Exodus 32:1–6 . Why Did the Israelites Desire to Worship a Gold Calf?
Moses went up upon the mount to commune with the Lord, and he was gone a long time. When he returned, he discovered that the children of Israel were worshipping a golden calf, an idol of their own making.
“[It must] be granted that Aaron does not appear to have even designed a worship that should supersede the worship of the Most High; hence we find him making proclamation, To-morrow is a feast to the LORD [Jehovah], and we find farther that some of the proper rites of the true worship were observed on this occasion, for they brought burnt-offerings and peace-offerings, ver. 6, 7 : hence it is evident he intended that the true God should be the object of their worship, though he permitted and even encouraged them to offer this worship through an idolatrous medium, the molten calf.” (Clarke, Bible Commentary, 1:463–64.)
Lately, it has caught the attention of Mormonscholars that the object through which the Israelites were worshipping was a calf and not a bull. The bull was the representative of Egyptian deity, “merwer”. We have assurance from the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price that Moses had direct revelation to teach him the identity and role of the Only Begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, who would come in the meridian of time and redeem His children. Perhaps the calf was a representation of the offspring of the bull; if the bull were to represent God, perhaps the calf could represent His son. Or perhaps the calf was associated with the worship of Jehovah in another way, as outlined in an essay by Paul Y. Hoskisson. (Calf worship was reinstated by Jeroboam, the first king of Israel after it divided from the kingdom of Judah. Jeroboam presented the idol to the people as the god who brought them out of Egypt.)
The Joseph Smith Translation corrects Exodus 32:9-14 to show that Moses said: “Turn from thy fierce wrath. Thy people will repent of this evil; therefore come thou not out against them.” Then the Prophet corrected verse 14 to clearly show the condition for the Lord’s sparing the people: “And the Lord said unto Moses, if they will repent of the evil which they have done, I will spare them, and turn away my fierce wrath; but, behold, thou shalt execute judgment upon all that will not repent of this evil this day. Therefore, see thou do this thing that I have commanded thee, or I will execute all that which I had thought to do unto my people.”
Moses became a mediator between the Israelites and the Lord, again showing himself to be a type of the Savior. Some have wondered why Aaron, who played a key role in the golden calf episode, came out with no condemnation. Though it is not recorded in Exodus, Moses later indicated that Aaron also was nearly destroyed and was saved only through Moses’ intercession in his behalf (see Deuteronomy 9:20 ). For a modern parallel to this rebuke, see Doctrine and Covenants 103:15–20 .
There is some discussion regarding what was on the two sets of tablets that had the commandments written by the finger of the Lord. The Joseph Smith Translation of Deuteronomy 10:2 makes it clear that the two sets of plates contained the same thing, with one exception:
“And I will write on the tables the words that were on the first tables, which thou brakest, save the words of the everlasting covenant of the holy priesthood, and thou shalt put them in the ark” ( JST, Deuteronomy 10:2 ; emphasis added).
A Temple in the Desert
While on Mount Sinai, Moses received the revelation detailing the plans for the tabernacle (see Exodus 25–30 ). When he came down, Moses gathered Israel and they began the actual construction of the tabernacle (see Exodus 35–40 ). The tabernacle was a portable temple, the House of the Lord. Mormons understand that the Lord literally visits His temples, even the ones in existence throughout the world today. By dedicating the “tabernacle” in the wilderness, the Israelites could practice the rituals and rites dictated to them by the Lord, and they could begin to develop an understanding of the symbolism in those rights.
Sacrifice is central to the purpose of the temple. In ancient times, of course, animal sacrifice was required. Today, a broken heart and contrite spirit are the offerings we bring to the temple, but physical forms of sacrifice are both ancient and modern. The Israelites were expected to sacrifice of their substance in order to build the temple and supply it with ritual objects. There is an obvious parallel with the early members of the Mormon Church, who built the Kirtland and Nauvoo temples out of their abject poverty, dedicating time, effort, and what meager possessions they had. Mormon women ground their fine china dishes into dust to be used in the building of the temple walls, adding luster and sparkle. Israelites donated the riches they had brought with them out of Egypt. Sacrifice and obedience are the foundation of the gospel and are basic to God’s plan. In fact, Joseph Smith taught that true religion warrants the sacrifice of all things; worldly goods are nothing compared to the glory of God’s kingdom.
