Notes & Commentary:
Ver. 1. Delayed. They waited perhaps about a month, with some patience; and then, becoming seditious, assembled against Aaron, and extorted from him a compliance with their impious request. He was thus guilty of a grievous crime, though the violence might extenuate it in some degree. (Salien) — He was not yet ordained high priest, chap. xl. 12. (Haydock) — Gods. Aaron gratified their request by the golden calf. They had the pillar to conduct them, but they wanted something new. They speak with contempt of Moses. (Menochius)
Ver. 2. And your sons. The Septuagint omit this. But in the East, it was fashionable for men also to wear ear-rings. (Pliny, [Natural History?] xi. 37; Judges viii. 24; Ezechiel vii. 20.) Aaron hoped the people would relent at this proposal. (St. Augustine, q. 141.)
Ver. 4. Received them, “in a purse, (as Gideon did afterwards, Judges viii. 25,) he made a molten calf.” (Jonathan) — Perhaps he engraved on it the peculiar marks of the Egyptian idol, Apis; a square white spot on the forehead, and a crescent upon the side. For it is generally believed, that this calf was designed to imitate that object of worship, to which the Hebrews had been too much accustomed. (Acts vii. 39, 41.; St. Jerome in Osee iv.) The Egyptians adored not only the living ox, but also its image, which they kept in their temple. (Porphyrius, Abst. ii. Mela. i. 8.) Some of the fathers think, that the head of a calf only appeared. (St. Ambrose; Lactantius, &c.) The rest of the figure was perhaps human, as Osiris was represented with the head of an ox, as well as Astarte and Serapis. Monceau pretends that Aaron represented the true God, under the form of a cherub, in which he falsely asserts he had appeared on Mount Sinai, and that his fault consisted only in giving occasion of superstition to the people. But his opinion (though adopted by many Protestants, who excuse all from the guilt of idolatry, but papists; Haydock) has been condemned at Rome, and refuted by Visorius, &c. — Thy gods, &c. Thus spoke the infatuated ringleaders. (Calmet) — And they changed their glory, the true God, into the likeness of a calf that eateth grass, Psalm cv. 19. — They forgot God, who saved them, (Psalm cv. 21,) and forsook Him, (Deuteronomy xxxii. 18,) to adore the calf. (Worthington)
Ver. 5. The Lord. The most sacred name of God is prostituted, (Judges xvii. and xviii.; Wisdom xiv. 21,) and an altar is erected to this idol; though some pretend, that Aaron meant God to be adored under this similitude. His weakness was unaccountable, and God would have slain him, had not Moses interceded, Deuteronomy ix. 20. Those who undertake to justify him, enter not into the sentiments of God; and the offender himself pleads no excuse, but the violence of the people, ver. 23. (Salien) — To-morrow, when the 40 days expired, and Moses returned arrayed in terrors. (Haydock)
Ver. 6. They offered, by the hands of Aaron, to whom the Septuagint refer all this. “He offered,” &c., appearing at the head of the idolaters. Cornelius A Lapide insinuates, that he wished to supplant his brother in the supreme command; and after a faint resistance, became the promoter of idolatry, to ingratiate himself with the people. The Scripture lays not this, however, to his charge. (Calmet) — To eat of the victims. — To play, dancing and singing in honour of their idol, probably with many indecent gestures, as was customary on such occasions among the nations of Chanaan. (Haydock) — Tertullian (de jejunio) understands impure play. The word means also to dance, and to play on instruments of music. Ludere quĉ vellem calamo permisit agresti. (Virgil, Ec. i) (Calmet) — Sulpitius says, the people abandoned themselves to drunkenness and gluttony, or debauchery, vinoque se & ventri dedisset. (Haydock) — They might get wine from Madian. (Salien) — Foolish mirth is the daughter of gluttony, and the mother of idolatry. (St. Gregory, Mor. xxxi. 31.) (Worthington)
Ver. 7. Thy people. They are not worthy to be styled my people; and thou didst ratify the covenant with me, in their name, and as their interpreter. They have sinned, giving way to idolatry in thought, word, and deed.
Ver. 9. And again. The Septuagint omit this verse. Moses, at the first intimation of the people’s sin, fell prostrate before the Lord, to sue for pardon, and pleaded the natural weakness of an ungovernable multitude, in order to extenuate their fault. This God admits. — I see, &c. But while he seems bent on punishing them, to try his servant, he encourages him inwardly to pray with fervour. (Salien.)
