SynopsisFor the last little while, Moses has been up on the Mountain of God, with the LORD, who has been giving Moses His commandments for the Israelites. All in all, Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. But the people have become restless:
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 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.”
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, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
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. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.
(I find it interesting that they refer to Moses as “this fellow Moses”—suddenly it’s as if they don’t even know him anymore.) In the footnotes, it mentions that some of those plural words for “gods” could also be translated in the singular; so it could also be translated “Come, make us a god who will go before us” in verse 1, and “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt” in verse 4.
Of course, God knows what’s going on, so he tells Moses what the Israelites are doing, and that He is going to strike them down, for their sin. He will then make Moses into a great nation. But Moses pleads on behalf of the people:
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? 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. 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.’” Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened. (verses 11–14)
On their way back to the camp, Moses and Joshua hear the sounds of revelry coming from the camp. Joshua thinks it’s the sound of war, but Moses responds with a little piece of prose that, for some reason, I’ve never forgotten:
“It is not the sound of victory,
it is not the sound of defeat;
it is the sound of singing that I hear.”
I don’t know why this passage has always stayed with me, but for some reason it has.
Once Moses and Joshua reach the camp, we realize that, although Moses has been pleading to the LORD on behalf of the people, he hasn’t fully realized the extent of their sin. In his burning anger, he smashes the stone tablets to pieces. He then burns the golden calf in the fire, grounds it to powder, and scatters the ashes in the water, and makes the people drink it.
He then seeks accountability, which brings him to Aaron: “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?” (verse 21) So, of course, Aaron takes full responsibility for his actions. Ha! Just kidding. Aaron actually blames the people, and then blames… well, magic:
“Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil. 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.’ 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!” (verses 22–24)
This is a bit too much, for Moses. He stands at the camp’s entrance, and calls for anyone who is “for the LORD” (verse 26) to come to him. The Levites come.
Moses then passes on instructions from the LORD: each of them is to grab a sword, and go back and forth through the camp, killing his fellow Israelites. They do, and about three thousand people are killed (verse 28). Because the Levites are willing to do this—because they have chosen the LORD, over their fellow Israelites—Moses tells them that they have been set apart to the LORD.
Once this is accomplished, Moses then goes back to the LORD, to plead again for the people. The verse that always shocks me is verse 32: “But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.” Wow! If I were Moses—and there are many reasons why I couldn’t be, although that just reminds me of Chapter 3 and Chapter 4, when Moses thought so as well—I don’t think I could have said that to God. (For fear that He really would blot me out of His book!) I would have expected God to say something to Moses along the lines of “don’t worry, I’m not going to blot you out of my book”, but He doesn’t:
The LORD replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.”
And the LORD struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.
He is leaving no question that He is the one who is responsible for deciding who is written into the Book of Life, and who isn’t. Nobody else—not even Moses, and not even for his own name—gets a say in the matter. God is sovereign, over everything.
ThoughtsAt the beginning of the chapter, when they are making the golden calf, I notice that verse 4 makes it very clear that this was a man-made god, because it says that Aaron fashioned it “with a tool”. You can almost hear the author of the book shaking his head in wonderment, as the people make an idol, and then worship it as something real. I also notice, however, that the Israelites are very confused; once Aaron has created the golden calf—and claimed that it is the god who brought them out of Egypt—he then builds an altar in front of it, and then declares that they are going to have a festival to the LORD the next day. This means that they either don’t know the difference between the LORD and the idol they have fashioned, or they believe that it’s okay to worship both God and another idol.
What really boggles my mind is not that they built this idol, and worshipped it as a god. Culturally, this was happening all around them, during that day and age, and it still happens in much of the world. What boggles my mind is that they do this while the LORD is still right there in front of them! They’re in front of the Mountain of God, which is currently covered in smoke and fire, as the LORD speaks with Moses. These are the same people who were afraid to approach that mountain, for fear of being struck down by the LORD, and now they are, literally, standing right in front of Him and fashioning a false idol!
