Exodus 32

The Law Broken & the Second Giving of the Law
Exodus 32 – 34
Exodus 32 – 34. In the next section of the book, we have the representative and total failure of Israel as a sanctified nation. The tables of the law are broken, and the Lord gives the law a second time to Moses. The second giving of the law is mingled with grace, since the people had already proven their total inability to keep the law.

The Golden Calf
Exodus 32
Exodus 32. The scene we enter on now is a stark contrast to the scene of Moses on the mountain with God, where he received the pattern for the sanctuary. The sin that Israel committed in making the golden calf marks their total rebellion against God. From the time that Moses left them to the time he returned to the scene of debauchery in the camp was only forty days. It is striking to consider that each time God gives a new dispensation there is a characteristic failure of man under the new economy; e.g. Noah’s drunkenness, Abram in Egypt, or Ananias and Saphira. It is a demonstration of the failure of the first man from the very outset. The golden calf is no different, except that it was perhaps more serious than the others; a direct insult to the throne of God who had called Israel to be a testimony to the truth that Jehovah is the one true God. The sin of Israel provoked the wrath of Jehovah against the people, but this provided an occasion for the heart of Moses to be manifested. We see grace and intercession succeed at the very darkest hour, when Divine justice might have righteously consumed the erring people.

The Golden Calf (32:1-29)

And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people collected together to Aaron, and said to him, Up, make us a god, who will go before us; for this Moses, the man that has brought us up out of the land of Egypt, — we do not know what is become of him! v.1 The People’s Desire. It is interesting that, as a general principle, when God’s people lose the expectation of Divine visitation, they become more prone to sin; “But and if that servant say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; and shall begin to beat the menservants and maidens, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken” (Luke 12:45; see also 2 Pet. 3:3-4). Here “the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain”. Man desires to have a visible object. They people thought Moses should have come down sooner, and they thought they could get along without him, and without his God. The spirit of idolatry is expressed; “Up, make us a god, who will go before us”. How could a god that was made with man’s hands do anything for Israel, let alone lead them through a perilous wilderness.
2 And Aaron said to them, Break off the golden rings that are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them to me. 3 Then all the people broke off the golden rings that were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he took them out of their hand, and fashioned it with a chisel and made of it a molten calf: and they said, This is thy god, Israel, who has brought thee up out of the land of Egypt! vv.2-4 The Golden Calf. Aaron was left in a place of responsibility. He should and could have rebuked this groundswell of rebellion, but he was ready to oblige their wicked desires. Aaron asked for the people’s earrings. Their is an interesting connection between the earrings and the motives of the people. They got their new god from their own ears. Paul speaks about itching ears; i.e. ears that are restless to hear something that satisfies man’s own lusts. “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). Aaron fashioned a golden calf, and proclaimed that this calf was Israel’s new god. He even ascribed to this newly formed image the credit for bringing Israel out of Egypt. How preposterous! Why a calf? Apparently a calf or bull was a symbol of strength and fertility, and was a common feature in the Egyptian system of idolatry.
5 And Aaron saw it, and built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation, and said, To-morrow is a feast to Jehovah! 6 And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered up burnt-offerings, and brought peace-offerings; and “the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to sport.” [quoted 1 Corinthians 10:7] vv.5-6 A Feast. Aaron (of all people) made an altar before this false god. He was in awe of the work of his own hands. Aaron then proclaimed a feast to Jehovah! This was a sad mixture of things. Aaron was trying to conceal the idolatry by putting the Lord’s name on it. He called this idolatry the worship of the Lord. Man is known for using religious words, even biblical terminology, to delude people into a false system of idol worship. However, when the Lord speaks to Moses about what the people were doing, He makes no mention of a feast to the Lord. God is not fooled by false pretenses. The quotation of this verse in 1 Corinthians 10:7 shows that what the people were doing was idolatry. It is striking to realize that before Moses had come down from the mountain the children of Israel had broken the first three commandments: (1) taken themselves another god, (2) made a graven image, and (3) taken the Lord’s name in vain – they said “tomorrow is a feast day to the Lord”. Further, we find that the spiritual sin led to immortality; they “rose up to play”.
7 Then Jehovah said to Moses, Away, go down! for thy people, which thou hast brought out of the land of Egypt, is acting corruptly. 8 They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them: they have made themselves a molten calf, and have bowed down to it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, This is thy god, Israel, who has brought thee up out of the land of Egypt! 9 And Jehovah said to Moses, I see this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. 10 And now let me alone, that my anger may burn against them, and I may consume them; and I will make of thee a great nation. vv.7-10 The Lord’s Response. The wonderful scene on the mountain top was interrupted by the people’s sin below. The Lord sent Moses back down, and relayed the circumstances in the camp of Israel according to His perfect omniscience. Jehovah told Moses that He could see that the people were “a stiff-necked people”, and asked Moses to stand back so He could consume them in holy anger, and then make from Moses a great nation. Notice that the Lord distances Himself from the people because of what they were doing; saying to Moses “thy people, which thou hast brought out of the land of Egypt”. By saying “let me alone” the Lord was drawing out Moses’ heart. Moses did not let Him alone (v.11)! This is similar to how Joseph’s true heart is seen behind his rough actions in Gen. 43. We see how the time spent in the presence of the Lord had affected Moses. Many men would have jumped at the opportunity to have a great posterity as the Lord offered to Moses. Others would have remained quiet and simply waited to see the Lord act in judgment. But the Lord knew Moses’ heart, and said what He did to draw out the servant’s appreciation of grace.
11 And Moses besought Jehovah his God, and said, Why, Jehovah, doth thy wrath burn against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians speak, and say, For misfortune he has brought them out, to slay them on the mountains, and to annihilate them from the face of the earth? Turn from the heat of thine anger, and repent of this evil against thy people! 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou sworest by thyself, and saidst to them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give to your seed, and they shall possess it for ever! 14 And Jehovah repented of the evil that he had said he would do to his people. vv.11-14 Moses’ Intercession. We have here a remarkable instance of gracious intercession. Earlier the Lord had distances Himself from Israel, saying to Moses “thy people, which thou hast brought out of the land of Egypt”. But Moses insists that Israel was “thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt”. We see a similar exchange in Daniel 9. What was this intercedes for the people, bringing before the Lord a number of reasons why, for His own name’s sake, He should not destroy the people, Although he would’ve been just in doing so because they were under the sentence of death. First, it would’ve been to destroy the work of Jehovah’s own hands (v.11). Second, it would bring dishonor on the Jehovah’s name when the news of this reached Egypt (v.12). Moses begs the Lord to repent, or change His mind. Whenever we read of God repenting (or changing His mind) it has to do with His ways in government. His moral character never changes (Mal. 3:6), and His eternal purpose never changes (Eph. 1:10). Finally, Moses falls back on the unconditional promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Israel (v.13). Notice that he does not appeal to the covenant of the law. Israel had sinned, and so the law could not be appealed to as a grounds for mercy. It says “Jehovah repented of the evil that he had said he would do to his people”. We can see it all of this that the Lord had intended from the beginning to show grace to Israel, but He had set Himself in a governmental way to destroy them. He spoke in the way He did to Moses in order to draw out the intercession of Moses. Jesus told the Syro-Phoenician woman it was not fit to give the children’s bread to dogs, not because He wanted her to go away and live out the remainder of her life in misery with her demon-possessed daughter, but rather to see her faith rise up and press Him for the blessing. In just the same way the Lord delights to answer the intercessory prayers of His saints. His sovereign will accomplished no matter what, but He is pleased to trigger the outpouring of His divine intervention on the prayers of the faithful (e.g. Rev. 8:3-5).
15 And Moses turned and went down from the mountain, with the two tables of the testimony in his hand — tables written on both their sides: on this side and on that were they written. 16 And the tables were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, engraven on the tables. 17 And Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, and said to Moses, There is a shout of war in the camp. 18 And he said, It is not the sound of a shout of victory, neither is it the sound of a shout of defeat: it is the noise of alternate singing I hear. 19 And it came to pass, when he came near the camp, and saw the calf and the dancing, that Moses’ anger burned, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and shattered them beneath the mountain. vv.15-19 Moses and Joshua Return: The Tables Broken. Moses now turns to go down the mountain with the tables of stone. They are called “the tables of the testimony”, and they were were written by God Himself, “on both their sides”. This shows that the common artistic depictions of them are not accurate. We do not know whether the commandments were divided across the two tables (five and five; or four and six) or if each table contained all ten. We do know from other scriptures that the number two is the minimum requirement to establish testimony. Three is abundant testimony, but two is adequate. It is possible that, as with other legal contracts, the two tables were identical, though independently written by God to give assurance of their accuracy and permanency. Another reason why there were two tables is because the ten commandments described Israel’s twofold responsibility; (1) God-ward, and (2) man-ward. The law could be fulfilled by “love” to God and man (Gal. 5:14; Matt. 22:35-40). One reason why God chose to cover the entire surface area of each tablet might be that it left no room for man to add to His Word! There was a noise in the camp which Joshua interpreted to be the noise of war. Moses was more discerning and it knew that it was the noise of “alternate singing”, i.e. celebration in the context of idol worship. As they drew nearer the camp, Moses saw the calf Aaron had made and people dancing before it, and his anger burned. He was zealous for the Lord, and this led to righteous indignation. The divine tables of the law never reached the camp. It was impossible to bring that holy law down into the defiled camp. The people had made a complete breach between themselves and God. Also, there could be no further question of obedience on the ground of pure law. They might be objects of mercy in response to intercession, but never as keepers of pure law. Hence, Moses breaks the tables of stone, shattering them beneath the mountain. He did this apparently without a word from the Lord, in hot anger, yet perhaps with a Divine intuition that comes from communion with God. The Lord Jesus is a beautiful contrast to this. Rather than break the tables to spare the people, Jesus bore the penalty of a broken law!
20 And he took the calf that they had made, and burned it with fire, and ground it to powder, and strewed it on the water, and made the children of Israel drink it21 And Moses said to Aaron, What has this people done to thee, that thou hast brought so great a sin on them? 22 And Aaron said, Let not the anger of my lord burn! thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief. 23 And they said to me, Make us a god, who will go before us; for this Moses, the man that has brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what is become of him! 24 And I said to them, Who has gold? They broke it off, and gave it me, and I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf. vv.20-24 The Calf and Aaron’s Excuses. There was a second thing that needed to be destroyed: the object of Israel’s idol worship. Moses “burned” the calf, a picture of divine judgment, but also “ground it to powder” that it might no longer resemble a calf, and then strewed the powder on the water, which might be a picture of death. Finally, Moses forced the people to drink the water, which might be a type of coming to terms with the sin of idolatry, i.e. to internalize the reality of what they had done, similar to how the priest was to eat of the sin offering (Lev. 6:26). Think of it, they were made to drink the very god they had just been worshipping! Moses turned directly to Aaron who had been left in charge of the camp, and demanded an explanation. As man’s habit normally is when under scrutiny because of sin, Aaron deflects the blame to the people, pointing the finger at them. Aaron made it sound like he was only going along with the the will of the people, putting himself in the best light possible. He really twists the truth when describing how the golden calf came about; “I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf”. It is a wonder that Aaron’s life was spared, but perhaps it has to do with the importance of the priesthood. If grace were overcome by sin, there is no recourse for blessing. In another place we find Moses’ interceded for Aaron at this time; “And the Lord was very angry with Aaron, to have destroyed him: and I prayed for Aaron also the same time” (Deut. 9:20).
The Failure of the Priesthood. We find that at the very beginning of the dispensation of law, Israel’s sin with the golden calf was a characteristic failure of a people, in keeping with the progression of every dispensation. The end could be seen from the very beginning. The priesthood was given as God’s grace to man under law. But even with the dispensation of priesthood, we find it failed characteristically at the very outset. Aaron ought to have conducted the people in true worship, but instead makes an idol for the people to worship. Then, when facing the truth about his sin, he deflects blame and hides behind the people. As priest he ought to have stood forward and owned his responsibility as the representative of the people. In every way, Aaron demonstrated to the failure of the priesthood. Nevertheless, there is no other recourse for a people under law. The priesthood would remain in Israel, and would actually heighten in importance. But ultimately it would come to total ruin as in the days of Christ.
25 And Moses saw the people how they were stripped; for Aaron had stripped them to their shame before their adversaries. 26 And Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, He that is for Jehovah, let him come to me. And all the sons of Levi gathered to him. 27 And he said to them, Thus saith Jehovah, the God of Israel: Put every man his sword upon his hip; go and return from gate to gate through the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbour. 28 And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. 29 And Moses said, Consecrate yourselves to-day to Jehovah, yea, every man with his son, and with his brother, and bring on yourselves a blessing to-day. vv.25-29 The Tribe of Levi and the Judgment on Israel. Moses turned from Aaron to see the people. They were in a terrible state, stripped naked after the manner of idol-worshippers. Moses knew that Aaron had orchestrated this. He saw the public dishonor to the name of Jehovah; “Aaron had stripped them to their shame before their adversaries”. There had to be consequences because of what they had done. Moses calls any who are on the Lord’s side to come to the gate of the camp. In Genesis 34 Levi and Simeon had used their swords in cruelty to revenge their defiled sister, and ended up dishonoring the God of Jacob. In Genesis 49 both are cursed because of their actions. Here in Exodus 32 Levi distinguishes himself from Simeon, and uses the sword to defend the honor of Jehovah. In Deuteronomy 33 Levi gets a blessing while Simeon is left out. This is what Moses refers to when saying; “Consecrate yourselves to-day to Jehovah, yea, every man with his son, and with his brother, and bring on yourselves a blessing to-day”. It isn’t so much that Levi had been perfect from the beginning, but that the tribe was the first to pass judgment on the sin of the people. They came to “the Lord’s side” in the sense of taking God’s side against the sin of the people. This is a principle in the ways of God. How far do we want to let sin go? In 1 Corinthians, if the fornicating man had judged himself, the assembly would not have needed to put him away. If the assembly had dealt with the wicked person in their midst, then the assembly itself would not need to be judged. The point is that the issue of sin stops as soon as judgment is passed. Nevertheless, this gives us a striking example of the results of the administration of the law: it results in death. “For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Cor. 3:6). Compare the giving of the law with the sending of the Spirit (Acts 2:41). Here 3000 were killed, but on the day of Pentecost 3000 were saved! Such is the contrast between law and grace.

Moses’ Intercession (32:30-35)

30 And it came to pass the next day, that Moses said to the people, Ye have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to Jehovah: perhaps I shall make atonement for your sin. v.30 Moses to Israel. The slaying of the 3000 was but a token judgment on the people for their shameful behavior, but the deeper sin of idolatry was not addressed; “Ye have sinned a great sin”. Moses would go up to the mountain a second time, and would intercede for the people as a mediator with Jehovah (Gal. 3:19). He would seek to make atonement – a covering, or passing over – for the sin of the people. The only forgiveness Moses could gain – and it was only a “perhaps” – would be in a governmental sense.1 Judicial forgiveness is not possible apart from the blood of Christ. Read more…
31 And Moses returned to Jehovah, and said, Alas, this people has sinned a great sin, and they have made themselves a god of gold! 32 And now, if thou wilt forgive their sin … but if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book that thou hast written. vv.31-32 Moses’ Intercession. It is touching to see how Moses intercedes for the people. He confesses the sin of the people, calling it “a great sin”, and naming it. He does not tell Jehovah to forgive them, but presents it as his hopeful desire; “if thou wilt forgive their sin … but if not”. If Jehovah would not forgive the sin outright, Moses asked to have his name blotted out of Jehovah’s book (no doubt a reference to the “book of life”, Rev. 3:5; 20:15). This means Moses was willing to exchange his eternal destiny, to lose his salvation, if it meant Jehovah would forgive Israel. This is an amazing love that Moses displays, and we see a similar thing with the apostle Paul, who could wish himself accursed from Christ for his brethren (Rom. 9:1-3). How like Christ this love is! Yet Christ was not only willing to take the curse of God’s judgment, He actually took it.
33 And Jehovah said to Moses, Whoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book. 34 And now go, lead the people whither I have told thee: behold, my Angel shall go before thee; but in the day of my visiting I will visit their sin upon them. vv.33-34 Jehovah’s Response. Moses could not bear the sin of the the people, though like Paul he might wish to. The Lord makes that clear by saying; “Whoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book”. Moses could not give himself as a ransom for many. Only the true Mediator, man Christ Jesus could do that (1 Timothy 2:5-6). The Lord then told Moses to lead the people forward, and promised His Angel (His presence) to go before them, although as ch.33 shows this was different from going with them. This was mercy mingled with judgment. The people would not get off free with their sin, but there would be governmental judgment; “in the day of my visiting I will visit their sin upon them”. They were still under law, and therefore under judgment because of their sin. Whether the “day of my visiting” refers to the plague over v.35, or whether it refers to some future time is not clear. I tend to think it refers to a future time (Acts 7:41-42), although some excellent commentators believe v.35 is what is in view.
35 And Jehovah smote the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron had made. v.35 Judgment. But though the day of visitation had not come, there was a present governmental judgment on the people. It is interested that both the people and Aaron are blamed for making the calf. They were smitten with some kind of judgment, perhaps a plague or pestilence.
  1. Thus the mediation of Moses was available for forgiveness, as regards government, and to put them under a government, the principles of which we shall see by-and-by; but it was useless as regards any atonement which would protect them from the final effect of their sin (its effect as regarded their eternal relationship with God), and withdraw them from under the judgment of the law. – Darby, J.N. Synopsis of the Books of the Bible.