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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Exodus 32

D. The breaking and renewal of the covenant chs. 32-34

"If a narrative paradigmatic of what Exodus is really about were to be sought, Exodus 32-34 would be the obvious first choice.

"That these chapters are paradigmatic of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh throughout the OT is also obvious, and the farthest thing from coincidence." [Note: Durham, p. 418.]

1. The failure of Israel ch. 32

The scene shifts now and we see what was happening in the Israelite camp while Moses was in the heights of Sinai receiving the instructions for the Israelites’ worship. The people were apostatizing and were devising their own form of worship.

Verses 1-6

Israel’s apostasy 32:1-6

Apostasy means "to stand away from" something (Gr. apostasis). This word describes a departure. An apostate is someone who has departed from something. In the religious sense the word refers to extreme departure from God’s will. "Apostate" is not necessarily a synonym for unbeliever. The person who departs from God’s will may be a believer or an unbeliever. The term refers to obedience, not salvation. Most of the apostates in Israel were apparently believers since the Bible consistently regards Israel as a whole as the people of God.

"Throughout the remainder of the Pentateuch, the incident of the worship of the golden calf cast a dark shadow across Israel’s relationship with God, much the same way as the account of the Fall in Genesis 3 marked a major turning point in God’s dealing with humankind." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 310.]

It has always been hard for God’s people to wait for Him (cf. 1 Samuel 8:4-5; Psalms 27:14; Psalms 37:7; Psalms 62:5; et al.). When Moses lingered on the mountain, the people decided to worship a new god (Exodus 32:1) and make a new covenant. They did not wait for guidance from God. This reflects a shallow commitment to Him and their leader, Moses. Evidently they concluded that Moses had perished in the fire on Mt. Sinai and decided to select a new leader. Moses was a god to Israel in the sense that he was their leader (Exodus 4:16). Now they turned from Moses as their leader to Aaron.

Some commentators have interpreted Aaron’s instruction that the Israelites should sacrifice their jewelry and ornaments (Exodus 32:2) as designed to discourage their rebellion. [Note: See Kennedy, p. 138; Meyer, p. 421; and Jacob, p. 940.] If this was his intent, he failed (Exodus 32:3). It seems more probable that Aaron approved of their plan.

Aaron could have intended the golden calf to represent a god other than Yahweh or Yahweh Himself.

"In the present passage the term gods, or rather god [Elohim], represented in the golden calf, seems to be understood as an attempt to represent the God of the covenant with a physical image. The apostasy of the golden calf, therefore, was idolatry, not polytheism. Indeed, throughout Scripture Israel was repeatedly warned about the sin of idolatry." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 311. See also Keil and Delitzsch, 2:222; and David E. Fass, "The Molten Calf: Judgment, Motive, and Meaning," Judaism 39:2 (Spring 1990):171-83.]

"It is precisely the attempt to worship Yahweh by means he has already declared totally unacceptable that makes the sin of the golden calf so destructive, far more so than a simple shift of allegiance to ’other’ or ’foreign’ gods." [Note: Durham, p. 421.]

The calf provided a visible symbol that the Israelites could and did identify as their deliverer. The English word "idol" derives from the Greek eidolon, meaning "something to be seen." The Apis bull was such a symbol in Egyptian religion. The Egyptians viewed this animal as the vehicle on which a god rode in power, and as such they identified it as divine itself. Sacred bulls or calves were common in the ancient Near East because of this identification. Patterning their worship of Yahweh after the Egyptians’ worship of their god of the sun, Osiris, the Israelites were saying that this was their way of worshipping Yahweh.

"The bull seems to have had manifold meanings in the iconography of the Near East. It symbolized the god. It expressed attributes of a god. It represented a pedestal for the god. Each of these meanings is important in understanding the cult of the golden calves in Israel’s religious experience." [Note: Stephen Von Wyrick, "Israel’s Golden Calves," Biblical Illustrator 13:1 (Fall 1986):10. This is a very fine summary article. See also Amihai Mazar, "Bronze Bull Found in Israelite ’High Place’ From the Time of the Judges," Biblical Archaeology Review 9:5 (September-October 1983):34-40.]

The altar and feast that accompanied the construction of the idol (Exodus 32:5) support the contention that Aaron was leading the people in a celebration of a new covenant. His disobedience to the second commandment (Exodus 20:2-6), which he had received by this time, resulted in his returning to an Egyptian form of worship that repudiated Yahweh’s will. The "play" that followed the feast seems to have been wicked (cf. Exodus 32:25).

"The verb translated ’to play’ suggests illicit and immoral sexual activity which normally accompanied fertility rights found among the Canaanites who worshipped the god Baal." [Note: Davis, p. 285.]

