Bible Commentaries
Exodus 32

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary



The Covenant Broken and Renewed. Chaps. 32-34.


There is nothing in the range of Hebrew literature that serves more impressively than this chapter to show in its darkest aspects the hardness of the people’s hearts, and the necessity of a most severe legislation to secure a cultivation of the moral sense of Israel. It seems almost incredible that, under the shadow of Sinai, and so soon after all the terrible displays of God’s presence and power recorded in chap. 20, this people could have so wickedly turned to the worship of Jehovah in the image of a golden calf. “The people had to a great extent lost the patriarchal faith, and were but imperfectly instructed in the reality of a personal, unseen God. Being disappointed at the long absence of Moses, they seem to have imagined that he had deluded them, and had probably been destroyed amidst the thunders of the mountain. They accordingly gave way to their superstitious fears, and fell back on that form of idolatry that was most familiar to them. See on Exodus 32:4. The narrative of the circumstances is more briefly given by Moses at a later period in one of his addresses to the people. Deuteronomy 9:8-21; Deuteronomy 9:25-29; Deuteronomy 10:1-5; Deuteronomy 10:8-11. It is worthy of remark that Josephus, in his very characteristic chapter on the giving of the law, ( Ant . , 3: 5,) says nothing whatever of this act of apostasy, though he relates that Moses twice ascended the mountain, and renews his own profession that he is faithfully following the authority of the Holy Scriptures . Philo speaks of the calf as an imitation of the idolatry of Egypt, but he takes no notice of Aaron’s share in the sin . ” Speaker’s Commentary .

Verse 1


1. Moses delayed to come down Literally, shamed to come down, that is, put to shame those who were waiting for him . This delay was provided for and suggested in Moses’s charge to the elders, (Exodus 24:14,) but Israel’s faith was not sufficient for the test . Up,

make us gods The language suggests the excitement and persistency of a mob . Probably a better translation would be, Up, make us a god . The manner in which Aaron complied with their demand shows that the people desired a visible image of God. The religious nature of man, uneducated into a high spiritual conception of God, has always clamoured for some visible sign or representation of the Deity.

This Moses, the man that brought us This manner of speech implies not only impatience, but also a measure of indignation.

We wot not We know not. Not improbably they began to think that Moses had perished in the fires which they had seen on the top of the mountain, (Exodus 24:17. )

Verse 2

2. Break off the golden earrings A strong expression, as if implying that the act involved some measure of violence, or, at least, an effort and sacrifice on their part . The prevailing view has been that Aaron, anxious to dissuade the people from their purpose, proposed this great sacrifice on their part in hope that they would thereupon withdraw their demand upon him to make them a god . This is not an improbable view, and is favoured by Aaron’s apology before Moses in Exodus 32:22-24. But the facts here recorded, as well as Numbers 12:0, exhibit the moral weakness of Aaron . He did well as Moses’s spokesman, (Exodus 4:14-16,) but sadly lacked the sterling qualities of a great spiritual leader. Specimens of ancient earrings are shown in the annexed cut.

Verse 3

3. All the people brake off Kurtz observes that Aaron had “counted upon the vanity of the women and youth, and their love for golden ornaments, and he hoped that in this way he would excite such opposition in the community itself as would suffice to save him from having to offer a resistance which appeared to be dangerous . But he had entirely miscalculated . He knew but the surface of the human heart; the depths of its natural disposition were beyond his reach . All the people cheerfully broke off the golden ornaments from their ears, for they were about to accomplish an act of pure self-will; and in that case there is no sacrifice which the human heart is not ready to make . ”

Verse 4

4. Fashioned it with a graving tool This is the most natural import of the unpointed Hebrew text, but seems hardly in harmony with the next statement, which is not correctly translated after he had made it, but, simply, and he made it a molten calf . It is manifestly incongruous to speak of forming a molten calf with a graving tool . Hence many critics propose to read חרישׂ , a money bag, or purse, instead of חרשׂ , here translated graving tool, which occurs elsewhere only at Isaiah 8:1, and there means a pen, or stylus . The statement would then be: And he received (the earrings) from their hand, and collected ( ויצר , from צור , to bind or collect together in one mass) it (the gold) in a bag, and made it a molten calf . It is no valid objection to this view to ask, with Keil, “Why should Aaron first bind up the golden earrings in a bag?” For it may with equal force be answered, Why should he not? What better or more appropriate way of receiving and retaining the large amount of gold until it was converted into the golden idol? This, on the whole, is more satisfactory than the view which supplies in thought a wooden mould or model after the word fashioned, for such an idea would have required some clearer form of statement; more satisfactory, also, than to assume that the molten calf was cast over a carved image of wood, or that it was finished up by means of a graver’s tool after it had been cast . On this last supposition, the graver’s work should have been mentioned after, not before, the fusion of the golden ornaments .

