In Deuteronomy 9:21, Moses said " I took your sin, the calf you had made" By saying this, Moses indicates that the calf is sin objectified.

Exodus 32:20 (NKJV)

Then he took the calf which they had made, burned it in the fire, and ground it to powder; and he scattered it on the water and made the children of Israel drink it.

In the preceding verses, Moses had been interceding for the people. When he came down from the mountain, he did five things with the golden calf (the sin of Israel).

a) He took the calf from the people

b) He burnt it in the fire

c) He ground it to powder

d) He scattered it on the water that flowed down the brook of Sinai

e) He forced the people to drink the ashes mixed with water

All four acts of Moses look like acts of atonement. But the fifth act looks like punishment.


1) Was Moses asking the people to drink the water mixed with ash out of anger or was he doing it for their own good?

2) Was drinking the ashes of the burnt calf an act of ritual atonement?

  • Haven't found a definitive answer, but found this abstract that covers a lot of the bases (13 pages). --academia.edu/7598575/… -- Interesting that Ex. 32:30 is in 3rd person, while Deut. 9:21 of the same (but different) account is in the 1st person.
    – tblue
    Dec 24, 2017 at 23:09

2 Answers 2


I'm new here, so feedback is appreciated...

Hat tip to tblue for linking the comprehensive article.

To me, the most convincing argument is that after Moses had scattered it in the brook, it might have been inappropriate to allow them to drink from the water, as it contained their sin. The continuation of "וישק" "and he made them drink it" is not exact, rather he allowed them to still drink from their water source (this translation can also fit with other times the word is used through the Bible). This approach is suggested by a number of commentaries. This would also help explain its omission in Deuteronomy 9:21 due to being insignificant to the retelling of the story.

According to this approach, Moses allowed them to drink (i.e. for their own good), and it was not at all an act of atonement.

Some Targums and commentaries (see the article linked above) describe the drinking akin to Sotah (Numbers 5), and that upon drinking, either those who were guilty died, or some sign arose on them that had them "marked for killing" by the Levites after the fact (verse 26 here), this would make for a significant omission in Deuteronomy, but explain how the Levites knew exactly who to target.

According to this, Moses forced them to drink in order that he should know who was guilty and who innocent, and this would not have served as an act of atonement.

A few other approaches can be found in the commentators, listed below with only one source for each opinion (even if there are many others that support it).

Henry: "His mixing this powder with their drink signified to them that the curse they had thereby brought upon themselves would mingle itself with all their enjoyments, and embitter them; it would enter into their bowels like water, and like oil into their bones."

This would help them atone by reminding them of their sin, and he later compares these waters to the bitter waters of Marah.

Nahmanides essentially renders it as contempt for the calf such that its end would be human waste.

This would help them atone, as it is some form of degrading their sins.

There are a few other explanations of the drinking, but this should be enough to address the question.


It is really a sign that the people had sinned against God and that judgment was the next thing. We can understand the scripture from the context of:

Jeremiah 8:14

14 Why do we sit still? assemble yourselves, and let us enter into the defenced cities, and let us be silent there: for the LORD our God hath put us to silence, and given us water of gall to drink, because we have sinned against the LORD.

It's a sign that they had forsaken the law and failed to walk in the ways of God:

Jeremiah 9:13-16

13 And the LORD saith, Because they have forsaken my law which I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice, neither walked therein;

14 But have walked after the imagination of their own heart, and after Baalim, which their fathers taught them:

15 Therefore thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will feed them, even this people, with wormwood, and give them water of gall to drink.

16 I will scatter them also among the heathen, whom neither they nor their fathers have known: and I will send a sword after them, till I have consumed them.

It's a sign of the anger and wrath of the Lord:

Jeremiah 23:15

15 Therefore thus saith the LORD of hosts concerning the prophets; Behold, I will feed them with wormwood, and make them drink the water of gall: for from the prophets of Jerusalem is profaneness gone forth into all the land.

It is a sign that they have done an abominable thing that has serious repercussions on them:

Deuteronomy 29:17,18

17 And ye have seen their abominations, and their idols, wood and stone, silver and gold, which were among them:)

18 Lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from the LORD our God, to go and serve the gods of these nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood;

  • Consider also Lamentations 4:21, and especially Isaiah 51:17.
    – user17080
    Dec 28, 2017 at 11:23

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