When Israel heard what the Lord asked, they responded with joyous liberality. Their hearts were indeed touched (see Exodus 35:20–22, 25–26, 29 ), and finally Moses had to restrain them, for they gave far more than was needed for the tabernacle (see Exodus 36:5–7 ).
The Ark of the Covenant
The ark of the covenant was a chest, or box, of shittim wood overlaid with gold. It was approximately three feet nine inches long, two feet three inches wide, and two feet three inches high. Staves, or poles, on both sides allowed the priests to carry it without actually touching the ark itself. Inside, the tablets of the law given to Moses on Mount Sinai were placed (see v. 16 ). Hence, it was called the ark of the testimony or ark of the covenant. Later, a pot of manna and Aaron’s rod, which miraculously bloomed, were also placed inside the ark (see Hebrews 9:4 ). The ark was placed inside the inner room of the tabernacle known as the most holy place, or Holy of Holies. The ark was viewed with the greatest reverence by the Israelites, and prayers were recited before it was moved or placed in position (see Numbers 10:35–36 ).
The lid, or covering, for the ark is described in Exodus 25:17–22 . The King James Version translates the Hebrew word kapporeth (which means “seat of atonement”) as “mercy seat.” The covering was made of solid gold and on it were formed two cherubim with wings which came up and overshadowed the lid or mercy seat.
The word cherubim usually refers to guardians of sacred things. While the exact meaning of the word is not known, most scholars agree that these cherubim represented “redeemed and glorified manhood” or “glorified saints and angels” (Wilson, Old Testament Word Studies, s.v. “cherubim,” p. 75). Since Latter-day Saints do not believe that angels have wings, as they are often shown in religious art, the commandment to form wings on the cherubim may raise some questions. Another revelation indicates, however, that wings symbolically represent the power to move and to act (see D&C 77:4 ). Between these cherubim on the mercy seat, God told Moses, He would meet with him and commune with him. Latter-day revelations state that angels stand as sentinels guarding the presence of God (see D&C 132:19 ). The blood of the lamb of Jehovah was sprinkled upon the mercy seat during the sacred day of Atonement. The ark of the covenant was one of the most significant features of the tabernacle, both in its importance to ancient Israel and also in its symbolic significance.
Other Temple Objects
Fine or pure gold was used for the Ark, the propitiatory, the table of the Presence and its vessels; for the lampstand and its accessories; for the altar of incense; and for the high priest’s garments. Ordinary gold was employed for the moldings, the rings, and the staves of the Ark, of the table, and of the incense altar; for the hooks of the curtains; for the frames and bars; for the pillars of the veil and screen; and for other parts of the high priest’s vestments. Silver was reserved for the bases of the frames, for the pillars of the veil, and for moldings in the court. Finally there was bronze, of which metal the altar of burnt offering and its utensils, the bases of the court, and the laves were made. The same principle applied to the embroidered stuff and linen.
“The theme of gradation was continued in respect of the three divisions of the people. The Israelites could enter the court only; the priests could serve in the Holy Place; the high priest alone could enter the Holy of Holies but once a year—on the Day of Atonement.” (S.v. “tabernacle,” 15:687.) These three gradations are connected to the three degrees of glory in the heavenly realm, which were seen in vision by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, which vision is recorded in Doctrine and Covenants, Section 76. The highest kingdom, the Celestial, is where God Himself dwells. In scripture it is likened to the glory of the sun, as in the tabernacle it was represented by gold. The next kingdom, the Terrestrial, is likened to the glory of the moon, and is represented in the tabernacle by silver. The lowest kingdom, the Telestial, still has such glory that it surpasses the understanding of man. This kingdom is typified by the glory of the stars, represented in the tabernacle by bronze. Modern temples still follow this pattern with a symbolic progression in glory. The celestial room of Mormon temples is the most glorious.
