Ki Tisa: Golden Calf, Stone Commandments

Mount Sinai, by Elijah Walton, 19th century

The Torah gives the Ten Commandments1 top priority out of all the rules and orders God gives to the Israelites through Moses. God utters them in the Torah portion Yitro after manifesting in smoke, fire, and thunder, and Moses tells the people what God said.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, God engraves the Ten Commandments in stone.

Then [God] gave to Moses, as [God] finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the Testimony, stone tablets engraved by the finger of God. (Exodus/Shemot 31:18)

After Moses sees the people celebrating the golden calf and shatters the tablets, God gives Moses another pair. What could be more important?

Aaron and the second commandment

While God is giving Moses the first pair of stone tablets, the Israelites at the foot of the mountain are losing hope that Moses will ever come back down. After they have waited for almost forty days, they tell Moses’ brother Aaron:

“Get up! Make us a god that will go before us! Because this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him!” (Exodus 32:1)

The people desperately want an intermediary between themselves and the invisible, remote, and terrifying God that Moses says has adopted them. Moses was a visible human being, and he could tell them what God wanted, so he was a satisfactory intermediary—until   he vanished into the cloud on top of Mount Sinai.2

Now the people demand a new intermediary. They know the “god” they ask Aaron to make could not speak, like Moses, but at least it would be visible and familiar, like the idols in Egypt.

Aaron is not only Moses’ older brother, but his second-in-command. Yet God has not yet spoken directly to him, and does not do so until Leviticus 10:8-11. The Israelites turn to Aaron as their default leader, but do not expect him to replace Moses as God’s prophet.

Aaron could ask the people to wait another day for Moses to return before taking any rash action. He could remind them of God’s second commandment, which Moses told them during the revelation at Sinai:

You must not make for yourself a statue or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters below the earth. You must not bow down to them, and you must not serve them … (Exodus 20:4-5)

He could frighten the people by predicting that their God would surely smite them all if they violated this commandment. But he does not.

The Adoration of the Golden Calf, by Marc Chagall, 1966

Instead, Aaron asks the people to bring him their gold earrings, and casts the gold in the shape of a calf.

And they said: “This is your God, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” And Aaron saw, and he built an altar in front of it. And Aaron made an announcement, and said: “Tomorrow is a festival for Y-H-V-H!” (Exodus 32:4-5)

Aaron uses the four-letter proper name of the God of Israel, so he is not violating the first commandment, “You must have no other gods before me.” But he is violating the second commandment, which prohibits making or worshiping an idol.

He has not had a chance to read the commandments on the stone tablets Moses is bringing down from Mount Sinai. But he has heard Moses declare them. He cannot claim ignorance as an excuse.

Moses and the sixth commandment

The next day the Israelites make burnt offerings in front of the golden calf. By the time Moses reached the bottom of Mount Sinai, they are eating, drinking, and enjoying themselves.

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law, by Gustave Dore, 19th cent.

Moses smashes God’s stone tablets.3 Then he melts down the calf, grinds the gold into powder, mixes it with water, and makes the Israelites drink it. He questions his brother Aaron, who gives a feeble excuse, and Moses lets it pass.

Then Moses saw that the people were parua, because Aaron peraoh for a non-entity … (Exodus 32:25)

parua (פָּרֻעַ) = wild, out of control.

peraoh (פְּרָעֺה) = he let [them] get out of control.

Apparently after they have watched Moses melt the calf and grind its gold into dust, some of the Israelites are wildly upset about losing their idol.

Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said: “Who is for Y-H-V-H? To me!” And all the Levite men gathered around him. And he said to them: “Thus says Y-H-V-H, the God of Israel: Every man, put his sword on his hip! Cross and return from gate to gate of the camp, and every man kill his brother and his fellow and his close relatives!” And the Levite men did as Moses spoke, and about 3,000 men of the people fell on that day. (Exodus 32:26-28)

Do the Levites violate the sixth commandment?

Lo tirtzach. (Exodus 20:13)

lo tirtzach (לֺא תִרְצָח) = you must not kill without a legal sanction. (From the verb ratzach, רָצַח.)

Other uses of the verb ratzach in the Torah indicate that this commandment only covers deliberate murder of a fellow Israelite. (See my post Yitro, Mishpatim, & Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1.) God does not prohibit causing accidental death, executing someone who was given the death penalty, or killing the enemy in war. But the Levites deliberately kill fellow Israelites who have not been tried in court with witnesses and sentenced to death.

