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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!”

Exodus 32:4 ESV

The context in Hebrew confirms that "elohim" is meant to be plural in this verse. In addition, the LXX uses plural "theoi" in this verse. But there seems to be only one Golden Calf, not multiple.

Could this be explained if we see the Golden Calf as an attempt to make the seat of YHWH, with the Golden Calf being one god and YHWH another?

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    To me, the question could as well be asked of אֵ֤לֶּה, elleh Strong 428 'these'. If 'these' is plural, then that might answer the question just as precisely as the question of collective/functional plural/grammatical plural . . . . . . of the word אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ 'gods of you'. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 23:04
  • @NigelJ No, it wouldn't answer the question. I already know the form is plural, but I don't know why. Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 16:04

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As most participants of this site would be aware, the noun אֱלהִים (elohim) has a plural form, but the context and surrounding words dictate as to whether it is either functionally plural or singular. In most cases the attending verbs or pronouns dictate the functional number of the noun.

In both Ex 32:4 & 8, it is the associated [demonstrative] pronoun that determines the functional number: אֵ֤לֶּה (= "these") which is plural and so we must translate: "these [are] your gods ..."

By contrast, we find a similar construction in the singular in 1 Kings 18:39 were the associated pronoun, ה֣וּא (= He), is singular and thus we must translate: "The LORD, He [is] God ..."

Why was the plural used in Ex 32:4 & 8? I suggest it may have been that the singular golden calf was taken to represent the plethora of Egyptian gods (as per Josh 24:14) and thus, the plural was used when referring to the golden calf.

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    Exodus 32:5 indicates that the Israelites didn't abandon YHWH, so I'm not sure about this interpretation. Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 13:08
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    @TerjijKassal - really? If they had not abandoned YHWH then (1) why was a statue created? (2) why was God so angry that He punished them so severely? (3) why was the plural form used when they should worship only ONE God? The more likely occurrence was that YTHWH was placed among the many gods of the Egyptian pantheon which is effectively abandoning the central aspect of the worship of YHWH.
    – Dottard
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 20:04
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    @Dottard that’s a liberal viewpoint that has a reductionist mindset and doesn’t account for any divine inspiration. But sure it’s a possibility to a liberal theologian Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 20:36
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    I’m saying that that explanation is a modern and a liberal idea. The reason the triune (Three United) Hebrew Gods could not be considered as being added to the pantheon of the gods of the nations is because in Hebrew understand unlike modern understand the Hebrew God was superior to the other gods. A modern liberal will have no issue likening Elohim to all the other gods and putting them all on the same level. The triune Elohim is their Creator, Hebrews certainly Moses and Aaron would never have put Elohim alongside the other gods on the same plane. Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 20:45
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    We might differ but it’s still a modern idea Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 21:14
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The OP presumes that the word elohim is "meant to be plural" in Ex 32:4. However, this may not be the case. In fact the term is translated more often as "God" than as "god" or "the gods." According to the NAS Exhaustive Concordance, it is translated as "God" 2326 times, as "the gods" 204 times, and as "god" 45 times.

Indeed, even in the passages in question, many translators do not use the plural translation of elohim. For example:

  • AMP - “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”
  • CJB - They said, “Isra’el! Here is your god, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”
  • CEV - All the people said to one another, “This is the god who brought us out of Egypt!”
  • DARBY - This is thy god, Israel, who has brought thee up out of the land of Egypt!
  • NASB - and they said, “This is your god, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”
  • NLV - Then they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

Other translators prefer "your gods," which implies not only the sin of idolatry but also the error or polytheism. However, since the word itself is normally translated as "God," the singular form is a legitimate interpretation. I would add that since ancient Hebrew does not use capital letters "This is your God" (with a capital G) is probably a better rendering of the phrase, because the Israelites believed this to be a representation of the God of Israel, not of foreign gods. This seems clear from the context, in which the Golden Calf incident is immediately followed by a sacrifice offered to the Lord.

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings, and rose up to play (lit. laugh).

Some commentators believe that this celebratory feast was an attempt by Aaron to correct the error of polytheistic idolatry; however, IMO this festival makes more sense if one considers that the Golden Calf was constructed as an icon of the God of Israel. Moreover, the previous phrase "who brought you out of Egypt" quite clearly refers to the God of Israel, not to Egyptian or other foreign deities.

Conclusion: Translators use the term "gods" in the passage to emphasize the theological error of the worshipers. However, the Israelites believed that the Golden Calf was a representation of the God of Israel, who had brought them out of Egypt. "This is your God" is therefore an equally good or better translation than "Here are your gods."


NOTE: In response to objections in the comments below, I understand that the problem I perceive is not so much with the translation as with the narration itself. The Hebrew uses the plural "these" with "elohim," which implies that it intends the word to be understood as plural. But I insist that the Israelites themselves thought they were worshiping the singular god (or God) who brought them out of Egypt.

