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Bible Commentaries

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and Homiletical

Exodus 32

Verses 1-35


The legislation as modified by the lapse of the people, and the intensified distinction between Jehovah and Israel as expressed in the more hierarchical constitution of the theocracy

Exodus 32-34


The Erection and worship of the golden calf. god’s judgment and moses’ intercession. his anger. the sentence of destruction on the golden calf, and of punishment on the people. the conditional pardon

Exodus 32:1-35

A.—The golden calf

Exodus 32:1-6

1And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of [down from] the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods1 which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot [know] not what is become of him. 2And Aaron said unto them, Break [Pluck] off the golden ear-rings [rings], which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me. 3And all the people brake [plucked] off the golden ear-rings [rings] which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. 4And he received them at [took them from] their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made [and he made] it a molten calf:2 and they said, These be [are] thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. 5And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, To-morrow is a feast to Jehovah. 6And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt-offerings, and brought peace-offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.

B.—God’s judgment, and Moses’ intercession

Exodus 32:7-14

7And Jehovah said unto Moses, Go, get thee down, for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves [behaved corruptly]: 8They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be [are] thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out 9of the land of Egypt. And Jehovah said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people: 10Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation. 11And Moses besought Jehovah his God, and said, Jehovah, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand? 12Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief [evil] did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I 14have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever. And Jehovah repented of the evil which he thought [threatened] to do unto his people.

C.—The trial and punishment of Aaron

Exodus 32:15-24

15And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, and the two tables of the testimony were in his hand: the tables were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. 16And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables. 17And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said unto Moses, There is a noise of war in the camp. 18And he said, It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery [noise of the cry of victory], neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome [the noise of the cry of defeat]: but the noise of them that sing [of singing] do I hear. 19And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount. 20And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the [with] fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed [scattered] it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it. 21And Moses said unto Aaron, What did this people [hath this people done] unto thee, that thou hast brought so great a [a great] sin upon them? 22And Aaron said, Let not the anger of my lord wax hot: thou knowest the people, 23that they are set on mischief [evil]. For [And] they said unto me, Make us gods, which shall go before us: for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot [know] not what is become of him. 24And I said unto them, Whosoever hath any gold, let them break [pluck] it off. So they gave it me: then [and] I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.

D.—The punishment of the people

Exodus 32:25-29

25And when Moses saw that the people were naked [unrestrained], (for Aaron had made them naked unto their shame [had left them unrestrained for a hissing] among their enemies:) 26Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the Lord’s side? [Whoso is for Jehovah,] let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. 27And he said unto them, Thus saith Jehovah, God [the God] of Israel, Put [Put ye] every man his sword by his side, and go in and out [go to and fro] from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor. 28And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. 29For Moses had [And Moses] said, Consecrate yourselves to day to Jehovah, even every man upon [against] his son, and upon [against] his brother; that he may bestow upon you [so as to bring upon yourselves] a blessing this day.

E.—Moses’ intercession, and Jehovah’s conditional pardon of the people

Exodus 32:30-35

30And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses said unto the people, Ye have sinned a great sin; and now I will go up unto Jehovah; peradventure I shall make an [make] atonement for your sin. 31And Moses returned unto Jehovah, and said, Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold. 32Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin;—and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book 33which thou hast written. And Jehovah said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book. 34Therefore now go, lead the people unto the place of which I have spoken unto thee: behold, mine angel shall go before 35thee: nevertheless in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them. And Jehovah plagued [smote] the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron made.


[Exodus 32:1. אֱל ֹהִים is here connected with a plural verb, and in Exodus 32:4 with a plural pronoun, so that the A. V. certainly seems to be correct. Yet the term is used only of the golden calf, and there is no indication that it referred to anything else. Probably the plural verb and pronoun are used for the very purpose of distinguishing the calf as a false god—one of the many gods of polytheism. Yet in other cases, e. g., Judges 11:24; Judges 16:23-24, the singular verb is used of a heathen god.—Tr.]

