Baʿal, especially since ‘Bethel’ literally means ‘House of El’14 — this interpretation doesn’t completely account for two other elements of the story. First, Jeroboam says these gods ‘brought you up out of the land of Egypt’. Second, he made the idols as incentive for Israelites not to travel to Yahweh’s temple in Jerusalem. Per the story, Jeroboam is identifying both idols as representing Yahweh. So why does he use the plural ‘gods’? In the culture of the time, manifestations of a deity in distinct locations could be described as different deities: Yahweh of Dan and Yahweh of Bethel.15

This is not the case in Exo 32. The Hebrew Bible regularly uses the plural noun ʾĕlōhîm in reference to the singular ‘God’ (perhaps as an intensive plural). We know this is the correct translation because the accompanying verb will be in singular form. If the verb is also in the plural, it means ʾĕlōhîm should be translated as ‘gods’. This is what we find in verses 4 and 8 of Exo 32, which means Aaron is bizarrely referring to a single bull idol as multiple ‘gods’. This is a strong hint at the direction of literary dependence: the chronologically earlier story in Exodus 32 is based on the later story in 1 Kings 12.16

Literary Dependence

The information surrounding either Aaron’s or Jeroboam’s two sons helps make sense of Exodus’ dependence on 1 Kings. Briefly mentioned above, the two men’s sons share similar names. Aaron’s son Abihu (אביהוא) is just two consonants more than Jereboam’s son Abijah (אביה). Aaron’s son Nadab is spelled identically to Jeroboam’s son Nadab (נדב).17

While Aaron’s son are mentioned a handful of times in the Torah, their only actual narrative role is to die in an unusual way.

Lev 10.1–2 Now Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered strange fire before Yahweh, such as he had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of Yahweh and consumed them, and they died before Yahweh.

Jeroboam’s sons also die prematurely, though the circumstances are different. Abijah falls ill, and passes away when his mother sets out to consult a prophet (1 Kings 14.1–18). Nadab succeeded Jeroboam as king (14.20), but was assassinated just two years later (15.25–28), bringing an abrupt end to Jeroboam’s short-lived dynasty.

The reasoning around Aaron’s sons’ deaths are a bit opaque. Their sin is evidently because they used ‘strange’ or ‘different’ fire in their incense offering. The additional phrase ‘such as he had not commanded them’ may provide additional clarity. The phrasing is awkward in English; it doesn’t refer to a law which doesn’t exist (i.e. ‘God never said anything about this’), but to a law of prohibition (‘God said don’t do this’). The phrase is generally used in the Hebrew Bible in relation to idolatry or other unacceptable practices of worship. The deaths of Abihu and Nadab for burning incense on a ‘strange fire’ (the author here may have in mind Exo 30.9, though it doesn’t prohibit strange fire specifically) is generally seen as an allusion to Jeroboam offering incense to the bull idol at Bethel (1 Kings 12.33), an act for which Jeroboam is immediately condemned (13.1–2), leading to his family’s fate of being ‘cut off and destroyed from the face of the earth’ (13.33–34).18

the figure of Aaron as he appears in the golden calf story is, to all intents and purposes, identical with Jeroboam19

Exo 32 is an invented story, created by remixing parts of Jeroboam’s story in 1 Kings 12–15 in a way that fits the context of the exodus narrative, while still condemning Jeroboam.20 Though, why would the author fill Jeroboam’s role with Aaron, the ancestor of Israel’s priesthood?

The biblical figure Zadok, the first high priest to serve in Jerusalem’s temple for Yahweh, was a close ally of David and Solomon. Many scholars think the Zadokite priests were not members of the Aaronide priesthood, but were instead a rival lineage. Where 1 Kings 12 comes from Judean scribes vilifying Israel altogether, Exo 32 reflects a Zadokite portrait of the Aaronide priesthood.21 Aaron was too deeply integrated into the exodus traditions to be removed, but the Zadokites would be able to malign the Aaronides’ ancestor by attributing bull idolatry to him, the same sin of Jeroboam which led to the northern kingdom’s demise.22

First Kings 12–15 is a revisionist history, describing tenth century events in Israel according to sixth century scribes from Judah. They meant to depict Jeroboam as far more immoral than he probably was. In a similar way, the golden calf story in Exo 32 may also have been written for polemical reasons. This time, instead of members of one nation condemning their northern neighbor, it was one clan of priests smearing another.

