Table of Contents
Exodus 32 - Commentary by Rev. John Schultz
The Golden Calf
The events described here are not limited to this chapter; they spill over into the next two. The chapters 32-34 form, in a sense, the lowest and the highest points of the whole book of Exodus. In the making of the Golden Calf, Israel did the basest thing they could have done; they showed their real character as "a stiff-necked people," as the Lord calls them. But their most horrible sin becomes a reason for the greatest revelation of God's glory. Moses' request, "Now show me your glory"[ 1 ] is one of the bravest and most awesome things a man ever asked God. How God must have been delighted! These chapters are an illustration of Paul's words: "Where sin increased, grace increased all the more."[ 2 ]
In this chapter we read, in the first place, about Israel's crime of idolatry and then God's warning to Moses and finally Moses' reaction to the people's sin.
We should consider the question of why the people committed this sin and then determine what Aaron's responsibility was in the incident. Then there is the role of the Levites, and, finally, Moses' intercession.
The first apparent reason for the making of the Golden Calf was frustration on the side of the people. For them the Exodus had been the doing of Moses, and now that Moses had disappeared, they felt forsaken. In spite of the fact that God had revealed Himself directly to the whole nation of Israel, they had never developed a personal relationship with God. Their knowledge of God and their experience of Him was limited to the person of Moses. When Moses disappeared, their connection with God was broken off.
But we get the impression that Moses' disappearance was more an excuse than a reason for the making of the idol. The people had lived in Egypt for almost four centuries. All these people had been born and reared in Egypt. They had been saturated with the idolatry of Egypt, of which the worship of calves had been an important part. In spite of their heritage, which included God's revelation of Himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they felt more at home with the Egyptian idolatry than with their monotheistic religion.
From Ezekiel chapter 20 we understand that the Israelites had been practicing idolatry in Egypt and had taken their idols with them when they left the country. We read: "And I [God] said to them, 'Each of you, get rid of the vile images you have set your eyes on, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.' 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. So I said I would pour out my wrath on them and spend my anger against them in Egypt."[ 3 ] So the natural thing for the Israelites to do, when Moses went out of the picture, was to revert to the worship of the image of an idol.
The Israelites inherited from the Egyptians the tendency to erase the differences between opposite religions. We quote from an interesting comment by Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary: "One of the most confusing aspects of Egyptian religion was its ability to accept the process of syncretism. Through this process one god would take on the characteristics of another god and thus eliminate its distinctiveness." That is how the Israelites could say about the Golden Calf: "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt." It strikes us as strange that the people say: "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt," when they see the image of one single idol. The fact that they use the plural to give expression to object of their religion would indicate a tendency to syncretism.
The Israelites knew very well, however, how they had been delivered from Egypt. The death of all the first-born sons of Egypt during the Passover night was still fresh in their memory. They knew that the twelfth plague had been the defeat of the Egyptian idols and that they were protected from the plague because of the blood of the lamb. God had said to Moses: "On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn-- both men and animals-- and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt."[ 4 ] How then, could they identify the Lord with a Golden Calf? In doing so they left the protection of the blood they had enjoyed all the way from Egypt to Mount Sinai. They endangered their lives in withdrawing from the protection of the Lord.
Aaron's role in the making of the calf seems to have been a strange mixture of wisdom and folly. We read in vs. 25 that "Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies." From this we gather that Aaron had analyzed the situation correctly and had chosen to take a course that would punish the people for their own folly. But from remarks in Deuteronomy, we understand that Aaron sinned in doing so, because Moses says there: "And the LORD was angry enough with Aaron to destroy him, but at that time I prayed for Aaron too."[ 5 ] Aaron must have given in to fear for the mob and acted against his conscience. When he announced: "Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD," he may have made an effort to change the tide, but his words could also be seen as a confirmation of the attitude of the people, who identified their idol with YHWH, who had led them out of Egypt. Evidently, Aaron had brought guilt upon himself because he was afraid of men.
