The Adoration of the Golden Calf, from the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg, abbess of Hohenburg Abbey (12th century).

After the ten northern tribes refused to accept Solomon’s son Rehoboam as their king, and Jeroboam was installed as the king of the northern kingdom of Israel (1 Kings 12:20), he erected golden calves at Bethel and Dan (1 Kings 12:26-29). Years of heavy taxing of the northern tribes by Solomon so that he could undertake massive building projects in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the south had created enormous resentment in the north. Jeroboam was motivated by a desire to remove this burden from his people: “It is too much trouble for you to go up to Jerusalem.” It was also politically pragmatic to keep his people in the north and away from the influence, propaganda, and manipulation of the ruling powers – both civil and religious – in the south. He therefore needed alternative places for worship, away from the Jerusalem cult. He may have also been motivated to return to earlier traditional forms of worship which had been tied to various shrines in the north, including Shiloh (where the tabernacle had been erected after the journey from Egypt), and several sites associated with patriarchs such as Abraham. There is nothing particularly shocking about these goals and motivations. In fact, by returning to traditional pre-Solomonic forms of worship Jeroboam seems to be more “conservative” than “revolutionary.”

Jeroboam’s golden calves were set up in Dan and Bethel – sacred sites located near the northern and southern borders of his kingdom – and he proclaimed “Look, Israel, here are your gods who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” The writer (or an editor) of Kings criticised Jeroboam for it: “This thing became a sin”  (although the writer doesn’t explain how or why it was a sin). We could easily conclude that by erecting two calves and saying “here are your gods” that Jeroboam was instituting idolatry and the worship of multiple gods, like the nations around them (although Solomon beat him to the post with that). I’ll come back to this, but first we should note that almost identical words are attributed to the people when Aaron built a golden calf while Moses was in the mountain receiving the law from God:

Aaron took the gold from the people, formed it in a mold, 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!”

Exodus 32:4, 8.

It appears on a surface reading that Jeroboam is echoing the words from the story of Aaron and the golden calf, or that at least the writer wants us to think that Jeroboam is imitating Aaron. However, there are a couple puzzling things about these words in the story of Aaron. First there is a problem with the words “these are your gods” as Aaron had made only one calf. The use of the plurals – ” these are your gods” – is even more puzzling when we consider the words that immediately follow: “Aaron built an altar before it [the golden calf]; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD’.” The reader couldn’t be blamed for being confused: is he worshipping multiple gods, or just one?Why “these” (plural) and “gods” (plural) when he had made one image for the purpose of worshipping one God? The second thing to note is that while Exodus elsewhere painstakingly celebrates Aaron and his sons as divinely consecrated priests, the golden calf story seems to vilify Aaron. It is puzzling why a single author would do both. To solve these problems we need to first set aside two common misconceptions about these texts:

(1) It is a common assumption that the books of the Bible were written in chronological order, or the order in which they have been arranged in most Bibles. This assumes that Exodus was written before Kings, simply because it describes events which occurred before the events in Kings. This would be the same as assuming that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was written in the first century BCE. The books of the Bible were generally written long after the events they describe, and not in chronological order. We shouldn’t assume that Exodus was written before Kings simply because the events it records were earlier.

(2) It is also a common misconception that the books traditionally attributed to Moses – the five books from Genesis to Deuteronomy – were all written by a single author and they were written by Moses himself. It’s simply incredible that Moses could have described his own death and burial, or that he would describe himself as the most humble person on earth (Numbers 12:3)! For centuries scholars have realised that these books had multiple authors (and/or editors/redactors) and came together over time, and the majority view in modern biblical scholarship is that parts of Exodus were written after Kings. The German biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) argued that the Pentateuch – the “five books of Moses” – were written by four individuals or groups. In his “documentary hypothesis” he named them J, E, P and D, for the Jahwist or Yahwist (who used the divine name Yahweh), the Elohist (who used the title elohim, or God), a Priestly source, and the Deuteronomist. The majority of biblical scholars today accept some variation or other of this hypothesis, some arguing that there were more than four principal writers, and others trying to identify editors/redactors as well as writers. According to many scholars the Yahwist was in the southern kingdom of Judah, while the Elohist was in the northern kingdom of Israel. These chapters in Exodus have been linked to the Elohist. One theory, which I personally think has a lot of evidence to support it, is that this Elohist was a northern Levitical priest who was possibly associated with the shrine at Shiloh. The Elohist opposed the oppressive policies of Solomon and the Jerusalem Zadokite priesthood, and was sympathetic to Jeroboam’s aspirations for an independant northern kingdom with its own religious shrines and traditions. (I plan to write more about this in my next post.)

