If we learn anything from this chapter, it’s simply this, if people don’t stay focused on God, they will fall into all kinds of ungodly practices.
Moses’ forty days on the mountain have come to an end, Exodus 24:18, and the people fell into idolatry. We’re not told how long it took them to build this idol but appears that people were yearning for some kind of physical leadership.
They thought Moses had deserted them because he was away so long and so they turn to Aaron for leadership to build a golden calf. They demand that Aaron make them ‘gods’, in other words, they wanted some kind of visual expression of their beliefs, Galatians 3:3.
We must remember they’ve been in Egypt surrounded by idolatry and although they shouldn’t be demanding any gods to be built, Exodus 20:3 / Deuteronomy 5:6 / Exodus 20:4-6 / Deuteronomy 5:8-10, and so, to a degree we can understand their yearning to worship something physical.
It’s possible that Aaron gave in to their request because he feared the people may have rebelled. It’s clear at this point that Aaron is no leader because leaders must learn to stand up for God and not give in to the majority.
The reason they built a calf was probably because a calf was representative of a god throughout Egypt, the bull represented strength and fertility. It was common practice in these days to make an idol out of wood, overlaid with gold.
Earlier, 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 received a collection, an offering of gold to make an idol.
After the idol was made, they say, ‘these are your gods’, which tells us that they have now totally lost their focus on the One true God and started following the gods of their imagination. They have totally ignored the fact that it was God, Himself who brought them out of Egypt.
Notice the text says that Aaron built the idol but he also built an altar to the Lord. We can’t be sure what was going through Aaron’s mind at this point in time, it appears he wants to please the people and please God, Acts 5:29.
Notice the hypocrisy continues, after sacrificing and worshipping the One true God, they ‘sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry’.
The word, ‘revelry’ implies sexual activity, that is they were involved in an orgy, 1 Corinthians 10:7-8. Also, remember there were thousands upon thousands involved in this sinful behaviour.
God tells Moses what was happening before he left God’s presence in order to prepare Moses to deal with the spiritual heartache he’s about to witness.
We can only imagine what was going through Moses’ mind when God informed him about what was happening down the mountain. He’s been on a spiritual high with God for the last forty days and now he’s about to plunge into a spiritual low.
God’s people have now become corrupt, and notice God tells Moses, they are ‘your people’ now, ‘whom you brought up out of Egypt’, in other words, they were no longer God’s people they are Moses’ people, Moses brought them out of Egypt.
The word, ‘stiff-necked’ originally referred to an ox that wouldn’t submit to the control of a yoke. The fact that Israel had so quickly turned away from God to follow the gods of their imagination reveals that they were a stiff-necked people. They haven’t learned what it means to submit to the Lord.
God speaks as if He had seen enough, and He made a remarkable offer to Moses and if Moses would only agree, God would consume Israel and start over again with Moses.
The patient wrath of God was so great that He would start another nation through Moses, wait for possibly another several centuries, and then call them to a covenant relationship.
He would have done this very thing if Moses hadn’t interceded on behalf of Israel. Moses realised that God would rain down judgment on the people. He thus resisted the opportunity to exalt himself by pleading for Israel’s case. The clear impression here is that if Moses did nothing, then God would have made him into a great nation.
Obviously, God knew what was going to happen before it happened but it’s clear that God allowed the rebellion to happen in order to reveal the mediatorship of Moses on their behalf. Moses’ prayer of intercession presented three arguments against what God contemplated doing.
1. He appealed for God to remember all that he had already done for Israel.
Moses appealed to God on the basis of grace. He knows that Israel didn’t deserve to be brought out of Egypt in the first place. He knows it was all down to the grace of God and so Moses asks God to keep showing them grace.
2. He pointed out that the Egyptians would accuse God of leading the people out in order to destroy them.
Moses appealed to God on the basis of glory. Moses is aware of God’s reputation among the nations, he knows that if God wipes them off the face of the earth, this will discredit God, he knows the Egyptians will think that He is a cruel God. Moses asks God not to let anyone think that way about Him.
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.
Moses appealed to God on the basis of His goodness. He knows that God keeps His promises, He knows God is a good and faithful God. Moses asks God not to break His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.
Notice that God ‘relented’ some translations use the word, ‘repented’. When people hear the word repent they usually think of it in relation to sin, Ezekiel 33:13-16, however, we know that God doesn’t sin and doesn’t need to repent of any sin, Numbers 23:19.
The word repent itself means, to think differently and the phrase used here is called an anthropomorphic, which is a human expression used to refer to the action of God in reference to the behaviour of man. The meaning is simply that God changed His direction from destruction to preservation, Jonah 3:10.
Some commentators believe there is symbolism here in reference to Moses’ breaking the two tablets on which the ten commandments were written. When Israel rebelled by going after other gods, they broke the covenant.
In other words, because Moses broke the two tablets, that meant the covenant Israel made with God was also broken, which resulted in justice needing to be carried out.
