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David Guzik :: Study Guide for Exodus 32

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The Golden Calf

A. Israel steps into idolatry.

1. (Exo 32:1) The people make a request.

Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him."

a. Moses delayed coming down from the mountain: This troubled the people of Israel. It is true that Moses delayed, but God had a wonderful purpose for Moses' delay, and it would soon be over. Yet because the people couldn't see the reason for the delay they allowed it to stumble them.

i. Moses was gone for forty days (Exodus 24:18). This probably seemed like a long time to the people, but a short time to Moses. Certainly it was a short time related to the outworking of God's plan for Israel.

ii. How we handle God's ordained delays is a good measure of our spiritual maturity. If we allow such delays to make us drift off into sin or lapse into resignation to fate, then we react poorly to His ordained delays. If we allow such times to deepen our perseverance in following God, then they are of good use.

b. The people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him: This sinful impulse came first from the people, not Aaron. The episode of sin described in this chapter happened because they people wanted it. This is an example of where it is not good to rule by democracy and to give the people what they want.

i. When it comes to ministry, it can be so dangerous to start with what people want or what they feel they need.

c. Come, make us gods that shall go before us: They wanted gods to go before them, undoubtedly to the Promised Land. They knew the LORD led them out of Egypt and they knew the LORD God had revealed Himself at Mount Sinai. Yet, they were willing to trust a god they could make to finish what the LORD began.

i. Paul dealt with the same error with the Galatians: Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you know being made perfect by the flesh? (Galatians 3:3) It is possible to begin the Christian life trusting Jesus, and then to begin to trust self or one's own spirituality. Following our own gods is no better for us than it was for ancient Israel.

d. We do not know what has become of him: Not knowing led Israel into sin. Instead of leaving this uncomfortable uncertainty with God, Israel turned to the flesh.

2. (Exo 32:2-4) Aaron responds to the peoples' request.

And Aaron said to them, "Break off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." So all the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf. Then they said, "This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!"

a. Break off the golden earrings … and bring them to me: 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.

i. The people were generous in response - all the people broke off the golden earrings … and brought them to Aaron. By nature, people are generous in what they give to their idols. We should be even more generous with what we give to the Living God.

b. He fashioned it with an engraving tool: This wasn't the Spirit-inspired craftsmanship of Bezaleel and Aholiab. It was the flesh-inspired work of Aaron. He thought it out, melted the gold, molded it, and fashioned it carefully with an engraving tool.

c. Then they said, "This is your god": Aaron did not anoint this thing as their god. He simply went along with the people as they proclaimed it as their god. He was probably flattered at their admiration of his creation.

i. True leadership would have cried out, "This is idolatry! We must destroy this golden calf. You people are wrong in calling this creation of man your god!" But Aaron wasn't a true leader. He is an example of the one who leads by following popular opinion.

d. That brought you out of the land of Egypt: This shows the foolishness of idolatry. This statue of a calf did not exist the day before, and now they worship it as the god that brought them out of Egypt.

3. (Exo 32:5-6) Ungodly and immoral worship at the golden calf.

So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, "Tomorrow is a feast to the LORD." Then they rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.

a. When Aaron saw it: Aaron was flattered by the enthusiastic response of the people. When he saw their devotion to this idol, he built an altar before it. He began to organize the worship of the idol he just made.

i. It was bad enough to have a golden calf the people praised for their escape from Egypt. This second step of Aaron's was worse. He honored and sanctified the idol with animal sacrifice. He made the calf, and then he made the altar to worship it.

b. Tomorrow is a feast to the LORD: This shows that the creation and the worship of the golden calf was not a conscious rejection of the LORD. Aaron and the rest of Israel probably thought that they could give honor to the LORD through the golden calf.

i. Aaron was not crass enough to say, "Let's do away with the LORD God." He simply updated things, making them more modern. In the mind of Israel Aaron didn't take away the LORD God, he simply added the golden calf.

c. They rose early the next day: They served their idol with great energy and personal sacrifice. People usually find a way to rise early for the things that are really important to them. This shows that Israel was willing to give their time, their sleep, and their money in the service of this idol.

d. And rose up to play: This is a tasteful way to speak of gross immorality among the people of Israel. Their worship included eating, drinking (in the sense of drunkenness) and sexual immorality.

i. "The verb translated play suggests sex-play in Hebrew … and therefore we are probably to understand drunken orgies." (Cole)

ii. Less than two months before this, Israel heard the voice of God Himself thunder from heaven, audibly speaking the Ten Commandments to the nation. That dramatic experience, in and of itself, did not change their hearts. It made many of them want a less demanding god.