It could also be that, in requesting the people to bring their earrings and jewelry, he expected them to refuse to give up the loot they had taken from Egypt, but if this is what he thought, he was wrong; they gladly sacrificed their ornaments for the making of the idol. And so, while God gave instructions to his brother on top of the mountain regarding his ordination as High Priest, Aaron was busy pouring molten gold in the form of a calf. When we put the two pictures next to each other, what happened on top of the mountain and that what happened at the foot of the mountain, we realize how terrible sin is.
When God gave His instructions to Moses regarding the tabernacle, the service and the priesthood, He knew who Aaron was and what he was doing, yet He chose him as High Priest. There is a mystery in omniscience that is far beyond our understanding. The same mystery faces us when Jesus chose Judas as one of the twelve. God knows who we are and what we are capable of doing in the realm of sin; yet He chooses us and destines us to be taken up in His glory.
It is a detail, but when Aaron speaks about "the gold earrings that your wives, your sons[ 6 ] and your daughters are wearing," we see that the fad of men wearing earrings in our time is nothing more than a return of a centuries-old fashion.
Aaron's suggestion about a festival for the Lord the next day makes the people lose all moral restraint. The RSV's rendering of the event is that "the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play." This is the translation most of the older versions, such as the KJV and ASV give. The NIV is, undoubtedly, more correct in saying: "they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry." But TLB captures the mood best with its paraphrase: "they sat down to feast and drink at a wild party, followed by sexual immorality." They must have had access to alcoholic beverages. There was nothing innocent about their behavior. The enemy was having a heyday. When we read earlier that the people became "a laughingstock to their enemies," we realize that the enemy may have been a horde of demons. Sexual immorality must have been part of the idol worship in Egypt. We have to conclude that Israel may have left Egypt, but Egypt had not left Israel. The people carried a big load of filth and darkness with them when God redeemed them from their slavery. Inwardly, they remained slaves for centuries to come.
The behavior of the people at the foot of the mountain had its effect upon what happened on top of the mountain. There was, evidently, a direct connection between what went on above and below. Jesus' words to His disciples indicate that there is a principle that is operative here also. We read: "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."[ 7 ] The immorality of the people brought the audience of Moses with God to an end. God sent Moses down with the obvious intent to bring the "festival" to an end.
It is a strange phenomenon that God makes Himself dependent upon the presence of His children on earth to limit or stop the spread of evil. At the same time God counts on His children to limit the effect of His wrath. We ought to be amazed at what God says to Moses in vs. 10, "Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them--" as if Moses' presence would prevent God from letting His anger burn! Evidently, such is the case. Just as Lot's presence prevented the angel from destroying Sodom,[ 8 ] so the presence of Moses would keep God from destroying Israel. And, if I read Scripture correctly, the presence of the church on earth will postpone God's final judgment.
The dialogue between Moses and God poses various problems. There is, obviously, more intended than is said. It would be hard to imagine that the eternal Creator of the universe would change His mind, because one of His creatures reminds Him of His own covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God does not need reminders, but Moses does. We should, therefore, look at this conversation from a different angle. What Moses says to God is, actually, what God wants Moses to understand.
There is the testing little phrase: "your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt." God tempts Moses to believe that he can take credit for what God did Himself through Moses. Many of God's servants find themselves unable to avoid that trap, but Moses does not fall in it. He bounces back at God in vs. 11, where he talks about, "your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand." We could paraphrase Moses' reply as: "You mean to say that I performed those miracles in Egypt and at the Red Sea?" There may have been moments in Moses' life when he indulged in the illusion that he was a powerful and important man. This attitude was the essence of his sin at Meribah. We read about this in the book of Numbers: "He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, 'Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?' "[ 9 ] There is a subtle danger for every servant of the Lord to regard the blessings God lets flow through us as emanating from ourselves. We need to pay attention to Jesus' words to keep us straight in our thinking about ourselves. He said: "When you have done everything you were told to do, [you] should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.' "[ 10 ]
Moses' conversation with God gives us a clear picture of what God wants our fellowship with Him to be. In verbalizing our thoughts in prayer to Him, He actually pours His thoughts into us. In our prayers we come to see the things we pray for in His light. Intercession does not mean that we lay our burdens before the Lord, but that He lays His upon us. God wanted Moses to understand the deep tragedy of a people whom He delivered from an unbearable condition of slavery into the dignity of their freedom, a people whom He sustained supernaturally and who turned their backs on Him in order to side with the enemy who would murder them. Some of God's heartache got through to Moses, because he starts to intercede, but he did not take God's word about the apostasy of Israel seriously until he saw the Golden Calf with his own eyes; then he really became upset.
