The Golden Calf

Sometimes when you read the Bible it can drive you nuts because unless you are very observant it is easy to lose track of the passage of time.  A passage might say something like “some time later” and that amount of time is two years.  Quite simply, we’re used to our narratives giving us a clear idea on the passage of time such as “the next day” or “two years later.”

That’s kind of where we are at today in Exodus 32.  Although we’ve spent several months poring over the details of the tabernacle and all of the incredible pictures of Jesus and salvation that are found in it, no time has actually passed between Exodus 20 when the Ten Commandments are given and Exodus 32.

We are finally back to a narrative with action and plot in it rather than details.  Unfortunately the story that is painted in this chapter is not a pretty one.  Instead it shows us just how ugly and downright stupid we can be.

Let’s jump right into the action by looking at the first verse.

32 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods[a] who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

The people were obviously foolish in their thinking but there is at least the slightest amount of logic in believing that Moses is dead.  Consider what they experienced when Moses first went up on the mountain.  We already looked at this but let’s read Exodus 19:16-19:

16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain[b] trembled violently, 19 and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.[c]

The situation wouldn’t look good from a human perspective.  Either Moses has walked into grave danger and has not returned alive or he has encountered God on the mountain and not returned alive.  It’s the wrong conclusion but at least it is an understandable conclusion.  Their logic that follows the supposed loss of Moses escapes me however.

I don’t believe that the Israelites thought that they were constructing a god.  Instead they were constructing an image of a god in order to aid them in their worship.  They needed an image that they could see and even show others – “this is who we worship.”  Previously Moses had been their connection to God but with Moses gone they immediately look for another connection.

Vs 2-4

Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods,[b] O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

Regardless of the foolishness of the people, Aaron has no excuse for going along with such nonsense.  He not only goes along with it but he is the leader of the idolatry.  It’s hard to know precisely how much blame to put on Aaron here.  Considering the seriousness of the situation I’m kind of surprised that he isn’t struck dead.  It’s quite possible that he is coerced into forming the idol under threat of his life.  He may have protested that Moses would return soon and that the people should just be patient.  Whatever the case, I don’t believe that Aaron just immediately went along with the mob and agreed to form an idol for them.  But scripture doesn’t tell us everything as much as we would like it to.

Vs 5-6

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings.[c] Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.

Verse 5 makes it clear that Aaron ties the golden calf to the Lord and that he didn’t just invent another god and give credit to him for rescuing them.  The Israelites only knew the idolatry of Egypt.  They were surrounded by it every day of their lives.  Even though they knew that their God was greater than the gods of Egypt, they didn’t know any other way to worship than bowing down to an idol.

None of this is to make excuses for the Israelites however.  They should have known better and Aaron in particular should have known better.  Verse 6 says that they “got up to indulge in revelry.”  We can only guess what that might include but here’s my take on what is going on in general.  The people don’t know how to worship properly so they make up their own rules.  Moses was on Mt Sinai receiving the rules for proper worship but they were impatient in waiting.  So they decided to worship the way that felt right to them.  They ultimately decided that “if it feels good, do it” and they then decided to call that worship.  They would worship the way they wanted by indulging in whatever felt good.

I’m not calling out any specific preachers or ministries but we still see this today.  Rather than preach the Bible and call a sin a sin, many people are content to be told what feels good.  It doesn’t feel good to be told that there are things wrong in our life.  It doesn’t feel good to be told that sin will get us nowhere but hell.  What feels good is a message that God wants us to be happy and healthy and wise.  God is love so He would never punish a “good” person over a few unforgiven sins.  It’s a completely different form but it is the same thing that is taking place in Exodus 32.  People worship the way they want to because it allows them to indulge in whatever makes them feel good.

Vs 7-14

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’

“I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

11 But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “O Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” 14 Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

The short summary of these verses is that God doesn’t like it when we decide how we’re going to worship rather than follow His plans.  We shouldn’t assume that God was going to destroy every Israelite and start over with just Moses.  There’s two reasons to believe this.  The first is that Moses represents only one tribe and God wouldn’t destroy the other tribes, particularly Judah as the Messiah is to come from Judah.  Jacob prophesied that Jesus would be descended from Judah in Genesis 49:10

The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he comes to whom it belongs[c]
and the obedience of the nations is his.

The other thing to remember is that the righteous are not subject to wrath.  Although there are definitely people causing problems in the camp, possibly even the majority, it is not everyone.  You’ll recall that when God told Abraham that He was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham pleaded with God because his nephew Lot was still there.  Eventually God agreed not to destroy the city if there were five righteous people there.  Apparently there were not five righteous people in the city but God still spared Lot and his family from His wrath.

There’s a larger theological question that I’m not going to get into today though.  That question is whether God really changed His mind.  There are a couple of possibilities that I will throw out however and I’ll let you think them over.

The first is that God never really intended to destroy the Israelites.  I’m going to throw that argument out because it makes God a liar.  The second possibility is that God actually changes His mind based upon Moses’ persuasion.

The final possibility is that this is a test of Moses.  This presents its own possibilities.  God, being all knowing, already knew how Moses would respond and this threat to destroy the Israelites isn’t genuine because God already knows that Moses will beg for mercy on behalf of the Israelites.  You’re welcome to believe this if you wish but I personally feel like it’s still a bit too close to God lying for me to be comfortable.

That means the other possibility is that this is a genuine test and God will act according to Moses’ response.  If Moses doesn’t beg for mercy, God will destroy the Israelites and start over through Him.  For this to be a possibility, God’s knowledge would have to be somehow limited by Moses’ freewill.  This isn’t to make God powerless or clueless – it is still His right to do as He pleases regardless of Moses’ reaction and even if it is possible that God doesn’t know Moses’ exact choice do to his freewill, God does know Moses’ character and personality because He created Moses.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know what the answer is.  This is not the only passage in the Bible where it appears that God changes His mind.  The book of Jonah is another great illustration of this.  King Hezekiah being told that he would die is yet another similar situation.  You’ll have to research and reach your own conclusions on the matter.

Vs 19-24

When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. 20 And he took the calf they had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.

21 He said to Aaron, “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?”

22 “Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ 24 So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

Just two notes on these verses.  Moses is not kept from the Promised Land because he broke the stone tablets in anger.  This is a commonly held falsehood that I think is perpetuated by Charlton Heston’s Ten Commandments.  In fact Moses is held out of the Promised Land because he struck the rock to bring water from it instead of speaking to it like the Lord had commanded.

The other thing I want to note is just what I consider to be one of the funniest verses in the entire Bible.  Aaron’s explanation for how the golden calf was constructed was just that he threw the gold into the fire and a golden calf came out.  When we are caught in a sin, sometimes we’ll make up the most unbelievable explanations in a vain attempt to get out of trouble.  Nobody is going to buy the story here.

Vs 25-29

25 Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. 26 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.

27 Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. 29 Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”

There’s a number of nuggets to pull from these verses and not much time but I’m going to hit them as best I can.  The Levites are the only ones to rally around Moses.  This is Moses’ and Aaron’s tribe so they are naturally the most likely ones to rally but everyone is given the opportunity to stand for the Lord.  Only they respond.

There is significance and redemption that it is the Levites who rally to Moses’ side however.  In the book of Genesis, Simeon and Levi kill the men of Shechem after their sister Dinah was violated.  On his deathbed Jacob curses them both because of their violence.  Genesis 49:5-7:

“Simeon and Levi are brothers—
their swords[a] are weapons of violence.
Let me not enter their council,
let me not join their assembly,
for they have killed men in their anger
and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.
Cursed be their anger, so fierce,
and their fury, so cruel!
I will scatter them in Jacob
and disperse them in Israel.

This curse still falls upon the tribes of Simeon and Levi but the Levites are redeemed at this moment because they take up their sword in an act of righteousness.  The Levites will still be scattered throughout the land of Israel but it will be for a positive reason now and not because of a curse.  The Levites, as the priests, will not have their own land or cities but instead will be scattered throughout the nation.  They are redeemed and a curse turns into a blessing.

Now to bring things full circle from where we started this morning we’ll go back to the passage of time.  The day that all of this takes place is fifty days after the Passover took place in Egypt.  I am absolutely unable to do the math and figure this out by myself but people much smarter than me have researched it and I am confident that this is 50 days later.  Also 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection is the day of Pentecost.

What happens in here in Exodus is Moses comes down from the mountain with the law and 3,000 people die.  On Pentecost the Holy Spirit comes and 3,000 people are saved.  The law brings death but the Spirit brings life.  There is a direct parallel between the two events and the number of people involved in each event is not a coincidence.

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