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The People Reject Yahweh For A Molten Calf And Receive Less Than Their Due Punishment (Exodus 32:1-35 ).
We have in this chapter an interesting contrast between man’s way of worship and God’s way of worship. Moses was in the Mount receiving from God careful instruction as to how future worship was to be conducted. Its aim was in order to prevent any misconception of God. But here at ground level the people, assisted by Aaron, worked out their own way of worshipping God, a way that could only have led them back into idolatry and rejection of all that was good and right in what Yahweh had given them. It is a reminder of how wary we should be in introducing novelties into our worship. We need to ask what their long term consequences might be.
The chapter begins with the people being fearful of what has happened to Moses and rebelling against Yahweh.
This can be divided into:
a The people rebel against Yahweh and worship the molten image (Exodus 32:1-6).
b Yahweh informs Moses of what is happening below (Exodus 32:7-14).
b Moses descends and witnesses what is happening and acts decisively to bring matters under control (Exodus 32:15-28).
a The rebellion is dealt with and the people are punished (Exodus 32:29-35).
Note how in ‘a’ the people rebel against Yahweh and in the parallel they are judged and punished. In ‘b Moses is informed of their rebellion and in the parallel goes down and deals with it.
The People’s Rebellion and the Molten Calf (Exodus 32:1-6 ).
While Moses was in the Mount for forty days and forty nights receiving his instructions from Yahweh, the people waiting in the plain below became disquieted. They had somewhat fearfully seen him ascend and disappear into the cloud and then they had waited and waited and he had not returned. After that a whole moon period had passed and he had still not returned. And they knew the fearful nature of this God Who was in the Mountain (Exodus 19:18-19; Exodus 20:18) and the warning of what would happen to any who approached the Mountain (Exodus 19:21). Thus they began to be certain that they would see Moses no more.
And by now they were not sure whether they wanted to have any more to do with this terrible God Who revealed Himself in the way that He had, and made such terrible threats. They had agreed a covenant with Him out of a combination of gratitude and fear, but now they were not so sure that that was what they wanted. They preferred gods with whom they could be more familiar, like the gods they had known in Egypt whom others worshipped. They wanted a compromise.
a The people see that Moses delays in his descent from the Mountain and call on Aaron to make them gods to go before them (Exodus 32:1).
b Aaron tells them all to break off their multiplicity of earrings (Exodus 32:2).
c All the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears and brought them to Aaron (Exodus 32:3).
d Aaron received them and fashioned the gold with a graving tool and made it a molten calf (Exodus 32:4 a).
d And they said, “These are your gods, Oh Israel’ who brought you up out of the land of Egypt (Exodus 32:4 b).
c And when Aaron saw it he built an altar before it, and made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to Yahweh” (Exodus 32:5).
b They rose up early in the morning and offered whole burnt offerings and brought peace offerings (Exodus 32:6 a).
a And the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play (Exodus 32:6 b).
Note the parallels which are deliberately cynical. In ‘a’ the people call on Aaron to make them gods to go before them and in the parallel reveal what kind of gods they have received by their feasting and dancing. In ‘b’ Aaron calls for their earrings and in the parallel the people offer whole burnt offerings before them. In ‘c’ the people break off their earrings and bring them to Aaron, and in the parallel he builds an altar before them and declares a feast to Yahweh (the writer is viewing it ironically). In ‘d’ Aaron fashions from the earrings a molten calf, and in the parallel they declare them to be the gods who delivered them from Egypt. The stress all through is on the folly of their actions.
‘And when the people saw that Moses delayed from coming down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron, and said to him, “Up, make us gods (or ‘a god’ or ‘God’) who will go before us, for as for this man Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what is become of him.” ’
It is understandable that the people would become alarmed. Their nerves had reached breaking point at some of the revelations from the mountain. And Moses had now been gone for over a moon period. But how are to understand their request? They surely knew that Aaron was Yahweh’s man, and would be faithful to Moses as his brother. It is probable therefore that by ‘gods’ they meant images of Yahweh that they could worship and appeal to and with whom they could feel at ease (for an image of Yahweh compare Judges 17:3-6; Judges 18:12; Judges 18:20; Judges 18:30-31). Yes, Yahweh had delivered them. But they wanted nothing to do with this God of the mountains Who had almost certainly consumed Moses, as He had almost consumed them (Exodus 20:18), and had certainly threatened to (Exodus 19:21; Exodus 19:24). Rather would they like to approach Yahweh through the kind of images they were familiar with in Egypt, awe inspiring but without causing trouble. They wanted a god made to their own requirements.
“ Up, make us a god/gods who will go before us.” Up to this point it was Yahweh Who had gone before them in the pillar of cloud and fire (Exodus 13:21). But that pillar had disappeared onto the mountain along with Moses. Now they wanted visible representations of Yahweh instead, so that He could go before them in a way that was controllable. They wanted Yahweh’s power on their behalf, but they wanted to feel comfortable with Him. They had had enough of this fierce God of the mountains, Who fortunately seemed to remain in the Mountain. They wanted to be on their way, and quickly, so that they could get away from Him. Thus they wanted Aaron to make God (or ‘a god’ or ‘gods’). (Whichever way we translate it this is the basic point. They wanted a man-made God, a contradiction in terms which is the basis of idolatry). And if Aaron could give Yahweh a bit of a back up, even better.
Note the peremptory command. They were in an ugly mood (compare Exodus 16:2; Exodus 17:3; Numbers 14:2; Numbers 14:4; Numbers 16:41). They were putting great pressure on him. There was strong feeling about, and Aaron felt threatened.
“ For as for this man Moses , the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what is become of him.” The narrator wants us to see the attitude that lay behind this statement and its double edged nature. It was a mixture of contempt and anger, and yet of grudging recognition of what he had done for them. But their resentment is loud and clear. No sympathy with Moses, only enmity. Yes, he had delivered them from Egypt, but what had happened to him now? He had trusted this mountain God, Who surely was not the Yahweh Who had delivered them out of Egypt. And look what good it had done him. Where was he? He had disappeared and they did not know where he was. Indeed he was probably dead. And he deserved it.
This attitude is in distinct contrast with Yahweh’s estimate of Moses in Exodus 32:32-33. They may dismiss Moses but Yahweh would not.
But Aaron also had delivered them from Egypt, and they knew both where he was and that they could trust him. And what was more they knew that he was more pliable. That suited them. Would he not now make them images of Yahweh so as to lead them? Would he not bring back to them the great Deliverer? There is a sense in which this was not open rebellion against Yahweh. They were not rejecting Him altogether. What they wanted was help and assurance from someone they relied on, and to return to the old compromising ways (about which we know very little, but can surmise much from this narrative).
Aaron no doubt felt trapped. It was true that Moses appeared to have disappeared, and that there was sense in what they said. And he perhaps had visions of himself as priest and leader to these people. Why else did he do what he did? Pride and vanity make us do strange things.
The temptation for images and like things to intrude into the worship of Yahweh is familiar from the past. They had had to put such things aside at Bethel (Genesis 35:2; Genesis 35:4). And we can only assume from this incident that they had had similar problems in Egypt. It is doubtful if many of them had then been pure Yahwists, even if they had in general believed in the God of their fathers, and of their tribes. And there were among them the mixed multitude (Exodus 12:38) who probably had not worshipped Yahweh at all until He provided a good means of escape from slavery. Furthermore Aaron’s response suggests that he was at least familiar with their ideas. None of this just arrived out of the blue.
