Exodus 32:1-4 (NRSV)

The Golden Calf

1" When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.

2 "Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”

3 "So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron."

4 "He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold,[a] and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

Why was Aaron not punished for making the golden calf?

  • 1
    Well, he does see his two old sons burn alive (Levitcus 10) so one can not say God didn't punish him at all.
    – A. Meshu
    Jun 13, 2018 at 16:41

8 Answers 8


Other biblical accounts

You ask "Why was Aaron not punished?" Indeed from Deuteronomy 9:20 it seems that God was very upset with Aaron for making the calf and wanted to punish him (destroy him), but Moses besought god to spare him and that's how he was saved

And the Lord was angry enough with Aaron to destroy him, but at that time I prayed for Aaron too.

But since it would be un-scholarly to conflate these two accounts and assume that they both agree with each other I will not take this route. Indeed, from Exodus 32 there is no hint whatsoever that God was furious with Aaron (only that Moses his brother was very upset with him) or that he intended to punish him. His sons are burnt alive, and he is barred from entering the promised land, but there is no indication in the text that these were intended as a punishment for Aaron for his involvement with the golden calf. So your question is valid.


I think the answer to your question can be found if we study the narrative closely. From studying the beginning verses it becomes readily apparent that the Israelites were not asking Aaron to make them an idol, or a new image to replace the worship of Yahweh, they were looking for a substitute for Moses. This is the basic outline: Moses does not return and the Israelites panic, they think he is lost or dead. They are desperate for a new leader to show them the way out of the vast barren desert, so they approach Aaron to build them an oracle, a cultic object or image that would act as a medium between them and God; they would ask questions and the calf, acting as a medium between them and Yahweh, would provide the answers. There was nothing wrong with making such an object, indeed David's household owned similar items and images (which were used as oracles) which were called Teraphim in biblical times. They were regularly used throughout Israel and weren't outlawed until much later during king Josiah's reforms (2 kings 23:24).

That the Israelites were asking for a substitute for Moses is evident from the beginning of chapter 32

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us Elohim who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

The Israelites surely did not worship Moses, he was just a prophet acting as a medium between them and Yahweh, so when they were looking for a substitution for Moses they were looking for an object that would do just that: mediate between them and Yahweh. Or as Philpot eloquently puts it (p. 45), "The request, then, is not initially for another Yhwh, but for an image representing Yhwh in the place of Moses." (see Philpot's footnote for a bibliography of sources). The medieval Jewish commentator Rashbam has suggested a very similar approach.

(As for the word "Elohim" [אלהים], in my view it is better interpreted as as a "divine being" or "divine medium" than "gods" as most translations have them and in my view are erroneous. Indeed אלהים is elsewhere interpreted similarly. see Deuteronomy 33:1; Judges 13:6 where it is rendered "divine man".)

But when Aaron finished the golden calf some came to believe that it is not merely an oracle but an image of a god that took them out of Egypt, and they said "These are your gods,[b] Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” Whether they identified this god with Yahweh or some other deity is a matter of considerable controversy, but one thing is clear that at this point they started worshiping it, bowing down to it and sacrificing to it (see verse 6) and that's when God got angry with them. Aaron however was not part of this cult and had nothing to do with it, the people completely misinterpreted the image of the calf and took it to the next level when originally it wasn't built for this purpose, hence the answer to your question: Aaron was indeed innocent!

Further clarifications

This sheds light on Aaron's answer to Moses, when the latter accuses him of leading the people to sin we find Aaron's reply,

Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us Elohim who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him. So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

Lots have attempted to clarify this dialogue, especially Aaron's reply which is ambiguous, but according to my understanding his answer is simple. Aaron is defending himself by pointing out that he only intended to make them an object that would act as a medium between them and god, but they mistook it as a god and started worshiping it; in other words, he had no part in this crime and thus emerges clean.

  • It seems to me that you gave an important insight in the first paragraph, added some good stuff but then, in my always humbler than all's opinion, landed in the weeds. Aaron's defense of lack of prescience does not seem like something you will find being exculpatory in scripture. I think the golden calf was going to a problem with God no matter what. The reason I up voted was your reference to Deut 9:20 which does provide a scenario that does not involve God overlooking the practical value of an idol.
    – Ruminator
    Aug 2, 2018 at 14:29
  • @Ruminator I'm aware that my approach is novel, but I think it explains a lot. As for your conviction that the golden calf was going to be a problem no matter what, it seems to be more of a personal opinion than a biblical based claim, as there seems to be no evidence pointing your way.
    – bach
    Aug 2, 2018 at 23:29
  • Jews? Descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph? Monotheists? Jews did have a history of "spiritual adultery" (idolatry), noted in scripture, history, archaeology, etc. Yes, that would be a problem. But that's just one (as you know, truly humble) man's opinion.
    – Ruminator
    Aug 2, 2018 at 23:55
  • The Israelites at that time had other curiosities, such as Numbers 21:8-9 having Moses making a bronze or brass serpent at God's command, which would survive many centuries until the iconoclast King Hezekiah destroyed it in 2 Kings 18:4.
    – Henry
    Mar 26, 2023 at 17:51