"That the sin of Aaron and the people was tantamount to covenant repudiation is clear from the account of the making of the calf. The calf was hailed as ’the god . . . who brought you up out of Egypt’ (Exodus 32:4), the exact language of the historical prologue of the Sinaitic Covenant in which Yahweh described the basis of His authority to be Israel’s God (Exodus 20:2). Moreover, Aaron built an altar for the purpose of covenant affirmation and ceremony (Exodus 32:5), precisely as Moses had done previously on the people’s commitment to the covenant arrangement (Exodus 24:4). Aaron’s proclamation concerning a festival and its implementation on the following day (Exodus 32:5-6) was again identical to the celebration that attended the mutual acceptance of the covenant terms under Moses (Exodus 24:11)." [Note: Merrill, "A Theology . . .," p. 53.]

"From Aaron’s viewpoint it was merely a matter of iconography, representing God by a bull and in that way holding ’a festival to I AM’ (Exodus 32:5). But from the people’s viewpoint, as seen from the command to Aaron ’make us gods’ (Exodus 32:1), they were turning to a pantheon of gods, represented by a bull god, to lead them." [Note: Waltke, An Old . . ., p. 469.]

Many years later Israel’s King Jeroboam I re-established worship of the golden calves, and this practice became a great stumbling block to Israel (1 Kings 12:28-31).

"The calf represented Yahweh on their terms. Yahweh had made clear repeatedly that he would be received and worshiped only on his terms." [Note: Durham, p. 442.]

Verses 7-14

Moses’ intercession 32:7-14

God’s recounting the news of the golden calf to Moses gives the reader the divine perspective on Israel’s sin. Moses stressed three points in this pericope.

"These three points-idolatry of the golden calf, Israel’s stiff-necked refusal to obey, and God’s compassion-provide the basis of the subsequent narratives and God’s further dealings with this people. Though a great act of God’s judgment follows immediately (Exodus 32:27-35), the central themes of the subsequent narratives focus on God’s compassion and a new start for Israel." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 312.]

God called the Israelites Moses’ people (Exodus 32:7) probably because they had repudiated the covenant and God was therefore no longer their God. God regarded the Israelites’ sacrificing before the calf as worship of it (Exodus 32:8).

God offered to destroy the rebellious Israelites and to make Moses’ descendants into a great nation (Exodus 32:10). He may have meant that He would destroy that older generation of Israelites immediately. God was proposing action that would have been consistent with His promises to the patriarchs and the conditions of the Mosaic Covenant (cf. Numbers 14:12). This offer constituted a test of Moses’ ministry as Israel’s mediator. For Moses this test was real, even though the proposed destruction of Israel lay outside God’s plan (cf. the promises to Abraham; Genesis 49:10). Similarly, God told Abraham to offer up Isaac even though God had previously told him that Isaac would be his designated heir. And Jesus offered Himself to Israel as her king even though His death on the cross, according to "the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23), had to precede the establishment of His kingdom. Moses passed the test. He did not forsake his people but urged God to have mercy on them.

In his model intercessory prayer (Exodus 32:11-13) Moses appealed to God on the basis of several things: God’s previous work for Israel (Exodus 32:11), God’s glory and reputation (Exodus 32:12), and God’s word (Exodus 32:13).

The reference to God changing His mind (Exodus 32:14) has been a problem to many Bible readers. The expression implies no inconsistency or mutability in the character of God. He does not vacillate but always does everything in harmony with His own character. Within the plan of God, however, He has incorporated enough flexibility so that in most situations there are a number of options that are acceptable to Him. In view of Moses’ intercession God proceeded to take a different course of action than He had previously intended. [Note: See John Munro, "Prayer to a Sovereign God," Interest 56:2 (February 1990):20-21; Thomas L. Constable, "What Prayer Will and Will Not Change," in Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost, pp. 99-113; and Robert B. Chisholm Jr., "Does God ’Change His Mind’?" Bibliotheca Sacra 152:608 (October-December 1995):387-99; Hannah, p. 156.]

"In only two of the thirty-eight instances in the OT is this word used of men repenting. God’s repentance or ’relenting’ is an anthropomorphism (a description of God in human forms [sic form]) that aims at showing us that he can and does change in his actions and emotions to men when given proper grounds for doing so, and thereby he does not change in his basic integrity or character (cf. Psalms 99:6; Psalms 106:45; Jeremiah 18:8; Amos 7:3; Amos 7:6; Jonah 3:10; James 5:16). The grounds for the Lord’s repenting are three: (1) intercession (cf. Amos 7:1-6); (2) repentance of the people (Jeremiah 18:3-11; Jonah 3:9-10); and (3) compassion (Deuteronomy 32:36; Judges 2:18; 2 Samuel 24:16[; 1 Chronicles 21:15])." [Note: Kaiser, "Exodus," p. 479.]

Advocates of the "openness of God" overemphasize this change in God and conclude that He did not just relent from a former proposed course of action but changed in a more fundamental way. They say He took a completely different direction that He had not anticipated previously. This view stresses the free will of man, in this case Moses’ intercession, at the expense of the sovereignty of God.