‘And Aaron said to them, “Pull off the golden rings which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons and of your daughters, and bring them to me.” ’
It is clear from this that both men (‘your sons’) and women in Israel wore earrings, and Genesis 35:4, where their earrings are closely connected to their false gods and have to be disposed of, makes clear that these had strong religious significance. They were thus very suitable for the making of ‘gods’ and would automatically give credence to the gods which were made. The fact that these leaders themselves are not told to pull off their own earrings may suggest that Aaron knew that they would be unwilling to sacrifice their own which may well have been important status symbols. Some suggest that by demanding these sacred objects Aaron was hoping to receive a denial. But in that case he would have asked for theirs too.
“ Your wives -- sons -- daughters.” Everyone apart from the elders, which makes it unlikely that the elders did not also wear them.
‘And all the people pulled off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron.’
The people responded willingly. This demonstrates how concerned they were and how urgently they felt the need to escape. After the extraordinary events of a month previously they felt a religious need, and that they had been deserted, and so they were willing to offer their talismans if it meant that they could have a god whom they could see.
‘And he received it at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf. And they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who delivered you out of the land of Egypt.” ’
Aaron received the earrings from them, melted them down and fashioned a golden calf. Notice how specific this is. Later he will make the excuse that it just somehow happened.
“ A molten calf.” Note that it is never described as ‘the golden calf’. It is a ‘molten calf’. One fashioned and shaped. The use of ‘calf’ rather than ‘bull’ is probably deliberate in order to put it in proper perspective. Before God this great bull was but an infant.
The significance of this raises complicated questions which are linked. Why did Aaron make a molten calf? What did the people see it to mean?
The golden calf. Bull worship was common in Egypt in many forms. Quite apart from the Apis-bull of Memphis and the Mnevis bull of Heliopolis, there was combined bull worship and worship of Horus in lower Egypt, which was near Goshen, and other traces are known of it. The bull was prominent in Egypt as a symbol of the fertility of nature and as a symbol of raw physical power.
But the Canaanite Baal was also worshipped in the form of a bull, again symbolising fertility and strength, and Baal worship was also well known in parts of lower Egypt (e.g. at Baal-zephon). It is true that the people knew that the bull-gods of Egypt had been defeated by Yahweh, but how more likely than by one who was Himself like a strong bull-calf? And ‘baal’ meant ‘lord’. So Aaron knew already of divine bulls called ‘lord’. Thus he might well have seen a bull-calf as a suitable way of representing the strong and powerful Yahweh, the Lord. (Later in Canaan confusion would arise between Baal and the Lord Yahweh because Yahweh could be called ‘baali’ (my Lord)).
Alternately bulls could elsewhere, like cherubim, be seen as bearers of the gods, and the idea of the bull-calf may therefore have been as a throne-bearer of the invisible Yahweh, an insidious equivalent of the Ark of the Covenant. And this must certainly have been the significance of the calves set up at Dan and Bethel by Jeroboam I later, for they raised no protest from pronounced Yahwists, which would have been unlikely had they been seen as similar to Baal images. So why not the same here?
So whatever the source the image was intended to represent Yahweh worship in one way or another, the worship of the great deliverer from Egypt (Exodus 32:4).
“ And they said, “ This is your god, O Israel, who delivered you out of the land of Egypt.” ” The molten calf was made of many earrings which had all had occult significance. There was only one calf and therefore we are probably to see here a plural of intensity, ‘This is your God’. But we are also probably intended to see in it a sarcastic reference by the writer to the fact that this is no Yahweh, it is a conglomerate of all their earrings. The mockery extends to the ridiculous idea that this molten image could have delivered them from Egypt.
“ They said.” This was expressing their view, but put in such a way as to mock them. They were so deceived, it is being suggested, that they intended it seriously. They rather foolishly saw the molten calf as the One Who had delivered them from Egypt, so ridiculous can men be. The writer saw that they had made the great Yahweh into a lump of metal made up of precisely the religious amulets that had been unable to deliver them before. How then could it be seen as the deliverer from Egypt?
‘And when Aaron saw it he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to Yahweh.” ’
Having produced the image Aaron, in spite of the fact that he had fashioned it, was impressed by it, and raised up an altar before it so that they could offer sacrifices to it. He recognised that it had been made of sacred gold, and saw it as a suitable way to represent Yahweh. And no doubt he persuaded himself that they would be able to see Yahweh in His invisible power behind the bull-calf. So does sinful man always reason before sliding into full blown idolatry.
We may feel that there is no way in which we could have been as deceived as these people were. But idol worship is insidious, and it is surprising how easy it is to begin to sense something other worldly when facing a great image in a religious setting, being worshipped and chanted to by adherents. Such an atmosphere can make people think great folly. And there is evil behind the idol (Deuteronomy 32:17; 1 Corinthians 10:20).
Or we may feel like Aaron that a physical representation can do no harm. The bull-calf will make men recognise the strength and power of God. They will see God through the bull. But, alas, in the end the bull becomes all. And God is diminished. And men’s ideas of God become earthbound.
And then he proclaimed a feast to Yahweh on the morrow. This demonstrates again that the image was intended to represent Yahweh in some way. But he had by his action, probably unintentionally (he had probably not thought his ideas through), reduced Yahweh to a nature god, a fertility god, a divine being who was merely a part of natural forces, a beast, with all that that would entail for forms of worship, and not the great Lord of heaven and earth. He had dragged Him down, and that is how the people would worship Him, as a nature god and no longer the Lord Yahweh.
“ Tomorrow shall be a feast to Yahweh.” He was making his best effort to ensure the continued worship of Yahweh, Whom he and the elders had seen in the Mount. He informed them that they would on the morrow celebrate Yahweh in His new form. It would appear that he, as well as the children of Israel, was not knowledgeable enough to strictly distinguish Yahweh from other gods, in spite of His great deliverance from Egypt. So while Yahweh was proposing him as ‘the Priest’ in the Mount, Aaron was demonstrating how much he still had to learn about God.
‘And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered whole burnt offerings and brought peace offerings, and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.’
The people were eager to commence their new relationship with this god. With no thought of deliberately diminishing Yahweh they quickly reduced Him to their own level. This god could be treated with awe, but there was no danger of fearful repercussions, and then he could be manipulated by their activities. He would not thunder from the mountains. He was a cosy god.
So they rose early to meet the new day and celebrated a great feast, and then, necessarily affected by how he had been fashioned, and by overmuch wine, they began to worship him as a nature god. ‘The people sat down to eat and drink’. There is a deliberate contrast here with the elders who ‘Beheld God and did eat and drink’ (Exodus 24:11). So far had they fallen. ‘They rose to play.’ That is to sing, and dance, and engage in sexual and immoral activity, loosening up their clothes and stripping them off as they would have done had they been Baal worshippers. The idea was to stir this god into action by their behaviour before him. How Yahweh had been diminished in their eyes.
“ Offered whole burnt offerings and brought peace offerings.” Both whole burnt offerings and peace offerings had been known for many years past (Exodus 20:24), and are known of elsewhere, and were now offered to the molten calf as they had previously been offered to Yahweh.
Yahweh Informs Moses Of What Is Happening Below (Exodus 32:7-14 ).
a Yahweh said to Moses, “Go, get yourself down, for your people whom you brought up out of Egypt have corrupted themselves (Exodus 32:7).
b They have turned aside from His commandments (His covenant) and made themselves a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt’ (Exodus 32:8).
c Yahweh said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold it is a stiffnecked people” (Exodus 32:9).
d “Now therefore leave me alone that my wrath might wax hot against them, and that I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation” (Exodus 32:10).
d Moses pleads with Yahweh because He is angry with the people whom He has delivered with great power and with a mighty hand (Exodus 32:11).
c Moses expresses his concern about Yahweh’s reputation, “For what reason should the Egyptians speak saying, He brought them forth with evil intent to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth?” (Exodus 32:12).
b He calls on Him to turn from His wrath and repent of this evil against His people, and to remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel, His servants, to whom He swore by His own self and said to them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of I will give to your seed, and they will inherit it for ever” (Exodus 32:13).
a And Yahweh repented of the evil which he had said he would do to his people (Exodus 32:14).
