Renewal That Follows Rebellion
Exodus 32:1 TO 34:35
The events of this section were beginning while Moses was on the Mountain with God. The basic theme is common to the Old Testament: rebellion, restoration, and renewal. The question and answer of these events is simple: “Is there mercy and forgiveness for stubborn rebels just as there was deliverance for helpless slaves?” the answer came forth with a resounding “Yes!”
If there was any doubt of Moses’ basic character it was removed in these events. Moses resisted the temptation of self pride and stepped forward as the great intercessor of the Old Testament. Moses showed his total devotion to the people and ministry which God had called him. Moses’ anger was violent. But his violence sprang from his love, not from any lesser emotion.
Moses had gone up on the mountain to be with God disappearing in the cloud of smoke. The Israelite people were waiting down below. Up to this point the emotions of the Hebrew people had been stretched to the breaking point. There had been the up and down moments in Egypt waiting for Pharaoh to let them go. Then wandering in the wilderness and being pinned against the Red Sea by Pharaoh’s chariots and then God parting the waters for their final deliverance from the Egyptians. On the heels of that experience came the high and low moments of the wilderness, as well as the exhausting experience of their journey to the mountain. This had led to the terrifying and wonderful confrontation of the giving of the covenant.
Now their leader had disappeared upon the mountain with God. The Israelites may have waited patiently for a few days; but, as the time of Moses’ absence drew out, they became restless and unsure. They were used to excitement now suddenly the peace and calm of the desert began to hang heavy upon them. Further, they may have been a fear that something may have happened to Moses. This is the background we have seen as we examine their rebellion.
People have a tendency that if something is not happening then there is nothing there. When God was not doing something visible it is assumed that He is not there. The Israelites had failed to accept what God had done for them. Their almost contemptuous description of Moses as “the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt” showed that they had failed to recognize that is was God who had redeemed them.
They also showed a lack of trust. Their statement “we do not know what has become of him” clearly demonstrates their lack of concern for Moses and their lack of trust in God. The God who had constantly led and rescued them could well have taken care of Moses on the mountain.
Israel wanted a leader that they could see, something tangible that could guide them. They approached Aaron and this gave him a real opportunity for leadership. At the very least Aaron should have reminded them of the laws prohibiting idols. At best Aaron could have exhorted them and led them away from the evil they were planning. Aaron did neither. Instead, he submitted to their wants and became a leader in their apostasy. Like so many that would follow him Aaron chose that which was popular instead of the prophetic way.
There is somewhat of a question of the “molten calf” which we need to note. The immediate impression is that it was solid gold which was molded and then carved. However, the fact that it would later be burnt and then its residue “ground it to powder” would indicate it was a wooden carving overlaid with gold.
The word calf would have been better translated as bull. The choice of a bull to represent their God was probably based upon the Canaanite Baal worship. The Baals were frequently represented by the figure of a bull. In trying to understand there are two things to consider. First, they were not yet convinced that God was the God for them. Second, neither were they convinced that they should not worship an image. We need to remember that they were fresh out of slavery in Egypt. This new freedom was as yet more than they were able to cope with.
The greatest tragedy was that the Hebrews gave their handmade god credit for their deliverance from Egypt. It was a sad day for Israel. Giving the credit for the acts of mercy of God to some other force or power is a frequent temptation. We too face the ever real temptation to serve things for their real or imagined power. Although somewhat more subtle, such service is little different from Israel’s rebellion.
Aaron saw that they were going to worship the bull “he built an altar before it.” It was probably an earthen altar or loose stones. It is obvious that this was not a sudden burst of misguided exuberance that led them to worship the golden bull. It took time and effort to erect an altar and this demonstrates there was organization to their idolatry.
Some have suggested that Aaron’s proclamation that “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD” was a brave attempt to salvage something of worship to Yahweh out of this rebellion. There is no indication that the Old Testament ever took any such view of his action. It is more likely that Aaron was identifying the God of Israel with Baal. Such identification and merging was precisely what the prophets attacked so vehemently in Israel’s subsequent history. Complete open rebellion was viewed with less hostility than this kind of consolidation. The Israelites were saying that all gods are alike. The Bible clearly teaches that the God of Israel is unique.
On the day of celebration they offered the typical sacrifices, the “burnt offerings” and the “peace offerings.” This was followed by the typical communal meal. Following this, they “rose up to play.” This expression may suggest the type of sexual orgies that accompanied the worship in the Canaanite fertility cults. These cults were dedicated to the Baals is another indication that the “bull” was probably to be identified with the Baals of Canaan.
This worship would be the lowest aspects of human nature. That it was ascribed to the worship of the God of Israel who in the Ten Commandments had revealed is moral nature was both unbelievable and an unbearable insult. This whole event could go neither unnoticed nor unpunished.
Abruptly the scene shifts from the lighthearted merrymaking in the valley to the heartbreak on the mountain. God informed Moses of the sin of Israel, breaking into their communion with the abrupt command, “Go down.” The contrast of these two scenes makes the spiritual gulf all the more real.
There is a change in pronouns which make this more emphatic. “Your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves.” Israel had repudiated God; now God was repudiating Israel. Such is always the way with sin.
There are many dimensions to Israel’s rebellion. They had “corrupted” themselves. This refers to the marring, spoiling effects of sin. They had “They have quickly turned aside.” It was not a gradual drift away from God but a sudden, deliberate choice. They had made “a molten calf,” which was a deliberate violation of the covenant. They had given credit to the idol for doing what God had done. Such was the nature of Israel’s sin. God then described then as a “stiff-necked people.” This was a common Old Testament description which would have been familiar to people who dealt with large farm animals. It was the description of an ox which would not respond with a rope around its neck was tugged. It reflects a stubborn disobedience.