Verses 15-24

Aaron’s excuse 32:15-24

Moses broke the tablets of the law (Exodus 32:19) symbolizing the fact that Israel had broken its covenant with Yahweh. He then proceeded to destroy the golden calf, the symbol of the illicit covenant into which they had entered (cf. 2 Kings 23:15). By treating the calf image as he did (Exodus 32:20) Moses was dishonoring as well as destroying it.

". . . the biblical description of the destruction of the Golden Calf constitutes an Israelite development of an early literary pattern that was employed in Canaan to describe the total annihilation of a detested enemy." [Note: Samuel Loewenstamm, "The Making and Destruction of the Golden Calf," Biblica 48 (1967):485.]

Moses probably ordered the people to drink the polluted water for the following reason.

". . . to set forth in a visible manner both the sin and its consequences. The sin was poured as it were into their bowels along with the water, as a symbolical sign that they would have to bear it and atone for it, just as a woman who was suspected of adultery was obliged to drink the curse-water (Numbers 5:24)." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 2:226.]

"In this manner the thing they had worshiped would become a product of their own waste, the very epitome of worthlessness and impurity." [Note: Merrill, Deuteronomy, p. 196. Cf. Jacob, p. 950.]

Some writers have suggested that this water with the gold dust suspended in it would have been red and is a type of the blood of Christ. [Note: E.g., M. R. DeHaan, The Chemistry of the Blood and Other Stirring Messages, pp. 61-63.] This view lacks support in the text. The writer said nothing about Moses offering it to the Lord to make atonement for the sins of the Israelites. The people drank it; they did not offer it to God (Exodus 32:20).

Exodus 32:24 suggests Aaron may have formed the calf by casting it in a mold, but Exodus 32:4 gives the impression that he carved it out of a shapeless mass. [Note: See Loewenstamm; idem, "The Making and Destruction of the Golden Calf-a Rejoinder," Biblica 56 (1975):330-43; and Stanley Gevirtz, "Heret in the Manufacture of the Golden Calf," Biblica 65 (1984):377-81.] The best solution seems to be that Aaron made this calf like similar Egyptian idols. He probably built a wooden frame and then overlaid it with gold that he shaped (cf. Isaiah 30:22).

Aaron tried to shift the blame for his actions to the people (cf. Genesis 3:12-13).

"A woman of society and fashion will say, ’I admit that I am not what I might be, but then look at my set; it is the furnace that did it.’ A man will doubt God, question the Bible and truth, and excuse himself by saying, ’It is not I, it is the drift of modern tendency; it is the furnace that did it.’ ’There came out this calf.’" [Note: Meyer, p. 422.]

Verses 25-29

The Levites’ loyalty 32:25-29

The Levites were Moses’ closest kinsmen. Perhaps it was for this reason, as well as their loyalty to the Lord, that they sided with Moses. Their decision and obedience (Exodus 32:28) demonstrated their faith in God. They chose to go the way of His appointed leader, Moses, instead of following their rebellious brethren.

God’s punishment of the rebels was severe (Exodus 32:27) because of the seriousness of their offense. It was also merciful; only 3,000 of the 600,000 men died (Exodus 32:28).

The Levites’ blessing was God’s choice of their tribe as the priestly tribe in Israel (Numbers 3:12-13). The nation as a whole forfeited its right to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6) by its rebellion here.

"The idiom ’fill the hands’ [the literal meaning of "dedicate yourselves," NASB, or "you have been set apart," NIV, Exodus 32:29] means ’institute to a priestly office,’ ’install,’ ’inaugurate,’ and the like." [Note: Hyatt, p. 310.]

Verses 30-35

Moses’ second intercession 32:30-35

To make atonement (Exodus 32:30) means to obtain a covering for sin.

We see Moses’ great love for the Israelites as their mediator in his willingness to die for them (cf. Romans 9:3). Being blotted out of God’s book may refer to physical death. Alternatively the book could refer to the register of those loyal to Yahweh and thereby deserving His special blessing (cf. Psalms 69:28; Isaiah 4:3; Ezekiel 13:9; Daniel 12:1; Malachi 3:16). [Note: Durham, p. 432.] God explained a principle of His dealings with people here. Individual sin brings individual responsibility that leads finally to individual judgment (cf. Ezekiel 18:4). God was not saying that everyone will bear the punishment for his own sins precluding substitution, but everyone is responsible for his own sins. He chose not to take Moses’ life as a substitute for the guilty in Israel since this would not have been just. Moses being a sinner himself could not have served as a final acceptable substitute for other sinners in any case.

God promised Moses that He would not abandon His people for their sin (Exodus 32:34), but when their rebellion was full (at Kadesh Barnea, Numbers 14:27-35) He smote those of them who remained (Exodus 32:35). [Note: See Jonathan Master, "Exodus 32 as an Argument for Traditional Theism," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 45:4 (December 2002):585-98.]

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Exodus 32". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.