There seems to be some kind of temptation also in the phrase: "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." Not only does God say that Moses stands between the wrath of God and the people, which gives him a position of extraordinary importance, but God also promises him a key role in history, as the potential patriarch of a new nation. God offered Moses the role that Abraham had played until now. This seems to be another pitfall that Moses manages to evade. Yet, he must have understood what God meant.
God's proposal raises again numerous questions that are hard to answer. We must accept the fact that the Almighty can do as He pleases. But we also believe that God cannot break His own rules and go against His own character. God cannot violate His own holiness. Moses shows deep insight when he answers God's proposal with the words: "O LORD, 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.'" He says in other words: "Lord, you cannot do this, because you bound yourself with a promise to Abraham, Isaac and Israel. If you break your promise, you won't be God anymore!" There are some things that even the omnipotent God cannot do. He cannot lie and He cannot break a promise. All of creation would fall apart if the Word of God would fail because it is by the Word of God that everything that exists is held together. The author of the Hebrew epistle says about Jesus: "[He is] upholding the universe by his word of power."[ 11 ] The same epistle also says that "it is impossible for God to lie."[ 12 ]
Moses also brings up the point of God's testimony to those who do not know Him. He shows the right kind of psychology, if that is the term we may use, when he says to God: "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'?" On several occasions the Israelites themselves accused God that He had brought them out of Egypt so that they would die in the desert. They ascribed to God motives that one would ascribe only to the basest criminal. As it turned out the whole nation of Israel did die in the wilderness with the exception of two men, but this was not the result of God's evil intent; it was the fruit of their disobedience.
God is love. And yet, God takes enormous risks in permitting evil to go, apparently, unchecked so that people come to doubt the love of God. Many people have asked the question before the gas chambers of Auschwitz, how such a thing could happen if God is love. Elly Wiesel's God died in a German concentration camp.[ 13 ]
In putting the question to God, Moses understood that a God Who is love could not kill His children in cold blood. He may, at that point, not have had a clear understanding about the gravity of Israel's sin, but he did take it for granted that God's love would not allow the sinner to die. Actually, he acted much more severely with the Israelites himself, after he had seen the Golden Calf, than God did. Little did he know how God would solve the sin problem by putting man's sin upon Himself in His Son Jesus Christ. After having seen the Golden Calf and having realized the gravity of Israel's sin, Moses places himself fully in the gap between God and man, as Jesus would do in a more perfect way centuries later. He says to God in vs. 32: "Please forgive their sin-- but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written." At this point, the love of God has truly conquered Moses' heart.
After Moses' initial intercession God did, what He had intended to do all the time: He relented. Then Moses went down the mountain with the two Stone Tablets in his hands. We are specifically told that God Himself had written the text of the Ten Commandments on the tablets.
Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary says about the Ten Commandments: "The Ten Commandments form the heart of the special covenant between God and His people. He told them, 'Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people... And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation' <Ex. 19:5>. These verses also emphasize that their obedience to the Commandments was to be the basis of Israel's existence as the special people of God."
