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The Gospel, the Garden, and the Golden Calf

Thematic connections between the Fall in the Garden of Eden, the Golden Calf at Mount Sinai, and the Gospel.

My wife, Paula, is reading through Exodus, and last week she noticed several parallels between the stories of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) and the Golden Calf (Exodus 32). As we talked about them, those parallels deepened and it soon became apparent that both stories had Yeshua stamped all over them. I’m sure that some of those parallels will seem obvious–temptation, disobedience, passing the buck–but others are more subtle and significant.

Helping God in His Absence?

In the Garden, Eve was tempted by the serpent in the apparent absence of God and then she tempted Adam. At Sinai, the people began to doubt when it seemed like Moses wasn’t coming back. They likely felt confused and vulnerable, perhaps even abandoned. Genesis doesn’t seem to indicate the same about Eve, but her response was similar. In both cases, the people decided not to wait for God and to take matters into their own hands. They both tried to bridge a perceived gap that God had not authorized them to bridge.

In the Garden, the serpent told Eve that she could make herself like God. If mankind was created in God’s image, telling Eve that she would be like God, knowing Good from Evil, could have been intended to make her think that this is really what God wanted for them from the beginning. They could more fully accomplish their role on earth by being more like God himself.

At Sinai, he told the people that they could make themselves an inanimate mediator to represent YHWH in the camp. Since God had provided a mediator in the person of Moses and they had been unable to receive God’s Law directly from the source, they probably thought it was reasonable to make a replacement.

They weren’t trying to replace God himself; they were just trying to help him to help them.

The Surrender of Authority

People in the Bible often wore rings as symbols of authority. A ring in the ear or nose indicated submission, while a ring on the finger indicated the bearing of authority. Recall the pierced ear of the bond servant in Exodus 21:2-6 and the signet rings of Judah and Joseph in Genesis 38:18 and Genesis 41:42.

When the people demanded that Aaron make them a replacement for Moses, he told them to take the gold rings from the ears of their wives and children to make an idol, rings that symbolized their families’ submission to their authority. I believe that Aaron told them to bring these specific items and not their signets, arm bands, and other gold objects later given for the furnishings of the Tabernacle, in order to say, “You want me to disrupt your relationship with God, so I will disrupt your relationship with your families.”

Likewise, in the Garden, humanity probably would not have been expelled if Adam had not surrendered his authority over Eve to the serpent by not protecting her and instead joining her in eating of the forbidden fruit. In both stories, the people rebelled and their spiritual coverings aided and joined them.

Mankind might not have needed a savior and Israel might not have needed an earthly High Priest and priestly caste if they had not surrendered their authority to a false god.

Hiding from God

When God came to visit Adam and Eve in the Garden, they tried to hide themselves because of their shame. When he confronted them, Adam tried to blame Eve, and Eve tried to blame the serpent.

When Moses returned from Mount Sinai, the people couldn’t hide. God told him, “I have seen this people,” (Exodus 32:9) and Moses could hear the sound of their partying from all the way up the mountain. However, Aaron did try to shift the blame. First he blamed the people. “You know how these people are determined to do evil,” he told Moses in verse 22. Then he blamed the fire and gold in verse 24: “I threw it into the fire and out came this calf!”

Of course, nobody can really hide from God, and nobody can escape the consequences of their actions. It seems at first that Aaron got away without punishment for his role in the golden calf incident, but that’s not really true.

Cascading Consequences

God told Adam, “In the day that you eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17) and he told Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book…In the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them” (Exodus 32:33-34). These statements continue to puzzle theologians today because these threats don’t appear to have been literally carried out. Adam lived more than 900 years and Aaron lived almost 40 years after their respective sins.

God did punish the people at the time of their sin. Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden by an angel bearing a flaming sword and the Israelites at the center of the calf worship were killed by sword-bearing Levites. God condemned Adam and Eve to a life of struggle and eventual death and he sent a plague among the Israelites, but neither of these really fulfill the letter of his promise.

There are several concepts that aren’t immediately apparent in the plain text and will have to wait for another article. I’m going to focus on one of those ideas for now: A dramatic change in role is analogous to death and resurrection.