The evidence so far strongly favors the author of Exo 32 being directly dependent on 1 Kings 12–15, but this does not mean the idea Israel worshiped a golden calf during the exodus originated with this author. Many details in Exo 32 have no parallel in Jeroboam’s story in 1 Kings. The most likely other source for them is Deut 9.7–10.11.

The Deuteronomy version of Israel’s idolatry in the wilderness differs from Exo 32 in several ways. In Deuteronomy, the guilt is on all Israel; Aaron is only briefly mentioned, not credited with making the idol, but defended by Moses. In Exodus, Aaron creates the idol, but is conspicuously excused from any punishment despite Moses never interceding for him.23 In Deuteronomy there is a forty-day gap between Moses discovering the idol and when he destroys it, scattering its remains in a river. In Exodus, Moses destroys the idol ‘as soon as’ he descends Mount Sinai, and he forces Israel to drink the idol’s remains in a water mixture.

The Deuteronomy story is often thought to be based on Exo 32, but it could be the other way around.24 The Deuteronomy version may have been written first, primarily concerned with the theme of Moses’ intercession for Israel’s sins.25 In this version, the particular sin wasn’t terribly important; it was loosely inspired by bull idolatry known to the author, but was not the focus. Then Exo 32 was written, directly adapting details from 1 Kings 12–15 (including copying the plural ‘here are your gods’ into a context where it doesn’t make sense) into an outline based on Deut 9–10.26

There are also some inconsistencies within Exo 32 itself — such as Moses being told about the bull idol by God while still on Mount Sinai in 32.7–10, but then being surprised when he discovers the bull idol after descending the mountain in 32.15–2027 — which has led many scholars to think Exo 32 comes from the hands of multiple authors, not just one.28

Jeroboam and Jeroboam

Locating the source used by another text would normally be the end result of a study like this, but there is an additional layer of complexity: that of the actual history surrounding Jeroboam, the bull idolatry attributed to him, and the two places he establishes cult worship, Bethel and Dan.

On a strictly archaeological level, the earliest evidence for the two kingdoms is that of Omri (king of Israel roughly twenty-five years after Jeroboam), and shows the northern kingdom was not just larger, but more powerful than the south, almost the opposite situation of what the Bible depicts.29 This evidence also supports that Israelite religion was not iconoclastic in the tenth, ninth, or even eighth centuries BCE.

The earliest we see criticism of this kind of idolatry in biblical texts is Hosea 8.5–6 and 10.5,30 written in the wake of Jeroboam son of Jehoash, nearly one hundred twenty years after Jeroboam son of Nebat. Yet, as presented in the Bible, Jeroboam II’s rule is fairly uneventful. He reigned longer than any other regent of the northern kingdom — forty-one years — yet he receives only a single paragraph in the whole Book of Kings. The short passage acknowledges he expanded the kingdom’s borders (2 Kings 14.25, 28; cf. Amos 6.13), but says he did ‘evil’ without elaborating (14.24).31 The two Jeroboams were not related, but the connection of their names has made scholars suspect that events under Jeroboam II were rewritten to have taken place under Jeroboam I.32 Archaeology indicates Dan and Bethel were prominent Israelite locations under Jeroboam II (Amos 7.10–17 even refers to Bethel as Jeroboam II’s ‘sanctuary and temple of the kingdom’), but they were either not occupied or insubstantial in the time of Jeroboam I. The construction of worship sites in Bethel and Dan, complete with bull idols, is historically better situated in the time of the northern kingdom’s more obscure ruler Jeroboam II than its founder Jeroboam I.33

Scribes attributing the works of a lesser known biblical figure to a more legendary one is not without precedent. The slaying of Goliath by the warrior Elhanan was attributed to King David. This was done to build up David’s legend, so that the Hebrew’s founding king (skipping the ‘failure’ Saul) was truly epic. If the theory is correct, it is a prime example of ‘history is written by the winners’ happening within the Bible: by taking basic civil duties carried out by Jeroboam II and rewriting them as a willful, self-serving sin committed by Jeroboam I that led to God sentencing his kingdom to destruction, the Judean scribes responsible for the Book of Kings succeed in vilifying the northern kingdom.