Ver. 10. Alone. One fully determined on revenge will bear with no expostulation; whence St. Gregory (Mor. ix. 11,) and Theodoret (q. 67,) look upon this as an incitement to pray more earnestly, seeing God’s servants have such influence over Him. The mercy of God struggled with his justice, and stopped its effects. — Nation, as I promised to Abraham; or I will make thee ruler over a nation greater than this, as Moses explains it, (Deuteronomy ix. 14,) and as the like offer is made, Numbers xiv. 12. The Samaritan subjoins here, “And God was likewise much irritated against Aaron, and would have destroyed him; but Moses prayed for him:” which we are assured was the case, Deuteronomy ix. 20. (Calmet)
Ver. 11. Why, &c. Calvin here accuses Moses of arrogance, in prescribing laws to God’s justice. But St. Jerome (ep. ad Gaud.) commends his charity and “prayer, which hindered God’s power.” (Worthington)
Ver. 12. Craftily. Hebrew, “with a malicious design.” Moses insinuates, that the glory of God is interested not to punish the Hebrews, lest the Gentiles should blaspheme, particularly as the land of Chanaan seemed to be promised unconditionally to the posterity of Abraham, who were now, all but one, to be exterminated. (Haydock)
Ver. 13. Thy servants. Thus God honours his friends, and rewards their merits, which are the effects of his grace. (Worthington)
Ver. 14. Appeased. Yet of this Moses was not fully assured, and in effect only those who had been less guilty, were reprieved to be punished afterwards, ver. 30, 35. (Haydock)
Ver. 15. Both sides. The ten commandments were written twice over, or on both sides, that all who stood round Moses, might be able to read them. (Menochius) — On one side, appeared the laws regarding God; on the other, those which relate to man. (Haydock) — They were like two originals. The common way of writing was only on one side. (Calmet)
Ver. 17. Josue, who was waiting for Moses lower down on the mountain, chap. xxiv. 13.
Ver. 18. Cry, &c. Hebrew, “the cry answering strength….or….weakness,” which the Vulgate elucidates. — Singers. Septuagint, “I hear the cry of those who contend for pre-eminence in wine,” or over their cups. (Haydock)
Ver. 19. Mount. “Finding the people abandoned to luxury and sacrilege, he broke the tables, deeming it a nation unworthy to be entrusted with the law of God.” (Sulpitius i. 33.) By this action, Moses foreshewed the dissolution of the covenant with the Jews, that the new covenant might take place. (St. Augustine, q. 144.) The Jews kept the 17th of the fourth month as a fast, in memory of this event. (St. Jerome in Zac. viii.)
Ver. 20. Calf. Having manifested his disapprobation of the people’s conduct, in the most signal manner, by breaking the two tables; Moses proceeds to convince them of their stupidity, in adoring what he, in a few minutes, reduces to powder. (Haydock) — He breaks the calf in pieces, after burning it, and then grinds it to dust in a mill, with files; as the Hebrew, Chaldean, and Septuagint intimate. He throws it, with contempt, into the torrent, which supplied the camp with water, and thus caused the idolaters to swallow their gods. (Tirinus) — Sa assures us, that he saw an alchymist pulverize gold, which Abenezra says is done by means of some herbs, which turn the gold quite black, when it is melted. (Calmet) — Some use aquafortis for this purpose. (Tirinus) — But from the account of Moses, (Deuteronomy ix. 21,) it seems fire, and the mill, or file, reduced the gold into the smallest particles, so as to be even potable. Josephus ([Antiquities?] viii. 2,) mentions the gold dust used by the courtiers of Solomon. (Calmet)
Ver. 22. Evil. Aaron answers his younger brother with humility, being now touched with repentance; on which account, God still grants him the high priesthood. (Haydock)
Ver. 24. Came out. The Rabbins pretend alive, and able to walk. Hence they say Aaron was filled with astonishment, and induced to erect the altar in its honour. (R. Salomo and Burgens.) But these are Jewish fables, injurious to God, and invented to hide, in some degree, the shame of their ancestors. For the same reason, Josephus passes over the whole in silence, and Philo throws the blame on a few Egyptian converts. They might very probably be the ringleaders, as Numbers xi. 4. But the Hebrews in general readily gave in to the delusion, 1 Corinthians x. 7. (Haydock)
Ver. 25. Naked. Having lost not only their gold, and their honour, but what was worst of all, being stripped also of the grace of God, and having lost him. — The shame of the filth. That is, of the idol, which they had taken for their god. It is the usual phrase of the Scripture to call idols filth, and abominations. (Challoner) — Of the filth, is not in Hebrew. But it serves to explain how the Hebrews came to be so unprotected and disconcerted. See 2 Paralipomenon xxviii. 19.