B. The nature and result of Moses' intercession.

1. (Exo 32:7-8) God tells Moses what is happening at the camp of Israel.

And the LORD said to Moses, "Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molded calf, and worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, 'This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!'"

a. For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt: God called Israel your people, in the sense that they belonged to Moses, not to God. In this God suggested to Moses that He was disowning Israel.

b. They have turned aside quickly: This is almost an understatement. They didn't wait long to go their own fleshly way.

c. They have made themselves a molded calf, and worshiped it and sacrificed to it: God described to Moses everything that happened, and even quoted the words of the people in their idolatry. God knew exactly what happened. The people ignored God, but He did not ignore them.

2. (Exo 32:9-10) God's amazing offer to Moses.

And the LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people! Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation."

a. I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people: God spoke as if He had seen enough, and He made a remarkable offer to Moses. If Moses would only agree, God would consume Israel and start over again with Moses (I will make of you a great nation).

i. Hypothetically, God could have done this and still fulfilled every promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It would completely change the place of Moses, making him the new "Abraham" of God's plan for Israel. Moses had the opportunity to be as revered as Abraham was, and honored by every following generation.

b. Let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them: God did not ask for the opinion or participation of Moses in this matter. He simply told Moses, "Let Me alone so I can do this." The clear impression is that if Moses did nothing, the plan would go ahead.

3. (Exo 32:11-13) Moses intercedes for Israel.

Then Moses pleaded with the LORD his God, and said: "LORD, why does Your wrath burn hot against Your people whom You have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians speak, and say, 'He brought them out to harm them, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from Your fierce wrath, and relent from this harm to Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them, 'I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven; and all this land that I have spoken of I give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'"

a. Then Moses pleaded with the LORD his God: Moses refused to do nothing. He did not fatalistically say, "Well, whatever God will do, God will do." He pleaded with the LORD, according to what he believed to be God's heart.

i. Moses' prayer was not long but it was strong. "It is not the length, but the strength of prayer that appeals to heaven." (Meyer)

b. Your people whom You brought out of the land of Egypt: In his prayer, Moses first gave the people back to God. "LORD, they belong to You, not to me. I don't want to be god over these people, only You can do that."

c. Your people whom You brought out of the land of Egypt: Moses then appealed to God on the basis of grace. "LORD, we didn't deserve to be brought out of Egypt to begin with. You did it by Your grace, not because we deserved it. Please don't stop dealing with us by grace."

d. Why should the Egyptians speak: Moses then appealed to God on the basis of glory. "LORD, this will bring discredit to You in the eyes of the nations. The Egyptians will think of You as a cruel God who led your people out to the desert to kill them. Don't let anyone think that of You, God!"

e. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self: Finally, Moses appealed to God on the basis of His goodness. "LORD, keep Your promises. You are a good God who is always faithful. Don't break Your promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel."

4. (Exo 32:14) God relents from His anger.

So the LORD relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people.

a. So the LORD relented: God answered Moses' prayer. God was going to destroy the nation - all Moses had to do was leave God alone and let Him do it. But Moses did not leave God alone; he labored in intercession according to what He knew of the heart of God.

b. So the LORD relented: In the King James Version this phrase is translated the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people. Based on this, some believe God sometimes needs to repent of evil, or that God changes His mind.

i. It is helpful to read other translations of this passage.

- Then the Lord relented (NIV)
- So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people (NASB)
- The Lord turned from the evil which He had thought to do (Amplified)
- The Lord was moved with compassion to save His people. (Septuagint Bible)

ii. Numbers 23:19 says, God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Some say that these two passages contradict each other, and that Exodus 32 shows God repenting and changing while Numbers 23 says God never changes or repents. We can understand these passages by understanding that Moses wrote with what we call anthropomorphic, or "man-centered" language. He described the actions of God as they appeared to him. Moses' prayer did not change God, but it did change the standing of the people in God's sight - the people were now in a place of mercy, when before they were in a place of judgment.

