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A LITERARY STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS OF THE
GOLDEN-CALF EPISODE IN EXODUS 32:1-33:6
RALPH E. HENDRIX
The following is a literary structural analysis of the Golden-
Calf episode as found in the MT of Exod 32:1-33:6. This analysis
does not purport to deal exhaustively with the manifold exegetical,
homiletical, textual, and theological issues encountered therein.
Rather, its goal is to reveal the structural framework of the passage
within which these issues arise.
1. Contemporary Views of Exodus 32:1-33:6
There is quite a variety of source-critical views on the Golden-
Calf episode, with no scholarly consensus in sight.1 Brevard Childs,
on the other hand, warns against focusing too closely on such
topical "polarities"--a procedure which has "often led literary cri-
tics to fragment this chapter into multiple layers and sources which
lack all cohesion."2
OT scholars recognize the multiplicity of themes within the
episode. The central theme has been identified variously as dis-
obedience, rebellion and atonement, or as the overarching theme of
the danger of the departure of YHWH's presence from among his
1Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary.
Testament Library (
with 2 expansions, one of which is deuteronomic. John I. Durham, Exodus, Word
Biblical Commentary, vol. 3 (Waco, TX, 1987), pp. 417, 427-428, 435, presents a
spectrum of scholarly views. Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (New
of the Golden Calf Reanalysed," VT 9 (1959): 318, sees a Yahwist narrative ground-
work and four editors, a Yahwist, a northern prophetic Elohist, a southern priestly
Elohist, and a Deuteronomist.
2Childs, p. 563. For a refreshing combination of genre and structure analysis of
32:30-35 and 32:25-29, see G. Herbert Livingston, The Pentateuch in Its Cultural
Environment (Grand Rapids, MI, 1974), pp. 250, 256.
212 RALPH E. HENDRIX:
LITERARY STRUCTURE OF EXODUS 32:1-33:6
A. 32:1-6 People act, and Aaron (YHWH's High Priest) reacts.
B. 32:7-10 YHWH's two utterances: wayedabber, wayyomer
C. 32:11-14 Moses intercedes
D. 32:15-20 Moses goes down the mountain
E. 32:21-25 Judgment: investigative phase
E'. 32:26b-29 Judgment: executive phase
D'. 32:30 Moses goes up the mountain
C'. 32:31-32 Moses intercedes
B'. 32:33-33:3 YHWH's two utterances: wayyomer, wayedabber
A'. 33:4-6 YHWH acts, and People react.
THE GOLDEN-CALF EPISODE 213
people.3 These various identifications, however, do not take into
account the literary structure of the passage, a structure which
reveals a different central theme. The following discussion will
attempt to remedy the situation.
2. Literary Structural Analysis of Exodus 32:1-33:6
The central theme of Exod 32:1-33:6 is a two-phased judgment
of the people (investigative and executive), divided by an oppor-
tunity for repentance. Source-critical division leaves the "original"
pericope asymmetrical and splintered.4 By contrast, the canonical
form of the episode is balanced and coherent, pointing directly to
the central theme of the passage, preceded and followed by sections
that serve as counterparts in a chiastic pattern with the A-B-A' form.
Table 1 sets forth this pattern in outline form, and the following
paragraphs provide brief elucidation of the general content, con-
cepts, and relationships involved.
A / / A'--Exodus 32:1-6/ / Exodus 33:4-6
In the first section of the pericope, Exod 32:1-6, the people
desire cult modalities (v. 1). They lose patience with Moses, and by
extension also with YHWH, so they ask Aaron to provide for their
desires without YHWH's guidance. This Aaron does in the form of
the infamous golden calf (vv. 2-4). The people act; and Aaron, as
YHWH's representative, reacts. In the parallel section at the end of
the pericope, 33:4-6, YHWH warns Moses and orders the removal of
ornaments (v. 5). The Sons of Israel take off their ornaments (v. 6).
Here YHWH acts, and the people react. The action/reaction is thus
inverted in these paralleling sections.
Moreover, the activity involved in each section is similar: the
disposition of jewelry. In the initial episode, the men provide (at
Aaron's request) gold earrings belonging to their wives and daugh-
ters and sons for the purpose of making the image (32:2-3). In the
closing episode, the Sons of Israel remove (at YHWH's request) their
own ornaments (33:5-6).
3Childs, p. 558; R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary,
Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, vol. 2 (Downer's Grove, IL, 1979), p. 212;
4E.g., Childs, p. 559, whose interpretation would leave the "original" pericope
with a partial investigative phase, lacking a levitical executive phase, and having no
opportunity for repentance (32:26).
214 RALPH E. HENDRIX:
Hence, sections A and A' both concern the question of following
YHWH, an activity that is related closely with the issue of self-
adornment. Both sections have actors and reactors, but they are
inverted as to sequence. As indicated above, in the first section the
people act by disregarding YHWH's leadership, with Aaron, as
YHWH's representative, reacting. In the corresponding section it is
YHWH who acts, and it is the people who react, doing so by
showing their submission to YHWH's leadership.
B / / B'--Exodus 32:7-10/ / Exodus 32:33-33:3
In Exod 32:7 -10, two words come from YHWH. In v. 7, YHWH
"spoke," wayedabber; and in v. 9, YHWH "said," wayyomer. This
phraseology is paralleled, but inverted in Exod 32:33-33:3. Here
YHWH again utters two words, and the text makes use of the same
form of the same roots: first wayyomer (32:33) and then wayedabber
Additional evidence for the parallelism between these passages
lies in the subject matter of YHWH's utterances in the two instances.