Note that in ‘a’ Yahweh passes His judgment and tells Moses that the people have corrupted themselves, and in the parallel ‘changes His mind’ about what He will do to them. In ‘b’ he declares their wholehearted rebellion and idolatry and that they have turned aside from the covenant commandments, and in the parallel is countered with a reminder that He should remember His irreversible covenant. In ‘c’ Yahweh passes His verdict on the people, and in the parallel Moses seeks to save Yahweh having a verdict past against Him. In ‘d’ Yahweh asks that Moses leave Him alone so that He can express His anger (abhorrence of sin) and consume them with the intention of producing a great nation from him. In the parallel Moses seeks that He turn away His anger and reminds Him of the effort He has already put in on their behalf.
‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, “Go, get yourself down, for your people whom you brought up out of Egypt have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed to it, and said, ‘This is your God (literally ‘these are your gods’, but it is clearly a plural of intensity), O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’ ” ’
Yahweh, aware of all that was going on, for contrary to the people’s thoughts He had not taken His eye off them, now urged Moses to go down to his erring people. There was an irony in this. They had thought themselves overlooked. But He was perfectly aware of what was happening. Note the ‘your people.’ They were no longer to be seen as Yahweh’s people, for they had so quickly forsaken the covenant which forbade molten images.
“ Go, get yourself down.” This contrasts with the ‘Up’ in the words addressed to Aaron (Exodus 32:1). Both contained a sense of urgency.
“ Your people whom you brought up out of Egypt.” Yahweh’s words are designed to appeal to Moses’ sense of responsibility. He had brought them, offering them certain promises, and he had been successful. Would he now turn his back on them?
“ Have corrupted themselves.” This is Yahweh’s verdict on them. What they had done had come from their own inner yearnings. They had no one else to blame for leading themselves astray into false worship. They had become what they were from their own attitudes.
“ They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them.” Only a month and yet they had so quickly pushed to the back of their minds that covenant that they had entered into so enthusiastically. They have forgotten His covenant. They would have argued that they were still worshipping Yahweh. But they were overlooking the fact that they had ignored the first two commandments. They had deliberately disobeyed Him.
“ They have made themselves a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed to it.” That is, they have disobeyed the first two commandments. Notice Yahweh’s contemptuous ‘a molten calf’. They had asked Aaron to ‘make us a god’, but all he had produced was an infused metal image. They would have argued that it was Yahweh that they were worshipping but their behaviour demonstrated that this was not true Yahweh worship, for worship does not consist of using the correct name, but of how we see the object of worship. He was the gracious but demanding God of the covenant, and they now saw Him as just another nature and fertility god, malleable and well under control. They were at last on familiar, welcome ground. But God’s anger is patent. They have worshipped and sacrificed to this thing that they have made instead of worshipping and sacrificing to Him.
“ This is your God (literally ‘these are your gods”, but it is often translated as a plural of intensity), O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’ The people would see the molten calf as a god, and probably as representing Yahweh. Yahweh sees it as a bunch of earrings belonging to superstitious people. So the plural is probably used to bring out the same double point as in Exodus 32:4. Firstly it can be seen as a plural of intensity expressing the multiplicity of the divine power (the name for God in the Old Testament, Elohim, is nearly always plural). But secondly it can be seen as having in mind the religiously infused earrings, with their connections with occult practises and with the gods who were seen as lying behind them. They see their molten image, Yahweh sees their earrings. All their image really represented was their old failing gods.
‘And Yahweh said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold it is a stiffnecked people. Now therefore leave me alone that my wrath might wax hot against them, and that I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation.” ’
The way that Yahweh speaks passes judgment on the people but gives the hint to Moses that it is up to Moses what happens. ‘Leave me alone’ is basically saying, ‘if you wish to prevent me you can’. It is not Yahweh’s intention at this stage to destroy this people (note the contemptuous ‘this people’) but to test Moses to see what he will do, and to see whether he has the heart for the task that lies ahead.
So He tells him that He has observed the behaviour of this people and has found them wanting. Indeed has found them to be stubborn and rigid in their thinking, and even perverse. They are stiffnecked. They want their own way and not His. So He suggests that Moses lets Him exercise His anger against them so that He can consume them and then raise up a new nation from Moses’ seed. But His very words were an indirect reminder of what He had promised to Abraham’s seed (‘I will make of you a great nation’). That was indeed the basis of Moses’ call. It was the descendants of Abraham that God had sent him to deliver (Exodus 2:24; Exodus 3:6-7; Exodus 6:5-8). The question is will Moses prove faithful to his calling, and to Abraham, or will he opt for his own glory?
“ And I will make of you a great nation.” This was God’s constant promise to the fathers as Moses would well know (Genesis 12:2; Genesis 21:18; Genesis 46:3). But now Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will be supplanted, and Moses will take their place. Is this what he wants? It is designed by Yahweh to strike a cord in Moses’ heart.
‘And Moses pleaded with Yahweh his God, and said, “Yahweh, why does your wrath wax hot against your people which you have brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? For what reason should the Egyptians speak saying, He brought them forth with evil intent to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth. Turn from your fierce wrath and repent of this evil against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self and said to them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of I will give to your seed, and they will inherit it for ever.” ’
How God’s heart must have rejoiced to hear the faithful words of His servant. There was in Moses no desire for gain and advantage for his own heirs. His only concern was that Yahweh might be seen in a good light, and that Yahweh might be found faithful to His promises. He was concerned only for the good name of Yahweh.
“ And Moses pleaded with Yahweh his God.” What remarkable words these are. We can compare them with those of Abraham before Sodom (Genesis 18:23). And yet it was a response to the chink of hope that Yahweh had left him. Moses the servant was pleading with his King for the sake of his King’s reputation, because his King had intimated that he had His permission to do so.
Moses did not realise that it was a test. His honest heart was filled with a determination that men should honour the God he loved, and so he pleaded with Him. Had He not delivered ‘His people’ (note, not ‘this’ people any more, but His people) ‘with great power and with a mighty hand’. Aaron might have forgotten and blurred what had happened, the people also might have done so, but he himself would never forget the reality. It was firmly implanted in his mind.
So his first plea was on the basis of what a sad thing it would be if such exertion of God’s almighty power, resulting from His compassion for His people, should go to waste. How sad if Yahweh’s love for them did not receive its reward. It is based on the idea that a sovereign God could surely not possibly have so acted without finally bringing about His ends.
And then, secondly, he thinks with horror of what the Egyptians might say as the rumours spread back to Egypt, and he cannot bear it. Smarting from their own wounds they would jeer and point out what kind of a God Yahweh was. They would say that He had delivered only to destroy. Powerful He may be, they would say, but He was also abundantly cruel. It is clear that His whole purpose in leading the people from Egypt had been in order to lead them into the mountains and destroy them. It was not true of course. And Moses knew that Yahweh was not like that. But he cannot bear to think of the Egyptians being able to say it. It would humiliate the One he loves. And so he pleads with Yahweh to ‘rethink’. He acknowledges that He has a right to be angry but pleads that He will assuage His anger for the sake of His own reputation and good name.
And finally he thinks of his ancestors. He thinks of Abraham, that faithful man of God. He thinks of Isaac and Jacob (Moses uses ‘Israel’ for Jacob’s name because he is pleading for the children of Israel). And he thinks of what Yahweh promised them. Why He had even sworn by Himself (Genesis 22:16), and he cannot bear to think that Yahweh will withdraw from what He has promised, and thus prove dishonourable. The people may have forgotten the covenant, but Yahweh cannot do so. So let Yahweh think again. Let Him remember His covenant. He had promised them the land. He had promised the survival of their seed. He had promised that they would be a great nation. How then could He possibly renege on it so that men could scoff at His failure to keep His promises and fulfil His covenants. What a great man was Moses. In it all he was genuinely concerned only for the glory of God.