[We leave the A. V. rendering, only substituting “and he” for “after he had;” but it must be confessed that the passage is obscure. Fürst, Gesemus, Knobel, Maurer, Glaire, Rosenmüller, Cook, Kurtz, and others understand חֶרֶט to be = חָרִיט (vid. 2 Kings 5:23), meaning “a bag.” It occurs only once more, viz., Isaiah 8:1, where it means “a pen” (metal style). If the word here means “bag,” then וַיָּצַר must mean “bound up,” as indeed it most naturally does (coming from צוּר, not יָצַר), though it is also used (but rarely) in the sense of “form” or “fashion.” We are therefore compelled to decide mainly according to the sense. Against the A. V. rendering is to be urged that a molten image would not be made with a graving tool. The reply, that the tool was used only to polish the image after it was cast, is a mere assumption, and moreover requires us to resort to the device, adopted by the A. V., but unwarranted by the grammatical construction, of inverting the natural relation of time between the two clauses, “fashioned it with a graving tool,” and, “made it a molten Gulf.” The other rendering would be: “Ho took it from their hands, and bound it up in a bag,” etc.—Tr.]


One of the grandest contrasts contained in the Scriptures is presented in the fact that Moses on the top of the mountain was having his vision of the tabernacle, i. e., was receiving the revelation of the true system of worship, and, as the central feature of it, the tables of the law, whilst the people at the foot of the mountain in their impatience resorted to the worship of the golden calf, and in this lapse even secured the services of the man just called to be high-priest. The Bible, it is true, is rich in kindred contrasts, e. g., the transfiguration of Christ on the mount contrasted with the scene of the impotence of the disciples in relation to the demoniac in the valley; or the institution of the Lord’s Supper contrasted with Judas’s treason. But this Old Testament contrast is distinguished above others by its scenic and artistic grandeur. For all periods of the history of the kingdom of God and of the church the fact is here set forth, that every individual period of time has a double history—the one above on the mount, the other beneath in the valley: whenever the popular rabble, with the connivance of high-priests, are dancing around the golden calf, there is taking place above upon the mountain of light. of terror, and of salvation something new and mysterious, which also in due time manifests itself in judgment and deliverance.

a. The Golden Calf. Exodus 32:1-6

Knobel calls the account of the tables of the law and of the golden calf a Jehovistic interpolation, p. 310. The manner in which he unfolds his thought strikingly illustrates the dulness in apprehending the spirit of the text which characterizes the theory that the text is a patchwork of two heterogeneous elements. According to him, Exodus 33:7-11 presents an account of the tabernacle, whereas the Elohist does not narrate the erection of it till as late as chap. 35. This style of criticism seems not to have the faintest conception of the reason why, in Exodus 33:7, Moses is said to have removed the tent (by which undoubtedly is meant the chief or central tent which as a matter of course any army must have had before the building of a tabernacle) far away outside of the camp, and erected it at a distance from the camp; although the reason is unfolded throughout chaps, 33 and 34 in the thought of a conditional separation between Jehovah and the camp of the sinful people, or of an intensified unapproachableness of Jehovah, expressed in a stricter form of the hierarchy. As the people at first (Exodus 20:18-19) gave provocation for the hierarchical mediatorship which Moses still provisionally administers, so now by their guilt they have made it stricter. Here belongs the circumstance that they could not endure the splendor on Moses’ face. That the real tabernacle is not here treated of, is evident from the fact that Moses at once applied to this tent the name “tent (or tabernacle) of the testimony” in the sense that Jehovah was to be accessible to the people only at a distance from the camp.3 According to the familiar style of criticism the idea of a sanctuary arises only in connection with the actual building, whereas, on the contrary, in fact the idea of the sanctuary long preceded the erection of the symbolic building, and might well have been all along provisionally represented. See further conclusions in Knobel, p. 310 sqq. It is to be considered, in reference to this theory of a combination of different documents, that each part by itself would yield only a caricature, though one may admit the thought of editorial changes to accord with further developments of the same institution. On the tables of the law vid. archæological observations in Knobel, p. 314.

