Sailhamer, John H. The Pentateuch As Narrative. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.
Chapter 2, “Exodus” pp. 241-322.
Part 8 “The Golden Calf (32:1-35)” pp. 310-313.
The incident of the golden calf in Exodus 32 is unquestionably a rejection of God’s law. What scholars do debate is what the intention in the event was. “Did the calf represent ‘other gods’ that Israel was now seeking to follow, or was it rather an attempt to make an image of the one true God, Yahweh?” (Sailhamer 1992, 310). Sailhamer weighs the data, observing that the term “other gods” in Deuteronomy 28:36 refers to idols, not deities. Based on this idea he considers the actions of Exodus 32 to be idolatry, not polytheism (Sailhamer 1992, 311). The people involved did not mistake the calf for a god but for a representation of a god.
What is crucial in the situation becomes apparent when the narrative in Exodus 32 returns to Moses on the mountain of God. God sees his people have turned away from his commands, are apparently not able to obey, and are regardless the object of God’s care. By sending Moses back down the mountain it is possible that they could be brought to repentance.
Despite God’s forgiveness, his just anger is clear. Moses breaks the tablets of the law. The calf is destroyed, the people punished, and Sailhamer observes that a great number of laws are articulated before they can leave Sinai in an orderly way (Sailhamer 1992, 312). Yet Moses returns to receive the law from God again. God’s love is restorative in nature.