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Jul 29, 2019

Why the Golden Calf Explains All Those Old Testament Laws

Dr. Andrew Swafford

We’ve been talking about different themes in Romans to prepare for the release of the new Great Adventure Bible study on the epistle. Previously, we’ve discussed controversial passages in Romans, the historical context and overview of Romans and the role of faith in our salvation as described by St. Paul.

Another question that often comes up when talking about Romans is St. Paul’s treatment of Jewish law, and how love is the fulfillment of that law.

So, today’s article will be on why some laws continue from the Old Testament and some do not.

Distinctions among Old Testament Laws

When we speak of the Old Testament law or Law of Moses, we have to be clear on exactly what we’re talking about. Do we mean the Ten Commandments? Do we mean the ritual and ceremonial prescriptions in Leviticus? Or do we mean the laws of Deuteronomy? In other words, are there real distinctions among these various law codes, or are they monolithic? If there are real distinctions, does this give us a clue regarding which laws abide in the New Covenant and which come to an end in Christ?

A classic trifold distinction of the Law of Moses is to distinguish between the moral, ceremonial, and judicial law (see St. Thomas Aquinas, ST I-IIae, questions 100-105).

We find the moral law primarily in the Ten Commandments. The ceremonial law refers to the legislation pertaining to sacrifices, food laws, and various liturgical feasts of ancient Israel—primarily found in Leviticus. The judicial law (or civil law) refers to the laws involving the governance of Israel as a nation-state in the land. For example, laws pertaining to slavery, warfare, and tithing are judicial. This type of law is primarily in Deuteronomy.

Fulfillment of the Law

It’s perhaps easiest to see why the judicial law does not continue in the New Covenant. The Church is not a nation-state. Therefore, the judicial law—given for the governance of Israel as a nation-state—does not continue in the New Covenant.

Sometimes, there is a combination of various forms of law. For example, the prohibition against adultery is part of the moral law; but the punishment prescribed for adultery is part of the judicial law. Thus, in the New Covenant, the moral teaching against adultery abides. However, the designated punishment for adultery—namely, capital punishment—does not continue in the New Covenant:

If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10).

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:8-10).

Light from When Various Law Codes Were Given

Thus, we can distinguish among various law codes by their difference in content—namely, the moral, ceremonial, and judicial law. We can also distinguish Old Testament laws by noting the precise context in which they are given. The most important thing to note is that God gives two of these law codes (Leviticus and Deuteronomy) after the golden calf—whereas he gives the Ten Commandments before the golden calf.

As a good father, God gives some of these as law codes (e.g., Leviticus and Deuteronomy) in order to accommodate the people in a particular time of weakness. The Ten Commandments, on the other hand, more closely approximate his “plan A,” as it were. In this way, a hierarchy emerges among Old Testament Law, with a primacy given to the Ten Commandments.

The Purpose of Leviticus

For example, God gives all of Leviticus over the course of one year after the golden calf on Mt. Sinai. The Israelites arrive at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19 and don’t leave until Numbers 10. So all of Leviticus takes place over one year after the golden calf. This is a massive uptick of law and complex reconfiguration of the covenant over the course of just one year. In effect, the covenant moves from the simplicity of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17), with Israel portrayed as a son:

“You shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my first-born son” ( Exodus 4:22),

and called to be “a kingdom of priests” ( Exodus 19:6),

to a more complex covenant reconfiguration. In this reconfiguration, Israel is increasingly presented as a servant instead of a son. They are growing distant from God due to their sin.

While there is sacrifice before the golden calf, it is usually at the worshiper’s discretion—for example, the patriarchs frequently offer sacrifice as a way to gives thanks and praise to God. But there are no daily, mandatory sacrifices until after the golden calf.

At one level, the sacrifices instituted in Leviticus symbolically bear the punishment that Israel deserves after the golden calf; it’s as if God delays and suspends the covenant curse, giving a symbolic and temporary means of dealing with sin—until one would come who could bear the covenant curse redemptively:

“But now go, lead the people to the place of which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them” (see Exodus 32:34). 

A Nation Set Apart

The golden calf represents a “return to Egypt,” a return to idolatry. God has removed Israel from Egypt—but the rest of the Bible is about getting “Egypt” out of Israel. Thus, there is a relationship between the massive increase in mandatory sacrifices and idolatry, a relationship which is alluded to in the exchange between Moses and Pharaoh in Exodus 8:25-27:

“Then Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron, and said, ‘Go sacrifice to your God within the land. But Moses said, ‘It would not be right to do so; for we shall sacrifice to the Lord our God offerings abominable to the Egyptians. If we sacrifice offerings abominable to the Egyptians before their eyes, will they not stone us? We must go three days’ journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord our God” (emphasis added).

Moses implies here that the sacrifice that the Lord commands is a subversion of Egyptian worship. After centuries in Egypt, Israel has clearly absorbed the polytheistic context around them. Both the plagues (see Exodus 12:12) and the increase in daily mandatory sacrifice are aimed at eradicating the deep problem of idolatry. With the increase of sacrifices and the distinctive food laws, God seeks to separate or quarantine Israel because of their weakness, made apparent at the golden calf:

“Say to the people of Israel, I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. (Leviticus 18:2-3).


“And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation which I am casting out before you; for they did all these things, and therefore I abhorred them” (Leviticus 20:23).