When we think about Moses’ life, he appears to have an anger issue which he struggled with, here he breaks the tablets in anger, earlier he killed an Egyptian in anger, Exodus 2:11-12, and later, in anger, he struck the rock God commanded him to speak to, Numbers 20:10-11, which resulted in him not be allowed to enter the promised land.
The wood the Israelites used to make the idol was burned and the gold they used to overlay the idol was ground into a powder. There were three reasons why they were made to drink it.
1. To show that this ‘god’ was nothing and could be destroyed easily.
2. To completely destroy the idol.
3. To set forth in a visible manner both their sin and its consequences, Numbers 5:24.
Notice that although Aaron quoted the people exactly, he blatantly blames the people, and when it came to his own actions, he basically says, he threw everything into the fire and out popped this calf, which we know was a total lie.
He seems to imply that because this calf just ‘miraculously’ came out, then it must have been a miracle. However, when Moses and everyone else saw the human engraving marks on it, Exodus 32:4, this was evidence of his very own workmanship.
Moses charged him with having brought a great sin upon the people. When we read Deuteronomy 9:20, we see that Aaron’s support of the people’s sin made God very angry with him, and if Moses didn’t intercede on his behalf, God would have killed him.
We can see just how serious their sin was in the punishment they received, every rebellious Israelite was to be killed. This wasn’t the time for repentance, this was the time when God would get rid of the rebellious among His people, Judges 17:6 / Proverbs 14:12.
Coffman, in his commentary, says the following.
‘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.’
After the children of Israel had left Egypt and crossed the Red Sea, God called Moses up to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and the pattern of the Tabernacle from God. Whilst Moses was away, a critical problem of idolatry came among the children of Israel, who remained down on the Plain.
The tribe of Levi showed itself to be definitely on the Lord’s side at that time. Levi was the tribe to which both Moses and Aaron belonged. As a result of their taking sides with the Lord, the tribe of Levi ‘the Levites’ was selected to take care of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, Exodus 38:21.
As a whole, the Levites became responsible for ‘the service of the work of the Tent of Meeting’, the Tabernacle, Numbers 4:3. The Hebrew word translated service also means ‘warfare’. Therefore, their ‘service’ in the Tabernacle was a figure of spiritual warfare, as at the golden calf incident, the Levites were on the Lord’s side.
Levi had had three sons, Gershon, Kohath and Merari. The Levites’ work was partitioned according to their families. The family of Gershon were responsible for carrying and setting up the curtains of the Outer Court, the Coverings of the Tabernacle, the curtain Door to the Sanctuary, the curtain Door to the Outer Court, together with all the ropes and fixings required for securing these curtains, Numbers 3:25-26.
The family of Merari were responsible for carrying and setting up the Boards, the Bars and the Pillars and Sockets of the Outer Court, Numbers 3:36-37.
The family of Kohath were responsible for carrying and placing the Ark of the Covenant, the Veil, the Golden Incense Altar, the Lampstand, the Showbread Table, the Laver and the Burnt Offering Altar, together with all the utensils these required, Numbers 3:31.
The children of Israel knew when it was time to move on in their journey through the wilderness, because the pillar of cloud, by day or fire, by night would move as a signal leading them.
The Levites would dismantle the Tabernacle, carry it to the destination, determined by the pillar of cloud and fire and then reassemble it at the new location.
When the Tabernacle was reared up at a new location, God commanded that the tribes settled around it in a specific order, Numbers 2:1-34. On the East side, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun. On the South side, Reuben, Simeon and Gad. On the West side, Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph, and Benjamin. On the North side, Dan, Asher and Naphtali. The Levites were to encamp all the way around the Tabernacle, Numbers 1:53.
Do you notice anything interesting about the number 3000?
After Peter preached the first Gospel message on the day of Pentecost, Luke tells us that ‘3000 souls were added to their number that day,’ Acts 2:40-41.
When the Old Testament law was introduced it immediately brought death, and 3000 souls died on that day. But when the New Testament law is introduced it brought grace, John 1:16-17, and 3000 souls were saved that day.
Although the breaking of the stone tablets symbolised the breaking of the covenant with the nation, God continued in His covenant that He had made with Abraham, Genesis 12:1-4.
At this time, after Moses had interceded for the nation that they be spared from destruction by God, Moses went up the mountain again before God to mediate on their behalf for atonement.
Moses worked as a true mediator, he confessed their sin before God, sought God’s forgiveness on behalf of the people, and then offered himself as a sacrifice for the people.
Moses asks God to ‘blot me out of the book you have written’, but God’s answer to him was that accountability for sin rested with individuals. If God wouldn’t forgive them, then he asked if he could be cut off from fellowship with God for the sake of the nation, Exodus 22:20 / 1 Peter 3:18 / 2 Corinthians 5:21 / Romans 9:1-3.
Although God’s people deserved death, they received mercy, and their sins were forgiven but they still had to pay the consequences for their sin which came in the form of a plague.