The table of shewbreadwas made of shittim wood covered with gold. It was about three feet long, eighteen inches wide, and twenty-seven inches high. Various vessels of gold, called the spoons, dishes, covers, or bowls in the King James Version of the Bible, were made for use with the table. Twelve loaves of bread were placed on the table. Shewbread was the bread of the presence,” signifying that this bread was placed before the face of the Lord or in His presence (Wilson, Old Testament Word Studies, s.v. “shew, shew-bread,” p. 388; Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible, s.v. “shewbread,” p. 847). These loaves of bread were very large, weighing about 10 pounds apiece (about 4 kilos). The loaves were put into two stacks, and upon each pile was placed pure frankincense that was later burned on the altar of incense “an offering made by fire unto the Lord” ( Leviticus 24:7 ; see also v. 6 ). The bread was changed each Sabbath and the bread that was removed was eaten by the priests (see Leviticus 24:8–9 ). This was the bread given to David when he fled from King Saul (see 1 Samuel 21:1–6 ; Matthew 12:4 ). Jewish scholars agree that wine was also placed on the table, and that the “spoons” were actually cups for the wine. Thus, this would have been a sacrament table.
The golden candlestick was a “menorah,” or lamp with seven branches, seven being the number representing wholeness or perfection. It was made of solid gold, and it stood on three legs. The oil for the seven lamps had to be pure olive oil (see Exodus 27:20 ) that had been consecrated for that purpose. The Jewish festival of Hannukah, or the festival of lights, celebrates the time when Judas Maccabeus finally drove the Greeks from the temple in Jerusalem around 165 B.C. According to Jewish tradition, the Maccabees found only enough consecrated oil for the sacred lamps to last one day. The consecration of new oil took eight days; yet miraculously, the meager supply burned until a new supply could be properly prepared. (See Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, bk. 12, chap. 7, par. 6.)
The walls (which were made of panels) and ceilings of the temple/ tabernacle were covered with four kinds of fabrics. The inner fabric was either a fine cotton fabric or one made from flax, and may have been called linen because of its whiteness. Because of the length of the tabernacle, ten curtains, or pieces of fabric, were needed to cover it. This inner layer was to have cherubim (angels) embroidered upon it and was to incorporate, besides the whiteness, the colors blue, purple, and scarlet. By means of golden clasps or pins called taches, the selvages of adjacent curtain segments were joined together, creating the appearance of a single drape over the tabernacle. The other three fabrics consisted of goats’ hair, rams’ skins dyed red, and badgers’ skins (see Exodus 26:7, 14 ). The nature of the last kind of fabric is not clear; scholars seem to agree only that it was not the skin of badgers. The Hebrew word implies the color of, more than the kind of, fabric (see Wilson, Old Testament Word Studies, s.v. “badger,” p. 27). Some scholars believe it may have been the skins of porpoises or seals from the Red Sea which would have given the tabernacle a waterproof outer covering (see Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary, 1:2:163). In Exodus 26, two veils are described. One was the outer door to the tabernacle (the front entrance) and the other was the veil which separated the holy place, or first room, from the inner Holy of Holies. This latter veil is properly called the veil of the tabernacle.
Surrounding the tabernacle itself was a large enclosed area protected by woven hangings attached to a movable wall. In this courtyard was located the altar of burnt offerings (altar of sacrifice) and the laver of water for the symbolic cleansing of hands and feet. Into this courtyard anyone of Israel could bring sacrifices, but only the priests could enter the tabernacle itself. (Sometimes, however, the tabernacle referred to in the Old Testament means the whole complex, including the courtyard, and not just the tent itself.)
Altar of burnt offerings. All burnt offerings performed within the tabernacle took place on this altar. It was hollow, five cubits square and three cubits high, or about 7½ x 7½ x 5 feet in dimension. It was made of shittim wood overlaid with brass plates. It had four horns on its corners. Upon these horns the blood of the sacrifice was to be smeared. By laying hold of these horns, a person could find asylum and safety (see 1 Kings 1:50 ; 2:28 ), although not if he was guilty of premeditated murder (see Exodus 21:14 ). Sometimes the horns were used to bind the animal or intended sacrifice.