As the first man, all of humanity is blessed and cursed through Adam. He wasn’t only expelled from the garden and condemned to die himself, but every person since is also condemned to die because of what he did. On the day that Adam ate the fruit, his role in the world changed from God’s governor to a mediator of death to all humanity.

When Aaron took the authority of all the men of Israel in order to create a thing that could never act as a true mediator, he condemned himself to occupying that role. This was a mixed curse, of course. It’s a great blessing to serve God by leading his people in worship, but Aaron also died to his prior role as Moses’ prophet, giving up any chance of an ordinary life, and was metaphorically resurrected as a mediator for the whole nation.

An Insufficient Mediator

Unfortunately, neither Adam nor Aaron were capable of finally undoing the damage they had done. They had both created their roles by sinning, by becoming imperfect, and that which is imperfect can never make itself perfect again. Adam and Aaron both presided over what Paul called a “ministry of death”. They could never do anything more than guide their people until inevitable death.

Ultimate restoration required a different kind of mediator, one without sin, who had never caused the people to stumble nor participated in their rebellion. The stories of the sin in the Garden and the sin of the Golden Calf are purposely told in such a way to highlight these parallels in order to illustrate mankind’s need for a perfect mediator and redeemer in the person of Yeshua.

He filled the role of God and Moses by coming down from Heaven to observe and confront the sin of mankind.

He filled the role of Eve and the Hebrews by living as an ordinary human subject to trials, temptations, joys, and sorrows.

He filled the role of Adam and Aaron by taking authority over mankind and the responsibility of their sins onto his shoulders through the cross. Like them, he died to one life and resurrected to another, but the great and essential difference is that his death was undeserved and his resurrection complete. Adam and Aaron deserved their punishments, while Yeshua did not, and so he will remain forever a perfect High Priest and Kinsman Redeemer.

Parsha Ki Tisa – Apostolic Readings, Links, and Videos

New Testament passages to read and study with Torah portion Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35), plus links to commentary and videos.


  • Exodus 30:11-38
    • Matthew 17:24-27
    • John 12:1-8
    • John 13:2-20
    • 1 Timothy 2:1-6
  • Exodus 31:1-32:14
    • Luke 13:10-17
    • Romans 15:1-13
    • 1 Corinthians 3:4-23
    • Colossians 3:1-6
    • 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
  • Exodus 32:15-34:35
    • Matthew 6:9-15
    • Acts 2:38-43
    • Acts 21:17-26
    • 2 Corinthians 3:1-4:6
    • Revelation 7:13-17

Additional Reading

Videos Related to Parsha Ki Tisa

  • Wisdom is free to whomever is willing to go get it – Wisdom cries out in the streets, markets, courts, and boardrooms of the world. She is free to whomever seeks her out, but you will never find her in books alone. Proverbs 1:20-21
  • Jesus and the Temple Tax in Matthew 17:24-27 – The temple tax was not part of God’s Law, although it was loosely based on the census of Exodus 30:11-16. Yeshua used the tax to illustrate a couple of truths about our relationship to him, to the Father, and to the world. As children of the King of Kings, we are not under the authority of any Law, yet out of love for him and his kingdom, we willingly subject ourselves to his commandments and even to those man-made traditions that aren’t sinful.
  • The Sabbath As a Sign. Exodus 31:13-14 – The weekly Sabbath is a sign between God and Israel, whether natural born or grafted in, of our faithfulness and sanctification. It’s one of the only commandments that can’t be derived from natural law, and it’s so important to God that deliberate violation carries the death penalty.
  • The Rules of Sabbath in Matthew 12:1-14 – If you find yourself worrying about exactly where the limit is between “allowed” and “forbidden”, then you’re missing the point of Shabbat. It’s a friendlier KYSS principle: Keep Your Sabbath Simple.
  • Does Hosea 2:11 Say God Would Cancel the Sabbath? – Hosea is actually saying that Israel was abusing all the good things that God had given them, so he was going to take them away temporarily until they repented. Then he would restore them again.
  • Teaching Fools and Wise Men – A chiasm in Proverbs 9:7-9 highlights something important about teaching foolish person versus teaching a wise person. In both cases, you put something in and you get something back. I also have some thoughts on implications for how we educate our children.
  • Why do people worship idols? Romans 1:22-23 – If there is a single, ultimate Creator of the universe, then he logically must be infinitely powerful, infinitely wise. He would be terrifying beyond our imagination with standards higher than we could ever reach…so we set our sights lower. We ignore the Creator and worship creatures because they don’t demand anything too big. We can make them weak and flawed, just like us, and then pat ourselves on the back for how great we are.

