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The episode of The Golden Calf Apostasy of Israel is recorded in this chapter, some six paragraphs being devoted to the narrative:
(1) the making of the calf (Exodus 32:1-6);
(2) Moses' intercession on behalf of Israel (Exodus 32:7-14);
(3) the wrath of Moses (Exodus 32:15-20);
(4) Aaron's excuses (Exodus 32:21-24);
(5) the faithfulness of the Levites (Exodus 32:25-29); and
(6) Moses' renewed intercession (Exodus 32:30-35).
The critical strategy of trying to understand this episode as a polemic developed in the times of Jeroboam II (800-750 B.C.), more than half a millennium after Moses wrote Exodus, is completely frustrated by the practical impossibility of any Jew at so late a period inventing an incident that would have so effectively damaged the reputation and stained forever the name of Aaron, one of the national heroes of Israel. Men who can imagine such an absurdity can imagine anything. The truth of all that is written here stands, because only truth could ever have won for such a passage as this an honored place in the sacred writings of Moses. Furthermore, certain expressions found in this chapter are indicative of the second millennium B.C., not the first millennium B.C.
In the same sentence with his confessing that criticism found it impossible to trace what he called the "development" of this passage, Harford still supposed that the passage reflects "prophetic criticism of Jeroboam's two calves",F1 but, as noted above, all such views are unacceptable. Critics, however, still quote one another, adopting stereotyped "explanations" which have long ago been proved inaccurate and worthless, as did Honeycutt.F2 It is true, of course, that when Jeroboam introduced the golden calves at Dan and at Bethel, that he quoted the exact words used by Aaron in this paragraph; but to distort that truth and make Exodus a quotation of Jeroboam II is ridiculous. It should be remembered that Jeroboam was trying to justify what he did.
Up, make us gods
In this clause, we are confronted with the problem of how to translate [~'Elohiym], which is plural in form but frequently translated in the O.T. as the name of the One God. Even the use of plural verbs here is not decisive, because they might have been plurals of majesty. Johnson noted that the commentators are divided, because we do not know just what was in the minds of the people.F3 To us, the problem is solved by the fact that Aaron made only one god; and that the people had in mind a plurality is not indicated in the text. Therefore, we believe that the passage should be read Make us a god. That this is certainly an allowable understanding of the place appears in the ASV marginal note substituting a god for gods. It here denotes `a god' and should be so rendered.F4
Gathered themselves together unto Aaron
Unto Aaron, here, would be better rendered against Aaron.F5 The New English Bible reads confronted Aaron. In any case, it is clear that no ordinary gathering occurred. It was a belligerent and demanding mob that descended upon Aaron.
Break off the golden rings in the ears of wives. sons ... daughters ... and all the people brake off, etc ..
From this, it appears that all the people, men and women wore gold rings in their ears. As Esses noted, As part of the idolatrous practices they had picked up in Egypt, even the sons were wearing ear-rings. Sounds like the 20th century, doesn't it?F6 The amount of the gold accumulated by this action was fantastic, no matter how it might be calculated. There were at least two million people in the exodus -- that's gold rings in 4 million ears, had they weighed only a 1/4 ounce each, would have been 1,000,000 ounces, or 83,333 pounds of gold, Troy -- enough gold to have gold-plated Mount Sinai! This sheds light on how that gold calf was made. The usual supposition that it was merely a wooden carving plated with gold appears, therefore, to be an error. The use of the words molten calf and graving tool in Exo. 32:4 appear to indicate that it was an idol made of SOLID gold. The size of it was nowhere hinted at; God's calling it a calf' might have been deprecatory, even if the image had been that of a full-size bull.
These are thy gods, O Israel
The Jerusalem Bible should be followed here. It reads, Here is your god.
Built an altar before it. made proclamation ... a feast to Jehovah ..
It is supposed that Aaron thought by such maneuvers to combine the worship of the true God Jehovah with the worship of his golden idol, no doubt adopting the fallacious reasoning by which all idolatry has been justified in all ages. If so, the device was futile. No matter how they might have looked at it, their actions constituted the most sinful disobedience and idolatry.
Where did Israel get the idea for making a bull idol? This is a very large question, and space here does not allow a full discussion of it; but to this writer it seems certain that Egypt was the background of this apostasy, and not the Baal-cults of Canaan. Fields has a very instructive dissertation on this, proposing that the idolatry here was a reversion to the pagan idolatry of Abraham's ancestors in Chaldea.F7 And as for the allegation that the Israelites were here worshipping Jehovah "under the symbol" of a golden calf, such a view is impossible of acceptance. Ps. 106:21 says that "they forgot God" upon the occasion of their making that idol, and this means that they were NOT worshipping Him in any sense whatever in the events recorded here.
They offered burnt-offerings, and brought peace-offerings
Both types of offerings here were exactly those that might have been offered by any pagan who had never heard of Jehovah. As a matter of fact, Both types (with the same Semitic root as the Hebrew) figure in the second millennium texts from Ugarit.F8 Of course, this absolutely forbids the nonsense of dating the passage from the days of Jeroboam.