‘And Yahweh repented of the evil which he had said he would do to his people.’
This is an anthropomorphism. It really means ‘for all outward purposes He appeared to have changed His mind for He would not now do what He had said He would do’. The stress here is on the fact that Yahweh responded to Moses. The actual physical evidence of the fact would come later. In other words Yahweh would not actually do what He had said He would do. He would not destroy what are now again described, not as ‘this people’, but as ‘His people’. It is but looking from a human point of view. Humanly speaking this was how it appeared. He appeared to have changed His mind.
But it was only outward appearance, He had not really done so. His threats had in fact only been words. He had not intended to do what He had said at all, for he had known what Moses would do. All He had wanted to do was to discover whether Moses’ heart was right for the work he still had to do, and to express His great displeasure at the behaviour of the people. It expresses how He wants the world to see things.
Moses Descends And Witnesses What Is Happening And Acts Decisively To Bring Matters Under Control (Exodus 32:15-20 ).
a Moses turns and descends with the tablets of the Covenant in His hands, which were written on both sides (Exodus 32:15).
b The tablets were written in the hand of God, and the writing was the writing of God (Exodus 32:16).
c They hear the noise from the camp, and Joshua say that there is a sound of war (Exodus 32:17).
c Moses replies that it is not of war but of singing (Exodus 32:18).
b When he sees the calf and the dancing he hurls down the tablets and breaks them (Exodus 32:19)
a He took the calf, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, strewed it in the water, and made the people drink it (Exodus 32:20).
Note the contrasting parallels. In ‘a’ Moses comes down from Yahweh with the firm and solid covenant in his hands written on both sides. Nothing could be more secure. Under this covenant they had drunk of water from the Rock. In the parallel he takes the image, burns it, grinds it to powder, strews it in the water and makes them drink it. The elders had eaten and drunk before Yahweh (Exodus 24:11), the people had eaten and drunk before their molten image (Exodus 32:6). Now they ate and drank the image itself. It is a tale of contrasts and descents. In ‘b’ it is stressed that the tablets were written with the hand of God, in the parallel the tablets are hurled down and broken. They have forfeited the hand of God. In ‘c’ Joshua thinks that he hears the sound of war, a worthy sound, but in the parallel it is rather the sound of decadence and rebellion and idolatry that they hear.
‘And Moses turned and went down from the mount, with the two tablets of Testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both their sides. They were written on the one side and on the other. And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven on the tablets.’
So having unknowingly passed his test Moses went back down from the mountain. And in his hands he held the two tablets of stone on which God had caused the covenant to be written. The detail is remarkable and brings out the reminiscence of an eyewitness. He had remembered that the tablets were written on both sides. They were clearly written in the same way as earlier covenant tablets written by the patriarchs, which were stored in the Tent of Meeting. (These small indications which constantly appear, confirm that an eyewitness lies behind the narratives).
“ And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven on the tablets.” ‘The writing of God’ probably indicates ‘God-like writing’, smooth clear writing, so perfect that it could easily be read. And they were the work of God, His handywork. It was an act of personal love so that they would remember that their covenant had come directly from God. And they had already broken it!
The fact that the tablets were of stone and were engraved brings out the intended permanence of the covenant. This testimony was to last through the ages. The permanence of the tablets compares with the total unreliability of the people. And it was the covenant under which Yahweh had constantly give them water to drink at their request.
‘And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a sound of fighting in the camp.” And he said, “It is not the sound of those who shout to achieve mastery, nor is it the sound of those who cry out as a result of being defeated, but I hear the sound of those who cry out spontaneously.” ’
Moses had once again been joined by his servant, Joshua, who had been faithfully waiting for him on the mountain. All we are told about Joshua is that he went up into the mount with Moses (Exodus 24:13), and that he came down again with him. The total absence of any other comment suggests that it is only mentioned because it happened. It is just the kind of thing that might have been mentioned simply because the scribe who was doing the actual writing remembered it clearly and took a kind of pride in it. We can compare Mark 14:51-52. It gives the appearance of being the reminiscence of the inscriber. And in those days writers did not need to artificially try to make their writings sound genuine. Those who read them were not suspicious like us.
Joshua must have been bursting to know what had happened in the mount but the impression given is that they came down in silence. He could see that Moses had something very much on his mind, something of great import, and did not wish to talk, and he honoured his wishes. No doubt he would learn what had happened when Moses chose to reveal it.
And as they came down together that was when they heard noises coming from down below. Joshua was concerned. It appeared that fighting had broken out, either with some unknown foe or in order to pass the time. But Moses, grim-faced, gave a noncommittal reply, for he knew what it was. He had been given prior knowledge. It was not the cry of victory or defeat, it was the sound of wild, unrestrained shouts ringing out in false and degraded worship.
Once again we have the reminiscences of eye witnesses as the scribe remembers the conversation that they had had together. Moses had not told Joshua of what was coming, and so he had gained the wrong impression. It is clear that the camp was not yet in sight and that what they heard were simply cries ringing out through the desert air. But Moses knew what they were.
‘And so it was that as soon as he came near the camp he saw the calf and the dancing. And Moses anger waxed hot, and he cast the tablets from his hands, and broke them beneath the mount.’
When the camp loomed into sight, Moses and Joshua saw the molten calf and the wild dancing, evidence, not of a people eagerly awaiting the return of Moses, but of a people who were not concerned about him, and had lost all restraint and were engaged in wild religious celebrations. Indeed they were a people who did not want him back and were in no mood to listen. They had found another god who had clearly won their support.
The fact of such dancing is often reported on important religious occasions. On the occasions of Miriam and the women at the heavenly defeat of Egypt (Exodus 15:20); of Jephthah’s daughter and the other young women as she welcomed her victorious father (Judges 11:34); of the young maidens at their religious festival (Judges 21:21); of the women from ‘all Israel’ at the defeat of the Philistines by Saul and David (1 Samuel 18:6); of David when the Ark of Yahweh was finally restored to its rightful place (2 Samuel 6:14-16). But here the impression given is that the dancing concerned not only the women but all. So Moses knew exactly what was happening. This was different. It was the unrestrained dancing of Baalism, with fertility rights, orgies and all.
“ And Moses anger waxed hot.” No wonder he was angry. Anger ‘waxing hot’ is a theme of the passage (Exodus 32:10-11). He knew that he stood in the place of God. God might have restrained His hot anger at the plea of Moses (Exodus 32:14), but it still had to be expressed. This likening to the anger of God suggests that what followed had a twofold purpose. It was on the one hand necessary in order to gain control, but it was also a deliberate act in order to bring home the seriousness of what they had done.
“ And he cast the tablets from his hands, and broke them beneath the mount.” Moses had had plenty of time to consider what he would do as he was coming down in his grim silence from the mount. His anger was like the anger of God. And God had prepared him for what he saw. What followed was not due to loss of temper but a deliberate act of righteous anger against sin and rebellion. He knew that he was acting in the name of God and so before all the people, at the bottom of the mount, he hurled the tablets of the covenant onto the hard ground and broke them. We should note that he was never rebuked for this. It was a deliberate, dramatic gesture like that of a man tearing up a contract publicly. By it he was bringing home to the people what they had done. They had smashed the covenant.