Light to the Nations

One day, Israel will fulfill its calling to be “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6); but at this point, Israel is too weak.

This perspective helps to make sense of later prophetic texts which imply that God did not initially command sacrifices, as for example here in Jeremiah:

“For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, ‘Obey my voice, be my people; and walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you’” (Jeremiah 7:22-23). 

The Purpose of Deuteronomy

A year after the golden calf—after the renewal and implementation of Leviticus—the Israelites set out for the Promised Land:

“In the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth day of the month, the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle of the testimony, and the people of Israel set out by stages from the wilderness of Sinai; and the cloud settled down in the wilderness of Paran” (Numbers 10:11-12).

Shortly thereafter, we have the twelve spy episode, which then leads to the forty-year wandering (see Numbers 13-14). As Israel journeys, there is a recurring theme of rebellion against God and his appointed leaders (Moses and Aaron). This culminates in Numbers 25, where on the plains of Moab, Israel commits “golden calf 2.0,” of sorts. As the golden calf represented the twin combination of idolatry and sexual immorality, these same features show up in the Baal Peor incident:

While Israel dwelt in Shittim the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods” (Numbers 25:1-2).

This event takes place at the end of the forty-year wandering. At this point, the adults of the Exodus generation have largely died off, and so it’s their children who commit Baal Peor—a sin very much like that of their parents.

Toward a Worldwide Blessing

And as Leviticus was given after (and because of) the golden calf, so also Deuteronomy is given after (and because of) the Baal Peor episode. That is, both Leviticus and Deuteronomy are given in response to a major episode of sin, as a divine means of accommodating Israel’s weakness. This is what Paul means when he says that the law was “added because of transgression” (Galatians 3:19). Law codes that were added because of a major apostasy are therefore lower (and temporary) than, say, the Ten Commandments which were given before the golden calf—that is, before Israel’s first major apostasy.

In this light, the narrative sequence and context in which the law codes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy are given provide an important clue as to their non-permanent status. Deuteronomy, as a law code governing Israel as a nation-state in the midst of other idolatrous peoples, expires with the coming of Christ. The laws of Leviticus are either fulfilled in Christ (for example, the sacrifices can be seen as foreshadowing the sacrifice of Christ, see Hebrews 10:1) or they come to end in Christ, particularly those aspects aimed at separating Israel from the nations (e.g., sacrifice and food laws). The goal of separating Israel made sense at a certain time because of Israel’s weakness; but it is incompatible with the fulfillment of the third promise to Abraham—namely, the worldwide blessing, which Jesus brings about.

All Because of the Golden Calf

The moral law abides in the New Covenant. The ceremonial laws pass away because they prefigure Christ and because they were given specifically after the golden calf as an attempt to deal with the persistent problem of Israel’s idolatry. The judicial law passes away in the New Covenant because these laws pertain to the governance of Israel as a nation-state in time of Israel’s weakness. Since the Church is not a nation-state, these laws no longer apply.

Further, Deuteronomy is given after the Baal Peor episode as a response to Israel’s weakened state at that time. Deuteronomy is, therefore, a temporary measure which is not meant to be permanent. In fact, Ezekiel makes a strange comment that God gave Israel laws that were “not good” (Ezekiel 20:25)—a passage which a number of scholars have identified as a reference to Deuteronomy (“not good” should probably be taken here as hyperbolic for “less good”).

Our Father Knows Best

At the end of the day, the Church has solid grounds for retaining the moral teaching of the Old Testament—whether in regards to adultery or same sex acts—and disregarding other laws (the ceremonial and judicial laws) as passing away with the coming of Christ. This interpretation of the Law is not arbitrary but rooted in the objective differences among these laws (as moral, ceremonial, and judicial) and is illumined by when these law codes were given. Law codes given immediately after major apostasies (e.g., the golden calf and Baal Peor) for reasons specific to that particular context are not permanent and abiding (i.e., Leviticus and Deuteronomy). For this reason, there is a primacy to the Ten Commandments, given before the golden calf.

God’s law is always guided by his wisdom and given for the people’s good and their ultimate beatitude. It is never merely arbitrary. It’s the difference between a Father (whose law is guided by his wisdom) and a master (whose law is governed only by power). In our sin and especially in the brokenness that stems from it, we come to see that God ultimately desires our happiness even more than we do—for he knows how we’re made and how we’ll ultimately find fulfillment.

How can we enter more deeply into God’s fatherly purpose for the laws he has given and his will for our lives? 



If you enjoyed this blog post, check out Dr. Swafford’s upcoming Great Adventure Bible study, Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, which is now available for preorder here!


You May Also Like:

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About Faith: What St. Paul Said and Didn’t Say in Romans

Historical Context and Overview of St. Paul’s Letter to Romans

How Well Do You Know St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans? QUIZ

The Difference Between Ceremonial, Judicial, and Moral Law


About Andrew Swafford

Dr. Andrew Swafford

Dr. Andrew Swafford is associate professor of theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible, published by Ascension. Swafford is author of Nature and GraceJohn Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again, and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their four children in Atchison, Kansas.

Dr. Swafford’s latest project with Ascension, Romans: The Gospel of Salvation study is now available for preorder.


Sacrifice of Jeroboam painting (1641) sourced from Wikimedia Commons


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