Ver. 26. All the sons; that is, the great majority of them; for some were probably slain, ver. 29.
Ver. 28. About, &c. The Hebrew letter c means about, and stands also for twenty. All the versions, and some copies of the Vulgate, retain the first signification; but our edition gives also the second. Sixtus V. and the Louvain Bible have about 33,000. (Haydock) — St. Paul (1 Corinthians x. 7, 8,) mentions, that three and twenty thousand perished, in punishment of their fornication (with the Moabites), which some explain of the adoration of the calf, and say that Moses only specifies those slain by the Levites; while St. Paul gives the number of all those who perished by the hand of God on this occasion, ver. 35. (Calmet) — St. Cyril, Alex. glap. 2, Sulpitius, and many other fathers, agree with the Vulgate. The fornication with the Moabites, was followed by the death of 24,000, Numbers xxv. 9. So that St. Paul cannot refer to it, unless he only mention those who perished in one day; and Moses expresses the total amount of the slain during the whole affair. (Haydock)
Ver. 29. To you. Thus they merited the priesthood, and a blessing; (Deuteronomy xxxiii. 9.; Menochius) having been the ministers of God’s just indignation, without sparing any of the most guilty. With these they could not be unacquainted. No external signs on their bodies were requisite to make the delinquents known. They had appeared too publicly. (Haydock) — The Levites acted with due authority and order, which their father, Levi, had neglected, Genesis xxxiv. (Worthington)
Ver. 30. You. Many who had not been slain, had followed the bad example, and Aaron, in particular, had brought upon them a most heinous sin, ver. 21. Yet on account of their repentance, they were not subjected to immediate punishment; but they were visited afterwards, ver. 34. Though God was appeased, (ver. 14,) so as not to destroy the whole multitude, Moses thought it a very arduous task to obtain a full reconciliation, notwithstanding the exemplary vengeance he had taken of the ringleaders. Hence he addresses himself to God with the greatest humility, and with such earnestness as scarcely seems justifiable, if we understand that he put his own eternal salvation at stake. But he makes an impossible supposition, or proposal, which he knew God would not admit, to extort as it were the requested favour. As he is willing to die for his people, God pardons them for his sake. (St. Augustine, q. 147, &c.) (Haydock)
Ver. 32. The book of predestinate. St. Paul uses a similar expression, Romans ix. 3. Neither could he really desire or consent to be accursed, even for a time. Hence their words can be understood only as an hyperbole, to denote the excess of their love for their brethren, as if a child should say to his father, pardon my brother, or kill me. (Tirinus) — Some explain this book, of the law or covenant, by which Moses was appointed the prince of the Hebrews, which title he is willing to forego, with pleasure, to obtain their pardon. (Calmet) — Others understand the book, or register of the living. He is willing to die for his people. See Numbers xi. 15; St. Gregory, Mor. x. 7; St. Jerome, ad Algas. — This sense is very good, and sufficiently expresses the fervour of Moses. Greater love than this no man hath, John xv. 13.
Ver. 33. Book: him will I slay; and, if he die impenitent, I will punish him for ever. (Haydock)
Ver. 35. Struck, with some judgment not specified; (Lyranus) or perhaps, the various punishments which were inflicted on the Hebrews in the wilderness, were all partly designed to chastise this first act of idolatry. Calmet explains this of the devastation caused by the Levites, as he supposes the narration of Moses does not observe the order of time. He thinks Moses expostulated with the people, and was then sent by God to punish them; and while they were unarmed, (chap. xxxiii. 5,) the Levites fell upon them. Then Moses removed the tabernacle out of the camp, and obtained of God that he would go before them, and not an angel only, ver. 34. and chap. xxxiii. 17. Moses continued full forty days, standing or lying prostrate on the mount, before the Lord, to obtain the pardon of his people, Deuteronomy ix. 25. and x. 10. At the expiration of which term he returned, with an order to prepare two other tables of stone, on which, after a supplication of the same length of time, he obtained the law to be again engraven, chap. xxxiv. 28. The favour cost him therefore 120 days’ earnest prayer; and yet how little are we touched with God’s mercy, in giving us his law! (Haydock)
Bible Text & Cross-references:
The people fall into idolatry. Moses prayeth for them. He breaketh the tables: destroyeth the idol: blameth Aaron, and causeth many of the idolaters to be slain.
1 And the people seeing *that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, gathering together against Aaron, said: **Arise, make us gods, that may go before us: For as to this Moses, the man that brought us out of the land of Egypt, we know not what has befallen him.