Balancing Torah

God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel

God wants obedience. He said that if we love him, we will keep his commandments. Yet, Moses and Elijah both appear to have disobeyed God and were honored for it.

Although God had said that the only place authorized for making sacrifices was at the place where he would “put his name” (Deuteronomy 12:11), Elijah built an altar at the other end of the country. After he put the sacrifice on it and soaked it with water, he asked God to light it for him, and God did, sending fire from heaven to consume it, stones, water, and all. (1 Kings 18:18-40)

Moses came down from Sinai after forty days to find the people worshiping and sacrificing to the golden calf, and God said, “Step aside, Moses. I’m going to destroy these people and start over with you.” Moses refused and appealed to God’s reputation (His name) to convince him not to destroy Israel. “What will the Egyptians think of you?” God honored Moses’ disobedience and spared the nation. (Exodus 32:7-14)

The truth is that neither Moses nor Elijah were actually disobedient. If you have been keeping Torah for long, then you have probably realized that there are times when you must stretch or appear to violate one law in order to keep another. For example, it’s good to work on the Sabbath in order to free a trapped animal or to heal an injured man or feed the hungry. Not only is it not a sin to rescue someone on the Sabbath, but it would be a sin *not* to! Sometimes it takes a great deal of wisdom to weigh the competing priorities. The same thing is going on in both of these stories. There are important elements in both passages that aren’t made explicit in the text but that make all the difference in understanding what was going on.

When Elijah offered a sacrifice on Mount Carmel instead of at the Temple, in Jerusalem, he appeared to be in violation of this commandment. But he didn’t actually make the sacrifice. He only went half-way. He killed the animal and laid it out on the altar, but then he waited for God to finish the job. He stretched the letter of the Law, but he didn’t break it.

On the other hand, there can be no compromise with Baal or his prophets. We are commanded not to tolerate them, especially not in the Promised Land. Israel was supposed to have driven out all of the Canaanites and destroyed all of their shrines so that they would not be tempted to take up their false religion (Exodus 34:10-17). But Israel neither drove them out nor destoyed their holy places, with the end result that the northern Kingdom of Israel was thoroughly infested with idolatry from the very beginning.

Elijah picked a fight with the priests of Baal in the heart of the land they thought of as their own, but which actually belonged to God. He rebuilt one of the abandoned altars of God’s and proved who was the real owner. He understood God’s character well enough to know which rule took precedence in that situation and how far the one could be bent in order to preserve the whole.

When Moses stood in God’s way on Mount Sinai, he understood that God’s destructive power couldn’t really be constrained by a mere man. So why would God say such a thing? By telling him to move when clearly no movement was necessary, God was subtlely teling Moses that he had the authority to intercede on Israel’s behalf. For God to make promises of salvation to Israel and then to destroy them would itself be a violation of Torah, so Moses knew that it wasn’t really what God wanted to do. It was a test of Moses’ faith in God’s promises and of his willingness to sacrifice himself on behalf of the people, and Moses passed both tests.

God gave Moses authority over and responsibility for the people of Israel. He was their judge, teacher, and protector. He was the man whom God used to free them from captivity. When they fought the Amalekites, Moses’ upraised arms enabled their victory. When they complained against God, his intercession saved them from destruction. Moses, by divine appointment and as a type of the Messiah, was a spiritual covering for Israel. When God threatened to destroy them, Moses was duty-bound to intervene even against God himself. His role as Israel’s leader took precedence over any possible role as the progenitor of a new people, and he honored God by putting his own life on the line to save his disobedient, ungrateful people.* “God,” he said, “if you will destroy these people, then destroy me too, because otherwise I will have failed them, you, and myself.” Like Elijah, he had a heart that understood God’s.