Although this is true, it appears that several of the commandments that are found in the Decalogue were common knowledge long before the law was given on Mount Sinai. When the first missionaries entered the interior mountains of Dutch New Guinea, (nowadays Irian Jaya a province of the Republic of Indonesia), they found Stone Age tribes which were familiar with the laws on the second Tablet: "You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor." These were all part of their moral code long before any contact with missionaries or with the Western world had been made. The only explanation I can think of is that these laws were common knowledge when the nations were dispersed over the globe after the flood and the construction of the tour of Babel. Noah must have been familiar with them. The fact, however, that parts of the Ten Commandments were not new, does in no way diminish the uniqueness of the Ten Commandments and of the role of the law in God's covenant with Israel.
It is stated specifically that God Himself had engraved the Ten Commandments on the two tablets of stone. Vs. 16 tells us: "The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets." And earlier in the story we read: "When the LORD finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God." After Moses broke the first two tablets, the Lord said to him: "Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke." And at the end of that session Moses had with God we read: "Moses was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant-- the Ten Commandments."[ 14 ] From this last verse it is not clear who did the writing, but from the connection with the preceding verses we understand that God did it Himself the second time also.
For us who live in the twentieth century, it is hard to grasp the importance of the fact that God chiseled words on a stone tablet. We would refer statements like these to the realm of pagan myths or to an animistic world view. The Jewish rabbis in later centuries must have wrestled with this question also. Stephen quotes the Jewish authorities of his times when he says: "You who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it."[ 15 ] Evidently, it was hard for the scholars of later times to conceive that God would have done the writing Himself. There is, of course, a trace of anthropomorphism in the statement that "the tablets of stone [were] inscribed by the finger of God." But the fact remains that Moses went down with two stone tablets in his hands that had writing on them, which he had not done himself. We can spiritualize the statement, or we can refer the concept to the religious fantasy of the people of Israel and thus undermine the doctrine of inspiration of the Scriptures, but this does not alter the fact that there were two pieces of stone, that they had not written themselves. And it would be hard to believe that Moses would have carried the necessary tools with him to perform the job on top of the mountain. It is not harder to believer, however, that God would express Himself in writing in stone than that the Word would become flesh and live among us.
Joshua had accompanied Moses up the mountain. We read earlier in the story: "Then Moses set out with Joshua his aide, and Moses went up on the mountain of God."[ 16 ] We are not told, however, what Joshua did those forty days and nights that Moses was with God in the cloud on top of the mountain. It is unlikely that he did not eat and drink, as Moses did during this whole period. Yet, he is there when Moses appears again. He had, evidently, not descended the mountain and come back up again, or he would have known about the making of the Golden Calf. He had not been in the cloud with God either, or he would have heard that God told Moses about the apostasy. He had also not despaired of Moses' reappearing, as the people at the foot of the mountain had, but he is there when Moses appears again. Faithfulness and spiritual hunger seem to have been the outstanding features of Joshua's character. Later we read about him: "The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent."[ 17 ] He had seen in Moses the example of a man who knew God, and this kindled in him a strong desire to experience the same fellowship with God that Moses knew. This is a great tribute to both Moses and Joshua. People who are really hungry and thirsty for an intimate relationship with God are rare. Moses' example would have had no effect if Joshua had not possessed a soft and sensitive heart. We see Moses in the Pentateuch as a towering character who rises head and shoulders above everyone else. In a way Joshua was even greater in his unwavering allegiance to God and in his victorious entry into Canaan. Nobody has ever come close to the miracle God performed as an answer to Joshua's prayer when the sun stood still. We read: "On the day the LORD gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the LORD in the presence of Israel: 'O sun, stand still over Gibeon, O moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.' So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the LORD listened to a man. Surely the LORD was fighting for Israel!"[ 18 ] It is amazing that two people can see the same thing and react so differently. Some hearts seem to be naturally open for the Word of God and others are not. The heart of Joshua was like the ground that was prepared to receive the seed that God sowed on it.[ 19 ]
When Moses came close enough to the camp to see what was going on, he exploded in anger. We read in vs. 19: "His anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain." He literally broke the law. We could ask the question how ethical it was for Moses to fling the two tablets to the ground and break them. Moses broke the law as the people had broken the law, be it in a different way; but he made himself guilty in a sense. We could say that Moses took the guilt of the people upon himself. We see this as a picture of Jesus, who took upon Himself the guilt of mankind and identified Himself with the sin of man, although He did not sin Himself. God never scolded Moses for this fit of rage. In ch. 34 God only tells Moses to cut two new tablets of stone and God writes on them the same law as on the first two tablets. Evidently, Moses' anger was the reaction of a righteous man to sin and in that respect it was akin to the wrath of God. Not all anger is sin.
The difference between Moses' reaction to Israel's sin and the attitude of Aaron is amazing. Aaron had complied with the wishes of the people because he feared for his life. Moses is fearless. He does not hesitate for one moment. What he did was very dangerous. We don't know how many people were involved in the feast for the calf; if it was not the whole nation, then at least several hundred thousand people. Moses destroys single handedly the object of their worship. If the crowd had turned against him, they could have killed him in a moment. There must have been such an aura of the presence of the Lord with Moses that the fear of the Lord fell upon those who had sinned, and, although in a vast majority, they were powerless against this single man. Jesus showed this same kind of supremacy when He cleaned the temple on two different occasions.[ 20 ] One man on God's side can stand against hundreds of thousands of people. And the people knew this. We do not read that they made the slightest effort to oppose Moses. Their guilty consciences kept them from reacting. They even accepted their punishment without resistance. We read: "And he [Moses] took the calf they 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." The burning in the fire probably means that the statue was melted back into a block of gold and then it was crushed into fine powder which was sprinkled on the water. And the whole rebellious crowd stooped down and drank the object of their veneration. With this act of humiliation, Moses probably wanted to impress upon them the fact that they had been worshipping something that had no spiritual value. Moses knew how the people felt about the idols they had learned to worship in Egypt. He had seen Egyptian idol worship from close by during the forty years he lived in the country. What he made the people do in drinking the water on which the gold of the calf had been sprinkled he did the thing that was most devastating to their religious inclinations.
As we indicated before, Aaron's role in the construction of the Golden Calf and the following celebration was at least a dubious one. Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary says about this episode: "Aaron committed a serious sin in the wilderness surrounding Mount Sinai. While Moses was on the mountain praying to God and receiving His commandments, the people began to build a golden calf to worship. Aaron made no attempt to stop the people and even issued instructions on how to build the image <Ex. 32:1-10>. Aaron was saved from God's wrath only because Moses interceded on his behalf <Deut. 9:20>." We do not get the impression that Aaron intended to commit idolatry himself, but he yielded to the majority and even cooperated by gathering in the jewelry and making the idol. His attitude seems to have been ambiguous at the best, which means that he did not have the same single minded consecration to the Lord his brother had. When Moses questioned him, he gave some rather lame excuses, putting all the blame on the people.
We should remember that all the people had heard the Ten Commandments when God spoke to the nation from the top of the mountain, before Moses went up to receive the two Stone Tablets. Aaron knew, like everybody else that the Lord had said: "You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand of those who love me and keep my commandments."[ 21 ] If he had quoted these words to the people who wanted to make the idol, God would have backed him up. More than any other episode in Aaron's life this incident illustrates the truth of what the writer to the Hebrews says: "The law appoints as high priests men who are weak."[ [ 22 ] And this makes us realize how much a High Priest was needed who was perfect in every respect.
It is obvious that the conversation between the two brothers is only reported in part. There is a cryptic reference to the people of Israel becoming "a laughing stock to their enemies." Aaron must have mentioned this to Moses and that seems to have softened the judgment of the Lord over him. Who those enemies were, we are not told. We mentioned before that other than human agents may have been intended. Aaron must have found himself in a situation he felt he could not handle. He, obviously, did not call upon the Lord when he found himself at a point where his life was in danger and where he stood alone, facing the mob.
The following episode also is only sketched with a few rough lines. We read that Moses places himself at the entrance to the camp. Whether this means that the feast of the calf was held outside the camp, we don't know. His call, "Whoever is for the LORD, come to me," has become a famous phrase to invite people to make the choice of their lives. Other translations, such as the RSV and KJV render it with "Who is on the LORD's side?" It was a call for volunteers to identify themselves with the cause of the Lord. At this point the people who came did not know what they would be required to do. The fact that they took a stand for the Lord meant that they turned against evil. What happens next reminds us of Jesus' words: "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 mother-in-law-- a man's enemies will be the members of his own household."[ 23 ] But the in situation Jesus refers to, the believer is the object of hostility, not the one who passes judgment. Here the faithful ones execute judgment.
We should try to imagine the scene. We read in vs. 25 that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control. We read in vs. 6 that the people "sat down to feast and drink at a wild party, followed by sexual immorality."(TLB). This was, probably, still going on when Moses took his stand at the entrance of the camp. It seems that the report of the events in this chapter is not given in a chronological order. At the point where Moses called for volunteers, the calf was, probably, still standing, and Moses had not yet melted it down and ground it up and forced the people to drink the water with the gold particles. If this supposition is correct, Moses' call is an effort to create order in the chaos and to make the bedlam stop.
Everybody had an opportunity to answer Moses' call. We read that only the Levites came forward. This does not, necessarily, mean that nobody of any of the other tribes responded. Vs. 26 only says: "And all the Levites rallied to him." We get the impression that the coming forward of the Levites was a question of clan allegiance. Their blood relationship to Moses may have played a role, but we are specifically told that their coming indicated that their first allegiance was to the Lord. The Levites were instructed to go through the camp and kill the people they knew personally, whom they saw participating in the orgy. If it is true that the people had not stopped their revelry yet at this point, it would not be hard to identify the guilty ones.
Moses introduced his instructions with the words: "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says." We do not read that the Lord actually told him this, but there is no reason to believe that Moses issued the command on his own. When the Levites are done with their gruesome work, over 3000 people have been executed. When we read later in the book of Numbers that 603,550 men twenty and older were counted,[ 24 ] the number is relatively small. Whether this punishment was the plague with which the Lord struck the people, as we read in vs. 35, or whether an epidemic broke out among them, we are not told.
For us as New Testament Christians the report of this violent scene is difficult to digest and justify. Even if we do believe in the validity of capital punishment, we have a hard time with this kind of swift justice. It seems to be the complete opposite of what Jesus preached about "turning the other cheek" and being sent "as sheep among wolves."[ 25 ] We have to remember, though, that Jesus spoke His words in a different dispensation. Israel in the desert was God's chosen nation. Not only were believers in the majority, but they were subjects of a theocracy. God's purpose with Israel was two-fold: they were to be the receivers and channels of His revelation in this world, channels of salvation, and they were also the instruments of His judgment. As such they, legitimately, conquered Canaan and exterminated the nations living there. God sent His people to the promised land only when the sin of the Amorites had reached its full measure.[ 26 ] Unless we see this report of the massacre as an act of God against the background of Israel being a theocracy, the Bible would contradict itself and not make much sense, and Moses' words to the Levites, who had become the executioners, would be inexplicable. We read in vs. 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.'"
It doesn't seem to be an enviable way to receive God's blessing by having to kill one's relatives and friends. We consider it to be sign of genuine dedication if a man is willing to die for his faith. In the case of the Levites it was a matter of being willing to kill for their faith. This would not be a valid test of dedication in our time. But it did not happen in our time, and the norms and judgments of that time are no longer accessible to us. This does not mean, however, that they were bad. We have to be careful not to judge the ages past according to the norms that are extant in our day. There are eternal norms which apply to every age in one form or another. What happened here was an expression of the wrath of God over sin, and that is still an existing norm. It expresses itself in a different form now, but the norm has not changed. The day will come when God's wrath will reveal itself again in a similar form as in the desert about four thousand years ago.