In verse 10 God reveals himself in a divine paradox. At the same time He put Moses to the test. At first reading we see the all consuming wrath of God about to issue judgment. But a second reading shows that the promised judgment was made conditional upon Moses’ agreement, for God said, “Now then let Me alone.” God had left the door open for intercession and therefore mercy.
The test to Moses was couched in words identical to the earlier promise to Abraham. (Genesis 12:2) “I will make of you a great nation.” The temptation to Moses was whether he would abandon his call to lead Israel and turn aside from his faith in the divine promises. God knew Moses. God regularly calls upon his saints for a public demonstration of those inner qualities of commitment.
Moses responds to God in one of the most profound intercessory prayers in the Bible. The Prayers of Moses is one the secrets of his greatness. Moses based his prayer on three appeals. First, there was the appeal to the fact that God had redeemed Israel with “great power and with a mighty hand.” Moses appealed to God not to repudiate His mighty acts. Moses also stated that they were “thy” people and not his. Second, Moses appealed to the consequent scoffing of the Egyptians if Israel were destroyed. Third, Moses appealed to the divine promise to “Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.” The fundamental basis for the appeal was the very nature of God. God had promised. God would be faithful.
The end result was that “So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.” The word used in the Old Testament for divine repentance is not the same word used for human repentance. This word has no connotation of guilt or a change of purpose because the first was wrong. Rather, it is essentially a word of deep feeling, implying the choice of an alternate course of action. We must recognize that Moses had not overpowered God’s unwillingness to spare Israel. Moses had seized upon God’s desire to be merciful. Guilt must be punished. It is a fact that God’s inherent nature is merciful which Moses both recognized and claimed. Moses had been called to lead Israel and he would not forsake them for his own glory. This is the measure of Moses’ commitment to both God and Israel.
Moses went down the mountain carrying the tablets of stone. The artist conception of the size of these tablits is probably on the large side. It would have been very difficult for Moses to have carried tablets of that size while climbing down the mountain. Further, the indication that the tables were written on both sides would also have indicated that they were small.
Several factors were involved when Moses broke the tables. It was an outward expression of his anger at the sin of the people. Far beyond that, however, it was intended as a visible sign that Israel had broken the covenant. It was also a clear testimony that they had completely repudiated the work of God. As the tables were the “work of God,” either actually or based upon God’s authority and power, so was the covenant they had broken.
After the burning of the golden bull, there would have been leftover gold which could have been ground up. This, along with the ashes, was mixed with water and given to the people to drink.
There is a little humor in the conversation between Moses and Aaron, and it is also tragic. The nature of Moses’ question implied that he found it inconceivable that Aaron could have participated in such a sin without major threats or pressure. There were two avenues to Aaron’s excuse. Aaron first blamed the people and then blamed Moses for staying too long on the mountain.
Aaron’s second avenue of excuse was to imply some sort of miraculous event. To worship the work of our own hands is foolish. To imply that it created its own self is even more so. Moses did not waste time arguing with Aaron. Even if Aaron’s excuse had been true, the fact that he had allowed them to “break lose” was also an evidence of his guilt.
Moses then issues a call to decision: “Whoever is for the LORD, come to me.” The call was for a specific choice, an act of will. The question of Moses left no room for anyone to set on the fence. The fact that only the sons of Levi responded shows how widespread the crisis was. It also made Aaron stand out as a failure. Even those in his own clan were more loyal than he.
Moses spook to the sons of Levi “He said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Every man of you put his sword upon his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor.” And “about three thousand men of the people fell that day.” It is bad enough to go along with the crowd and commit sinful acts but it is quite another to continue in the sin once it has been revealed. Obviously three thousand was not the total number of everyone who was involved in the worship of the Golden bull. Perhaps when Moses returned to the camp some order had been restored by his presence. Others, though, were the ringleaders of the rebellion against the command of God and had made their decision to continue in their idolatry. God in His mercy spared those who repented but placed His judgment on those who continued in their lawlessness.
We must also be careful in the evaluation of their actions on the bases of New Testament ethics. To understand these events we must do so in the background of their culture. Their sin was dealt with in harsh roughness. But it was tempered my mercy beyond that of the surrounding cultures.
The expression “Dedicate yourselves today to the LORD.” It was a way of saying that they had filled their hands voluntarily and obediently with the service to their God. This would be the foundation of their commitment to God’s service and as the future leaders of Israel.
Following that Day of Judgment and mercy, Moses went back to God as their intercessor and mediator. “Perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” Moses was going to try superficially what only Jesus does fully. With a great intercessory prayer Moses tried to lay hold of God’s mercy. In Moses’ prayer he had offered to die along side of his people or in place of his people. God did not allow Moses to do what only He could ultimately do. It was in Christ Jesus that He Himself would die for His people.
God being just, told Moses that their sins must be punished. Also God reiterated His promise that Israel could go on to the land of promise. Further, there would be the guidance of God’s angel along the way.
“Your Book” presupposed a book of life that God was keeping, and is the first mention of this concept in the Bible. It was referred to later in Psalms 69:28, Isaiah 4:3, Philippians 4:3, and Revelations 3:5.
Genesis 12:2, Psalms 69:28, Isaiah 4:3, Philippians 4:3, and Revelations 3:5