Adagp/Alpine Fine Arts Collection

At the center of a storm of worship, a diminutive calf seems frozen in place while surrounded by a circle of intense supplicants in a 1931 oil and gouache work by Marc Chagall (1887–1985) entitled “The Israelites Worship the Golden Calf.”

This famous incident from Exodus 32 reflects badly on Aaron, who is portrayed as having fashioned the idol. Frank Moore Cross assigns this and other anti-Aaronid traditions to what he has termed the Epic strand of the Bible. The pro-Aaronid tradition, which produced the later Priestly strand of the Bible, enjoyed the last word, however: The Aaronids became wholly dominant, while their priestly rivals, the Levites, lost their right to serve as altar priests in Jerusalem. Cross is careful to note, however, that not even the Priestly biblical redactor dared suppress the well-known and authoritative Epic tradition.