A major component of Hebrew Bible scholarship is the understanding that Judean religion underwent major reforms in the time of King Josiah, in the late seventh century BCE. Second Kings describes how priests under Josiah ‘discovered’ a lost scroll of the Torah in Yahweh’s temple, which was quickly followed by Josiah centralizing Judean religious expression to the Jerusalem temple establishment. This effort included destroying competing worship sites. Based on linguistic and conceptual clues, this ‘lost scroll’ was probably an early version of Deuteronomy, which contains the instruction to do exactly as Josiah did (Deut 12.1–14).34 In a rare occasion where the Bible name-drops someone centuries before their birth, Jeroboam I is directly told by a prophet that a Judean king named Josiah will one day grind Jeroboam’s altars into dust (1 Kings 13.1–3), which Josiah does end up doing (2 Kings 23.15–20).

This gives us an earliest possible date for when the story of Jeroboam I was written: not just after Jeroboam II (c. 788–747 BCE), but after Josiah (640–609). Whereas the Judean scribes built the foundation myth for the southern kingdom on the valorous feats of David, they also wrote a foundation myth for their historical rivals to the north.35 The scribes credited Israel’s founding king with a sin so egregious that it fated his entire country to destruction. This legitimated Josiah’s reforms; he was cleaning up the northern kingdom’s mess that had spilled over into the south.36

Scholarship has also long recognized that the Hebrew Bible mostly associates the story of Jacob and the exodus with Israel in the north, not with Judah in the south. In particular, it is believed that the story of Jacob and the story of the exodus were rival origins for Israel: some preferred the Jacob legend as their foundation myth, while others preferred the exodus story. An example of this is found in Hosea 12, which criticizes Jacob for ‘supplanting his brother’ while idealizing Moses (or rather, the ‘prophet’; exodus traditions had not yet named ‘Moses’ in the mid eighth century).37 This negative perception of Jacob, especially by Judeans, persisted well into the late seventh century, where Jeremiah uses the same ‘brother-supplanter’ pejorative (9.4).38

Coincidentally, Jacob is associated with Bethel, credited as the one who named the village (Gen 28.10–22). In the course of demeaning the Jacob tradition, Hosea 12.4 identifies Bethel as the place where Jacob wrestled with the god El. Why does Hosea bring the Jacob story up at all? Perhaps because Jeroboam II had been invoking the patriarch in order to validate the new shrine he had built at Bethel; in Gen 28.22 proclaims that the monument stone Jacob placed at Bethel ‘shall be God’s house’. Jeroboam II was simply fulfilling what Israel’s ancestor began.39 It would require modifying the theory above, but perhaps retrojecting Jeroboam II’s accomplishments to the time of Jeroboam I began as an attempt to build up Israel’s foundation myth in a positive sense,40 and it was only reinterpreted negatively when the Judean scribes came along and rewrote their neighbor’s history.

An Origin for the Exodus

The archaeological and recorded evidence firmly supports that the exodus — the slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt, the devastation of the Egyptian kingdom, the Hebrews’ escape into the wilderness, and their subsequent wandering in the desert and invasion of Canaan — never happened. However, strangely, the biblical literature suggests the legend emerged in Israel to the north, rather than Judah to the south. What might explain the story originating in the kingdom more geographically removed from Egypt than the one closer? Just as many scholars noticed a series of parallels between Jeroboam and Aaron, there are some who find compelling similarities between Jeroboam’s story and the exodus as a whole.41 As with the golden calves, elements in either story have been moved around a bit.