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    This translation isn't plausible, if you look at the Hebrew, the verbs following "elohim" are plural, indicating "elohim" is meant to be plural in this context. Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 13:07
  • According to Britannica, "Though Elohim is plural in form, it is understood in the singular sense... Elohim is monotheistic in connotation, though its grammatical structure seems polytheistic." Also, according to a note published by the US Council of Catholic Bishops "it seems that the golden calf was intended as an image, not of another god, but of the Lord, whose strength was symbolized by the strength of a young bull." Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 14:57
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    I would agree, but the original Hebrew clearly indicates that word for "these", not "this" is used. biblehub.com/exodus/32-4.htm#lexicon Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 15:23
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    This is a matter of opinion, and I agree with Britannica's view. I don't dismiss yours out of hand but virtually every well known translation of the Bible treats "elohim" as singular in most cases. Yes, the form is plural but to treat it as such as archaic IMO ... probably an echo of the Sumerian past in which stories such as the creation and the flood actually WERE told in a polytheistic context. BTW, this point is one of the reasons I insist that "opinion-based" questions should be more welcome here than on most other S.E. sites. Otherwise all the interesting questions would be ruled out. Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 20:50
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    This answer is slightly misleading. While I agree that some versions do not translate "elohim" as plural, the same also do not translate the אֵ֤לֶּה (= "these") as plural, which is inconsistent of them. It is this plural pronoun that make most versions translate the phrase "These are you gods".
    – Dottard
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 21:02
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The issue is in translation. Specifically how Shema

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” ‭‭Deuteronomy‬ ‭6‬:‭4‬ ‭

“Hear, O Israel: The יהוה our Elohim, the יהוה is echad/united.” ‭‭Deuteronomy‬ ‭6‬:‭4‬ ‭

The word for God, singular, is El, the plural is Elohim. There is NO evidence of a royal pronoun used in antiquity much less in the Bible.

Because the word echad and hen in the LXX Koine is translated (correctly) as one the connotation of the word one in the Latin, and then all the other translations invokes the idea of singularity BUT

The text does NOT say God is singular otherwise the word yachid would have been used in the Hebrew and monos in the Koine.

As an example

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” ‭‭Genesis‬ ‭2‬:‭24‬-‭25‬ ‭

In the English one might think this means they were conjoined. But the Hebrew word is echad not yachid, they were united, they were in unity, in purpose, direction, and intentions. We know they were two separate bodies because the very next very says they were BOTH, so clearly the echad was not used to convey singularity but unity.

In the Shema it says that Elohim is echad. And Elohim is the plural of El. A singular person is not united, it cannot be, but the three persons of the Godhead are united.

Example of all three persons of the Godhead being mentioned in the same verse

“Draw near to me (God is speaking person 1), hear this: from the beginning I have not spoken in secret, from the time it came to be I have been there.” And now the Lord God (God person 2 is sending God person 1) has sent me, and his Spirit (God person 3 distinct from person 1 &2).” Isaiah‬ ‭48‬:‭16

To answer the question about the golden calf

The reason the Hebrew text says Aaron told the people the name of the calf was Elohim is because they knew that the three persons of God delivered them out of Egypt. So it only made sense to call the image after the Elohim not the El who took them out of slavery.

The reason translators use God and not Gods is because in English El and Elohim are not translated with distinction, both are translated God like fish and fish or moose and moose, both singular and plural spelled the same. But if we were to be true to the Hebrew God inspired text the correct translation should be the name of the calf is Gods. And every time Elohim is used Gods should be used and when El is used then God singular should be used.

‭‭The objection to Gods is purely theological because they text and context clearly says Gods not God.

And to your last question OP, the calf was an image or an image bearer or a representation/representative of another. In this case the calf was an image of Elohim, three persons. It only made sense to name it after all three not just one. Because it was Elohim who took them out of Egypt not just El. No the calf was not sharing the throne. Idols do not share thrones, they represent another deity or deities. The calf was all the more insulting because it was just one calf.

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  • Are you saying that Aaron knowingly believed in the Trinity? Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 22:47
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    You have to consider several factors. They were much closer to the Creation. They had access of literature passed on generationally from Adam that we have very little of or fragmented. They were aware that God went by the name Gods/Elohim and even if Aaron didn’t know it but merely repeated what Moses told the people, Moses spoke face to face with God and was able to ask him questions. Moses is said to have penned the Pentateuch and it speaks about the Spirit of God being over the waters. There is also the alephtav the mimra, there are many things that pointed to more than one person in the OT Commented Jan 14, 2023 at 3:13
  • -1 This answer is incorrect with respect to Hebrew grammar. Nihil would be well served to study Hebrew plurale tantum and learn that Hebrew is not like English with respect to all of its grammatical forms. There is also a strong possibility that "elohim" was not originally a Hebrew word at all, but rather a loanword from Aramaic. The polytheistic Arameans customarily used a plural form for their plural gods, and the Hebrews, when adopting the word, followed suit, but adjusted their sentence grammar (verbs/adjectives/etc.) to use it as a singular noun.
    – Biblasia
    Commented Jan 14, 2023 at 3:25

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