While the Aaron story describes events which occurred long before the time of Jeroboam, modern scholarship generally considers the Jeroboam story to have been written first, and the story about Aaron to have been written later. I won’t go into the technicalities of this argument here, but happy to discuss them later. This makes sense of some interesting parallels between the stories. Apart from almost identical words being said in both stories (“here are your gods O Israel”), there are some other striking similarities. Jeroboams sons were named אֲבִיָּה Abiyah (1 Kings 14:1) and נָדָב Nadab (1 Kings 14:20). Two of Aaron’s sons had almost identical names: נָדָב Nadab and אֲבִיהוּא Abihu (Abiyah and Abihu in Hebrew are closer than in English, with the difference being the final vowel). According to Deuteronomy 9:21 Moses destroyed the image which Aaron had made, he “burned it with fire and crushed it, grinding it thoroughly, until it was reduced to dust.” In a later story in Kings, king Josiah destroyed the high place on the site where Jeroboam’s image had stood: “he burned the high place, crushing it to dust” (2 Kings 23:15). The phrase הֵדַק / דַּק לְעָפָר crushing it to dust occurs in both stories but rarely elsewhere in the Bible. This can’t be coincidence. It looks like one story was modelled on the other.

But which came first? Rather than the story about Aaron being re-worked to form the basis of the story about Jeroboam, it is more likely that it was the other way around. This would explain why in Exodus the people say “these are your gods” when there was only one calf, because in the Jeroboam story there were two calves. The plural was carried over into the Aaron story, even though the context really required the singular. In the context of Jeroboam’s two calves the plural “Look! Your gods!” makes sense – one God (Yahweh) represented by two images for two places of worship – but created a grammatical problem when it was copied and pasted into the Aaron story where one God was represented by one image. This is a clear indication that the Jeroboam story came first, where the quote was gramatically correct and made sense, and was copied into the Aaron story where it didn’t quite work, neither grammatically nor contextually. In the two stories Aaron and Jeroboam both created golden images as depictions of the throne of Yahweh – there was no suggestion in either story that they were making idols to represent other gods. This explains why this story about a heretical Aaron is found in a book in which Aaron is the consecrated High Priest – the story (by the northern Elohist) about Aaron and the golden calf was written by a different author to the sections (by the southern Yahwist) which detailed how he was a consecreated priest, and the two writings came together later.

So why was the Jeroboam story re-worked as a story about Aaron and inserted into Exodus? It makes perfect sense to me that a northern priestly writer who was opposed to the Zadokite priesthood in Jerusalem (who claimed to be descendants of Aaron) might take a story that had been written about Jeroboam and which was later used to accuse him of introducing heresy into Israel, and then re-write it so that it became a story about Aaron being the originator of heresy instead. In order to undermine the Zadokite claim to be the only legitimate priests, the northern writer denigrated their ancestor Aaron. We shouldn’t think of this as literary fraud, but rather parody or satire. The writer takes a story which targets Jeroboam and satirically turns it around so that it attacks the ancestor of the very people who targeted Jeroboam with it.

These two stories highlight how some parts of the Bible were written, or rewritten, as propaganda to challenge the claims or legitimacy of their opponents. Once we read it this way we can see how the Bible is in conversation with itself: one writer tells a story one way, and then a later writer adds to it, or modifies it, to appeal to a new audience or a later generation. The great drama of the Bible is not in the stories which were told, but in the story of the writers who told and re-told them for their own purposes and to support their own interests.