Were any women killed for worshiping the golden calf?

Q. Were any women killed for worshiping the golden calf? If not, why? Didn’t they contribute their gold to make the image and engage in the same behavior as the men?

Nicolas Poussin, “The Adoration of the Golden Calf”

The account in the book of Exodus that describes how the Israelites made and worshiped the golden calf does leave us with the impression, at least at first, that only men were killed in punishment. Moses told the Levites, who had remained loyal to the Lord, “Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.” All of these terms are masculine, suggesting that only men were  targeted.

However, there are at least three things that suggest women were likely killed in punishment as well. First, the Hebrew language, by convention, uses such terms in the masculine when both men and women are in view. For example, the commandment in Leviticus to “love your neighbor as yourself” clearly applies to both men and women. And while the preceding commandment in Leviticus says literally, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart,” many modern translations, recognizing that this word in Hebrew can apply to any relative, male or female, in such a context, translate the expression as “anyone of your kin” or “a fellow Israelite.”

Also, the account of the golden calf concludes by telling us that “the Lord struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.” So even if no women were killed by the Levites for their part in making and worshiping the idol, it appears that some women did die in this plague.

Finally, in the New Testament, Paul describes to the Corinthians several things the Israelites did that constituted a pattern of disobedience and rebellion, as a result of which “their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.” This was in keeping with the punishment that God announced when the people rebelled definitively at Kadesh and refused to enter the promised land. So any women who were involved in the golden calf episode but who were not killed in punishment at the time nevertheless died in the desert as the result of chronic disobedience that included that episode.

In other words, anyone who contributed to making the calf and participated in its worship was subject to punishment—women as well as men. There was no unfairness in that regard.

Still, the account of the golden calf and of these divine punishments is one that  thoughtful readers of the Bible wrestle with today. We may wonder why people were killed for making and worshiping an idol. But worshiping a different god meant becoming an entirely different kind of culture than the one envisioned in the Law of Moses. In Old Testament times, every society was a theocracy that mirrored the character of the god it worshiped. The Canaanite gods were bloodthirsty, power-hungry, and immoral, while Yahweh was pure, holy, compassionate, and concerned for the poor and weak. Even as the Israelites first started to worship the golden calf, they  began to change the character of their society, engaging in “revelry” (sexual immorality, though described euphemistically as “dancing”) as part of the proceedings. The decay was spreading so fast that it needed to be halted immediately. The overt violence may trouble us, but it seems to have been intended to prevent the subtle, crushing violence of injustice and oppression that would have settled into the society if it had adopted Canaanite-style gods.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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