In the exodus, Israel (the people descended from the twelve sons of Jacob) resides in a territory ruled by a foreign power: the pharaoh of Egypt. The pharaoh’s son takes the throne and enslaves Israel, forcing them to build the store-cities Pithom and Rameses. During this time, the Israelite Moses is raised in the pharaoh’s court. Moses rebels against the system of slavery, but when the pharaoh decides to kill Moses, he is forced to flee to a land outside of the pharaoh’s rule (Midian). After this pharaoh’s son takes the throne, Moses returns and speaks to the new pharaoh, bringing Israel’s elders. They request permission to travel into the wilderness for three days to worship Yahweh. The pharaoh refuses. The pharaoh’s advisors even suggest that he free the Israelites, but he still refuses. With Yahweh backing him, Moses leads the Israelites east, then around the Dead Sea, crossing the Jordan River into Canaan just north of the Dead Sea. This long route is entirely justified as avoiding the land of the Philistines along the western coast, even though the exodus takes place three centuries before the Philistines lived in the region.42

Compare the outline of the exodus story with Jeroboam I’s emergence on the political scene. At the beginning of the Book of Kings, Israel (the northern tribes, as opposed to the southern tribes) reside in a territory that is, politically speaking, ruled by a foreign power: David of the tribe of Judah. David’s son Solomon takes the throne and enslaves Israel (1 Kings 4.6; 5.13–16), forcing them to build store-cities (9.19).During this time, the Israelite Jeroboam serves in Solomon’s court (11.26). Jeroboam rebels against the system of slavery (11.26–39), but when Solomon decides to kill Jeroboam, he is forced to flee to a land outside of Solomon’s rule (Egypt). After Solomon’s son Rehoboam takes the throne, Jeroboam returns and speaks to Rehoboam, bringing Israel’s elders. They request the king to end their slavery in exchange for their loyalty (12.1–4). Rehoboam waits three days, then refuses (12.5, 9–15). Rehoboam’s advisers even suggests that he free the Israelites, but he still refuses (12.6–8). With Yahweh backing him (11.29–39), Jeroboam establishes the northern kingdom, with its southern border just north of the Dead Sea (12.16–19).

In the exodus, the Israelites don’t just avoid the land of the Philistines. They also avoid the part of Canaan that would become the kingdom of Judah.43 They instead journey all the way around the Dead Sea and enter Canaan along the sea’s northern coast, just where the border between Judah and Israel was.44 There are many competing theories on how the exodus legend formulated, but one is that it began as a heavily recontextualized telling of Jeroboam’s rebellion against Rehoboam. There are other biblical examples of political commentary framed within historicized allegory. One such is the Book of Daniel;45 its narrative takes places during the rules of Babylon and Persia during the sixth century BCE, but the book was actually written in the early second century, and was about Greco-Syrian rule of Israel. In the case of the exodus, Israel escaping enslavement by Judean kings to their south took shape as a foundation myth where Israel escaped slavery under the Egyptian pharaoh.



Israel lives in the pharaoh’s territory.

Israel lives in David’s territory.

The pharaoh’s son succeeds him, enslaves Israel to build the store-cities Pi-Atum and Pi-Ramesses.

David’s son Solomon succeeds him, enslaves Israel to build store-cities, Yahweh’s temple, and Solomon’s palace.

Israel’s slavery compels Moses to rebel. He flees to Midian when the pharoah wants to kill him.

Israel’s slavery compels Jeroboam to rebel. He flees to Egypt when Solomon wants to kill him.

The pharaoh dies, his son takes the throne, and Moses returns with Yahweh backing him.

Solomon dies, his son Rehoboam takes the throne, and Jeroboam returns with Yahweh backing him.

The pharaoh refuses to free Israel from slavery, against the advice of his officials. Yahweh violently frees Israel, and they escape to the north.

Rehoboam refuses to free Israel from slavery, against the advice of his officials. Israel violently frees itself, and they make a new kingdom to the north.

Aside from the broad strokes of the two stories’ outlines as described above, smaller details may provide further support for this reading. Solomon actually marries a daughter of the pharaoh (1 Kings 3.1).46 In addition to each the pharaoh and Solomon making their Israelite slaves to build store-cities, Solomon compels them to build both the temple for Yahweh and his royal palace, a home for the deity and a home for the king.47 Exo 1 names the Egyptian store-cities, identified as Pi-Atom and Pi-Ramesses, which mean ‘house of Atum’ and ‘house of Rameses’ respectively. In other words, they are (namewise) a home for the deity and a home for the pharaoh.48 Another peculiar point in Exo 1, which kicks off the narrative, is that the new pharaoh enslaves the Hebrews because they might ‘multiply’ (rāḇâ) and become ‘numerous’ (raḇ). The text repeatedly emphasizes how ‘the people multiplied’ (yireḇ hāʿām), a potential wordplay on Jeroboam’s name (yārāḇəʿām), the scribe tipping his hand to the exodus’ inspiration.49