The people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play
The expression, to play appears innocent enough here, but such was not the case at all. Paul's inspired analysis of this situation (1 Corinthians 10:7-8) is worth a thousand comments from other sources, and he stated that three and twenty thousand of them committed adultery. It is true that Paul was speaking of a somewhat later incident at Baal-Peor, but the clear intent was that of equating to play with a pagan sex orgy, visible both at Baal-Peor and here.
Thus, within the very shadow of the sacred mountain where the Law had been given, the covenant ratified, and at the very moment when Moses was still communing with God upon Sinai, Israel broke the covenant, forgot God, made a molten image, worshipped it, and committed wholesale adultery and fornication. Thus, at one stroke, they violated Commandments I, II, III, and VII. Their breaking of the second commandment was inherent in their calling their idolatrous feast, "a feast unto Jehovah."
Note that God Himself interpreted the actions of Israel as having "worshipped" the calf, despite their proclaiming the feast "unto Jehovah." The promise of God to Moses to make a great nation of him and thus to replace that whole generation of the Israelites did not for a moment tempt Moses who truly loved God's people and would in fact die for them if necessary. In such an act of unselfish love of Israel, Moses indeed shines as a type of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Moses' intercessory prayer presented three arguments against what God contemplated doing:
(1) He appealed for God to remember all that he had already done for Israel.
(2) He pointed out that the Egyptians would accuse God of leading the people out in order to destroy them.
(3) He pleaded with God to remember the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel regarding their posterity being multiplied and regarding their entry into and possession of the land of Canaan.
God never repents of anything in the usual meaning of the word, but when the actions of men justify a change in God's purpose, he does not hesitate to change it. And that phenomenon is called repentance of God in the Scriptures. Concerning God's purpose of overthrowing Nineveh, When God saw that they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil which he said he would do unto them, and he did it not (Jonah 3:10). In the repentance on God's part which is mentioned here, it was not any change in Israel, but the pleading intercession of Moses that precipitated it.
A molten calf
That the figure made by Aaron is always called a molten calf, literally, a calf of fusion, disposes of the theory of Keil, that it was of carved wood covered with gold.F9
THE WRATH OF MOSES
And the tables were the work of God
Some question whether this meant merely that God made the tables and wrote upon them. through Moses, or if the tables and the writing were done miraculously by God Himself. As far as the record here is concerned, it surely seems to say that the tables with their sacred writings were produced without any use whatever of the finger of Moses, but by the finger of God. Other than this, nothing is actually known about how it was done. Jamieson declared that, It is not within the compass of language to declare more explicitly that the engraving was miraculously accomplished.F10
And Moses' anger waxed hot
We do not really know whether or not Moses' conduct here was sinful. Adam Clarke and many of the old commentators considered it so. But we must not excuse this act; it was rash and irreverent: God's writing should not have been treated in this way.F11 Most current writers excuse it on one basis or another. Esses called Moses' anger in this place, righteous indignation.F12 Honeycutt viewed the action of breaking the tables as harmonious with God's will, a sign of the annulment of the covenant.F13 We have discovered no basis for resolving the question either way. It seems significant, however, that God is nowhere said to have rebuked Moses for breaking the tables. Unger's comment on the passage is tailored to support some of the irresponsible findings of the solifidians:
"The whole episode shows the inability of the Law to make men good. Depraved man is never saved by Law-keeping, but by faith. Faith alone is the way to justification and salvation in every age, as well as the way to sanctification of life."F14
Although true enough that people are not saved by Law-keeping, their damnation can most certainly result from their presumptuous and arrogant failure to keep the Law of God. The very episode in this chapter proves this to have been true with them, no less than with ourselves. Also, faith alone is dead (James 2:17); and no one in the whole history of redemption was ever saved by faith alone.
Burnt it with fire, ground it to powder, and strewed it upon the water
With regard to the remark that, gold will not burn, it should be remembered that it will melt, however, and that this procedure preceded the grinding of it to powder. It is not necessary to suppose a wooden center or form of the calf, although of course, that is possible. One could not possibly suppose a more complete destruction of an idol than that recorded here.
The object of this was certainly not to make them ashamed by compelling them to swallow their own god, but to set forth in a visible manner both their sin and its consequences. The sin, as it were, was poured into their own bowels along with the water, a symbolical sign that they would have to bear it and live with it, just as a woman suspected of adultery was obliged to drink the curse-water (Numbers 5:24).F15
Jones added this comment: "So it is with God's judgment of false religion in every age, when people must drink water fouled by their own religious leaders!"F16
Aaron's excuses recorded here did him no honor. He would have blamed the people instead of himself, even implying that he did not actually intend to make an idol, suggesting that he was merely playing in the fire, and out walked that calf! Nevertheless, Moses squarely charged him with having brought a great sin upon the people. Furthermore, "We learn from Deut. 9:20 that Aaron's abetting of the people's sin evoked the severe displeasure of God, and that his life was only spared on the intercession of Moses."F17 As noted above, in the exceedingly unfavorable light in which Aaron appears here, we have the proof of the impossibility of such an effective downgrading of one of Israel's national heroes having been accomplished at a much later date. Only the full and unequivocal truth of this historical event can account for its having been recorded here by Moses, his own brother!
FAITHFULNESS OF THE LEVITES
There is very much about this incident that we cannot know. How is it that the sons of Levi encountered no resistance? Since only 3,000 men were slain out of all the host of Israel, how was the selection made? Did they cast lots to find the guilty? Were those slain actually slain in the sinful act of violating the Law? None of this are we able to answer. Yet the hand of God was clearly in this episode, else it could never have been resolved at all. Even if those slain were selected at random and by chance, we must agree with Keil that, "Even the so-called chance would have been under the direction of God."F18
For a derision among their enemies
As Dummelow said, The lapse of professedly religious people is not only sinful, but brings religion itself into disrepute.F19
Aaron had let them loose
The KJV has Aaron had made them naked in this place, and there can be no question of that's being a preferable rendition to the toned down statement here. The people were not tied, and so Aaron could not have let them loose. What is said here is that the people were still naked, stripped of their garments, still carrying on the customary orgy that characterized pagan worship. Here is probably the recognition of how the sons of Levi knew whom to slay, those being very likely the ones still engaged in the orgy. Rawlinson's words here appear to us as absolutely correct:
"The primary sense of [~pharua`] (Editor's note: "running wild") here is naked, stripped; and of the licentious orgies of the East, stripping or uncovering the person was a feature; thus there is no reason for changing the expression used in the King James Version. Moses saw that most (or many) of the people were still without their garments which they had laid aside when they began to dance."F20
Of course, it is said here that Aaron made the people naked. How is this true? "Aaron is said to have done that to which his actions led. He made the calf and proclaimed the pagan festival. The nakedness had naturally followed."F21
One other problem should be noted here. It was expressed thus by Clements: "It hardly needs to be said that such wholesale killing, in whatever cause, is wholly repugnant to the modern religious mind."F22 What Clements says is surely true, but the judgment of the "modern religious mind" falls far short of all merit. God, in these stern examples, was giving a glimpse of what ALWAYS happens when people disobey their Creator. True, today God does not physically destroy the disobedient, but their eternal destruction, which is a far worse thing, is the certain and irrevocable penalty of any human's rebellion against his God. Note that this entire scene is related to Pentecost and the coming of the Gospel of Christ. Here three thousand men PERISHED on the very first day that the Law of God became effective. Whereas, on the other hand, three thousand souls WERE SAVED on Pentecost (Acts 2:38ff).
MOSES' RENEWED INTERCESSION
Yet now, if thou wilt, forgive their sin
We are amazed at the scholars who make an elipsis (an incomplete sentence) out of this. All it needs is proper punctuation, just as we have taken the liberty of rendering it here. Punctuation is altogether a human thing, anyway, and we have as much right to punctuate it accurately, as others do to make an ellipsis out of it by leaving out a comma!
We also reject the frequent "explanations" of this "book" mentioned here as being a human record of the children of Israel. It was no human roll at all, but a book which God had "written" (Exodus 32:32), as revealed by the apostle Paul, who called it "the book of life" (Philippians 4:3). For extended comment on the "Book of Life." see my comments on Heb. 12:23, and also go to my comments on Rev. 3:5. Thus, what Moses actually requested here was not, merely that he might suffer physical death for Israel, but that he might be removed even from the book of life upon their behalf. It was exactly this same sentiment that resided in the bosom of the apostle Paul in Rom. 9:1-3.
Most significantly, Moses, mighty in righteousness though he was, could not provide an atonement for Israel, only the Son of God Himself, in the fullness of time, would be able to accomplish such an atonement as that. Note also, that although God spared the nation of Israel, instructing Moses to lead them "to the place." Nevertheless, their sins were not thereby forgiven, for God promised to visit their transgression upon them. Just how this was done we cannot be sure. Exo. 32:35 mentions a plague that came upon the people, and that was surely a part of God's visitation, but there came the day when that entire generation were told that they would never see the promised land. The generation that entered into Canaan would be one that had never danced around the golden calf!
Moses' exceedingly beautiful intercession, even offering himself up for eternal death before God on behalf of the people, must stand as a high mark of unselfish love in all the ages of human history, making Moses indeed a fit type of "him who tasted of death for every man (Christ)!" Scholars cannot agree when "the day" came of which God spoke here; some suppose it came with the plague mentioned in Exo. 32:35, and others make it to be the day when God informed that generation that they would never see Canaan. We have found no way to discover when the day came, but one thing is certain, "God has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by that Man whom he has appointed, whereof he hath given assurance unto all men in that he hath raised him from the dead" (Acts 17:31). The final judgment, therefore, is the day when all people must stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of the deeds done in the body. Whatever sins and excesses of people may be apparently "overlooked" by God throughout history, the final and just reckoning is certain to be executed! Rebellious and sinful people shall know at last what a terrible mistake is their failure to know, to love, and to worship God. Twice, that day is mentioned in the N.T. as a day, "when all the tribes of the earth shall mourn" (Matt. 24:30 and Rev. 1:7). That, alas, will be the occasion when these sinful Israelites, along with the sinners of all generations shall suddenly and eternally know that a just and righteous God will not compromise with evil.
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.