Exodus 29–32: The Golden Calf & the Lord’s Side

Read the Bible in 2011–2021* ◊ Week 21: Monday

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’”
Exodus 32:7–8

Monday’s Bible reading is Exodus 29–32. Pray and ask God to teach you and apply what you learn to your life.

As background remember that in Exodus 20–23, God had given Moses the Ten Commandments, and other laws on Mount Sinai. In Exodus 24:

Then Moses came and recounted to the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do!”
Exodus 24:3

Moses then built an altar and burnt offering and peace offerings were made. For a second time the people said, All that the LORD has spoken we will do, adding that they would be obedient.

Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!” So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
Exodus 24:7–8

In Exodus 24:12-18, God calls Moses back to Mount Sinai to give him stone tables, “with the law and the commandment which I have written for their instruction.” Joshua goes with him, and they are there for forty days and forty nights. In Exodus 25–30, God gives Moses instructions for the tabernacle and the priests. God gives details on sacrifices, the altar of incense, and anointing oil. In Exodus 31, God explains the skillful men who are to make everything necessary for the tabernacle and the priests: Bezalel.

The chapter ends with instructions for the Sabbath. In Exodus 32, we learn what Aaron and Israel have been doing while Moses and Joshua were gone for forty days and forty nights.

Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled about Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
Exodus 32:1

Aaron makes the golden calf, and builds an altar to it. God tells Moses to go down quickly. He is ready to destroy the Israelites, but relents because of Moses’ pleas.

Moses is furious when he arrives and sees the golden calf and the revelry within the camp; in anger he breaks the tablets God has just given him.

It came about, as soon as Moses came near the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing; and Moses’ anger burned, and he threw the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf which they had made and burned it with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it over the surface of the water and made the sons of Israel drink it.
Exodus 32:19–20

Hywel Jones writes:

“The law is shattered by Moses to illustrate to the people the meaning of their apostacy. His anger is not a fit of temper but the upsurge of righteous indignation.”1

Philip Ryken concurs that this was not an instance when Moses seized things, literally, into his own hands (as in Egypt). He writes:

“There are at least two indications that Moses’ anger was righteous. One is the simple fact that God did not rebuke him for his rage. On another occasion God did rebuke Moses. It was in Kadesh, where the Israelites ran out of water. As usual, when the people didn’t have what they needed, they blamed Moses. On that occasion the prophet was so fed up with their grumbling and complaining that he lashed out. He spoke angry words and struck a rock in fury. But Moses was angry for himself, not for God, so God punished him for his sin. He did not allow Moses to enter the Promised Land. But God did not punish him for the way he dealt with the golden calf. This suggests what he did was right.

“This is confirmed in verse 19, where the Bible says that Moses’ “anger burned.” This is the same language that God used bac in verse 10 when he threatened to destroy the Israelites. The Hebrew draws a linguistic connection between God and Moses. They both responded to Israel’s sin with anger. So this was one of the rare situations when someone’s anger was actually righteous.”2

Jones calls Aaron’s excuse pathetic, as it certainly was:

“Aaron’s self-excusing is pathetic, as indeed is every attempt to exonerate one self from sin. The people are blamed, but the calf allegedly made itself! Aaron should have stood against them…Aaron’s excuses reveal his weakness before both the people and Moses.”3

The ground didn’t break open and swallow people up as the famous movie, The Ten Commandments, depicts, but rather Levites responded to Moses’ call:

Moses saw that the people were out of control and that Aaron had laid them open to the secret malice of their enemies. He took his place at the gate of the camp, and said, ‘Who is on the LORD‘s side? Come here to me’; and the Levites all rallied to him. He said to them, ‘These are the words of the LORD the God of Israel: “Arm yourselves, each of you, with his sword. Go through the camp from gate to gate and back again. Each of you kill his brother, his friend, his neighbour.”’ The Levites obeyed, and about three thousand of the people died that day. Moses then said, ‘Today you have consecrated yourselves to the LORD completely, because you have turned each against his son and his own brother and so have this day brought a blessing upon yourselves.”
Exodus 32:25–29 NEB

Ryken writes:

“This was a shocking assignment. Notice that this was not Moses’ idea; the command came from God. And this was the first thing that God told the Levites to do when they came to his side—to carry out his judgment against Israel’s sin. There is no question here as to whether or not this was just. The Israelites had made a blood covenant with God, in which they had promised not to make any idols or have any other gods. Once they broke these command­ments, their lives were forfeit. God had every right to put them all to death. If we have trouble understanding this, it is because we do not understand what a wicked thing it is to worship other gods.

“…Yet even in his wrath, God remembered to show mercy. Not everyone was killed. The Bible says, “The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day three thousand of the people died” (v. 28). This was a horrific loss of life, but rather than simply thinking about how many perished, we should consider how many were saved. Three thousand was only one half of 1 percent of Israel’s adult population. God restrained his hand of judgment…

“The Bible doesn’t say who was executed, but in all likelihood the Levites only killed the instigators, the men who were most responsible for Israel’s sin. When God told them to kill their brothers and neighbors, the point was not that each man had to kill his closest friends, but that whoever was guilty had to be punished. The Levites were not to let the ties of blood or friendship hinder them from their service to God. Not even family and friends were to be spared, if they refused to follow God.

“…Because of their unflinching obedience and unrelenting opposition to sin, God consecrated the Levites for his sacred ministry.”3

Ryken draws this application. Read this and think about it:

“This is a hard passage. It shows that God’s claim on us is stronger even than the claims of family and friendship. Jesus said, “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” (Matt. 10:37, 38). This does not mean that we should hate the people in our families. But it does mean that whether they are believers or not, our love for them must submit to our higher love for God.”4

It is so very hard to stand for God when your family and those you have known stand against you. I know. I have been there. When I became a Christian in college many of my friends had a hard time with their families who became angry when they said they had become believers in Jesus. The pastor at my family’s liberal church called me in and told me it made him angry when students were told they weren’t Christians when they’d grown up in the church. (I don’t think this man was a Christian. He told a friend of mine that he didn’t think Jesus was the only way to God, which directly contradicted Jesus’ words about Himself).

When my brother was dying of AIDS, my father, especially, was angry with me for continuing to witness to him about the Lord Jesus. We had talked many times about Jesus, and when he was in college he actually asked me how to witness to someone. I loved my brother very much, and, despite our obvious disagreements about his lifestyle, for years his habit was to turn to me in difficult times. When he became sick there was a lot of family drama, and during a phone call with him, I made one more attempt to gently talk with him about repentance. I asked if he loved Jesus, and he said, yes. I said, then you have to tell Him, He’s right, and you’ve been wrong. My brother didn’t reply, but handed the phone to our mother. I sent him some things, including tapes of my reading the gospel of John, but that was the last time I spoke with him. I cannot tell you how much it hurt when he shut me out of his life.

There’s a song from India called, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” One story of its origin is that it was sung by a man from the Assam region who died for his faith.

“One Welsh missionary succeeded in converting a man, his wife, and two children. This man’s faith proved contagious and many villagers began to accept Christianity. Angry, the village chief summoned all the villagers. He then called the family who had first converted to renounce their faith in public or face execution.”

The man replied, singing,

I have decided to follow Jesus.
No turning back, no turning back.

Though no one joins me, still I will follow.
No turning back, no turning back.

The cross before me, the world behind me.
No turning back, no turning back.

When that phone call with my brother ended, while my husband was talking to my father, I went for a walk. I prayed, but I mostly remember singing. It wasn’t “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” but “Step By Step.”

Oh God, you are my God,
And I will ever praise you.
Oh God, You are my God,
And I will ever praise You.

I will seek You in the morning
And I will learn to walk in your ways,
And step by step You will lead me
And I will follow You all of my days.

That bring me to a third and last song.

Moses asked, “Who is on the LORD‘s side?” A question the Levites answered, and a question for us all.

Isaiah 42 Photograph: ChristianPhotos.net – Free High Resolution Photos for Christian Publications. (Site has been deleted since posting).
The Golden Calf: James Tissot. Public domain.
Moses Destroys the Tables of the Ten Commandments: James Tissot. Public domain.
1,3Hywel R. Jones, “Exodus,” The New Bible Commentary: Revised, D. Guthrie, J. A. Motyer, eds., A. M. Stibbs, D. J. Wiseman, contributing eds. (Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL: 1970) 137.
2,3,4Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus: Saved For God’s Glory (Crossway Books, Wheaton IL: 2005) 998–999, 1010–1011, 1011.

*In 2011 I started a year-long series of posts, “Read the Bible in 2011.” You can find the other posts in the navigation menu in the header. If a day doesn’t have a link to a post, the post was simply a brief reminder about the reading. I’m filling in some of those gaps with new posts with “Read the Bible in 2011 Redux” as a category.

Copyright ©2011–2021 Iwana Carpenter

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