Exodus 32 - The Golden Calf
A. Israel steps into idolatry.
1. (1) The people make a request.
a. The people were troubled because Moses delayed coming down from the mountain. God had a wonderful purpose for Moses' delay, and it would soon be over. Yet because the people couldn't see the reason for the delay, they allowed it to stumble them.
i. Moses was gone for forty days (Exodus 24:18); this would seem like a long time for the people, but a short time for Moses - and a short time related to the outworking of God's plan for Israel.
ii. This is a wonderful measure of our spiritual maturity: how do we handle God's delays? Do we drift off into sin; do we give up with a resignation to fate instead of a personal God? Or do we persevere with a living faith in the living God?
b. This sinful impulse came first from the people, not Aaron. Why was there a golden calf? First and foremost, because the people wanted one. Giving the people what they want can be a dangerous thing!
i. This is why it can be so dangerous to start with what people want when planning a church or ministry - they people may very well want a golden calf!
c. Come, make us gods that shall go before us: they wanted gods to go before them - where to? Undoubtedly, to the Promised Land. They knew the Lord God had led them out of Egypt; they knew the Lord God had revealed Himself at Mount Sinai. Yet, they are willing to trust a false god - a god of their own creation - to finish what they knew the Lord God had begun.
i. Paul dealt with the same error with the Galatians: Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you know being made perfect by the flesh? (Galatians 3:3) Some of us, to our shame, trusted in Jesus more when we first came to know Him - now we trust more in our own spirituality. You own gods will only lead you to futility!
d. We do not know what has become of him: how much we do in the flesh simply because we do not know! How much bitterness or hurt we take on because we assume we know, when we do not! Our ignorance should make us turn to, and rely on, God - not the flesh.
2. (2-4) Aaron's response.
a. God gave Moses instructions for taking a free-will offering to be used in making a holy place for God (Exodus 25:1-7); here, Aaron has the fleshly imitation - an offering of gold to make an idol!
i. And the people were generous - all the people broke off the golden earrings . . . and brought them to Aaron. When we consider the generosity people have towards the idolatrous things of the flesh, we don't feel bad at all calling them to be generous in giving to the things of God!
b. He fashioned it with an engraving tool: this wasn't the Spirit-inspired craftsmanship of Bezaleel and Aholiab, but it was the flesh-inspired work of Aaron. He thought it out, melted the gold, molded it, and fashioned it carefully with an engraving tool.
i. Aaron may not have sought the fleshly impulse to make the golden calf; but he put significant energy into carrying out that fleshly impulse!
c. Then they said, "This is your god": Aaron did not anoint this thing as their god; he simply went along with the people, when they did. No doubt he was flattered at their admiration of his creation!
i. True leadership would have cried out, "This is idolatry! We must destroy this golden calf! You people are wrong in calling this creation of man your god!" But Aaron isn't a true leader, he is the type who leads by following popular opinion.
ii. In France, a political mob headed down the street, followed by a running man, who was heard to shout, "Let me through, I have to follow them, I am their leader!" This was Aaron's style of leadership.
d. That brought you out of the land of Egypt: if this does not expose the incredible stupidity of the religion of the flesh, nothing will.
3. (5-6) Ungodly and immoral worship at the golden calf.
a. When Aaron saw it: when he saw the way people responded to the golden calf - what a hit it was! What else could he do, except build an altar before it?
b. It was bad enough to have a golden calf the people were crediting for their deliverance from Egypt - now, Aaron must sanctify that god with animal sacrifice. He made the calf, now he makes the altar to worship it at.
c. Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord: give God a feast, and perhaps He won't be mad at us! We'll throw God His bone, and still have our own fleshly thing on the side.
i. Aaron was not crass enough to say, "Let's do away with the Lord God." He was just updating things - making them more modern. He was adding the golden calf, not taking away the Lord God!
