Bishop Knecht’s Practical Commentary on Exodus 32 (The Golden Calf)

And rising in the morning, they offered holocausts, and peace victims, and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play~Ex 32:6

And rising in the morning, they offered holocausts, and peace victims, and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play~Ex 32:6

 The Bishop’s footnotes are in red and appear after the paragraphs in which they occur. Any notes I may make will be in purple.

MOSES again ascended the mountain, and remained there forty days (1) and forty nights conversing with God. And when God had finished speaking with Moses, He gave him two tables (2) of stone, on which were written the Ten Commandments. Now the people, seeing that Moses tarried (3) in coming down from the mountain, rose up against Aaron and besought him, saying: “Make us gods that may go before us. For, as to this Moses, the man that brought us out of the land of Egypt, we know not what has befallen him.”

1. Forty days. Moses passed the forty days and forty nights without food, and in prayer and contemplation, and was instructed by God about the making of the Tabernacle and the worship of God.
2. Two tables. The tables of the Commandments were the document of the Covenant. On the first table were written the first three Commandments, which teach us our duty towards God. On the second were the seven others which relate to our duty towards our neighbour.
3. Tarried. They believed that some misfortune had befallen Moses, and that God would now no longer be with them. This, however, was not the real cause of their idolatry, the plea of his absence was only an excuse. The real causes were the weakness of their faith and their sensuality, which made them crave for the low and dissolute pleasures of idolatry.

Hoping to dissuade them from their impious project, Aaron replied: “Take the golden ear-rings from the ears of your wives, and your sons and daughters, and bring them to me.” Contrary to his expectation (4), they brought their rings to Aaron who, fearing to offer resistance, accepted them, and made a molten calf (5), and built an altar. And the people exclaimed: “These are thy gods, O Israel, that have brought thee out of the land of Egypt.” Next morning they offered holocausts and peace-victims, and began to eat and drink and to dance, after the manner of the Egyptians.

4. Contrary to his expectation. Aaron had reckoned that they would rather give up their project than sacrifice their ornaments and treasures. However, their craving for idolatry proved stronger than their vanity or avarice. This is a common Rabbinic interpretation.
5. A molten calf. They insisted on a calf being made in imitation of the Egyptian worship of Apis (Fig. 26). The gold was melted on the fire, and then cast into a mould. I was not able to reproduce the Apis figure in the commentary. For a photo of an Apis bull image dating from about 1380 BC go here.

Meanwhile Moses came down from the mountain with the two tables of stone, whereon God Himself had written His Commandments. When he heard the shouts of the people, and saw them dance before the golden calf, he dashed the tables to the ground and broke them (6) at the foot of the mount. Then, laying hold of the calf, he burnt it and beat it to powder (7).

6. Broke them. The people having broken their covenant with God, Moses broke the words of the covenant. He meant also to show by this action that the people had proved themselves unworthy of the benefits of the law.
7. To powder. He ground it into gold dust. He did this to make the people understand the utter nothingness of idols, and the folly of worshipping them.

He (Moses) severely rebuked Aaron for yielding to the wicked desires of the people. Then, standing in the gate of the camp, he said: “If any man be on the Lord’s side, let him join with me.” And all the sons of Levi (8) gathered around him. Then Moses ordered them to take their swords, go through the camp, and slay every man whom they found practising idolatry. They did as they were commanded, and about twenty-three thousand men were put to death that day.

8. The sons of Levi. The descendants of Jacob’s son Levi. Most of the tribe of Levi had refrained from the worship of the golden calf. The Levites responded to Moses’ call, “If any man be on the Lord’s side, let him join with me,” implying that they had not taken part in the worship.

Next day Moses again ascended the mountain, and earnestly entreated the Lord for His ungrateful people (Ex 32:30-33:23). But the Lord said: “Let me alone that I may destroy them.” Still Moses insisted, saying: “I beseech Thee, this people hath sinned: either forgive them this trespass, or, if Thou do not, strike me out of the book (9) that Thou hast written.”

9. The book. The book in which are written the names of the just and heirs to heaven. By this forcible language Moses wished to say: “I (if I could do so without sin) would renounce eternal life rather than that this whole people should perish.” See Ps 69:29; Ps 87:6; Ps 139:16; Isa 4:3; Dan 12:1; Luke 10:20; Philippians 4:3; Rev 3:5; Rev 13:8; Rev 17:8; Rev 22:27, etc.