Thus they would know that He was no longer with them, and he was no longer accountable to them. And in the event it was a declaration of war. He was firmly indicating that they no longer had a part in the covenant of Yahweh and were therefore fair targets unless they surrendered. It was probably his hope that by his action he would shake some of them into supporting him. Certainly it would make them uneasy, and he could only hope.
But once the situation had been recovered it would also bring out something else. That there was now a subtle change in the nature of Yahweh’s attitude towards Israel. Up to now it had been direct and personal. From now on they would receive all at second hand, for they were not worthy. Only Moses would be allowed to see the glory of Yahweh (Exodus 33:19). Israel would receive a second hand covenant (Exodus 34:27-28). It was thus also an early grim prophecy of what lay before them, not only now but in the more distant future.
‘And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it with fire, and ground it to powder, and strewed it on the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.’
This is foreshortening events. It clearly could not happen before verse 21 onwards for he could not make the people drink it until he had gained full control. It is placed here to indicate his final victory before the detail of the encounter is gone into, finishing off the analysis we have seen above with victory. The result is that as we now view the battle we need not worry for Moses has already won. (This in fact was a regular method of presenting things in those days which is also found elsewhere. First the conclusion and then the process).
So it is saying that once he was again master of the situation the molten calf, that had been so carefully shaped, was hurled back into the fire from which it had come that it might lose its shape, and was then ground to powder and scattered on to water. And then he made the children of Israel drink the water. They would be made to drink their own god. It is put in the perfect tense (the tense of completeness) because it was seen as certain, as something that would happen. Thus we could translate, ‘he smashed the tablets -- and in his mind, to be fulfilled later, he took the calf which they had made --- and made the children of Israel drink it.’
In other words he determined that once he had won he would take the calf which they had made, and grind it to powder, and strew it on the water, and make the children of Israel drink of it.’
That this must have happened after what follows is confirmed by the fact that in Exodus 32:25 the people are still running loose, and still had to be brought under control. It is described here, not chronologically, but because it is the final result of Moses response to what had happened, and the main item to which the writer wants to draw attention. Let the reader not doubt that Yahweh will be victorious,
(This describing the result and then going into detail occurs also elsewhere. See for example Exodus 4:20-23; Judges 6:24-32. It was seemingly a common method in these early records to describe the main happening and then enter into the detail of how it was brought about. This was what in our day caused some scholars to talk of ‘doublets’. It was actually ancient literary method).
“ The calf which they had made.” A pointed description. It was man made and therefore useless. And it was made at their choosing. They had wanted it and so now they could have what they wanted.
“ And burnt it with fire.” Always a symbol of judgment on something (Joshua 7:25). It was to be rendered useless to anyone and committed to God in judgment. Burning it at white heat would also make it easier for it to be turned into powder.
“ And ground it to powder.” Necessary for the purpose that he intended, but also an indication of its total destruction. And it could do nothing about it. It was powerless. Moses had made it like chaff without it even complaining.
“ And strewed it on the water.” Here we have a good example of the use of the article in Hebrew. No water is mentioned in context anywhere but here. It simply means ‘the water I am talking about’. But which water was it? The point behind the account is that Moses intends to make them drink it. It is thus in the end water that he has had brought to him in vessels so that it can be passed around the people for them to drink. But Deuteronomy 9:21 tells us its source. It was from ‘the brook that descended out of the mount’, into which he had cast the powder of the molten idol. Its source was thus the water that descended from the mountain of God, a fitting source for such a purpose. God’s provision had become the source of His judgment.
(It matters little whether the powder was scattered in the brook and the water drawn from it, which Deuteronomy taken at face value suggests, or whether the water was drawn from the brook and then sprinkled with the powder. The symbolism was the same).
“ And made the children of Israel drink of it.” They had to drink their god. It was not something that they would forget easily. So they wanted a visible god? Well, here he was. Let them drink it. Thus they would be made to recognise that their god was not heavenly, but very much earthy. And that this god was unpleasant to drink, and would soon turn into waste matter. It is noteworthy that in describing this incident in Deuteronomy 9:21 Moses tactfully misses out the drinking aspect. By then his anger had assuaged.
In the wider context this drinking must be seen as significant. The elders had previously eaten and drunk before Yahweh (Exodus 24:11). The people had eaten and drunk before the molten image (Exodus 32:6). Both had thought in terms of sealing a covenant. Now they had to drink their folly. Their covenant with their new god had turned sour.
Moses Faces The Rebels (Exodus 32:21-28 ).
This next section has to be looked at from two points of view, that of Yahweh’s sovereignty with all under perfect control, and that of Moses tactics in the face of the very dangerous situation that was awaiting him. Outwardly he went on his triumphant way without much of a problem, but if we read the account more carefully we discover that (humanly speaking) it was a close run thing. It is only this that explains what Moses did in ordering what may seem otherwise to be indiscriminate killing.
From the point of view from which it was written therefore, Exodus 32:21-28 reveal Yahweh’s sovereignty over the matter. It is a looking back after the event. It describes how Moses, having seen what was happening, and having broken the covenant tablets, dealt with what he discovered so that the opposition collapsed. It comes chronologically before Exodus 32:20. Exodus 32:20 had finalised the description of his descent from the mount in victory. Now we are to go back and see the detail behind the victory.
Basically the writer is saying in Exodus 32:20, ‘this is how Moses taught the people a lesson’. Then it goes back to explain how he was able to do so.
The conversation with Aaron probably occurred as he approached the camp. It is then followed by the support that came from his fellow-tribesmen, the Levites, and the further punishment of Israel in the killing that had to take place. But in all this we get the impression from the text that Moses was invulnerable. That all went along smoothly. And in fact it did, because God was with him. But that comes from looking back on what happened, and knowing God was in charge. The progress of events from a human point of view was probably very different. It is this that explains the ‘indiscriminate’ killing.
For if we look at that fatal day from a human point of view we see a dangerous underlying situation. As events unfolded through the day, things would have been very different for Moses from what a casual reading suggests. Indeed it is probably true to say that humanly speaking it was only due to his brilliant tactics and dependence on Yahweh that he survived the day. For we should consider the fact that when Moses arrived the people would unquestionably be angry, and hostile to him, especially the leaders with their sense of guilt and resentment, and they would feel that Aaron was on their side. After all he had set the whole thing in motion. So they might well have been ready to do violence to Moses, and even cut him down if he opposed them (compare Exodus 17:4). They now had the God they wanted. It would be the whole nation against one man. So he had better watch his step. And Aaron’s desertion would only increase their anger and fear of what Moses would do to them unless he was got rid of. They would not submit easily.
And Moses must have known this. We become accustomed to thinking that Moses was always in control and had little trouble in remaining so. That the people were always subservient. But sometimes a closer reading indicates that this was outwardly far from the case. There were factions that constantly raised up dissatisfaction and dissent (see Exodus 17:4; Numbers 14:1-4; Numbers 14:10). There were factions who were ready to oppose him (Numbers 16:41). And no more so than here.
Indeed he must have been aware from what Yahweh had said that trouble lay ahead. Yahweh had warned him that the people were no longer following Him but were worshipping a molten image. That could only mean that they had disowned both Yahweh and Moses, and that Moses would be no longer welcome. If he went among them, therefore, he must have known that he might well be in grave danger. For there were an awful lot of them, and he only had Joshua, and they were angry and bitter.
Furthermore to Moses, as he considered the situation, there was the problem of Aaron. What had happened suggested that Aaron was no longer in authority, for surely had he been he would not have allowed such a thing to happen? What then could have happened to him? Perhaps he had already been put to death? So Moses in his quiet musing as he approached the camp would be more than a little concerned, and very wary about what he might find when he arrived there, and what kind of a reception he would receive.
He must have been very much aware of the large numbers of people down there, and how unreliable they could be. For this was not the first time, they had demonstrated their belligerence before. So he knew that when he arrived near the camp they might well seek to kill him in order to prevent his interference. For was it not clear that they had rejected his authority and would have appointed other leaders? And strength in numbers was on their side. Apart from God’s faithfulness, and Moses was keenly aware that he had after all rejected God’s solution for his own, his one consolation must have been that Joshua was with him so that they were lacking their best military leader. But he would know that he had to think carefully and plan how he should approach the situation. His thoughts must have been on how he could seize the initiative? Such were the things that must have been occupying his mind as they came down the mountain.
When the campsite came suddenly into view it must have been immediately clear how bad things were. The people were dancing round the molten calf in various states of undress, and their cries were ringing out as they threw themselves in abandon into their sexual perversions. The sight would have filled him with anger. Was this what they had come to? But he must have been well aware that he could not just walk into the camp and take over. Things had clearly gone too far for that. They were in no mood or condition to receive him. Indeed the likelihood might well be the opposite. He was a reject, and they would know that he had come to stop them. So he had to think carefully how to approach the situation.
We tend to forget that Moses had developed into a brilliant strategist. Somehow he knew that he had to regain his authority over the camp. But the question was, how? For in their present mood they were unlikely just to meekly surrender.
And then he fixed on his plan of action. It would require great courage, and he knew that unless Yahweh was with him it would not work. But that was a situation he had got used to, and he determined to go ahead. It had to be a question of quick action and surprise attack.
Striding forward within sight of the camp he lifted the covenant tablets above his head and smashed them to the ground. And because they saw it, it would be to them a public declaration that they were no longer within the covenant and that he was assuming no further responsibility for them as they were. That he was no longer bound to them. That he wanted nothing further to do with them. It indicated that he was rejecting them, and so was God. It was a challenge to them either to surrender to Yahweh or face up to his wrath.
Then he bravely advanced towards the camp entrance with Joshua in the hope that some would gather to his support. That was his only hope, for without that he was lost.
To his relief the first thing he saw was Aaron coming out to meet him. And from him he quickly learned the sad story of what had happened. He was probably very disappointed with his brother but that could wait another day. And no doubt from Aaron he learned the resentment and anger that there was in the camp against him.
But meanwhile at least they were now three, and an important three. The two deliverers from Egypt and Israel’s general (Exodus 17:9). While the camp was without a recognised supreme chieftain, and would be in some disarray. On the other hand he knew the antagonism that there was against him in the camp. Possibly even that when they saw him they intended to kill him. The camp was in a drunken state as a result of the feast, and in an ugly mood because he had been so long away, and they would be very conscious that he would consider that they had rejected him. Moreover they now had their God with whom they were very satisfied. They would brook no interference from Moses. They had found their alternative and would not easily give it up. And Aaron no doubt confirmed his worst fears. Things looked very ugly.
And it was no doubt at this stage that he recognised that he had, humanly speaking, to gamble everything on the final daring move that he had planned, trusting in Yahweh to stand by him. Everything would depend on it. If he failed all would be lost. So coming to the main entrance to the camp he stood there with his two companions and cried out his challenge. “Who is for Yahweh? To me.” The question was left hanging in the air. The question was, would anyone respond? What would they do?
We need to stop and consider the situation in order to appreciate it. Moses and Joshua alone, with a repentant Aaron behind them. The whole people seemingly against them. It was undoubtedly a tricky situation.
Fortunately for him Yahweh had prepared the way, indeed had probably shown him this way for that reason. For his own tribe, the tribe of Levi, knowing of the plots against Moses and the dangers that awaited him, rallied to his support, probably accompanied by any loyal Yahwists who were pleased to see Moses. For once the sentries had announced that he was coming it is probable that the leading Levites had hurriedly gathered their fighting men together for the very purpose of supporting Moses. Moses was back. They knew that he would need them. Perhaps some had already been uneasy at the turn of events. He was after all of their tribe and they may well have felt that they should support him, come what may. So they now came to Moses and Aaron with that offer of support.
But the remainder did not come. They were not ready to surrender. Some would creep to their tents to arm themselves with weapons. Others would mutter and discuss what to do among themselves. And large numbers would simply ignore him and go on dancing and engaging in their sexual activity. After all, they must have thought, what could he do?
Moses must have been relieved that at least his own tribe stood by him, and by Yahweh, and his response was immediate. They may be outnumbered but if they acted quickly surprise was on their side. If they acted with speed they could retrieve the situation and gain the upper hand. They must make the first, surprise strike. So he commanded that they obtain their swords from their tents and immediately attack and slay some of the opposition and some of the blasphemous, drunken revellers before they could rally and find someone to lead them, for with Aaron being with Moses the rebels would for a short while be bereft of a central authority. Thus speed was of the essence while they were unprepared.
His fellow-tribesmen immediately obeyed him unquestioningly, obtained their weapons, and began their assault, taking all by surprise. It would be in such a context that the ‘three thousand’ (indicating a complete number) were killed. But there was no alternative.
Meanwhile some of the leaders of the other tribes had undoubtedly also become aware of Moses’ approach and must have been wondering what to do, for they did not know what he was going to do. But they were seemingly caught unprepared by the assault, and found that they were under attack before they even had chance to make their plans or collect their people together with their own weapons. And there were so many of the people who were in no state to listen to them. So without weapons to hand, and with little support, they would know instinctively that there was only one thing to do and that was to escape the avenging Levites, and hope to rally later. Thus hastily they would flee the camp and leave it in Moses’ hands, calling on their people to follow. And others would also flee as they saw the Levite slayers among them, although some no doubt sought to put up resistance. They would be among the slain. But why else would only three thousand be killed among so large a number with a fairly powerful group on the attack?
In the course of the conflict ‘three thousand’ of the opponents and revellers were slain, but the result of this was that the battle was quickly over and the camp was in Moses’ possession, with his opponents routed. Now the only thing necessary was to await the surrender of the scattered tribes, once they had sobered up and sought to return. And then he could carry out his planned punishment on them and make them drink their own god. That is how it almost certainly happened. So let us now confirm it from the text.
Having described the final certain victory punishment the account goes into more detail of how the victory came about.
a First Moses challenges Aaron as to why he has behaved as he has (Exodus 32:21).
b Aaron’s reply is that the people had been set on evil, for they had said, ‘Make us God (or ‘a god’, or ‘gods’) who will go before us (Exodus 32:22-23 a).
c They had also said, ‘For as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him’ (Exodus 32:23 b).
d So Aaron rather pathetically explains why he made them a god of gold (Exodus 32:24)
e Moses sees the dissipated state of the people (Exodus 32:25)
f Then he stands in the gate and calls out, ‘who is on Yahweh’s side?’ (Exodus 32:26).
g The Levites respond, and he calls on them in the name of Yahweh to immediately attack all who are in rebellion and slay them (Exodus 32:27).
g The sons of Levi obey him and slay 3,000 men (Exodus 32:28).
f Moses then calls on them to consecrate themselves to Yahweh for the battle is not yet won, but Yahweh will give them the blessing (Exodus 32:29).
e On the next day Moses tells the people that they have sinned greatly but that he will plead for them (Exodus 32:30).
d He goes before Yahweh and admits their sin and pleads for them because they have made gods of gold (Exodus 32:31).
c He pleads that if Yahweh does not hear him He may blot out Moses’ name from His book. Yahweh’s reply is that He will blot out those who deserve it (Exodus 32:32-33).
b So Moses can now lead his people forward and His Angel will go with him, but punishment for the people must follow (Exodus 32:34).
a Finally Yahweh smites the people because they made the calf that Aaron made (Exodus 32:35).
We note that in ‘a’ Aaron is challenged as to why he has behaved as he has (in making the calf of gold), while in the parallel the people are smitten because of the calf that Aaron made. In ‘b’ he tells how they had wanted him to make gods who would go before them, in the parallel Yahweh promises that His Angel will go before them. In ‘c’ the people dismiss Moses casually, in the parallel Moses is not treated casually. Rather he is seen as one whose name Yahweh will not blot out, whereas there are those that He will blot out. In ‘d’ Aaron explains why he made a god of gold, in the parallel Moses pleads with Yahweh because His people have made gods of gold. In ‘e’ Moses sees the dissipated and loose state of the people, in the parallel he tells the people that they have sinned greatly. In ‘f’ he stands in the gate and calls out, ‘who is on Yahweh’s side?’, in the parallel he calls on the Levites to consecrate themselves to Yahweh for the battle is not yet won, but Yahweh will give them the blessing. In ‘g’ the Levites respond, and he calls on them in the name of Yahweh to immediately attack all who are in rebellion and slay them, and in the parallel the sons of Levi obey him and slay 3,000 men.
‘And Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you, that you have brought a great sin on them?” ’
This almost certainly comes timewise before the preceding verses (chronology was not in the main important to the Hebrews). Having described the event that followed the final victory the narrative now goes back to Moses’ approach on the camp, in order to explain how it happened. Moses was clearly in two minds at this stage, not knowing what lay ahead, but he was no doubt relieved, although puzzled, as he approached the camp and found his brother coming out to meet him. He recognised that Aaron had no doubt been alerted by a watchman, and that he was clearly free. Thus he wanted to know how on earth they had persuaded Aaron to do what he had done. Here was the one whom God had intended to appoint as the bringer of great blessing on His people and instead he had brought a great sin on them. He wanted to know what method they had used to persuade him. He was probably trying to find some kind of excuse for his brother as well as assess the situation in the camp.
This incident in fact brings out that although Moses was crystal clear that Yahweh was the only God, and that all others were as nothings, the same was probably not true of all, or even the majority, of Israel. Possibly not even fully of Aaron. We only have to think today how even convinced Christians can be superstitious, believing in some kind of fate that affects the world when they spill salt, or walk under ladders, or see black cats.
‘And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord wax hot. You know the people that they are set on evil. For they said to me, ‘Make us God (or ‘a god’, or ‘gods’) who will go before us, for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
Aaron’s extreme anxiety is brought out in his words. His brother has just seemingly come back from the dead, but instead of giving him a rapturous welcome he addresses his younger brother as ‘my lord’, a clear indication of submission and guilt. Note that the theme of waxing hot continues. Anger against their sin lies at the back of this whole account. But he tries to allay his sense of having failed God by suggesting to Moses that surely he is well aware of what these people are like. They are always set on sin. And they had had enough of things as they were. That is why they had asked for an image of God. So what could he have been expected to do about it? For the people’s words compare verse 1.
‘And I said to them, “Whoever has any gold let them take it off. So they gave it to me, and I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.” ’
Poor innocent Aaron. He had hardly been involved at all. The ‘earrings’ he had actually targeted had now become a vague ‘gold’. And the calf one that emerged from the fire having made itself! It simply came out. A wonder indeed. So the fault was all external, the people set on sin, the gold simply there available, and a self-manufacturing calf. It was not his fault. But he knew in his heart that that was not so. He knew that he had been deeply involved. It was he who had selected and decided on the use of religious talismans. It was he who had carefully prepared the gold and had equally carefully fashioned the molten calf. But he did not want to have to admit that to Moses while he was so angry. He was deeply ashamed. That was the one good thing to be said for him. That and the fact that he had come to meet Moses.
We almost see here again a repetition of the Garden of Eden. God asking what man has done, and man replying that it was nothing really, he had simply eaten what the woman had given him. For while others sin grievously our own sins never seem too serious.
But Moses was not deceived. He knew that a great deal of the blame lay at Aaron’s door. However, by the time of writing it was now in the past, and he did not want to open up old wounds, especially as Aaron was possibly dead, so we are told nothing more.
But we do in fact learn from Deuteronomy 9:20 that as a result the anger of God was directed against Aaron. For Yahweh knew all the truth And it was in the event only the intervention of Moses that saved him. It is actually remarkable that God did not insist on him being cast off, or even make him face the death penalty. Certainly he must surely be excluded from the priesthood. And yet in His graciousness God heeded Moses and still allowed Aaron to be installed as ‘the Priest’. Oh, the grace of God. He understood man’s heart. And He knew that Aaron had learned a lesson he would never forget.
‘And when Moses saw that the people had got out of control, for Aaron had let them get out of control so that they might be whispered about by their enemies.’
This description must also be referring to a time before the final disposal of the calf, as Moses next action after speaking to Aaron. For he would not have been able to enforce the drinking of the calf powder until things were under control. Indeed when he arrived at the entrance to the camp, all he found was chaos and wild behaviour and men and women satisfying their lusts without regard. And he knew now that Aaron must take much of the blame. Aaron, who should have maintained order and firm discipline, had instead encouraged this kind of behaviour, by his actions if not by his words. He was deeply at fault. It was the kind of behaviour that brought shame to the name of Yahweh and made them a source of whispered mockery among their enemies. The very use of the word ‘whisper’ indicates how shameful what was happening was felt to be. It was not the kind of thing that even their enemies spoke of openly. The ways of Canaan were despised by the desert tribes.
“ Out of control.” The idea of nakedness lies at the root of the verb, stressing the kind of behaviour that was going on.
‘Then Moses stood at the entrance to the camp, and said, “Who is for Yahweh? To me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him.’
Why did Moses stand at the main entrance to the camp? It could surely only be because this happened at the time of his arrival. But the sudden arrival of Moses had either been disregarded or had gone unnoticed by many. Their attitude may well have been that he no longer counted and they were not interested. They could deal with him later. And no doubt most of them were drunk. Although others would undoubtedly be hostile. However, they were not expecting any trouble. After all he was by himself. As usual they underestimated Yahweh and Moses.
The scene that follows is electric. Moses stands boldly at the entrance to the camp and issues a sharp and loud cry. “Whoever is for Yahweh, to me!” He no doubt hoped that the command would result in some response from the less degraded, and that therefore his other plan would not need to be carried into effect. But it was not to be. It was only his fellow-tribesmen who came in response. (The ‘all’ should be taken as meaning the large majority. No doubt some lingered among the dregs). The remainder ignored him. Thus he recognised the danger signs and that he had no choice.
The arrival of the Levites as one body indicated that the fact of his arrival had certainly been notified to the people of his own tribe. They must have been quickly brought together by their leaders. And now they came to the entrance to welcome him. They were almost certainly aware that he would need their support, and tribal feeling was strong. That is not to say that they had not been involved in what had happened. Aaron was a tribal leader and they had no doubt supported him too. But at the arrival of Moses they had come to recognise their responsibilities, and their duty towards Moses, their fellow-tribesman and erstwhile leader, and thus their duty towards Yahweh. They were in fact almost the only ones who did come to Moses and take any notice of his plea, an indication of the danger of the situation. It indicated that the mass were against him. (There would, of course, have been some others who had not participated and had hoped for his arrival. But they were seemingly not many).
‘And he said to them, “Thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel, Put every man his sword on his thigh and go to and fro, entrance to entrance throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.” And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses, and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.’
At this point Moses knew that he had to act swiftly. He had in mind three things when he made his plan, quick and severe action in the face of likely opposition, punishment for the guilty and finally the eventual restoring of order. The worst cases would be selected out simply by the fact that those who put up resistance would mainly be the most obdurate. Any others would flee once the vengeance began. But the lesson was to come home to all that what they all deserved was death, so serious was their sin. This command was commensurate with Yahweh’s command concerning dealing with idolaters (Deuteronomy 13:15).