If each Levite man were individually choosing a fellow Israelite to kill (presumably one who is still parua after the golden calf fiasco), then he would be violating the sixth commandment. But the Levites have to sweep through the camp and back with lightning speed before the other Israelites either escape or fight back. They do not have time to pause and identify who they are killing.

Individual Levite men make one conscious choice: Moses calls out “Who is for God? To me!” and they gather around him. After that they simply obey his orders in the name of God. If Moses had not announced that God wanted them to run through the camp killing people, the Levites would not have taken up their swords.

Bronze Age Short Sword

Moses bears the primary responsibility for the massacre. Does he merely pass on God’s orders word-for-word? Not according to Rashi,4 who wrote that Moses’ order to the Levites was based on an earlier order from God:

“Whoever offers a slaughter-sacrifice to any god except Y-H-V-H alone will be dedicated to destruction.” (Exodus 22:19).

This law in the Torah portion Mishpatim is an elaboration of the second commandment.

Moses might be applying God’s ruling in Mishpatim when he says God wants the Levite men to run through the camp killing people. Or he might be speaking impulsively in a potentially dangerous moment, based on God’s outrage over the golden calf worship, and perhaps a sense that God continues to feel outrage.

What he does not do is pronounce death penalties on about 3,000 men and ask the Levites to execute them. Moses is the chief judge for all the Israelites,5 so he certainly has the legal authority to pronounce death penalties. However, in the Torah a judge rules on individual cases, and only after hearing the testimony of witnesses concerning the accused. Moses asks only Aaron for information about his role in the golden calf fiasco. He calls no witnesses, and pronounces no individual sentences.

Moses violates the sixth commandment by ordering the men of his tribe, the Levites, to murder Israelites without the proper legal sanction. Does he at least achieve what God wants?

The primary effect of the Levites’ lightning-strike massacre would be shock and fear—which might be just what Moses intends. Fear may not be the best motivator for long-term obedience, but it does work in the short run, and Moses and God use it repeatedly in the Torah. The shattering of the stone tablets and the destruction and consumption of the golden calf are not enough to frighten all the Israelites into obedience, but the massacre by the Levites does the trick.

The next day, Moses asks God to forgive the Israelites for the sin of the golden calf. But apparently God is not fully satisfied with the results of the massacre.

And Y-H-V-H said to Moses: “Whoever has offended against me, I will wipe out from my record … and on the day of my accounting, I will bring them to account for their offenses.” And God struck a blow against the people over what they did with the calf that Aaron made. (Exodus 32:33-35)

Classic commentators6 interpreted God’s blow as a plague of disease that killed a particular group of golden calf worshippers who were still alive after the massacre by the Levites.


Neither Aaron nor Moses is punished for his violation of one of the Ten Commandments. Moses says in Deuteronomy 9:20 that he prayed for his brother Aaron, and God forgave him. Moses’ good relationship with God continues; in the remainder of the portion Ki Tisa, Moses asks God to resume leading the people in person (presumably as the pillar of cloud and fire) and God agrees. Then God tells Moses:

“Carve yourself two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will engrave upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.” (Exodus 34:1)

Moses climbs Mount Sinai again, carrying blank tablets, and God engraves them with the same ten commandments. Perhaps this shows that God both forgave Moses and reaffirmed that the Ten Commandments as fundamental precepts.

Or perhaps this shows that God plays favorites, approving of the death of thousands of Israelites because they worshiped an idol, but preserving the lives of his two darlings, Moses and Aaron.

  1. What we call “the Ten Commandments” in English are ten “statements” in the bible. Exodus introduces the ten with “And God spoke all these ” (Exodus 20:1) Devarim, דְּבָרִים = words, statements, things. Moses repeats them in Deuteronomy 5:6-18, then concludes: “These devarim God spoke to your whole congregation at the mountain, in a great voice from the midst of the fire and the cloud and the gloom, and … engraved them on two stone tablets.” (Deuteronomy 5:19)
  2. Exodus 24:15-18.
  3. Exodus 32:15-19.
  4. Rashi is the acronym of 11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki.
  5. Exodus 18:13-26.
  6. Including Rashi, Ibn Ezra (12th-century commentator Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra), and Ramban (13th-century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman).
  7. In Leviticus 10:1-3.

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