Notice, when Moses is pleading with the LORD not to destroy His people, that he pleads not just for their sake, but for God’s sake. It’s not just that he doesn’t want the people killed—he himself orders a mass slaughter, for this grievous sin—it’s that he doesn’t want disgrace brought to the LORD.
And, any time this happens, I always feel obligated to comment on it: When Moses is first talking to God about this, God tells Moses that He is going to wipe out the Israelites. He then “relents” (verse 14), and tells Moses that no, He won’t destroy the people. Does this mean that the Sovereign God—who is all-powerful and all-knowing—changed His mind? That He had decided to do one thing, and then Moses talked him out of it, and He decided to do something else, instead? Based on what I know of God, I don’t believe that this is the case; I believe that He already knew what He was going to do, and this conversation with Moses was for Moses’ benefit, and for our benefit, reading it in the Bible centuries later. (It gets even harder to think about when you realize that God is not bound by time, the same way that we are.) However, there is no denying that it’s presented in this chapter as if He did change his mind. And it was written that way for a reason.
Aaron’s excuse before Moses—that he just threw the gold into the fire, and, voila! out came this calf!—always makes me roll my eyes, because he is trying to convince Moses that something divine has happened. (It very much reminds me of a child, being caught with his hands in the cookie jar, but still trying to bluff his way out of it: “No, I didn’t take any cookies.”) Obviously Aaron has made this idol—with a tool—but if he can just convince Moses that it didn’t happen that way, and he was just a bystander while the idol formed itself, then he won’t get in as much trouble. It’s troubling, not so much because Aaron didn’t take responsibility for his own actions, but more because it seems he didn’t understand that there is no god but God. He was presenting his story as if it were plausible.
When the Levites go through the camp, killing their fellow Israelites, it reminds me of what Jesus says in Matthew 10:32–39:
Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
“a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her motherinlaw—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”
Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
(The quotation is from Micah 7:6.) The point is that we—like the Levites—are always to choose God over anything else in our lives, even our families. This may not be something that comes up on a regular basis, but any time there is a choice to be made, between God and anything else, the answer always has to be that we choose God.
And, while I’m mentioning verses that remind me of other passages, verse 32, when Moses tells God that if He isn’t going to forgive His people, Moses wants to be blotted out of His book, reminds me of Paul saying something similar in Romans 9:1–4:
I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.… (emphasis added)
I feel ashamed, when I read this, because I know that this is something I could never say; I would never wish eternal damnation on myself, even if it would buy salvation for an entire nation of people. Selfish? You bet—but we’re talking about eternity here!
However, I think there is also something else going on, when Moses talks about being blotted out of God’s book. Over the last few chapters, since chapter 20 or so, God has been revealing Himself to Moses and the people, mostly through His laws and commandments. This means that Moses is just learning about who He is, and what He is like. I have a feeling that Moses is also thinking, when he says this, that if God is the type of God who isn’t going to forgive His people for this sin, that maybe Moses doesn’t want to worship this God.
It’s also interesting that Moses talks about the book that God has written, not that God is writing, or will write. It’s already a done deal—God knew, before the foundations of the world, whom He would save from their sins, and whom He would not. Some people find the topic of predestination a touchy subject, but I think it’s pretty marvelous, that He knew, even before He had said “let there be light”, that He would save David Hunter from his sins. He knew what sins David Hunter would commit, and that he wouldn’t deserve to be saved, but He was going to save David anyway.
My final thought is this: Notice how much punishment is doled out for this sin. First the Israelites are slaughtered by their own brothers, the Levites, and about three thousand die. And then, later on, God sends a plague, which, although numbers aren’t mentioned, I’m sure wiped out a number more of them. But this is because the Israelites committed the worst sin they could possibly commit: They chose another “god” over God. They broke the very first commandment He gave them, back in Chapter 20. People sometimes find it surprising, here and in the commandments that God is giving the Israelites, that God prescribes the death penalty for blasphemy, but that’s because people often have messed up priorities. As mentioned above, God should be more important to us than anything else.