The English translation of Exodus 32:20 according to the King James Version states,

And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it. KJV, 1769

The corresponding Hebrew text (MT) is,

וַיִּקַּ֞ח אֶת־הָעֵ֨גֶל אֲשֶׁ֤ר עָשׂוּ֙ וַיִּשְׂרֹ֣ף בָּאֵ֔שׁ וַיִּטְחַ֖ן עַ֣ד אֲשֶׁר־דָּ֑ק וַיִּ֙זֶר֙ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י הַמַּ֔יִם וַיַּ֖שְׁקְ אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

Question: Why did Moses make the Israelites drink the ground calf & water mixture?

  • gold has healing properties and is used today in a similar fashion to how the Hebes used it to heal maladies.
    – Hello
    Commented Jan 1, 2015 at 5:44

5 Answers 5


There are several major lines of interpretation:

  1. A number of commentators over the years1 have made a connection between this incident and the provision in Numbers 5:11-31, wherein a woman suspected of adultery is given a mixture of water and dust to drink that are to cause visible outworkings of her guilt. The connection between idolatry and adultery throughout the Hebrew Bible2 lend some credibility to this line of thought. Sarna (JPS) also sees a verbal connection in verse 21 with the test in Numbers 5. Both Enns (NIVAC) and Hamilton see this as allowing the Levites in the subsequent episode to be able to identify those who ought to be killed.

  2. Making the Israelites drink the mixture may be a simple form of punishment. A number of verses from Jeremiah3 picture God giving bitter food and water to people to drink as a punishment. William Propp (AYB) writes, "Ultimately, I would just recognize that Moses is, as we say, rubbing Israel’s nose in its own misdeed."

  3. Another line of interpretation is to see this as a cleansing ritual.

    Propp (1987a: 87–88) makes yet another comparison: the purification rite of the Red Cow (Number 19) like Exodus 32 involves a ruddy bovine whose charred remains are dissolved in water, which is then sprinkled to remove ritual defilement. Perhaps, if sprinkling this “Impurity Water” cleanses ritual defilement, so imbibing the dissolved ashes of an artificial calf might atone for idolatry. But it seems rather forced to explain Moses’ act as parodying the Red Cow or any other purifying rite. Indeed, to do so undermines the vignette’s dramatic effect.4

  4. Finally, Moses's actions might also have been intended to defile and so "punish" the golden calf itself. For instance, Stuart (NAC) writes, "The statement that he [Moses] 'made the Israelites drink it' may not be the best translation of the Hebrew and at any rate probably does not mean he had them all line up and drink some as an organized group punishment. Rather it means that by putting the powder into their water supply, he saw to it that eventually the powder was drunk along with the water and thus went through the Israelites' bodies, came out as waste, corrupted and defiled, and therefore was ruined permanently as material fit for an idol." Stuart argues Josiah did a similar thing in 2 Kings 23:6 when he ground an Asherah pole to dust and scattered it on graves. Propp agrees: "Thus, although gold is ordinarily reused time and time again, the gold of the Calf can never be recovered, without scavenging through cemetery and latrine."

A number of these interpretations are compatible with one another. I see no contradiction in adopting the first, second, and fourth positions all together, which for my part is how I would read this passage (though two and four are more easily argued in my mind than one). Each will, of course, draw their own conclusions.


1 E.g. Avodah Zarah 44a; also more recently Peter Enns (NIVAC) and Victor Hamilton.

2 Especially in the later prophets, but also in Numbers 25, for instance.

3 Jer. 8:14, 9:14, and 23:15. But also, see Rev. 16:6 for a similar idea.

4 Propp, W. H. C. (2008). Exodus 19–40: a new translation with introduction and commentary (Vol. 2A, p. 560). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

  • +1. I always assumed something along point 4 ("cemetery and latrine") to be the main motivation.
    – hitchhiker
    Commented May 10, 2019 at 20:53

The sin was accounted by Yehovah to Aaron. Deuteronomy 9:20 "And Yehovah was very angry with Aaron to have destroyed him: and I (Moses) prayed for Aaron also the same time. 21 And I took your (the People) sin (according to Moses), the calf which you had made, and burnt it with fire, and stamped it, and ground it very small, even until it was small as dust: and I cast the dust thereof into the brook that descended out of the mount." Was this a transfer of the accounting of this sin? Transferred from Aaron to the People, from one man to the nation that forgiveness may come, yes grace? We know that the sins of the nation of Israel, indeed of the whole world were transferred to Yeshua HaMashiyah, He who "takes away the sins of the world." Sin was transferred to one man from the nation (and the world) to "declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past..." (Romans 3:25). This becomes a parable, a reflection, a mirror image of the judgement and righteousness of God, transferring sin from one man (Aaron) to the nation, and reversed from the nation to one man (Yeshua).The Brook that "descended from the mount" is the water of life, which Yeshua gives which ye "shall never thirst" Jn 4:14. Moses therefore ground up the gold to dust, to transfer the sin to the "Brook", which is a similitude of Yehovah. Jer 2:13 "For My People have committed two evils; they have forsaken Me the fountain of living waters..." (flowing waters, not a cistern); Jer 17:13 "O Yehovah, the Hope of Israel, all that forsake Thee shall be ashamed... because they have forsaken Yehovah, the Fountain of living waters". The gold of Egypt is "in the Brook", that is where the Holy knowledge is, even the hope of eternal life that the Pharoahs believed in, where the sons of Israel had been enslaved. The answer therefore is to transfer the sin to the Brook, an act of faith by Moses to declare Yehovah's ultimate plan for His People through The Son of God, to remind Yehovah of His plan that Moses understood well by now, and I would say because it may have been revealed to Moses "in the mount". Many times Moses skilfully avoided the awesome judgement of Yehovah upon these People as is written in Deut 9:22 on. The tribe of Levi nevertheless executed judgement for Yehovah upon 3000 people with sword fights between the men (Ex 32:26-35) After this event, Yehovah summoned Moses back up the mount to receive the two tablets of stone the second time and then separated the sons of Aaron from amongst Israel to bear the Ark of the Covenant and to stand before Yehovah to minister to Him, and to bless in His name (Deut 10:8), so Moses was successful in obtaining grace for Aaron and his sons.

  • Welcome to BH. It would be helpful if you were to highlight the points in your answer by breaking it up into paragraphs, rather than present us with a 'wall of text'.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 7:34
  • Please learn the SE markdown syntax and use it for quoting verses.
    – user17080
    Commented Dec 27, 2017 at 8:26

they consumed the white powder of gold or ormus. It has healing qualities. We have just recently relearned how to make it and has been known to cure cancer and a lot of other afflictions.

  • Welcome to the site! We are not like other sites with welcome opinions and conversations. So please give us a source for your answer. Can you provide a link or two to support your statements?
    – Steve
    Commented May 10, 2019 at 15:23

Jesus says, "This is my body, broken for you." We are to eat of the very body of God and in it receive spiritual nourishment as we practice our covenant communion with Him. Here, Moses by forcing them to consume the broken body of this idol which only causes pain, allows them to experience how damaging covenant communion with an idol truly is. Communion is showing how intimate our relationship to God is. So strange to think of consuming Jesus as our Passover Lamb, but it does communicate such a closeness that God desires to have even with us sinners. To have this intimate of communion worship with an idol should be seen as a shocking abomination and Moses is teaching the Israelite nation this very thing.

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    – agarza
    Commented Jul 13, 2021 at 17:46

The parallel between consuming the Golden Calf vs. the body and blood 🩸 of Jesus Christ. One cannot fulfil and the other fulfils all! A great reminder of the finished work of the cross.


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