Exodus 32:1. When the people saw.—Moses’ long absence made the people feel like a swarm of bees that have lost their queen. We must consider that they were waiting, idle, and in suspense, at the foot of the mountain; that they were accustomed to see in Moses a representative of the Deity that was now wanting; that all the way from Egypt they had in their memory visible signs from God, and were conscious that they were required to go onward from Sinai. Moreover, they had seen how Moses went into the darkness and fiery flames of the mountain, so that it was natural to imagine that he had perished. Furthermore, Aaron, on account of his personal weakness, could not satisfy them as Moses’ representative. Therefore impatience, tear, sensuous religious conceptions, vexation at Moses’ audacious marching into the terrors of Jehovah and into invisible regions,—these things, and in addition Aaron’s weakness as a substitute for Moses, worked together to transform the trial of faith which was laid on the people into a great temptation, to which they succumbed. Their vexation is directed against Aaron, the second leader, whom they now wish violently to make their chief, but on condition that he yields to them and supplements himself by means of an idol. That they are not asking for foreign gods (plural), is shown by the connection. For the theocracy, therefore, they wish to substitute a hierarchical democracy and a superstitious worship. This is not strictly an apostasy from Jehovah; they only want an image of Him to symbolize His leadership. The image of the golden calf, the young bull (אֵגֶל), borrowed from the Egyptian Apis, but designed symbolically to represent Jehovah, is not expressly named in their request, but was doubtless from the first in their minds. This image is to go before them, an ill-chosen symbol for them, since the ox, which afterwards again appears in the vision of the cherubim, acquires a significance in the theocratic system only as supplemented by the lion or the eagle; by itself alone it represented the Egyptian conception of death (or the generative power of nature). Nevertheless the Israelites are not conscious that their demand implies an apostasy, just as Jeroboam also thought, that he could preserve the Israelitish faith in the form of the calf-worship. They intend to associate Jehovah with the image, and to go on under His guidance. But how hopeless they are respecting Moses’ leadership, as if he had brought them out of Egypt to leave them in the wilderness (a mood of mind which Protestants often cherish and express in reference to the Reformers), is to be seen in their utterance concerning Moses; and how far advanced they are on the downward road to apostasy, is shown at once by the jovial festival which is connected with the now worship, in imitation of heathen rites.

Exodus 32:2. And Aaron said unto them.—With a mistaken cunning, such as is apt to grow up with a hierarchy, he hopes to deter them from their desire by bruskly demanding a great sacrifice; but he deceived himself. Religions that are the outgrowth of sensuous and selfish passions generally produce a fanatical readiness to make sacrifices.

Exodus 32:3. And fashioned [Lange: sketched] it. It seems to us more natural to refer אֹתוֹ [it] forwards to the golden calf than backwards to the ear-rings, instead of which “gold” must be understood as the object. Moreover it would be an inversion of the natural order to speak first of the polishing of the cast with a chisel, and then of the casting itself. We therefore translate with Luther, “he sketched it with a pen (style)”—a more probable meaning of חֶרֶט than “chisel.”4 On Aaron’s excuse, see Exodus 32:24. That the golden calf consisted of a wooden figure overlaid with gold plate, is urged by Keil [especially from Isaiah 40:19; Isaiah 30:22, where such images are described and in the latter passage are called even “molten images,” and] from the circumstance that the manner of its destruction implies the existence of wooden [combustible] elements. And they said.—The god is proclaimed. Aaron thinks he can relieve the matter by building an altar and proclaiming a feast to Jehovah for the morrow.

Exodus 32:6. And offered burnt-offerings.—There is nothing about sin-offerings in connection with this new worship. The chief feature consists in the peace-offerings and the sacrificial meal, followed by the merry festive games.

b. God’s Judgment and Moses’ Intercession. Exodus 32:7-14

Exodus 32:7. And Jehovah said.—It is not known below what is taking place upon the mountain; but on the mountain it is well known what is going on below.—Go, get thee down. Lively expression of indignation, affecting even Moses. Under such a condition of God’s people, His work on the mountain is interrupted. “Thy” people, it is significantly said, though Keil questions this [explaining the phrase as merely meaning that Moses, as mediator of the people, must represent them.] The covenant is broken. Thus the people practically deny that Jehovah has brought them up out of Egypt.

Exodus 32:8. Turned aside quickly.—As if they had been in a hurry about it. Hence the guilt was all the greater, comp. Galatians 1:0.—And have worshipped it. So Jehovah judges concerning the image-worship of the people; that they intend to worship Him in their service, He does not acknowledge. Hence we translate here too, “These are thy gods;” in the pretended image of God He sees the germ of idolatry, a deviation from the way of revelation which He had commanded.

Exodus 32:9. A stiff-necked people.vid. Exodus 33:3; Exodus 33:5; Exodus 34:9; Deuteronomy 9:6. Literally, “hard of neck.” The expression seems to have been borrowed from the trait of an unruly draught-animal. The self-will of the people has shown itself to be an obstinate repugnance to Jehovah’s guidance, hard to overcome.

Exodus 32:10. Let me alone.—That which delays the destruction of the people is even now Moses’ mediatorial connection with his people, as expressed in his mood of mind even before he made any utterance. Yet the promise given to Abraham cannot fail—a fact continually re-appearing in the prophetic writings, and, in all its grandeur, in the New Testament (vid. Romans 4:11). The remnant of Israelitish fidelity is now concentrated in Moses; hence God says, “I will make of thee a great nation.” The judgment is a κρίσις, distinction and separation. It was natural to think that Moses might separate himself from his people, and that then the people would fall a prey to destruction in the wilderness. The motives contend with one another in Moses’ soul, as if between God and Moses. The phrase “let me alone,” according to Gregory the Great and Keil, was designed only to give to Moses an opportunity to utter deprecations. But this neat remark of theirs obliterates the sentiment of righteousness expressed in the phrase.

Exodus 32:11-12. And Moses besought Jehovah—Here appears the original, real priest. He contends in a most fervent prayer with the face of Jehovah, with His revealed form now present to him; not, however, chiefly for himself, but for his people, even with a renunciation of self and of the grand prospect opened to him. He appeals to Jehovah’s self-consistency, and, in contrast with Jehovah’s expression “thy people, Moses,” he says, “thy people, Jehovah, which thou hast brought out of Egypt.” His appeal to Jehovah’s honor, as not enduring that the Egyptians should scoff at His word and revile Him. expresses the genuinely religious sentiment, which pervades the whole Bible, that the ruin of God’s people, merited as it is on account of their sins, would also plunge the heathen nations into complete destruction. According to Keil the expression, “I will make of thee a great nation,” was only a great temptation. vid. Numbers 14:12; Deuteronomy 9:14.—Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil. This strong anthropopathic expression conveys the correct sentiment, that Jehovah may assume another attitude towards the people, when He sees that Moses’ compassion for, and adherence to, his people opens to them a different and better prospect.

Exodus 32:13. Remember Abraham.—This calling to Jehovah’s mind the great promises which He had made to the patriarchs is seen in its full importance, when we consider that Moses not only has declined the splendid offer of becoming the patriarch of God’s people, but also in his humility is not conscious of the fact that his own intercession for the people has any weight.

Exodus 32:14. And Jehovah repented of the evil.—In the sphere of personal life, of the theocratic world, of the kingdom of God, the believer may talk,—may even reason, with his God. It is not here man’s part to be absolutely silent before the silent infliction, and give way to rancor and despair, but as a personal being to talk with the personal God, as a child with his mother. Of course headstrong selfishness is in this case entirely forbidden; but to make inquiry of Jehovah is not only allowable, but is in accordance with the spiritual nature; and it is only by way of inquiry, wrestling inquiry, that man obtains the answer which brings at once tranquillity and knowledge, and whose consummate result is that lofty absence of will which consists in surrender to, and union with, the will of God. Thus then Moses asks, “Wherefore?” as afterwards so many saints, and as at last Christ did in Gethsemane and on the cross. With man’s attitude towards God, however, God’s attitude towards man is changed; and He repents of the threatened evil, because He is the unchangeable one, not in fatalistic caprice, but in truth and grace. On Exodus 32:14 Keil remarks, by way of correction, “This is a remark which anticipates the history. God dismissed Moses without any such assurance, in order that He might disclose to the people the full severity of the divine wrath.” This explanation destroys the fine contrast between the two facts that, on the one hand, Moses in the mountain presents nothing but intercessions to God, and also receives the assurance that the people are pardoned; while, on the other hand, at the foot of the mountain he denounces a stern judgment on the sin of the people with an anger which is heightened especially by the sight of the apostasy. The full severity of the divine anger would have been the destruction of the people. Moses’ intercession in Exodus 32:32 does not refer to the existence of the people, but their covenant relations. Peter, too, needed a twofold assurance of pardon, vid. John 20:21.

c. The Trial and Punishment of Aaron. Exodus 32:15-24.

Exodus 32:15-16. And Moses turned. Special mention is made of the fact that he was carrying in his hand an invaluable treasure, the two tables of the testimony. The tables themselves had been prepared by God, the writing also by God; and the tables were written all over. It was therefore all the more frightful, that the people at the foot of the mountain had so entirely destroyed the value of the heavenly treasure, had so decidedly annulled the covenant writing by their breach of the covenant, that Moses felt moved to dash the tables to pieces.

Exodus 32:17-18. When Joshua heard.—It is a very characteristic feature, that the young hero (vid. chap. 17) imagines that in the noise he hears the tumult of war. Keil, referring to Exodus 24:13, conceives that Moses, as he was “going away from God,” met Joshua on the mountain. The text clearly represents Joshua as having gone upon the mountain in company with Moses. As a servant he belongs to his master, and in so far he has the precedence over Aaron. But Moses correctly detects the antiphonies of the new worship amidst the tumult. That which was common to the two in their apprehension seems to have been the perception of two kinds of sound.—We are to distinguish between the Kal and the Piel of the verb עָנָה. Keil renders: “It is not the sound of the answer of power, and not the sound of the answer of weakness, i.e., they are not sounds such as the strong (the victorious) and the weak (the conquered) utter.” The antiphonal songs were sung for the round dance.—Knobel thinks there is a contradiction between this and Exodus 32:7 [where it is said that Moses was informed of what was going on below. But it is not said that Joshua had been informed, and there is no evidence that Moses had mistaken the sound.—Tr.]

Exodus 32:19. Moses’ anger waxed hot.—And yet he is the same one who by his intercession has saved Israel. His anger and his compassion have a common source. But he is excited by the actual sight. Of this power of physical perception the Scriptures mention many instances, e.g., “when Jacob saw the wagons,” etc. (Genesis 45:27). The breaking of the tables is nowhere rebuked; therefore his emotion was justifiable. The tables as representing the enactment of the covenant had been annulled by the people; the breaking of them symbolizes the breach of the covenant. Moreover this act of breaking the tables shows that Moses did not regard the law as a law of curses, but as a great gift from Jehovah of which the people had made themselves unworthy; otherwise he would just at this time have been inclined to hold the tables aloft. But could he not have concealed them? This question suggests another point. The tables of the law, in case the people repented, might have become to them an object of superstitious adoration. Hence afterwards the new tables lay covered in the ark in the obscurity of the Holy of holies. So also at a later time Hezekiah had to destroy the brazen serpent in order to keep it from superstitious regard. The temple had to be twice consumed with fire. God’s people often had to be driven by the terrors of God from the outward to the inward; for it is only as one looks within that he looks up.

Exodus 32:20. And he took the calf.—First of all the object of their adoration, the idol, had to be destroyed. A calf of solid gold could not be burned, but it might have been put into the fire. The wooden image was thus burned. The golden plate was melted, and this was then in particular beaten to pieces. The whole powdered mass was thrown upon the water, the gold sinking and serving then only a symbolic purpose, whilst the ashes of the wood might have been served up to the people as a drink of penance or of cursing—all which is doubtless to be conceived as a symbolic act enforced chiefly on the most guilty, especially as the brook into which the dust had been thrown was a flowing one (Deuteronomy 9:21). Knobel says, “He shames them by making clear to them the nothingness of their god, and humbles them by such a treatment of it: they are obliged even to devour their own god—a severe punishment for the idolaters. The Egyptians had a very lively horror of consuming the animals revered as deities, and would sooner have eaten human flesh (Diod. I., 84).” This is intelligible. But what Keil says is unintelligible: “This making the people drink was certainly (!) not for the purpose of shaming them by making manifest to them the nothingness of their god ……, but was designed symbolically to incorporate (?) for them sin with its consequences, to pour it, as it were, with the water, into their inwards, as a symbolic sign that they would have to bear it and suffer for it, just as the woman suspected of adultery was obliged to drink the water of cursing (Numbers 5:24).” The cases here made parallel are entirely different. In the precept in Numbers 5:0 no guilt is to be “incorporated” by the water of cursing, but it is to be determined whether there is any guilt. But in the present case there was no occasion for any process of detecting guilt; the Jews themselves certainly had an immediate consciousness of it in consequence of Moses’ denunciation, whereas they would hardly have understood Moses’ obscure symbol. If we consider the analogy of the red heifer, whose ashes were sprinkled as a hherem, it would be more natural to assume that the people by drinking the ashes of this hherem were themselves marked as involved in the hherem, and so were prepared for a sentence which was soon afterwards executed. Anxiety to maintain the letter of the narrative has led some to speak of a chemical calcination of the gold, as being necessary in order to its being ground fine (Rosenmüller and others). Knobel imputes this meaning to the writer in order to convict him of error, while Keil seems inclined to suppose that the gold for the most part disappeared in the melting process.

Exodus 32:21 sqq. And Moses said unto Aaron. The question is sharp.—It makes Aaron morally the chief author of the sin, even though in reference to the motive it admits some excuse. The word עָשָׂה (“hath done”) maybe understood in two ways. Keil explains it to mean, “What have they done unto thee?” so that the question implies that the people have compelled Aaron by some act of great violence. But it is more obvious to find in the question the sharper rebuke: “Has this people committed an offence against thee, that thou couldst let them fall into such a sin?” Aaron’s excuse is an expression of his weakness of character. The best thing about him is, that he submits entirely to Moses’ authority; the worst, that he throws the blame entirely on the people, and that he represents the golden calf as an almost accidental image produced by the fire, while he pretends that he himself threw the gold into the fire with a feeling of contempt, and for the purpose of destroying it. Deuteronomy 9:20 supplements the narrative. That Moses makes no reply, must mean something more than “that he deems him not worthy of an answer” (Keil); his answer is involved in the ensuing judgment, in which it must be made manifest that there is a difference between Aaron’s sin of weakness and the wickedness of the apostates.

d. The Punishment of the People. Exodus 32:25-29

The ground for the severe procedure now following is given in Exodus 32:25. A real distinction is made between the principal sin, that of the apostate people, and the sin of Aaron (or the Levites). The cure of the evil is quite analogous to the cure effected for the people by the campaign against the Midianites (Numbers 31:0) In this case the Midianites were the tempters, the Jews the tempted. But they were to be healed of their moral torpor by being required to inflict punitive judgment on the Midianites. So here it is the Levites, involved in the guilty weakness, whose approach in response to his call Moses seems from the first to have expected. Knobel can understand the procedure only by assuming contradictions: “The narrative,” he says, “is entirely improbable; such a bloody command one cannot believe Moses to have made.” Of course he has no conception of the significance of an army of God, nor of the fact that the decimations which still take place in the modern military history of Christendom are not yet recorded in archæological statistics, although they date from antiquity.—For a hissing among their enemies. Keil understands this of the punishment of the people; but by this very punishment the hissing of the adversaries was suppressed.

Exodus 32:26. Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp.—The camp is unclean and lies under sentence (Hebrews 13:13); from without the camp new purity must be procured. With this circumstance is connected the subsequent removal of the provisional tabernacle from the camp, as well as Jehovah’s refusal to go with the people in the midst of the camp. Knobel says, “He takes his stand at. the head-quarters of the camp” (!). Moses’ heroic decision, expressed in the most energetic language, has the effect of bringing all the Levites to his side. But since the other tribes, although terrified, did not come to him, a division, a contest, and condemnation became necessary. Why the Levites? Keil quotes, in answer to this, Cornelius a Lapide: [“Because the most of the Levites did not join in the sin of the people and the worship of the calf, and because this displeased them.”] Why not the other tribes? Keil quotes Calvin’s answer: [“They were not held back by contempt or obstinacy, but only by shame, and all of them were so smitten with terror that they waited in astonishment to see what Moses’ intention was, and how far he would proceed.”]5 In this matter one must guard against such a view of historic causes as deals with merely outward motives. A peculiar religious energy was inherited by the tribe of Levi from their ancestor (Genesis 34:0); and though it was liable to lead astray, yet here it followed a higher summons, as it also atoned for the wrong done at the water of strife, Deuteronomy 33:8 sqq.

Exodus 32:27-28. Put ye every man his sword by his side.—The frightful command clearly does not contemplate a slaughter as great as possible. They are to pass twice through the length of the camp, going and returning. In this course every one is to kill his brother, friend, neighbor. Does that mean, simply, without any regard to existing relations of friendship? Chiefly this, no doubt. But when we consider that the Levite had no longer any literal brother in the camp, the Levites having all joined Moses, it follows that reference is made to figurative brotherhood and friendship, such as had just acted as a snare to the Levite. That only three thousand men fell indicates that a selection was made according to special considerations. And in this way also the fact is explained, that the terified people could let this punitive infliction take place. Various solutions of the difficulty involved in this event are given by Keil.

Exodus 32:29. Consecrate yourselves [Lit. Fill your hands].—According to the context it is necessary to suppose that Moses uttered these words before the execution of the offenders, and in order to explain that it was like an offering for Jehovah, an offering of the hardest kind of self-denial and self-renunciation; furthermore we must suppose that he did not mean this in the literal sense, but comparatively, in order in the strongest manner to express the truth that their obedience and self-denial were pleasing to God. The slain were indeed made a hherem, or curse-offering, because after their great wickedness they had defiantly remained in the camp; but the hherem was nevertheless not properly an offering for Jehovah. The addition, so that a blessing may be given to you, also presents the execution in the light of the removal of a curse. On the untenable explanation, that they were obliged, after the slaughter, to make atonement by means of an offering (Jonathan, Kurtz), see Keil [who says, “To fill the hands for Jehovah does not mean to bring Him an offering, but to provide one’s self with something to bring to God …… Moreover it is incomprehensible how the execution of a divine command, or an act of obedience towards the expressed will of God, can be imputed to one as blood-guiltiness or as an offence needing expiation.”]

e. Moses’ Intercession and Jehovah’s Conditional Pardon of the People. Exodus 32:30-35

Exodus 32:30. As in the history of the fallen Peter we must distinguish between the pardon which he received as a Christian (John 20:0) and that which he received as an apostle (John 21:0), so in reference to Israel we must distinguish between the first abrogation of the sentence of destruction and the renewal of the people’s calling. The first pardon is expressed in Exodus 32:14; the other is first introduced by the judgment upon the people, and in this section it is conditionally secured through Moses’ powerful intercession and mediation. Keil makes so little distinction between the two things that he even says that Moses after his first petition (Exodus 32:11-13) received no assurance of favor—which is inconsistent with Exodus 32:14. But we have here nothing to do, as Keil represents, with “an anger that threatens destruction.” Israel might now indeed continue to exist as a people, but yet have forfeited their vocation. This is just the point here treated of. Hence Moses does not say to the people, The offence is expiated; but he also does not speak of a crime which is still to be expiated with a hherem. He speaks of a great sin which, however, may perhaps be covered by means of an expiation. In what this expiation is to consist, he does not tell the people—for therein, too, his nobleness appears—but he says to Jehovah that he will surrender himself to the judgment of God in behalf of the people. Since now the question is here not one of existence, but one of vocation, Moses’ offer to sacrifice himself is also modified accordingly. It is true, this intercession is vastly more intense than the former one (Exodus 32:11). He would rather be blotted, with the people, out of the book of life, of theocratic citizenship, than without the people to stand in the book alone. As mediating priest he has come as far as to the thought of going to destruction with the people, but not for them. Moreover he offers to submit to the sentence only hypothetically—in case Jehovah will not pardon the people. But he is primarily seeking for the pardon of only this one great sin. Thus we see expiation germinant in the form of suffering loss; it is not yet seen in its bloom and fruitage: else the condition would not be, “Grace or judgment,” but, “Through judgment the highest grace.” Nevertheless this is the moment when Moses comes into closest contact with the priesthood of the New Testament. Abraham’s intercession for Sodom is one precursor of it; stronger still is Judah’s intercession for Benjamin (vid. Comm. on Genesis 44:18 sqq.); and, as a N. T. analogy, Paul’s language in Romans 9:3 has been adduced (vid. Comm. on Romans). In Paul’s words appears indeed the phrase “for the Jewish people;” but it is a question what the exact meaning is. In intercession there are indeed degrees of self-denial and ecstasy in which human logic seems almost to be swallowed up in a sort of divine folly.—Jehovah brings Moses back to the legal stand-point, and all the more, as he has not yet attained the full expression and full act of expiation, and the realization of it is conditioned on an antecedent visitation of the people (Exodus 32:34). This visitation, however, can be realized only as the people are conducted further on their way. So then there is involved a conditional re-adoption of the people in the words, “Go, lead the people,” etc. It is conditioned, in the first place, by the bscure expression, “My angel shall go before thee,” the stern meaning of which is afterwards explained; secondly, by the proviso of a future visitation which was to be at once a gracious and a judicial visitation. Thus the people are smitten doubly: first, by Moses’ judicial punishment (Exodus 32:27); secondly, by the above-mentioned conditions connected with their re-adoption. And this is done because, as Exodus 32:35 declares, the people, strictly speaking, had made the calf which they had induced Aaron to make. “The book which Jehovah has written is the book of life, or of the living, Psalms 69:29 (28); Daniel 12:1. This conception is derived from the custom of making a list of the names of the citizens of a kingdom or of a city” (Keil).—From this it appears that the book is primarily the roll of citizens of the kingdom of God, in the theocratic sense; and the notion becomes more and more profound as we advance through the Scriptures, comp. Isaiah 4:3; Daniel 12:1; Philippians 4:3; Revelation 3:5. Keil finds the day of visitation in the judicial infliction at Kadesh (Numbers 14:26 sqq.), according to which that generation was to die in the wilderness. But the text allows a distinction to be made between the day of visitation in the more general sense and the special retributive visitation. It designates the whole perspective of punitive judgments as seen in the light of grace.


[1][Exodus 32:1. אֱל ֹהִים is here connected with a plural verb, and in Exodus 32:4 with a plural pronoun, so that the A. V. certainly seems to be correct. Yet the term is used only of the golden calf, and there is no indication that it referred to anything else. Probably the plural verb and pronoun are used for the very purpose of distinguishing the calf as a false god—one of the many gods of polytheism. Yet in other cases, e. g., Judges 11:24; Judges 16:23-24, the singular verb is used of a heathen god.—Tr.]

[2][We leave the A. V. rendering, only substituting “and he” for “after he had;” but it must be confessed that the passage is obscure. Fürst, Gesemus, Knobel, Maurer, Glaire, Rosenmüller, Cook, Kurtz, and others understand חֶרֶט to be = חָרִיט (vid. 2 Kings 5:23), meaning “a bag.” It occurs only once more, viz., Isaiah 8:1, where it means “a pen” (metal style). If the word here means “bag,” then וַיָּצַר must mean “bound up,” as indeed it most naturally does (coming from צוּר, not יָצַר), though it is also used (but rarely) in the sense of “form” or “fashion.” We are therefore compelled to decide mainly according to the sense. Against the A. V. rendering is to be urged that a molten image would not be made with a graving tool. The reply, that the tool was used only to polish the image after it was cast, is a mere assumption, and moreover requires us to resort to the device, adopted by the A. V., but unwarranted by the grammatical construction, of inverting the natural relation of time between the two clauses, “fashioned it with a graving tool,” and, “made it a molten Gulf.” The other rendering would be: “Ho took it from their hands, and bound it up in a bag,” etc.—Tr.]

[3][This is obscure. If the reference is (as apparently it is) to the tent spoken of in Exodus 33:7 sqq., then it is incorrect to say that Moses called it “the tent of the testimony.” And even if he had so called it, it is not clear how that name would indicate that Jehovah was to be found only outside the camp.—Tr.]

[4][See under “Textual and Grammatical.” Lange’s interpretation is plausible; but וַיָּצַר can hardly be made to mean “sketched”—all the less, inasmuch as the supposed object, the calf, has not yet been hinted at.—Tr.]

[5][It should be said that Keil regards neither of these answers as satisfactory. On the first point he says that the reason assigned is not the only or the chief one, but that it is to be found partly in the fact that “the Levites came mole promptly to a recognition of their offence and to a resolution of penitence and conversion, partly in their regard for Moses, who belonged to their tribe.”—Tr.

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Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Exodus 32". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". 1857-84.