YHWH's wayedabber statements both refer to the people "whom
brought from the
are used in the MT). Both of the wayyomer statements concern the
destruction/punishment which YHWH will mete out upon the
people (Exod 32:10, 34). Together, the terminology and subject
matter in the two sections provide strong guidance for understanding
the literary structure.
C / / C'--Exodus32:11-14 / / Exodus 32:31-32
In both Exod 32:11-14 and Exod 32:31-32 we find Moses inter-
ceding for the people before YHWH. In the first intercession, Moses
salvation of the people of
reputation among the nations and his covenant promises to Abra-
forgiveness for the people, without excuse for their sin, and adding
only that he himself desires to share in their fate. Thus these two
textual passages are parallel on the basis of Moses' intercessory
D / / D'--Exodus 32:15-20/ / Exodus 32:30
In the next sections that are in inverse position--Exod 32:15-20
and 32:30--we find a contrast revealed through the particular direc-
THE GOLDEN-CALF EPISODE 215
tion of movements and actions. Moses' movement in going down
the mountain in v. 15 is balanced by his going up the mountain in
v. 30. His activity of breaking the tablets in v. 19 is balanced by his
desire for restoring the people in v. 30. Still further, Moses' forcing
the Israelites to drink the dust-laden water in v. 20 parallels his
declaring their guilt in v. 30.
E / / E'--Exodus 32:21-25 / / Exodus 32:26b-29
Exod 33:21-25 and 32:26b-29 record two successive phases of
Moses' judgment process. In the first phase, Moses questioned Aaron
(v. 21) and he observed the camp (v. 25) in order to assess the sin of
the people. That is to say, he investigated the condition of the
people before deciding their fate. In the second phase, Moses related
the will of YHWH and commissioned its enforcement. Childs com-
ments: "The word is of judgment directed to the Levites as its agent
who immediately proceeded to execute the awesome punishment."5
Thus Moses' judgment of the people was comprised of an investiga-
tive phase and a successive executive phase.
The structurally central verse of the Golden-Calf episode is
Exod 32:26a, which sets forth the question, "Who is for YHWH?"6
Implicit in the very raising of this question is the concept that there
is opportunity for repentance. Thus, the question has enormous
theological significance. This is especially so, inasmuch as it occurs
between the reporting of the investigative and executive phases of
Although investigation of the full theological implications of
this phenomenon extends beyond the scope of this brief essay, it is
pertinent to this study to notice and appreciate the placement of
Moses' plea in this fashion within the literary structure of the
pericope. In short, because section F is the central structural feature
of the Golden-Calf episode, it directs attention to the central concern
of that episode. Moses' plea in Exod 32:26a presents the ultimate
question, the apex toward which all the emphases within Exod
32:1-25 are directed and from which all the tensions in Exod 32:26b-
33:6 move toward resolution and abatement.
5Childs, p. 571; cf. Cole, p. 212.
6Cole, p. 219.
216 RALPH E. HENDRIX:
3. Summary and Implications of the Literary Structure
The Golden-Calf episode in Exod 32:1-33:6 displays an inverted
parallelism or chiastic structure that utilize several specific features: in-
version of actions (A / / A'), inversion of terminology (B / / B/), paral-
lelism (C / / C/), contrasts of movements and of actions (D / / D/),
and succession of events (E / / E/). The only structural element that
remains without parallel is Moses' offer of repentance to his people
(F), this being so because that element is the centerpiece for the
chiasm. In this capacity it serves, as well, as the central element for
the judgment process that is depicted.
The foregoing analysis of the literary structure of the Golden-
Calf episode exemplifies the importance of studying the text in its
canonical form. The structure of the text reveals the intention of the
writer,7 and it cannot be dismissed or discounted if we are to ascertain
the meaning of the passage. Indeed, the inverted parallel structure
gives emphasis to a basic point in the pericope: namely, that the
Golden-Calf episode is one that calls forth, and provides opportunity
for, repentance within the context of a two-phased judgment. The
two phases of that judgment are investigative and executive in
I am indebted to William H. Shea for pointing out two further parallel-
isms within the Golden-Calf passage. These may be summarized as follows:
1. In B and B'(32:13 and 33:1):
a) "Abraham, Isaac, and c') "land . . ."
b) "to whom thou didst b') "of which I swore. . . "
swear. . . "
c) "land" a') "to Abraham, Isaac, and
7Elmer B. Smick, "Architectonics, Structural Poems, and Rhetorical Devices in
the Book of Job," in A Tribute to Gleason Archer, ed. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., and
Goat: A Literary
Kaiser, Jr., and Ronald F. Youngblood (
THE GOLDEN-CALF EPISODE 217
2. In E and E' (32:21-25 and 32:26b-29):
a) "Aaron. . . " a') "Sons of Levi. . . "
b) his failure b') their success and loyalty
It will be noticed that in the first set of these paralleling sections, not
only are the sections themselves chiastic (B and B') but so also are the three
items of phraseology (a/b/c and c'/b'/a'). In the second set of paralleling
sections, the expressions are not inverted but occur in straight-forward
sequence (a/b and a'/b'), with the sections themselves, however, being
chiastic counterparts (E and E'). This additional material shared with me by
Shea thus amplifies still further the validity of the chiastic structure that on
other grounds I have elucidated in my discussion above.
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