d. They rose early the next day: they would sacrifice their time, their sleep, the money (in the animal sacrifices), and even their souls in their worship of this false god. Surely, this shows where their heart is - people will always sacrifice for their god!
e. Of course, immorality was involved as well - golden calves don't have high standards! And rose up to play is a tasteful way to refer to rank immorality among the people of Israel.
i. "The verb translated play suggests sex-play in Hebrew . . . and therefore we are probably to understand drunken orgies." (Cole)
ii. Do not forget that this is the same group of people, who forty days earlier, heard the voice of God Himself thunder from heaven, giving the Ten Commandments. That dramatic experience, in and of itself, could not change their hearts. It made many of them long for a less demanding god!
B. The nature and result of Moses' intercession.
1. (7-8) God tells Moses what is happening at the camp of Israel.
a. Notice how God "disowns" the people: For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt. God is telling Moses that these are his people, not God's!
b. Turned aside quickly is almost an understatement. They didn't wait long to go their own fleshly way!
c. God describes to Moses everything that happened, and even quotes the words of the people in their idolatry. God knew exactly what was going on. The people were ignoring God, but He was not ignoring them!
2. (9-10) God's amazing offer to Moses.
a. God speaks as if He as seen enough, and makes a remarkable offer to Moses: God will consume the nation of Israel, and start all over again with Moses, making Moses the new "Abraham" of God's redemptive plan.
i. Obviously, in Moses' day (as in our own), Abraham was revered as the father of the Jewish nation. Now, Moses has the same opportunity to be revered, not only in his own day, but for every generation following. Quite an offer!
b. What did Moses need to do to allow God to put this plan into action? Nothing! Let Me alone was all God asked, and there seems to be nothing easier than to leave God alone!
3. (11-13) Moses intercedes for Israel.
a. Moses would not do nothing! He pleaded with the Lord his God. He would not fatalistically say, "Well, whatever God will do, God will do." He would pray for his people, according to what he believed to be God's heart, from all Moses knew about God.
i. Moses' prayer is not long, but it is strong: "It is not the length, but the strength of prayer that appeals to heaven." (Meyer)
b. In his prayer, Moses first gives the people back to God: Your people whom You brought out of the land of Egypt. "Lord, they belong to You, not to me! I don't want to be god over these people, only You can do that!"
c. Moses appeals to God on the basis of grace: Your people whom You brought out of the land of Egypt. "Lord, we didn't deserve to be brought out of Egypt to begin with. You did it by Your grace, not because we deserved it. Please don't stop dealing with us by grace."
d. Moses appeals to God on the basis of glory: Why should the Egyptians speak? "Lord, this will bring discredit to you in the eyes of the nations. The Egyptians will think of you as a cruel God who led your people out to the desert to kill them. Don't let anyone think that of you, God!"
e. Moses appeals to God on the basis of goodness: Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self. "Lord, keep Your promises. You are a good God who is always faithful. Don't break Your promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel."
4. (14) God relents from His anger.
a. God answered Moses' prayer! God was going to destroy the nation - all Moses had to do was leave God alone and let Him do it. But Moses would not leave God alone; he labored in intercession according to what He knew of the heart of God.
b. In the King James Version, so the Lord relented is translated the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people. Does God need to repent of evil? Did God change His mind?
i. Other translations of this passage: Then the Lord relented (NIV); so the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people (NASB); the Lord turned from the evil which He had thought to do (Amplified); the Lord was moved with compassion to save His people. (Septuagint Bible)
ii. Numbers 23:19 says, God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? How then can Moses say that God changed His mind?
iii. Moses is speaking in what we call anthropomorphic, or "man-centered" language. He describes the actions of God as they appear to him. Moses' prayer did not change God, but it did change the standing of the people in God's sight - the people were now in a place of mercy, when before they were in a place of judgment.