The Lord heard his prayer, and ordered him to cut two other tables of stone (Ex 34). Moses obeyed, and on those tables the Lord again wrote the Ten Commandments. But when Moses came down from the mountain with the tables in his hands, his face was so radiant (10) with glory that the Israelites were afraid to come near; hence he veiled his face whenever he spoke to the people.

Radiant. With a wonderful, supernatural light. Therefore Moses is always drawn with two rays of light on his brow (see Ex 34:29-35). See St Paul’s interpretation of this event in 2 Cor 3:7 ff. Click on thumbnail image to enlarge. Commentary continues below image.

And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses' face shone: and Moses put the veil upon his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone: and Moses put the veil upon his face again, until he went in to speak with him.


The Mercy of God. The people of Israel had sinned horribly against God by their idolatry, and yet, at Moses’ intercession, He forgave them.

Idolatry. The weak people were most ungrateful and faithless to God. The Lord had done such great things for them! Only forty days before, full of holy fear, they had heard His voice and had repeatedly promised obedience to His Commandments; and now they transgressed the first and most important of them, and forsook God to worship idols. St. Paul calls lust and covetousness idolatry. Whenever a man loves anything more than he loves God, he is guilty of idolatry.

Pleasure-seeking and sensuality lead to many sins, and finally to unbelief and impiety.

Fear of man. Aaron sinned grievously. It was from fear of man, fear for his life, that he sinned. He ought to have died rather than assist the people in their terrible sin.

Righteous anger. The anger of Moses was not sinful anger; it was, rather, a holy zeal for God’s honour and the good of the people. He who loves God cannot feel indifferent when he sees Him being offended; and he who really loves his neighbour must be pained when he sees him walking on the road to hell. We ought therefore to prevent sin, whenever we can; punish it, when we have the right to do so; and pray zealously for the conversion of sinners.

Intercession for sinners is pleasing to God. We can see this by the way in which God forgave the people their great sin, when Moses interceded for them; and we can also see how great a power is the intercession of Saints for sinners.

Love of our neighbour. Moses’ love for his people was truly wonderful. He even offered to sacrifice himself that they might be spared and not cast off by God. He sought neither his own honour nor advantage, but only the good of his people.

Moses, the eighth type of Jesus Christ. Through Moses God instituted the Old Law, on which account he is called the mediator of the Old Law. As such, Moses was a striking type of Jesus Christ, who instituted the New Law. Moses, as a child, was condemned to death by a cruel king, and was saved in a wonderful way; Jesus Christ was condemned by Herod, and also wonderfully saved. Moses forsook the king’s court so as to help his persecuted brethren; the Son of God left the glory of heaven to save us sinners. Moses prepared himself in the desert for his vocation, freed his people from slavery, and proved his divine mission by great miracles; Jesus Christ proved by still greater miracles that He was the only begotten Son of God. Moses was the advocate of his people; Jesus was our advocate with His Father on the Cross, and is eternally so in heaven. Moses was the law-giver of his people and announced to them the word of God: Jesus Christ is the supreme law-giver, and not only announced God’s word, but is Himself the Eternal Word made flesh. Moses was the leader of the people to the Promised Land: Jesus is our leader on our journey to heaven.

The fruits of prayer. After Moses had fasted and prayed a second forty days on the mountain, his countenance was glorified, and heavenly rays shone forth from it. This shows us that fervent prayer and communion with God ennoble a man, purify his heart and mind, and make him heavenly-minded. The Saints of the Old and the New Testament became holy by dint of fervent prayer and contemplation.


I am sure you detest the ingratitude and faithlessness of the Israelites. But look into your own heart and search your own conscience to see whether you too have not been ungrateful and faithless. What did you promise when you were baptized, and when you renewed your baptismal vows, and every time that you have been to confession? Have you kept your promises? Have you never committed a mortal sin? Do you not know that mortal sin is an execrable ingratitude towards your loving Redeemer? Just think how weak and wavering you are! So do not trust in yourself, but pray humbly for God’s grace, and especially for the grace of perseverance.

Moses spent forty days in prayer, and yet was not weary, for prayer was his joy, his comfort and his strength. All the Saints of both the Old and New Testament have prayed willingly. How is it with you? We can learn to pray only by means of prayer. In this, as in other things, “practice makes perfect”. Never neglect your prayers, and try to be very recollected and devout during divine service. Put yourself in the presence of God several times each day, and thus you will learn how to pray well, and to find delight in prayer.

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7 Responses to Bishop Knecht’s Practical Commentary on Exodus 32 (The Golden Calf)

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