Holy instruments of sacrifice. The pan was a large, brazen dish placed under the altar to receive the ashes as they fell through. Brazen fire shovels were used for emptying the pans. The basins were receptacles used to catch the blood from the sacrifice. The fleshhook was a three-pronged hook that the priest used to dip into the sacrificial container. That which he brought up was to be kept for himself. The firepan was the container in which was kept the continuously burning fire for sacrifice.
Laver. This, like the altar of sacrifice, was made of brass. It stood between the altar of sacrifice and the tabernacle. It was used by the priests for cleansing, preparatory to entering the tabernacle. In Solomon’s day, when a permanent temple was constructed, the laver was set on the backs of twelve oxen (see 1 Kings 7:23–26 ). In current Mormon temples, the baptismal font is modeled after the laver.The Priesthood Garments
Moses, like all prophets of God, held the higher priesthood, named for the Son of God, but called the Melchizedek Priesthood to avoid using the Lord’s name too often. However, the Israelites had been refused this priesthood by the Lord because of their disobedience. Thus, all temple service in the wilderness, except for that performed by Moses, was Aaronic Priesthood service. The tribe of Levi was assigned to be the priesthood lineage, with literal descendants of Aaron holding the “high priesthood” within the Levitical order. In the Mormon Church, both of the Melchizedek and Aaronic priesthoods are active, having been restored by heavenly messengers. The office of bishop is one of great responsibility, since the bishop leads a congregation, but the office is a function of the Aaronic Priesthood, and a literal descendant of Aaron can claim the office, if he so desires. Some Christians claim that Christ was the last priesthood-holder, but His apostles recorded in the New Testament that there were groups of priests who led the early church.
Aaron’s vestments were highly symbolic. The ephod , worn over a blue robe, was made of blue, purple, and scarlet material, with designs of gold thread skillfully woven into the fabric. This garment was fastened at each shoulder and had an intricately woven band with which it could be fastened around the waist. In gold settings on each shoulder were onyx stones engraved with the names of the 12 sons of Israel as a ‘memorial’ as the priest served before the Lord. (See Exod. 28:6–14 and 39:2–7 ). Fastened to the ephod was a breastplate into which the Urim and Thummin could be placed. ( Exod. 28:15–30 .)The ephod, worn over a blue robe, was made of blue, purple, and scarlet material, with designs of gold thread skillfully woven into the fabric. This garment was fastened at each shoulder and had an intricately woven band with which it could be fastened around the waist. In gold settings on each shoulder were onyx stones engraved with the names of the 12 sons of Israel as a ‘memorial’ as the priest served before the Lord. (See Exod. 28:6–14 and 39:2–7 ). Fastened to the ephod was a breastplate into which the Urim and Thummin could be placed. ( Exod. 28:15–30 .)
The Urim and Thummim
Urim and Thummim are Hebrew words meaning “lights and perfections.” Another translation might render the phrase “revelation and truth.” The LDSBible dictionary defines Urim and Thummim as “an instrument prepared of God to assist man in obtaining revelation from the Lord and in translating languages. See Ex. 28: 30; Lev. 8: 8; Num. 27: 21; Deut. 33: 8; 1 Sam. 28: 6; Ezra 2: 63; Neh. 7: 65; JS-H 1: 35.” Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thummim when he began the translation of the Book of Mormon, until he became so proficient and accustomed to receiving revelation that he no longer needed it. He described it as two stones set in a bow. His mother said the stones were transparent. Also from the LDS Bible Dictionary:
“Using a Urim and Thummim is the special prerogative of a seer, and it would seem reasonable that such instruments were used from the time of Adam. However, the earliest mention is in connection with the brother of Jared (Ether 3: 21-28). Abraham used a Urim and Thummim (Abr. 3: 1-4), as did Aaron and the priests of Israel, and also the prophets among the Nephites (Omni 1: 20-21; Mosiah 8: 13-19; Mosiah 21: 26-28; Mosiah 28: 11-20; Ether 4: 1-7). There is more than one Urim and Thummim, but we are informed that Joseph Smith had the one used by the brother of Jared (Ether 3: 22-28; D&C 10: 1; D&C 17: 1). (See Seer.) A partial description is given in JS-H 1: 35. Joseph Smith used it in translating the Book of Mormon and in obtaining other revelations. This earth in its celestial condition will be a Urim and Thummim, and many within that kingdom will have an additional Urim and Thummim (D&C 130: 6-11).” Israel as the Lord’s Treasure Upon the exposed half of the breastplate were precious stones inscribed with the names of each of the tribes of Israel. Thus, the high priest bore “the names of the children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment upon his heart . . . for a memorial before the Lord continually” ( v. 29 ). The symbolism of the high priest carrying Israel next to his heart lends added meaning to the promise that the Lord will some day select His “jewels” ( D&C 60:4 ; 101:3 ).
The robe. This robe was blue and was woven without seams with a hole for the head to go through (see Exodus 28:31–32 ). Jesus, the Great High Priest, was clothed in a similar seamless garment prior to His Crucifixion (see John 19:23 ). Along the hem of the robe were placed, alternately, bells and fringes woven to look like pomegranates. One scholar noted the significance of the robe and its ornaments:
“[The robe was] woven in one piece, which set forth the idea of wholeness or spiritual integrity; and the dark-blue colour indicated nothing more than the heavenly origin and character of the office with which the robe was associated. [The true significance of the robe] must be sought for, therefore, in the peculiar pendants, the meaning of which is to be gathered from the analogous instructions in [ Numbers 15:38–39 ], where every Israelite is directed to make a fringe in the border of his garment, of dark-blue purple thread, and when he looks at the fringe to remember the commandments of God and do them. In accordance with this, we are also to seek for allusions to the word and testimony of God in the pendant of pomegranates and bells attached to the fringe of the high priest’s robe. The simile in [ Proverbs 25:11 ], where the word is compared to an apple, suggests the idea that the pomegranates, with their pleasant odour, their sweet and refreshing juice, and the richness of their delicious kernel, were symbols of the word and testimony of God as a sweet and pleasant spiritual food, that enlivens the soul and refreshes the heart [see Psalms 19:8–11 ; 119:25, 43, 50 ; Deuteronomy 8:3 ; Proverbs 9:8 ; Ecclesiastes 15:3 ], and that the bells were symbols of the sounding of this word, or the revelation and proclamation of the word. Through the robe, with this pendant attached, Aaron was represented as the recipient and medium of the word and testimony which came down from heaven; and this was the reason why he was not to appear before the Lord without that sound, lest he should forfeit his life [see Exodus 28:35 ]. It was not because he would simply have appeared as a private person if he had gone without it, for he would always have the holy dress of a priest upon him, even when he was not clothed in the official decorations of the high priest; but because no mere priest was allowed to enter the immediate presence of the Lord. This privilege was restricted to the representative of the whole congregation, viz. the high priest; and even he could only do so when wearing the robe of the word of God, as the bearer of the divine testimony, upon which the covenant fellowship with the Lord was founded.” (Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary, 1:2:202–3.)
The golden diadem and the mitre. The mitre (or hat) was made of fine linen (see Exodus 28:39 ), and each priest wore one. In addition, the high priest wore a golden band on the front of his mitre on the forehead. Engraved on the band were the words “Holiness to the Lord” ( v. 36 ; see also vv. 37–38 ), signifying first that the high priest should be characterized by this attribute, and second that Christ, the Great High Priest, would be perfect.
Set forth in symbolic representation and beautifully portrayed in progressive splendor, the tabernacle and its court became a school in which the things of heaven were to be revealed to the Lord’s people. It was originally intended that an Israelite could move from the outer court of the tabernacle to its inner and more holy precincts and observe, in so doing, that the handiwork and ornamentation became progressively more intricate, ornate, and secluded until at last the ritual placed them before the holy presence, even the Holy of Holies. Sacred beyond description, protected from the eyes of the unworthy, these ordinances were designed to be the cement or bonding agent between Israel and her God. This symbolic journey, however, was denied Israel because of her pride and rebellion (see Exodus 20:18–20 ; 32:1 ). Israel lost these higher blessings and became dependent on the officiating priests who acted as proxy through a lesser order of priesthood.
*This article was adapted in part from the LDS Institute Old Testament Manual.