iv. But then isn't God going back on His word? Of course not; God's promises of judgment are inherently meant to call men to repentance and prayer and therefore avert the judgment: When I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, but he trusts in his own righteousness and commits iniquity, none of his righteous works shall be remembered; but because of the iniquity that he has committed, he shall die. Again, when I say to the wicked, 'You shall surely die,' if he turns from his sin and does what is lawful and right, if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has stolen, and walks in the statutes of life without committing iniquity, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of his sins which he has committed shall be remembered against him; he has done what is lawful and right; he shall surely live. (Ezekiel 33:13-16)
v. Some are frustrated because the Bible describes God's actions in human terms, but how else could they be described? "I suppose that I need not say that this verse speaks after the manner of men. I do not know after what other manner we can speak. To speak of God after the manner of God, is reserved for God himself; and mortal men could not comprehend such speech. In this sense, the Lord often speaks, not according to the literal fact, but according to the appearance of things to us, in order that we may understand so far as the human can comprehend the divine." (Spurgeon)
c. Then why did God put Moses in such a terrible place? So Moses would display and develop God's heart for the people, a heart of love and compassion. Moses prayed as God wanted him to - as if heaven and earth, salvation or destruction, hung on his prayer. This is how God waits for us to pray!
i. "We are not to think of Moses as altering God's purpose towards Israel by this prayer, but as carrying it out: Moses was never more like God than in such moments, for he shared God's mind and loving purpose." (Cole)
d. Walking in God's New Covenant, we do not have less privilege in prayer than Moses had; we do not have less access than Moses had. The only thing we may have less of is Moses' heart for the people!
C. Moses confronts Aaron.
1. (15-18) Moses and Joshua hear the people in the camp.
a. Coming down from the mountain, carrying the precious tablets written with the hand of God, Moses and Joshua hear the sound of the people in idolatry and immorality around the golden calf.
b. It is significant that the tablets were written by God's direct hand; "For as he is the sole author of law and justice, so he alone can write them on the heart of man." (Clarke) All law and morality must come from God's standard and character, or be up to the whim of man.
c. In a sense, Joshua was right when he said, "There is a noise of war in the camp." But it was the noise of a spiritual warfare, not a material war.
d. Moses replies that the sound is not that of battle, but of singing - perhaps the battle is over, Satan has won, and this is his victory song!
2. (19-21) Moses puts an end to the disgrace and confronts Aaron.
a. It was fitting for Moses to break these tablets; Israel had broken the covenant given to them by God, and now Moses would show what they have done by "breaking the covenant" also.
b. We can sense the power of this confrontation; for Moses to break these tablets, Moses' anger became hot.
i. On a later occasion, Moses also got angry with Israel, and started beating on a rock with his staff (Numbers 20:10-11); for this, Moses was denied entrance into the Promised Land. So why wasn't God angry with Moses for this display of wrath? Because it matched the heart of God in this situation.
c. Moses ground up the calf and made the people drink it for three reasons; first to show this "god" was nothing and could be destroyed easily; second, to completely obliterate this idol; third, to make the people pay an immediate consequence of their sin.
d. Moses' question to Aaron is extremely perceptive; by asking "What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?" Moses sees that this plan didn't originate with Aaron, but that he allowed it and implemented it.
3. (22-24) Aaron's excuse.
a. Aaron's first words in reply to Moses are revealing; in saying Do not let the anger of my lord become hot, Aaron is essentially saying "Moses, settle down! It's not so bad as all that!" Aaron has no sense of the gravity of his sin; no fear of the Lord.
b. You know the people, that they are set on evil: of course, Moses knew this as well as Aaron; but Moses had a sense of his need to restrain the evil of the people, and Aaron had none.
c. Aaron quotes the people exactly; yet when it comes to his own actions, he become a liar - are we really to believe the golden calf simply came out of the fire?
i. Aaron gives the classic "it just happened" excuse. But it didn't just happen! Aaron thought it out, melted the gold, molded it, and fashioned it carefully with an engraving tool. (Exodus 32:4)
ii. Aaron is no doubt arguing that this calf was produced by a miracle - it just happened! But Moses - and everyone else - could see the human engraving marks on it (Exodus 32:4). Aaron could claim this was a miraculous work, but his marks were all over it. Case closed!