According to Joshua 24:14; Ezekiel 20:7-8; Ezekiel 23:3; Ezekiel 23:8, Israel had been contaminated with Egyptian idolatry, and the most natural explanation of the construction of this image in the form of a calf is, that it was modelled after the form of Apis, the sacred bull which was worshipped at Memphis. See note and cut at Exodus 8:26, page 406 . It is hardly credible that during their long sojourn in Egypt the leading men of Israel had not become familiar with the worship of the sacred bull. But it is to be noticed that they did not worship the golden idol as an Egyptian god, but exclaimed before it, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. The plural here, as in Exodus 32:1, does not oblige us to translate and explain the words in a polytheistic sense. The next verse shows that they worshipped Jehovah under the symbol of a calf, and so violated the second rather than the first commandment of the decalogue. See notes on Exodus 20:4-5. Exodus 32:8; Exodus 32:8 of this chapter shows that they did not thus ignorantly worship, but knew that they were violating one of the commandments.

Verse 5

5. When Aaron saw No object of the verb saw is expressed, and we do best to understand what is implied in the words immediately preceding . When he saw the excitement and enthusiasm of the people, and their acceptance of the image as a symbol of their God, he was carried away by the scene, and proceeded further to erect an altar before it, and announce that on the morrow they would celebrate a feast to the Lord. Thus this man, so highly honoured of God, became a culpable partaker in the people’s sin .

Verse 6

6. Rose up early It was to be a day of festivity and joy, and they were eager to begin it early .

Burnt offerings, and… peace offerings See note on Exodus 20:24.

Sat down to eat and to drink Usual words for hilarious feasting . They ate, as was customary, of the flesh of the peace offerings . What they drank is not said, but we most naturally suppose wine, which was so common at jovial feasts .

Rose up to play Comp, Exodus 32:19; Exodus 32:25. The meaning most probably is, that from feasting they proceeded to lewd forms of dancing . See note on Genesis 21:9, and compare Herodotus’s account of the rude sports of the Egyptians at certain religious festivals. (Herod., 2:60.)

Verse 7


7. Thy people, which thou broughtest out Language of trial for Moses . He is made to feel that he is identified with Israel, and must bear the burden of them on his heart . He is informed of the calf worship to which they have so quickly turned aside, and corrupted themselves, and is made to see that this great sin deserves the consuming judgment of Jehovah . This opens the way for Moses’s first intercession, (Exodus 32:11-13,) which is notably effectual . Then follows another trial, as Moses sees the extent of the people’s sin, (Exodus 32:15-25,) which in turn leads both to punishment and further intercession, (Exodus 32:26-32. ) Compare the intercessions of Moses in Numbers 11:10-15; Numbers 14:11-24.

Verse 9

9. A stiffnecked people Unmanageable and perverse, like the ox that stoutly resists all efforts to guide or drive him . Comp . the same expression in Exodus 33:3; Exodus 33:5; Exodus 34:9; Deuteronomy 9:6; Deuteronomy 9:13.

Verse 10

10. Let me alone Do not interfere, and restrain the punitive outgoing of my wrath by the intercession which I see in thy heart . “Moses had not yet opened his mouth, but God foresaw the holy violence with which his importunity would besiege his throne . ” Bush .

That I may consume them Exodus 32:28 shows that about three thousand of the people perished before the consuming judgment that followed hard upon the sin, but Moses’s plea availed to modify the extent of the fearful stroke . Exodus 32:14. The blending of justice and mercy in God’s revelations of himself to Israel is worthy of devout attention . His wrath is a fearful power, and may wax hot against transgressors of his law, and certainly will consume the unrepentant sinner; but he also “keepeth mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,” (Exodus 34:7. )

I will make of thee a great nation He intimates that he might destroy all the rest of the nation, and by means of Moses alone raise up the great nation of which the promise to the fathers had repeatedly spoken .

Verses 11-13

11-13. Moses besought The intercession of Moses is seen in its graphic outline by the two words of interrogation, Why and wherefore, (the same word in the Hebrew, למה ,) and the three verbs in the imperative turn… repent… remember. It consists of solemn appeal and earnest petition . The appeals are of the nature of exclamations of soul-anguish over the thought of such penal wrath after such a triumph as the exodus, and of the reproach which the Egyptians might then exultingly and contemptuously utter. The petitions end with a pleading of the promises made to the great patriarchs.

Verse 14

14. The Lord repented See notes at Genesis 6:6; Judges 2:18, and 1 Samuel 15:11.

Verse 15

15. Moses turned After his intercession he turned away with an anxious heart, and went down from the mount to encounter in the camp of Israel a still deeper trial . On the two tables see note at Exodus 31:18. Being written on both their sides they need not have been large tablets of stone to contain the entire decalogue, and the fact that Moses carried them in his hand shows that they must have been rather small. The Hebrew text of Exodus 20:1-17, if spread out over four pages, might be written in large, bold characters, and the pages each not exceed a surface of six inches square .

Verse 16

16. Work of God They were miracles in stone, and so monumental witnesses of the supernatural origin of the commandments . See on Exodus 31:18.

Verse 17

17. Joshua heard Palmer mentions a number of paths leading up the mountain from different points, and speaks of the ravine known as Jethro’s Road as emerging into the valley at the foot of the “Hill of the Golden Calf,” and observes: “Often in descending this, while the precipitous sides of the ravine hid the tents from my gaze, have I heard the sound of voices from below, and thought how Joshua had said unto Moses, as he came down from the mount, ‘There is a noise of war in the camp.’ ” Desert of the Exodus, p. 101.

Verse 19

19. Moses’ anger waxed hot He who had pleaded so powerfully in the mount (Exodus 32:11-13) now feels the kindlings of a wrath akin to that which moved Jehovah to retributive judgment . Fiery indignation against sin is a passion as pure and worthy of God or man as love for truth and righteousness, for, indeed, the former is begotten of the latter .

Cast the tables… and brake them Significant sign that Israel had broken the law written thereon.

Verse 20

20. Took… burnt… ground… strewed “We need not suppose that each incident is here placed in strict order of time . What is related in this verse must have occupied some time, and may have followed the rebuke of Aaron. Moses appears to have thrown the calf into the fire to destroy its form, and then to have pounded or filed the metal to powder, which he cast into the brook. Deuteronomy 9:21. He then made the Israelites drink of the water of the brook . The act was, of course, a symbolical one . The idol was brought to nothing, and the people were made to swallow their own sin . ” Comp . Micah 7:13-14. Speaker’s Commentary . In Deuteronomy 9:21, Moses says: “I took your sin, the calf which ye had made, and burnt it with fire, and stamped it, and ground it very small, even until it was as small as dust . ” Compare the symbolical act of making the people drink of it with the drinking the water of jealousy prescribed for a woman suspected of adultery . Numbers 5:11-31.

Verse 21

21. What did this people unto thee A question of rebuke, the more searching because of the thought that Aaron himself had brought so great a sin upon the people . Aaron’s response and effort at apology, in Exodus 32:22-24, is at best a pitiable plea, and virtually a confession of his own weakness.

Verse 25

25. Naked This word, twice employed in this verse, indicates a letting the people loose from all restraint, and giving them over to licentious and dangerous revelling . See the note on פרע , at Judges 5:1.

Verse 26

26. Who is on the Lord’s side A fair call to repentance and loyal return to Jehovah .

All the sons of Levi It was most natural that the men of Moses’s own tribe should at once rally to his side, and thus make atonement in part for their complicity in the sin . Simeon and Levi had troubled Jacob with their swords, (Genesis 34:25, compare Genesis 32:30 and Genesis 49:5;) now Levi’s sons win a distinction which was afterward celebrated in song. Deuteronomy 33:9.

Verse 27

27. Slay every man his brother Those who were guilty of this breach of the covenant (comp . Exodus 32:33) were liable to the penalty of a capital crime, and hence the order for this fearful slaughter . That this order was not intended or understood to warrant an indiscriminate and wholesale massacre is obvious from what follows. Only “about three thousand men” were slain, (Exodus 32:28,) or one in two hundred of the adult Israelites, (compare Exodus 12:37,) and had these Levitical swordsmen understood Moses’s words literally, they would have felt obliged to slay one another as well as all in the camp . It is not improbable that the three thousand who were slain resisted these Levites, or had refused to drink of the water, (Exodus 32:20,) or in some way persisted in their sin . In going in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp the armed executioners of the order may have been safely left to determine who the most guilty parties were. Many facts, known to these Levites, who had seen the operations of the calf worship from its beginning, may be assumed to have guided them in their work of retribution.

Verse 29

29. For Moses had said Thus rendered, this verse is supposed to explain the zeal of the Levites in the slaughter just described . Their zeal and activity were to be a consecration of themselves to Jehovah . But the common version is not in strict accord with the Hebrew text . The margin gives the better rendering . But the explanations of the verse have been various . Translating literally we read: And Moses said, Fill your hand to-day unto (or for) Jehovah, for a man (is or was) against his son and against his brother, and (it was) to give a blessing upon you to-day. The expression “fill the hand” is a metaphor which is used in describing the consecration of persons, (compare Exodus 28:41; Exodus 29:9; Exodus 29:29; Exodus 29:33; Leviticus 8:33; Leviticus 21:10; Numbers 3:3; 1Ch 29:5 ; 2 Chronicles 29:31,) and is translated consecrate in all the passages here referred to. The allusion in the metaphor appears to refer to some ceremony of giving into the hands of those consecrated some sign or symbol of their office and work. It would be thus signified that their hands were thenceforth to be filled with the duties and obligations of their sacred calling. We need not here understand that these Levites were commanded to bring any special offerings at this time, but that the work which they had that day performed was a consecration of themselves to Jehovah. They had filled their hands with an act which would give them memorable distinction. Accordingly, the verse might be thus paraphrased: Consecrate yourselves this day unto Jehovah. For you have shown yourselves worthy to be his ministers by rising above personal and family considerations when Jehovah’s honour was at stake, (comp. Deuteronomy 33:8-11; Luke 14:26,) for by turning in this case against son and brother you have shown yourselves loyal to Jehovah and worthy to receive his blessing .

Verse 30

30. On the morrow After that fearful day of retribution .

Ye have sinned a great sin It was important that they should realize the gravity and magnitude of their transgression, and these words of Moses were adapted to impress this upon them . Lest further punishment fall he proposes to go up unto the Lord, and seek, if possible, to make an atonement for their sin. He hopes to cover or expiate their sin by further intercession . Comp . Exodus 32:11-14. He accordingly went up again into the mount, and made supplication before Jehovah there .

Verses 31-32

31, 32. Oh אנא , an interjection that expresses mingled sadness and entreaty . The intercession of Moses in these two verses is much briefer but more striking than in Exodus 32:11-13, above . The broken form of expression in Exodus 32:32, where the conclusion, or apodosis, is left to be supplied, is not uncommon in the Scriptures . Compare Genesis 3:22; Daniel 3:15; Luke 13:9; Luke 19:42. The willingness of Moses to be sacrificed for Israel’s pardon is paralleled with Paul’s notable saying in Romans 9:3.

Thy book The chosen people of God are regarded as enrolled or written in a book before God . As the citizens of a community are enrolled in an official list, or the members of a society are registered as such in a book kept for that purpose, so the righteous are supposed to be registered in the book of life, and such registration witnesses their citizenship in the kingdom of God. Comp. Psalms 69:28; Ezekiel 13:9; Daniel 12:1; Luke 10:20; Philippians 4:3; Revelation 3:5; Revelation 13:8; Revelation 20:15; Revelation 21:27.

Verse 33

33. Him will I blot out Only the wilful sinner, who violates the holy commandments and persists in his disobedience, shall be cut off from the people of God .

Verse 34

34. Now go, lead the people The people having broken the covenant, Jehovah speaks as though he would have Moses depart from Sinai without having the tables renewed, or proceeding with the erection of the tabernacle, whose pattern had been shown him in the mount . He assures him of the presence of his Angel, as in Exodus 23:20, but declares that the sin of the people cannot go unpunished . But Moses’s persistent intercession and mediation, as shown in the following chapter, led to a renewal of the covenant .

Verse 35

35. Plagued This implies that the severe blow ministered by the Levites ( 27-29) was followed by still other visitations of penal wrath.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Exodus 32". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.