Note that the Levites first had to collect their swords and gird them on. So they too had been in the middle of feasting. But they had come to their senses on the arrival of Moses. Now they had to go from tent to tent, ‘from entrance to entrance throughout the camp’, as commanded, and do their grisly work, quickly and ruthlessly without regard, before hostile factions could gather their senses.
All who were still involved in their own wild behaviour and failed to make their escape were to be dealt with, although the idea was clearly not to kill all, but to administer a harsh, short lesson indiscriminately and drive the others into flight. Thus would they rapidly diffuse the situation and quell any opposition.
Moses’ shout in itself would have alerted many to the danger, and, once the Levites began their work, realisation of what was happening would quickly spread, and they would recognise that things were not quite going according to plan. So, disorganised and panic stricken, for they were not brave fighters, the rest would make for safety. And that was what he wanted. Disorganised they would represent no danger to his authority
Thus the feast which had been so blasphemous ended in a short, sharp blood bath, and the re-establishment of Moses’ authority. By this action the camp was now his and order could now be finally restored among a chastened people when they crept back to the camp, all opposition having been crushed. The number who died were ‘about three thousand (eleph) men’. This might literally mean three thousand, or it may signify three sub-tribes of men, possibly the nearest to the avenging Levites when they emerged from their tents and began their work. (Eleph can mean ‘thousand’, ‘clan’, ‘sub-tribe’, ‘family’, ‘military unit’, ‘captain’, etc.). In the event Moses’ prompt action had undoubtedly prevented a major crisis, and possibly a civil war. For his own tribe would never have surrendered him without a fight.
We tend to be horrified at such loss of life. because we see Moses as almost invulnerable and not needing to use such tactics. Why, we ask, would Moses do this thing? But possibly that is because we have not recognised the true situation. Moses was clearly aware that he was at the time very vulnerable and that they might well in their present mood kill him. That if he did not act quickly all might be lost, both for himself and Yahweh. For he could see that they had turned against what he stood for and were in no mood to yield. They were in rebellion against him and against Yahweh. He thus acted as he did to save Yahwism.
For having persuaded Yahweh not to destroy them all, he had had to recognise that by doing so he had put himself in great danger. They knew nothing of his plea for their safety and were antagonistic and resentful. That was why the vital thing had been to establish his own authority, and quickly. He had known that unless he acted swiftly his own end and the end of Yahwism in its distinctiveness might be near. Indeed he had almost certainly become aware as he approached the camp that there would be a great amount of hostility against him. Why else, instead of entering the camp had he shouted from the entrance? So he had recognised that whatever happened he had to gather rapid support and quell any prospective violence, and actually save lives by quick action. And he acted to that end, and that was what he achieved. His cry at the entrance to the camp was in fact a very brave action. He might simply have been cut down where he stood. But he had trusted in Yahweh and he was, from a human point of view, saved by the loyalty of his own tribe.
Moses Seeks To Set The Situation Right (Exodus 32:29-33 ).
‘And Moses said, “Consecrate yourselves today to Yahweh, yes, every man against his son, and against his brother. That he may bestow on you a blessing this day.” ’
The question is, were these words spoken to the Levites, or were they spoken to the other tribesmen as they crept back and yielded?
If it was to the Levites it calls on them, having fulfilled their duty, to consecrate themselves, if necessary even at variance with sons and brothers. No human relationship must interfere with a man’s consecration to Yahweh. Then He will indeed bless them. But there is no real indication of disunity among the Levites. They had acted unitedly as a tribe defending their own.
Thus we must more probably see this as Moses’ response to those who had fled the camp, once they returned and were assembled. They were to submit themselves again to Yahweh regardless of what the rest of their families did. This would actually fit better the reference to choices in respect of ignoring close family, for they may have been divided by their flight. Then Yahweh would bring them back into blessing.
It may well be that it was at this point that he carried out the act of submission mentioned earlier in Exodus 32:20.
‘And it came about on the morrow that Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to Yahweh. It may be that I will make atonement for your sin.” And Moses returned to Yahweh, and said, “Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made for themselves a god of gold. Yet now if you will forgive their sin --, and if not, blot me I pray you out of the book which you have written.” ’
But Moses knew that the death of the three thousand men had not removed the guilt of the whole, and Moses now calls on them on the day after their consecration and warns them how serious their sin has been. They had deliberately and flagrantly disobeyed God’s commandments in a major way within weeks of accepting the covenant. It was a great sin indeed. He could give them no guarantees but he promised that he would again go up to Yahweh, and this time he would pray that they might be forgiven. It is clear that he was now confident that things were under control. New leaders had no doubt been appointed, with Joshua there to give Aaron vital support. And the three thousand who had died may well have included some of his most bitter opponents.
This period of prayer also lasted forty days and forty nights (Deuteronomy 9:19), that is, over a moon period. It was a triumph of persevering prayer. Spiritual battles are not easily won.
His prayer was typical of the man. He prayed that if God would not forgive them then he must blot Moses’ own name out of his book. This book was probably the book of the living. Some cities and tribes would have records which contained the names of all living members of the city or tribe (Isaiah 4:3; Psalms 69:28; Malachi 3:16). When a person died his name was blotted out. Or it may be the book that contained the names of prominent men, the book of ‘heroes’, from which a name would be blotted out if the hero later brought shame on his city or tribe. He was ready to sacrifice his fame and become an outcast.
Some see it as the book of eternal life, but Moses nowhere indicates belief in such a concept, and he would surely have seen it as blasphemy to interfere with such a book, however strongly he felt. Whichever it is, the principle is the same. He was willing to lose all rather then see these people (who had recently planned to kill him) suffer.
‘And Yahweh said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, him will I blot from my book.” ’
Yahweh’s reply was clear. The soul that sins will die. Even a Moses could not pay the price for another. (There would be only One Who would be able to do that). The principle of individual accountability was clearly enunciated.
“And now go, lead the people to the place of which I have spoken to you. Behold my angel will go before you. Nevertheless in the day that I visit I will visit their sin on them.” And Yahweh smote the people because they made the calf which Aaron made.’
Now Yahweh makes clear that the people as a whole will not be destroyed, for He commands Moses to go forward with the people to the land He had promised them, and assures him that as He had previously promised His angel would go before them (compare 23:20-23; 3:2; 33:2-3; Joshua 5:13-15; Judges 2:1-5). This was a gracious promise in view of the fact that the people had themselves wanted the molten calf to go before them (Exodus 32:1). But what they would enjoy would now only be second best (Exodus 33:3). Yahweh would no longer be with them in person.
However, the matter is not totally settled. Yahweh may have restrained from destroying the people because of Moses’ intercession, but punishment there must be. He would visit the camp, and at that point He would ‘visit’ them. And this was clearly followed by some dreadful judgment which smote many of the people. It was probably some plague or illness. We may surmise what as much as we like, for we will never know. Others, however, consider it refers to the day when God smote them (Numbers 14:45) and sentenced them to a further 38 years in the wilderness (Numbers 14:27-35).
Note for Christians.
We are certainly justified in comparing Israel here with ourselves and seeing their behaviour as a warning to us not to go after idols Not possibly golden idols in a literal sense, but the idols of pop stars, sporting heroes, football teams, actors and actresses, TV personalities and so on. Once any of these become too important to us they have become an idol. Once they keep us from reading the word of God or from prayer they have become an idol. Once they cause us to behave in an unseemly way they have become an idol. Once they take up too much of our thoughts or of our time, they have become an idol.
We should also recognise that the way God is revealed here has not changed. We must not be deceived. God is not mocked. And what men sow they will reap, and no misconceptions about ‘the love of God will prevent it (Galatians 6:7-8).
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Exodus 32". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent