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We finished the last study with a quote from Leviticus 19:2 ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.

Perhaps before looking at this chapter we should think back over the last few studies.

What can you remember, starting before Moses went up the mountain, which emphasised the holiness of God?

And what specifically linked the people to God?

(Yes, you can use your bibles – perhaps as far back as Exodus 19:6!)


(Limits put round the mountain, washing, consecrating, 10 Commandments, Covenant, Tabernacle – Ark – Holy of Holies, Priests – their clothes and consecration, Anointing oil, Offerings –  Sacrifice – Atonement money, The Sabbath)


Now read Exodus 32:1-6

1 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered round 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.’

2 Aaron answered them, ‘Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.’ 3 So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4 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, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’

5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, ‘Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.’ 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterwards they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.


I hesitate to comment on this; yes it’s shocking, but before we look at the Israelites we need to look at ourselves and wonder if we have ever treated God’s holiness in the same way. Are we indifferent in our approach to God? Do we regard our own sin as trivial – taking our salvation for granted?

Or is our attitude to worship so casual or so much a ritual that we too can sacrifice burnt offerings and present fellowship offerings, then afterwards sit down to eat and drink and get up to indulge in revelry? (v5)


God’s holiness is still the same as it was in Moses’ day and humankind can still be as fickle.


Let’s turn to our passage then. Obviously the people had become impatient: six weeks was too long for the people to wait. Interestingly no-one suggested going up the mountain to see what had happened to Moses, they weren’t that brave.


Look at verse 1

1 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered round 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.’


The people had been led by Moses in a national act of dedication and consecration. Now that Moses had ‘gone missing’ it seems their loyalty to God had also disappeared. But why ‘make us gods’?  


It seems likely that whilst they were in Egypt they had accepted and worshipped the Egyptian gods, and had brought idols with them which they then continued to worship as they went into the Promised Land. Read:


Leviticus 17:7 They must no longer offer any of their sacrifices to the goat idols to whom they prostitute themselves. This is to be a lasting ordinance for them and for the generations to come;

 

Joshua 24:14 Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshipped beyond the River Euphrates and in Egypt, and serve the Lord;

 

Ezekiel 20:8 But they rebelled against me and would not listen to me; they did not get rid of the vile images they had set their eyes on, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt.


Every nation had visible images of the gods that they worshipped, but Moses had explained that the true God could not be depicted in this way. Although it had been Moses that had led them out of Egypt, the Israelites recognised that they had been freed by a supernatural force. But now they wanted to have an image of this god to lead them, since Moses had apparently gone.


Read verses 2-3

2 Aaron answered them, ‘Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.’ 3 So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron.


What was Aaron to do? The arguments were very persuasive: all that the people wanted was a representation of ‘The One True God’ to focus their worship on; a figurehead to carry before them as they marched into the Promised Land.


How many church leaders have buckled under the majority telling them that their interpretation of scripture is old-fashioned or unscientific? That they need to move with the times and adopt modern practices? That ‘human rights’ take precedence over God’s word?


 4 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, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.

Aaron capitulated and made them a Calf-idol – but he wasn’t expecting the people’s response: ‘Then they said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.


That was blasphemy – but it was too late. Moses hadn’t seen that coming and it wasn’t what he thought had been intended. Quickly he tried to redirect the people into worshipping the One True God: read verses 5-6


5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, ‘Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.’ 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterwards they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.


Sinful people, left to their own devices will always sin – it’s their nature. But God was in the business of building a Holy people – hence the detailed directions Moses was receiving up the mountain. The people hadn’t yet received these instructions; they appeared not to understand the Holiness of God. They assumed that having made a sacrifice they could continue with the festivities and revelry that the other nations indulged in when offering to their gods.


How quick the people were to forget their experiences in chapter 19, and to ignore the covenant promises they had so recently made in chapter 24 (v7).


Aaron may have hoped to direct the people’s worship back to the Lord. But God knew precisely what was going on:


7 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”


Moses must have been stunned to hear these words. Worse was the fact that God seemed to have already distanced himself from the people: ‘your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt’


9 ‘I have seen these people,’ the Lord said to Moses, ‘and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.’


The people had demonstrated that they were self-willed, like a horse stiffening its neck against the pull of the reins. So God suggested that he was prepared to destroy them all and start again with Moses as the head of a new nation.


But what do you make of the phrase ‘Now leave me alone’?

Moses had spent the last few weeks in close communion with God. Now God is suggesting that all his commands and all his plans for the people could be abandoned if Moses too was prepared to walk away.


But if instead Moses remained, what might Moses do?


11 But Moses sought the favour of the Lord his God. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 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.13 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 for ever.”’ 14 Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.


We often feel ‘if only we could go back and do that again’ then perhaps we wouldn’t make the same mistakes. But we can’t, we have to learn from our actions and move forward. God needed to know that Moses was prepared to go forward with him, knowing that the people would probably sin again, but that God would still be prepared to accept them as his people.


15 Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. 16 The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.

17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said to Moses, ‘There is the sound of war in the camp.’


Joshua had evidently waited patiently for Moses on the Mountain (See note on Exodus 24:13).  He had no knowledge of what had been going on below in the camp.


18 Moses replied:

‘It is not the sound of victory,
    it is not the sound of defeat;
    it is the sound of singing that I hear.’

19 When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain.


The people had broken their covenant; the copies of the covenant ‘document’ were therefore rendered useless, so they were smashed.


20 And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.


What water? See Deuteronomy 9:21 ‘Also I took that sinful thing of yours, the calf you had made, and burned it in the fire. Then I crushed it and ground it to powder as fine as dust and threw the dust into a stream that flowed down the mountain.


21 He said to Aaron, ‘What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?’


Had they tortured him, or was it just the threat of some terrible retribution that he people had threatened Aaron with if he didn’t comply?


22 ‘Do not be angry, my lord,’ Aaron answered. ‘You know how prone these people are to evil. 23 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.” 24 So I told them, “Whoever has any gold jewellery, take it off.” Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!’


‘They said to me  .  .  .  .  so I told them’. There had been no threats, Aaron had just been too weak; faced with powerful men he had simply been unable to exercise the authority Moses had given him.


25 Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughing-stock to their enemies. 26 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, ‘Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.’ And all the Levites rallied to him.


How many people were present around Mount Sinai?

603,550 men (aged 20 or over) plus presumably the same number of women, plus youngsters – at least 2 million. (Numbers chapters 1 and 2 – see 2:32)


I can only imagine that Moses stood at the entrance to his (Levites) section of the camp and so it was the Levites that responded to his call.


As we read the passages we naturally assume it applies to everyone. But probably the majority of the people were not interested in what the leaders were getting up to and simply got on with the business of daily living, looking after their families and their flocks and herds.


But there would have been plenty who considered themselves to be leaders among the people – heads of families, clans, and tribes. And others who were interested enough in what was being done in their name to want to be involved. And no doubt large numbers would have been happy to join in the revelry.


It is very sad to think that among the leaders could be the seventy elders who had met with God six weeks earlier (Exodus 24:9-11).


27 Then he said to them, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbour.”’ 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. 


Although this was a large number of people it represented only a tiny percentage (0.15%) of the whole population but was no doubt aimed at those who were known to have taken part in the rebellion against God.


29 Then Moses said, ‘You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.’

30 The next day Moses said to the people, ‘You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.’

Moses encouraged the Levites that they had done right, and that they would be blessed for taking a stand for God. But for the rest, Moses was aware that atonement must still be made for their sin, and that as their leader, it was for him to go back up the mountain and face God again.


31 So Moses went back to the Lord and said, ‘Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, please forgive their sin – but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.’


Moses was prepared to give his life in exchange for the lives of those who were sinners. But more than that, to be removed from the ‘Lamb’s book of life’ (Revelation 21:27) and lose his own hope of eternal salvation.


33 The Lord replied to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 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.’

35 And the Lord struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.


Moses was a forerunner of Christ, but he knew nothing of his redeeming work. However because he loved God, he believed that his name would be in God’s book – that he would live in Heaven with him for eternity.


God, already living in eternity, knew that when the time came to judge, there would be those who had rejected him and they would be cast out. The plague was an immediate ‘Cause and Effect’ punishment, necessary to demonstrate to the whole community the wickedness of sin, but at the same time not necessarily condemning all who died in it to an eternity in Hell.




Exodus 30Exodus 33








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Exodus 32:1-35 The Golden Calf
(For Exodus 31 see Exodus 30)