In this light, Jeroboam I building altars and sanctuaries in his new kingdom would not be an unexpected action. Rather, he would be appropriately fulfilling his duties by funding the construction of sites for religious expression, now that Jerusalem’s temple was no longer a viable option for his population to make pilgrimages to. The notion that his action was a grievous sin against Yahweh would not come until centuries later. But that is getting ahead of ourselves. We have many layers of information above, so let’s lay them out in an orderly fashion that helps us bring structure to some potentially contradictory theories. The following is theoretical, and somewhat reductive in its historical complexity; it should be taken as a possible reconstruction of events, not confirmed fact.

  • In the early tenth century BCE, the kings of Jerusalem enslaved a large portion of the Israelite people and forced them to build public works in the capital city, including a temple for Yahweh and the royal palace. In the late tenth century BCE the slaves revolted, and carved out territory in the north to establish their own kingdom. The Israelites appointed Jeroboam son of Nebat, a leading figure in the revolt, as their king.
  • Israel’s enslavement and eventual escape from Judean rule was reshaped into a historicized allegory as escape from Egyptian rule instead, situated hundreds of years earlier in the time of an anonymous pharaoh.
  • In the first half of the eighth century BCE, Jeroboam son of Jehoash expanded the kingdom of Israel. This included the construction of new worship sites — most likely for Yahweh, but possibly for El or Baʿal — and may have included idols of bulls, representing the deity (particularly his strength), or his throne or mount. Locations ostensibly included Bethel and Dan, near the borders of Israelite territory.
  • Two competing foundation myths for Israel, that of a patriarch named Jacob and that of an escape from slavery in Egypt, were in circulation by the time of Jeroboam II. The Jacob legend, which connected the patriarch to Bethel, was used to validate the sanctuary Jeroboam II built in that town, an effort ridiculed by the prophets Hosea and Amos. After some time, Jeroboam II’s acts were attributed to his namesake, the first king of Israel, to bolster the kingdom’s founding.
  • After the kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria in 722 BCE, some of the population fled south into Judah, bringing their traditions with them. These traditions were not fixed, and scribes freely changed details for their own needs.
  • In the late seventh century BCE, with the support of the religious elite, the Judean king Josiah introduced major religious reforms to his country.50 The population was to worship Yahweh alone, holy festivals were restricted to his temple in Jerusalem, and he was not to be depicted by any idols or icons. Shrines, temples, and altars outside the Jerusalem establishment were to be destroyed. As scribes carried out the arduous process of sorting through Israelite and Judean folklore, writing and rewriting these traditions,51 they redacted Jeroboam I’s founding of Israel to reflect this new iconoclasm: by building shrines outside of Jerusalem, and by making golden calves, the kingdom of Israel began its existence in sin and was doomed.
  • The Judean revision of history was taking shape as an epic, nine-book narrative spanning from the creation of the universe up to (eventually) the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon in 587 BCE. The most important event in the timeline is the exodus, which occupies four of the nine books. Amid this historical revisionism were rival priesthoods, the two most influential being the Zadokite and Aaronide clans. The Zadokites, identified as controlling the Jerusalem religious establishment from the time of David onward, sought to delegitimize the Aaronide legacy by smearing their eponymous ancestor. They did this by once more rewriting the story of Jeroboam’s golden calves as an idolatrous act first carried out by Aaron himself right after Israel’s escape from Egypt, bringing Exo 32 into the exodus tradition fairly late.52
  • However, by the end of the Babylonian exile in the second half of the sixth century BCE, the shape of biblical narrative was finally settling into something familiar to us, and the boundaries between the Zadokites and Aaronides priesthoods were blurring. By the early fifth century, Judean literature was identifying Zadok as a descendant of Aaron: the Zadokites were Aaronides.53

In short, both stories of the golden calves are anachronistic. Digging into one uncovers information about the other, which snowballs into a survey about Israel’s historical origins on a larger scale. While this reconstruction, in some places, relies on some educated guesswork, it is largely consistent with the evidence available to us.