2 And Aaron said to them: Take the golden ear-rings from the ears of your wives, and your sons and daughters, and bring them to me.
3 And the people did what he had commanded, bringing the ear-rings to Aaron.
4 *And when he had received them, he fashioned them by founders’ work, and made of them a molten calf. And they said: These are thy gods, O Israel, that have brought thee out of the land of Egypt.
5 And when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it, and made proclamation by a crier’s voice, saying: To-morrow is the solemnity of the Lord.
6 And rising in the morning, they offered holocausts, and peace-victims, *and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.
7 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: *Go, get thee down: thy people, which thou hast brought out of the land of Egypt, hath sinned.
8 They have quickly strayed from the way which thou didst shew them: and they have made to themselves a molten calf, and have adored it, and sacrificing victims to it, have said: *These are thy gods, O Israel, that have brought thee out of the land of Egypt.
9 And again the Lord said to Moses: *I see that this people is stiff-necked:
10 Let me alone, that my wrath may be kindled against them, and that I may destroy them, and I will make of thee a great nation.
11 But Moses besought the Lord his God, saying: *Why, O Lord, is thy indignation enkindled against thy people, whom thou hast brought out of the land of Egypt, with great power, and with a mighty hand?
12 Let not the Egyptians say, I beseech thee: He craftily brought them out, that he might kill them in the mountains, and destroy them from the earth: let thy anger cease, and be appeased upon the wickedness of thy people.
13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou sworest by thy own self, saying: *I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven: and this whole land that I have spoken of, I will give to your seed, and you shall possess it for ever.
14 And the Lord was appeased from doing the evil which he had spoken against his people.
15 And Moses returned from the mount, carrying the two tables of the testimony in his hand, written on both sides,
16 And made by the work of God; the writing also of God was graven in the tables.
17 And Josue hearing the noise of the people shouting, said to Moses: The noise of battle is heard in the camp.
18 But he answered: It is not the cry of men encouraging to fight, nor the shout of men compelling to flee: but I hear the voice of singers.
19 And when he came nigh to the camp, he saw the calf, and the dances: and being very angry, he threw the tables out of his hand, and broke them at the foot of the mount:
20 And laying hold of the calf which they had made, he burnt it, *and beat it to powder, which he strewed into water, and gave thereof to the children of Israel to drink.
21 And he said to Aaron: What has this people done to thee, that thou shouldst bring upon them a most heinous sin?
22 And he answered him: Let not my lord be offended; for thou knowest this people, *that they are prone to evil.
23 They said to me: Make us gods, that may go before us; for as to this Moses, who brought us forth out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is befallen him.
24 And I said to them: Which of you hath any gold? and they took and brought it to me; and I cast it into the fire, and this calf came out.
25 And when Moses saw that the people were naked, (for Aaron had stripped them by occasion of the shame of the filth, and had set them naked among their enemies)
26 Then standing in the gate of the camp, he said: If any man be on the Lord’s side, let him join with me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him:
27 And he said to them: Thus saith the Lord God of Israel: Put every man his sword upon his thigh: go, and return from gate to gate through the midst of the camp, and let every man kill his brother, *and friend, and neighbour.
28 And the sons of Levi did according to the words of Moses, and there were slain that day about three and twenty thousand men.
29 And Moses said: You have consecrated your hands this day to the Lord, every man in his son and in his brother, that a blessing may be given to you.
30 And when the next day was come, Moses spoke to the people: You have sinned a very great sin: I will go up to the Lord, if by any means I may be able to entreat him for your crime.
31 And returning to the Lord, he said: I beseech thee: this people hath sinned a heinous sin, and they have made to themselves gods of gold: either forgive them this trespass,
32 Or if thou do not, strike me out of the book that thou hast written.
33 And the Lord answered him: He that hath sinned against me, him will I strike out of my book:
34 But go thou, and lead this people whither I have told thee: my angel shall go before thee. And I in the day of revenge will visit this sin also of theirs.
35 The Lord therefore struck the people for the guilt, on occasion of the calf which Aaron had made.
1: Year of the World 2513. — ** Acts vii. 40.
4: Psalm cv. 19.
6: 1 Corinthians x. 7.
7: Deuteronomy ix. 12.
8: 3 Kings xii. 28.
9: Exodus xxxiii. 3.; Deuteronomy ix. 13.
11: Numbers xiv. 13.; Psalm cv. 23.
13: Genesis xii. 7. and xv. 7. and xlviii. 16.
20: Deuteronomy ix. 21.
22: 1 John v. 19.
27: Deuteronomy xxxiii. 9.