God is always demonstrating mercy to His people. In the last book of the OT (Malachi) God states that since the law was given to Moses, that NO ONE has been able to keep the law (Malachi 3:7). God should have then enacted the curses outlined in Deuteronomy 29, however He never executed those judgments. In Malachi chapter 3 verse 6 tells you why:

For I am the Lord, I change not, therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.”

The Lord repeatedly has shown mercy to Israel after they had sinned. Just look at the life of David. No matter how much David sinned, he always turned to the Lord to ask for mercy. “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.” Romans 4:8. “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” Psalm 32:1

  • alb, Thanks God did forgive Aaron that is why He did no punish him,however there something more which obviously led to his forgiveness. Jan 2, 2018 at 19:53
  • Good answer. I would only expand this a little by mentioning Ex.34:6 where God informs the people of Israel of His character. God's mercy (his chesed) is highlighted following this event and in the ten commandments the opposite is true. In the first instance God was calling for obedience and mercy would follow. In this instance God knew obedience had failed so His mercy is put first for the whole people of Israel
    – Ken Banks
    Jan 4, 2018 at 14:17

I have been studying in Exodus and I noticed that in Ex 4:16 (KJV)

And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people: and he shall be, even he shall be to thee instead of a mouth, and thou shalt be to him instead of God.

God gave a warning to Moses that his actions to not be obedient to what God called him to do would result in Aaron seeing Moses as his God "instead of God". Could this maybe be a result of this choice and why Aaron wasn't punished?

In Exodus 4:10 (KJV)

And Moses said unto the Lord, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.

Moses is making excuses why he was not capable of being his spokesman. God then replies to him who maketh the dumb ,or the deaf, or the seeing, or the blind. I believe God is telling him from the spectrum of mental causes to bodily dis-functions he is in control of all and can restore all. He assures Moses in vs.12 he will teach (strong's yarah H3384 action God will do) his mouth. Moses does not Obey and God then in anger says Aaron is on his way.

  • I am using the KJV 1611. In Exodus 4:10 Moses is making excuses why he was not capable of being his spokesman. God then replies to him who maketh the dumb ,or the deaf, or the seeing, or the blind. I believe God is telling him from the spectrum of mental causes to bodily dis-functions he is in control of all and can restore all. He assures Moses in vs.12 he will teach (strong's yarah H3384 action God will do) his mouth. Moses does not Obey and God then in anger says Aaron is on his way. In 16 he then issues the warning I believe. I am open to other views to strengthen or disprove mine.
    – Lorie King
    Jan 10, 2018 at 15:12
  • We have a choice in what God has called us to do (Psalm 81:4). If we are fully obedient to God then He can justly give His best (Psalm 81:6) but if we by free will chose in fear to disobey there is consequences (Psalm 81:13-16).
    – Lorie King
    Jan 10, 2018 at 15:18
  • Thank you for your input. I don't have a lot of education beyond what the Lord has blessed me with. I use the blue letter Bible website to break down the words in the text. I appreciate your instruction on how to word my answer clearly. I understand that this is normally seen as an assurance but I don't see this as a blessing when I see how it affected Aaron"s actions once Moses was removed from him. In scripture I see Gods warning if we go against any of his commands that would include him instructing Moses to speak and Moses refusing out of fear. God does his best with complete obedience.
    – Lorie King
    Jan 12, 2018 at 13:35
  • Do you mind me asking what the MT is?
    – Lorie King
    Jan 12, 2018 at 13:39
  • "MT" is "Masoretic Text", the Hebrew text of the OT. I edited your answer to include the full text of the verses that you cite, in quotation notation, and I removed the last sentence. I think that I understand your reasoning now - that Aaron had diminished responsibility to God because Moses was his "God". And because of this God didn't punish Aaron for the golden calf incident.
    – user17080
    Jan 12, 2018 at 14:14

I think that Aaron was not punished because the laws had not yet been given. How can judgement can be executed without law?:

Rom 5:13  (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law.