1 Oblath, ‘Of Pharaohs and Kings—Whence the Exodus?’, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 25.87, 56.

2 Joep Dubbink, ‘Don’t Stop Me Now!’—Exod 32:10 and Yhwh’s Intention to Destroy His Own People’, 46.

3 Ronald A. Geobey, ‘The Jeroboam Story in the (Re)Formulation of Israelite Identity: Evaluating the Literary-Ideological Purposes of 1 Kings 11–14’, The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures: Archives 16, 4.

4 Moses Aberbach & Leivy Smolar, ‘Aaron, Jeroboam, and the Golden Calves’, Journal of Biblical Literature 86.2, 129–134.

5 Mark Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts, 32; Marvin A. Sweeney, I & II Kings: A Commentary, 177; Michael D. Coogan & Mark S. Smith, Stories from Ancient Canaan, 15; James S. Anderson, Monotheism and Yahweh’s Appropriation of Baal, 56.

6 Anderson, 58.

7 E.g., Exo 6.3, which claims Yahweh was known only as ‘El’ by Israel’s ancestral patriarchs, in contradiction to much of Genesis, which shows those same patriarchs referring to their god as ‘Yahweh’. This reveals that the author of Exo 6.3 was not aware of any tradition where Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob knew their god by the name ‘Yahweh’; this author needed to explain how the deity ‘El’ of one community’s traditions was actually the same god identified as ‘Yahweh’ by another community’s traditions.

8 Such as Gen 49.24–25, which calls Israel’s god by the name ‘El’ and the epithet ‘bull of Jacob’.

9 Sweeney, 178; Youn Ho Chung, The Sin of the Calf: The Rise of the Bible’s Negative Attitude toward the Golden Calf, 204.

10 Anderson, 99–100.

11 Thomas Römer, ‘How Jeroboam II Became Jeroboam I’, Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel 6.3, 372.

12 Sweeney, 177.

13 Sweeney, 178; cf. Geobey, 18.

14 Anderson, 107–108; Geobey, 24.

15 Römer, 375, 381. This is why the globalization of Yahweh-worship is described by Zech 14.9 in this way: ‘And Yahweh will become king over all the earth; on that day Yahweh will be one and his name one.’ To the author’s mind, when Yahweh is recognized as the supreme ruler of the whole world instead of just Israel, he will not be ‘Yahweh of Israel’, ‘Yahweh of Jerusalem’, or any other local manifestation of his deity; he will simply be ‘one’ Yahweh, ‘and his name one’.

16 Thomas B. Dozeman, ‘The Composition of Ex 32 within the Context of the Enneateuch’, Auf dem Weg zur Endgestalt von Genesis vis II Regnum, 185; Römer, 375.

17 Sweeney, 184.

18 Aberbach & Smolar, 139.

19 Ibid., 135.

20 Chung, 31.

21 Aberbach & Smolar, 136.

22 Aberbach & Smolar, 137; Oblath, 50.

23 Aberbach & Smolar, 138.

24 Dozeman, 175.

25 Ibid., 182.

26 Ibid., 184–185.

27 Ibid., 184.

28 Chung, 30; Dozeman, 175.

29 Geobey, 26; Lester L. Grabbe, A History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period: Volume I: Yehud: A History of the Persian Province of Judah, 168.

30 Chung, 35; Dozeman, 177.

31 Römer, 373–374.

32 Ibid., 374.

33 Ibid., 374–377.

34 Dozeman, 178.

35 Geobey, 26.

36 Sweeney, 179.

37 Römer, 377–378.

38 Ibid., 379.

39 Ibid., 379–381.

40 Ibid., 382.

41 Geobey, 28–29.

42 William G. Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?, 23.

43 Oblath, 64.

44 Ibid., 57–61.

45 Ibid., 50.

46 Geobey, 28–29; Oblath, 52.

47 Oblath, 52.

48 Ibid., 63.

49 Ibid., 63.

50 Römer, 372.

51 Chung, 30.

52 Dozeman, 188.

53 Aberbach & Smolar, 138.