I pray that YHWH will bless me with such understanding, with such love, with such a relationship with him, that I will know how to obey him even when obedience seems impossible, how to honor his calling, his people, and his Torah. Baruch HaShem!

*What a great example for all leaders and husbands! Moses put his own life in jeopardy because his love for God and his people demanded it.

When the Heart Wants Too Much of a Good Thing

The golden calf is what happens when we let our hearts control our lives
The Golden Calf by Esteban March

When Israel left Egypt, they had nothing of their own. Though they carried (and misused) much wealth, everything they had was theirs solely through the action of God. He rescued them from Egypt and enabled them to plunder the wealth of their former masters on the way out. He destroyed the Egyptian charioteers, provided them with food and water, and even protected their clothing.

Their response to God’s generosity was less than inspiring. They complained and pined for the days of their suffering. They set up an idol at the very foot of God’s mountain while His presence thundered from the peak.

God had every right to destroy them and start over with Moses, yet He relented. He spared the vast majority of Israel and kept His promise to dwell among them.

He could have taken back all the things He had given them and sent them back to Egypt. No one would have blamed Him. But He didn’t do that either. Instead, He promised to remain with them, to guide them to the Promised Land, and to drive out their enemies before them.

These promises didn’t come without some demands. Here are the things that God demanded in return:

  1. Make no covenant with pagans. Destroy their altars and sacred places. Don’t bow down to false gods.
  2. Keep the seventh day Sabbath, the Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the early and latter Feasts of Firstfruits.

In other words, remain faithful and have regular parties in honor of the great things God has done and will do on behalf of his people. What a cruel taskmaster God is! His standards are just too high!

That’s sarcasm, folks.

God’s mercy is infinite. Despite our repeated failings in even the smallest things, He still loves us and wants to do great things for those who love Him in return.

After the incident of the golden calf, the Israelites were acutely aware of their vulnerability and God’s kindness to them. When God gave Moses the order to begin building the wilderness Tabernacle, He also told him to take up a collection for the required materials. The people’s response was overwhelming. Six times in Exodus 35-36, Scripture tells us that everyone whose heart and spirit moved them brought material for the work: precious metals, stones, fabrics, wood, skins, time, and labor.

In fact, they brought so much stuff that the workmen had to ask Moses to stop them.

But wait! The people were only bringing what was on their heart to bring. Why didn’t they let the people bring it all and then find some other worthwhile use for the excess? It could have been given to the poor or used to make the Tabernacle into something even grander than originally planned. What’s wrong with giving more than asked?

In most things, there’s nothing wrong with giving more than asked. If a homeless person asks for a dollar, there’s nothing wrong with buying him a whole meal or giving him a coat. If a friend asks you for a loan, it’s not wrong to give him a gift instead. If God asks for a golden box, there’s nothing wrong with making Him a golden calf too. Right?

More sarcasm.

These gifts weren’t for a homeless person or a friend asking for a loan. This was the Tabernacle which would be used to worship God in the ways that God prescribed. He is very particular about how He is to be worshipped. The problem with people is that their hearts often prompt them to do things they just shouldn’t do. When they made the calf, they called it YHWH who brought them out of Egypt, but they knew full well that no bovine had rescued them from Egypt. They made the calf as some kind of focal point for their adoration of God, a replacement for Moses and the pillar of fire. Whatever their justification for that infraction might have been, I think we can be certain that they were following their hearts. Those who participated in that idolatry believed that they were doing right.

The heart is a great thing. When it is conformed to God’s will, it can be a great tool for good, but when it isn’t, it can be just as great a tool for evil, all with the best of intentions.

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can understand it?” -Jeremiah 17:9

God understands it. He knows what’s in our hearts, and that is why He gave us rules to constrain it. His Law is no more of a burden than a Keep Out sign at a toxic waste dump. God’s commandments are for our own protection and well-being. Do you want to stay out of spiritual trouble? Then stay within His Law.

There’s nothing wrong with listening to your heart when it leads you in the right direction. A heart that’s pleasing to God can be a beautiful thing, but when it leads you to stray outside of the lines that God has drawn, it can bring unending heartache. How do you know when your heart is leading you astray? Well, there’s this book, you see….