The laws were just being enshrined on mount Sinai while Aaron was making the golden calf.

Apostle Paul says- I came to know the sin only after law came:

Rom_7:7  What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.

  • I like your answer and up voted it. However it leads to the question, why were others punished, such as the world before the flood?
    – Ruminator
    Aug 2, 2018 at 13:56
  • 1
    If the reason Aaron was not punished was because the law wasn’t given then everyone else would be innocent on the same grounds. Right? Dec 17, 2019 at 23:20

I think the question is "Why did God not punish Aaron?". I like to think of God as rewarding us for what we do right in our pursuit of him. If you think about the different experience that Moses and Aaron had after the calf was made it appears that Moses was greatly blessed for worshiping the true God and that Aaron received a much lesser reward. I think that you could think of the lack of opportunity to experience God as Moses did as the punishment.

In Exodus 33:11 it says,

"And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend." and we read in Exodus 34: 29 "And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tables of testimony in Moses’ hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him.

Moses was blessed with much of the Glory of God while Aaron remained at a lesser light. In fact, he was afraid -

Exodus 34:30 "And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him."


This question was raised by the medieval commentator Gersonides in his commentary to Exodus (starting from the bottom of the left column here). He argues that Aaron was actually trying to prevent the idolatry, and did everything in his power to delay it as much as possible, hoping that Moses would return in the interim and sort things out. Here is the ESV translation of the relevant passage in Chapter 32:

1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, "Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." 2 So Aaron said to them, "Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." 3 So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made proclamation and said, "Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD." 6 And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.

Thus, Gersonides argues that first Aaron told them to get the jewelry from their wives and children, knowing that this would take a while as the women and children would be very hesitant to give up their jewelry. When Moses still hadn't returned, Aaron dragged out the process further by "fashion[ing] it with a graving tool". When Aaron then saw that Moses had still not returned and the people had begun referring to the calf as "gods", he delayed further by building an altar. When this was still not enough he delayed again by saying "Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD." But the next morning the people arose and brought offerings and there was nothing more that Aaron could do.

Gersonides argues further that Aaron could not have objected outright to the idea because then the people would have simply killed him and there would be nothing left to temper their idolatry. If Aaron remains alive he at least has the ability to be undercover and try to minimize the great sin that was to take place.


“..Moses stood in the gate”

25 And when Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to the derision of their enemies), 26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, "Who is on the LORD's side? Come to me." And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. - Exodus 32:25-26

The one who was set in the position to judge (in the gate), chose mercy and to intercede for Aaron, along with the people.

Moses, bearing such responsibility seemingly was quick to choose mercy...


Whatever answer you gave is not enough. Just few chapters before this event, the Israelites were led to exercise [create? -Ed] the tabernacle and the clothing, and so forth. They had already known that God was a jealous God. Moses already presented this to Pharoah. Now when Moses called for those who will be on the Lord's side and the descendants of Levi came forward, and they were then commanded to move through the camp and slaughtered 3000 people. I believe that many links to the bible are missing, yet if God could command them to slaughter people, then why not Aaron? We all know that Lord punished Moses by not allowing him to enter the promised land. We also know that the reason was because Moses lost his temper and smote the rock when the people was thirsty instead of asking the rock as he was told to do. Such harsh punishment! And here is Aaron. Aaron was the one who crafted the calf [or small bull -Ed]. Was it because the calf was easy to craft and not the image of a human? We also know that The Israelites were still a very stiff-necked people, full of mischief. Yet they were the chosen people of God. And then they were dancing naked in front of the idols.

How can we become converted? Just 40 days and the spokesperson of God's Oracle changed.

Yes, the Bible states that his name shall not be mentioned, but it is.

  • Welcome to the Hermeneutics forum, Kamal. This forum is different from most others because it's expected that you research and support your posted answer with evidence from scriptural, linguistic, manuscript, commentaries from early writers, or scholarly sources. We're not supposed to rest our answers on reason or opinion alone. However, you can freely add comments as I have. You might want to review highly rated answers to get a better idea of what's expected. Best wishes,
    – Dieter
    Jun 14, 2018 at 3:06
  • Can you please cite the passages you are referencing here? "Just 40 days and the spokesperson of God's Oracle changed." Thanks. Honestly, Kamal, I am having a very hard time understanding your post. I assume English is a challenge for you. Can you please put in one sentence what it is that you are saying? Are you saying that he was punished? Should have been punished? ?
    – Ruminator
    Aug 2, 2018 at 14:17

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