Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Gold was as fancy then as it is now. Check out our discussion of the "Tabernacle" and the "Ark of the Covenant" to hear how they're totally bedazzled. The point? To display wealth and power to believers. The end.
But gold gets even more screen time.
The Plunder Passages
In Chapter 3, God proclaims:
"I will bring this people into such favor with the Egyptians that, when you go, you will not go empty-handed; each woman shall ask her neighbor and any woman living in the neighbor's house for jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters; and so you shall plunder the Egyptians." (3:21-22)
Yikes. That's a pretty intense instruction. Basically, God tells the Israelites to extract as much wealth as possible from the Egyptians before leaving. Stealing, you say? In the ancient world, you took what you could get. When cities were sacked, the losers ended up as slaves and their treasures were taken. It was just the way of the world.
The Golden Calf
In case the whole plundering thing didn't clue you in to the ambiguous context surrounding gold, let's hop on over to the golden calf incident. Go reread the detailed summary of Chapter 32 for a refresher and the head back our way.
Sure, this act violates more than a few commandments. But it goes one step further, turning the plunder that the Israelites got from the Egyptians into an idol that spits in God's face. It would be like using money your parents gave you to make anti-parent billboards.
Aaron's explanation of how he made the golden calf reflect the biblical ideas about the value of gold: "So I said to them, 'Whoever has gold, take it off'; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!" (32:24). Aaron tries to tell Moses that in trying to demonstrate how petty gold was in comparison to the covenant, the calf itself came out of the fire. Oops!