Jesus indicated this truth when He read the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue of Nazareth. The text in Isaiah reads: "He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God."[ 27 ] When Jesus came to the place that says: "to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor," Luke says: "Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, 'Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.'"[ 28 ] In closing the book when He did, Jesus indicated that the year of the Lord's favor had come and that the day of vengeance would come later. If we cannot close our eyes for the day of vengeance to come, we cannot do so either for the day that lies in the past.
The day after the mass execution the situation seems to have calmed down and things are under control again. After reminding them of their sin, Moses tells the people that he will go up to the Lord to try to make atonement for their sin. From the following chapter we understand that "going up to the Lord" did not mean climbing up the mountain again. Moses does not go up the mountain until the following chapter, where he has the greatest experience any person in the Old Testament ever had: seeing the glory of the Lord. The following encounter with God, probably, took place in "the tent of meeting" which is mentioned in ch. 33: 7.
Moses shows the greatness of his character and his deep understanding of how atonement can be made, by offering himself instead of the people as the subject of God's wrath. He says to God: "Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin-- but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written." Moses is not only ready to die for the people, but he is willing to be banished eternally from fellowship with the Lord. This is the kind of love our Lord Jesus Christ has manifested for us. Jesus did experience this banishment from God's presence. For three long hours, when He hung on the cross, His name was blotted out of God's book. We read in Matthew's account of the crucifixion: "About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, 'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?'-- which means, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' "[ 29 ] Being forsaken by God is the ultimate punishment for sin. It is the essence of hell. Moses was willing to descend into hell. Paul indicates the same willingness to give himself for the salvation of the nation of Israel. He says: "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."[ 30 ] God only accepted this sacrifice from His Son.
Not only does Moses display a profound understanding of what is involved in atonement, he also seems to understand the essence of salvation; it means being written in God's book. Jesus mentions the book when He says to His disciples: "Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."[ 31 ] And John mentions "the book of life belonging to the Lamb" four times in Revelation, both to indicate salvation and perdition.[ 32 ] We understand this to be an image of a practice on earth to register people's names in order to give certain transactions a permanent character. The omniscient God does not need paper and pen to write down people's name, lest He would forget them. But it does mean that God makes a contract with those who love and obey Him.
God rejects Moses' sacrifice of himself in behalf of the people, but his willingness to give his life and eternal salvation in order for others to be saved, was noted in the book of life, next to his name. It is noted for us, as an example of what kind of love we should have for others. Moses had the love of Christ in him.
God answers Moses that He will punish the people at a later time. This implies that the punishment that was meted out to them at that time was not the final settlement. Three thousand people had died and we read that "the LORD struck the people with a plague," which is not further specified. But, evidently, that was not the punishment God meant. There is a final day of reckoning for all living beings. John describes this in Revelation, where he says: "Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books."[ 33 ] Jesus gives us some insight into this truth in His condemnation of the cities of His time. He says: "Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you."[ 34 ] We would be inclined to believe that, since Sodom and the other cities of the area had been wiped off the map, the day of judgment had passed for them. The same for Tyre and Sidon. Evidently, this is not so. Nothing we encounter in this life as trials and suffering atones for our sin. If there were no book of life, as John indicates, we would all be without hope in this world.
God's answer to Moses: "Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book," sounds like the strongest threat that can be made. We should remember, however, that the plan for making provision for the sinner had already been made. The Lamb of God had been slain since the creation of the world.[ 35 ]
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Italics are mine
[ 7 ]
[ 8 ]
See Gen. 19:22, where the angel says to Lot: "I cannot do anything until you reach it [Zoar]."
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[ 10 ]
[ 11 ]
Heb. 1:3 (RSV)
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[ 13 ]
Night, by Elly Wiesel
[ 14 ]
Ex. 31:18; 34:1, 28
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See John 2:13-21; Matt. 21:12,13
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Matt. 5:39; 10:16
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[ 31 ]
[ 32 ]
Rev 13:8; 17:8; 20:15; 21:27
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[ 34 ]
[ 35 ]
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