Andrews University Seminary Studies. Autumn 1990. Vol. 28, No. 3, 211-217

Copyright 1990 by Andrews University Press. Cited with permission.








Institute of Archaeology

Berrien Springs, Michigan 49104


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.

Old Testament Library (Philadelphia, 1974), p. 559, assigns it to one basic source, J,

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

York, 1987), p. 70, sees the episode as being originally E. Immanuel Lewy, "The Story

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: Andrews University Seminary Studies










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


F. 32:26a Opportunity for repentance


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.





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;

Durham, p. 418.

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: Andrews University Seminary Studies


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

you brought from the land of Egypt" (32:7, 33:1; identical phrases

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

argues for salvation of the people of Israel on the basis of YHWH's

reputation among the nations and his covenant promises to Abra-

ham, Isaac, and Israel. In the second intercession, Moses requests

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-



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.


F--Exodus 32:26a

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: Andrews University Seminary Studies


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 . . ."

Israel. . . "

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

Ronald F. Youngblood (Chicago, 1986), p. 93; John H. Stek, "The Bee and the

Mountain Goat: A Literary Reading of Judges 4," in Attribute to Gleason Archer, ed.

Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., and Ronald F. Youngblood (Chicago, 1986), p. 59.




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.



This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Andrews University Seminary Studies

SDA Theological Seminary
Berrien Springs
, MI 49104-1500

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: