Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. Exodus chapter 32 presents readers with one of the most sordid and reprehensible
scandals in the Pentateuch: The Golden Calf

“And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the
mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said
unto him: Make us a god who shall go before us. For as this Moses,
the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is
become of him.”.

Fairly, Bible students want to know what happened? How had the Hebrews fallen to such moral depths?
Just a short while earlier, God appeared before the encampment at Mount Sinai, transmitting the Ten
Commandments to them.

Abravanel asks a dozen insightful queries. Among them:

  • In response to Moses’ delay, why did the people clamor for a god to lead them? Who informed
    them of Moses’ timetable on Mount Sinai, that prompted them to fear the worst?
  • Since the folks presumed Moses’ absence from them, why not turn to the prophet’s brother
    Aaron to assume the leadership role?
  • How should we understand Aaron’s, a saintly man, role in the stinking affair? At a minimum, the
    optics looked bad.

In answering these questions above, and many more, Abravanel provides a thorough survey of the
classic Jewish commentators, methodically studying their approaches. And, he notes, the approaches
swing widely. Some writers believed that the intention behind the golden calf was nothing short of a
return to paganism. Abravanel dismisses this notion as queer, before rejecting it out of hand.

Abravanel chose to tone down the enormity of the golden calf sin, in line with other Biblical
commentators. The main thrust of their argument (and his) builds on this central idea: The Hebrews
were not recidivists, bent on abandoning monotheism and intent in returning to polytheism.

Misguided as it was, the hare-brained scheme calls for balanced analysis. For our purposes here, the
golden calf was not conceived to be a god, one that would supplant the God of Israel.

So, if the golden cow was not designed to be an idol, what was it? For a full discussion of this topic, one
that incorporates the opinions of three classic Bible scholars, see Abravanel’s World.