iii. So why did Aaron do this evil, and make an excuse about it? Because at that moment, it seemed harder to stand for the Lord than to go along with the people, and Aaron took the path of least resistance. He was lazy. "Lazy people always find fault with their tools, and those who do not intend to work always find some excuse or other; and then they make up for their laziness by having a delicious spiritual dream. Have the nominally Christian people about us are dreaming; and they consider that thus they are doing the work of the Lord. They are only doing it deceitfully by putting dreaming into the place of real service." (Spurgeon)
d. Wasn't God angry with Aaron? How could He allow Aaron to even live? It was only because of Moses' prayer: And the Lord was very angry with Aaron and would have destroyed him; so I prayed for Aaron also at the same time. (Deuteronomy 9:20)
D. The call to side with either God or idolatry.
1. (25-26) Moses issues a challenge.
a. The people were unrestrained: there is no greater danger than for people to cast off all restraint and do whatever seems right in their own eyes; the darkest days of Israel's national history were characterized by the phrase, everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 17:6)
i. In our modern culture we regard the absence of restraint as heaven on earth - but the Bible and common sense tell us that this kind of moral, spiritual, and social anarchy brings nothing but destruction.
ii. There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death. (Proverbs 14:12) When man follows his own instincts, his own inclinations, it leads to ruin. We need to follow God's way, not our own.
iii. God has given many restraints to us: the curbs of the fear of God, of family, of culture, of conscience, of law, even of necessity; but these restraints can be - and are being - broken down.
b. The Levites, to their honor, side with the Lord and with Moses; the rest of the people no doubt considered Moses and the Levites to be strange and reactionary!
2. (27-29) The execution of 3,000.
a. In this case, siding with the Lord meant siding against some people. Those who were more interested in siding with all people would never have done what these Levites did.
b. Why were there only 3,000 executed on that day? These were undoubtedly those who were the most flagrant in their idolatry and immorality, or these were the instigators of the sin.
E. Moses' second intercession.
1. (30) Moses returns to intercede for the people.
a. Had not Moses already interceded for the people in Exodus 32:11-14? Why did he intercede again? Because now he had seen the sin with his own eyes, and was struck with the depths of the people's sin.
b. As well, Moses had learned on Mount Sinai that God's penalty for idolatry was death: He who sacrifices to any god, except to the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed. (Exodus 22:20) He was more aware than ever of the distance between the people and God, and sensed the urgency to intercede.
2. (31-32) Moses' bold request on behalf of the people.
a. Moses will not soft-sell the sin of the people; these people have committed a great sin. They are guilty of worshipping a god of gold!
i. The same happens today; in August of 1990, a man staggered to the steps of his Los Angeles office. Before he died of the gunshot wound to his chest, he called out the names of his three children. But he still had his $10,000 Rolex watch clutched in his hand. He laid down his life for a god of gold!
b. Yet now . . . forgive: Moses, knowing the enormity of the people's sin, still asks for forgiveness - truly appealing to the mercy and grace of God.
c. On what basis does Moses ask for this forgiveness? On the basis of his own sacrificial identification with the sinful people! If God will not forgive, Moses asks to be damned in sacrificial identification with his sinful people (blot me out of Your book which You have written).
i. Of course, this sacrificial heart was the same heart Jesus had in dying for our sins (1 Peter 3:18; 2 Corinthians 5:21); it was also the same heart Paul had for Israel (Romans 9:3).
3. (33-35) The Lord's response to the plea of Moses.
a. God will forgive the nation as a whole; yet those who have personally given themselves over to the idolatry and immorality of the golden calf must still pay the penalty for their sin.
b. So, Moses' bold prayer was answered - the nation was not rejected by God (My Angel shall go before you); yet those personally deserving of punishment would be punished.