National Gallery, London, UK/Bridgeman Art Library

“These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4), the dancing Israelites exclaim when Aaron (in white robe, center right) points out the Golden Calf he has made, in this 1634 masterpiece by the French painter Nicolas Poussin. At upper left, Moses rushes down Mt. Sinai, Joshua by his side, ready to smash the Tablets of the Law in anger at the people’s idolatry.

Disheartened by the long absence of Moses on Mt. Sinai, the Israelites had requested a god to lead them, and Aaron had fulfilled their wish. But did Aaron actually make the calf, as Exodus 32:4 tells us, or did it magically appear, as Aaron himself tells Moses (Exodus 32:24)? According to author Victor Hurowitz, the seventh-century B.C.E. author of Exodus uses these conflicting accounts of Aaron and the calf to convey a message about idolatrous notions in his own day.