iii. Also, we can say that God did not go back on His word to either Moses or Israel. We understand the principle that God's promises of judgment are inherently meant to call men to repentance and prayer and therefore avert the judgment (Ezekiel 33:13-16).

iv. Some are frustrated because the Bible describes God's actions in human terms, but they really cannot be described in any other way. "I suppose that I need not say that this verse speaks after the manner of men. I do not know after what other manner we can speak. To speak of God after the manner of God, is reserved for God himself; and mortal men could not comprehend such speech. In this sense, the LORD often speaks, not according to the literal fact, but according to the appearance of things to us, in order that we may understand so far as the human can comprehend the divine." (Spurgeon)

c. The LORD relented from the harm which He said He would do: God did not destroy Israel, and He knew that He would not destroy Israel. Yet He deliberately put Moses into this crucial place of intercession, so that Moses would display and develop God's heart for the people, a heart of love and compassion. Moses prayed just as God wanted him to - as if heaven and earth, salvation or destruction, depended on his prayer. This is how God waits for us to pray.

i. "We are not to think of Moses as altering God's purpose towards Israel by this prayer, but as carrying it out: Moses was never more like God than in such moments, for he shared God's mind and loving purpose." (Cole)

i. Living under the New Covenant, we do not have less privilege in prayer than Moses had. We do not have less access to God than Moses had. The only thing we may have less of is Moses' heart for the people.

C. Moses confronts Aaron.

1. (Exo 32:15-18) Moses and Joshua hear the people in the camp.

And Moses turned and went down from the mountain, and the two tablets of the Testimony were in his hand. The tablets were written on both sides; on the one side and on the other they were written. Now the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God engraved on the tablets. And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, "There is a noise of war in the camp." But he said: "It is not the noise of the shout of victory, nor the noise of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing I hear."

a. Moses turned and went down from the mountain: In the midst of this great idolatry, Moses and Joshua came down from their extended time up on Mount Sinai. He carried the two tablets of the Testimony, written direction by the hand of God.

b. The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God: It is significant that the tablets were written by God's direct hand. All law and morality must come from God's standard and character, or be up to the opinion or whims of man.

i. "For as he is the sole author of law and justice, so he alone can write them on the heart of man." (Clarke)

c. There is a noise of war in the camp: We might say that Joshua was correct when he said this. However, the noise reflected a spiritual war, not a material war.

2. (Exo 32:19-21) Moses puts an end to the disgrace and confronts Aaron.

So it was, as soon as he came near the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing. So Moses' anger became hot, and he cast the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. Then he took the calf which they had made, burned it in the fire, and ground it to powder; and he scattered it on the water and made the children of Israel drink it. And Moses said to Aaron, "What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?"

a. Moses' anger became hot, and he cast the tablets out of his hands and broke them: Israel broke the covenant by their idolatry and immorality with the golden calf. There was something appropriate about Moses breaking the stone tablets of the covenant at Israel's breaking of the covenant.

i. Moses had to deal with anger through much of his life. In anger he killed an Egyptian (Exodus 2:11-12). In anger he broke the tablets written by the finger of God. In anger he beat the rock God commanded him to speak to (Numbers 20:10-11). This last display of anger kept Moses out of the Promised Land.

b. Made the children of Israel drink it: Moses ground up the calf and made the people drink it for three reasons.

- To show that this "god" was nothing and could be destroyed easily
- To completely obliterate this idol
- To make the people pay an immediate consequence of their sin

c. What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them? This was an extremely perceptive question. Moses understood that this plan didn't originate with Aaron, but that he allowed it and implemented it.

3. (Exo 32:22-24) Aaron's excuse.

So Aaron said, "Do not let the anger of my lord become hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, 'Make us gods that shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.' And I said to them, 'Whoever has any gold, let them break it off.' So they gave it to me, and I cast it into the fire, and this calf came out."

a. Do not let the anger of my lord become hot: Aaron essentially said, "Moses, settle down! It's not so bad as all that!" Aaron had no sense of the greatness of his sin. He had no significant sense of the fear of the LORD.

b. You know the people, that they are set on evil: Moses knew this as well as Aaron did. But Moses had a sense of his need to restrain the evil of the people, and Aaron did not have this.

c. Make us gods that shall go before us: Aaron quoted the people exactly. But when he described his own actions (I cast it into the fire, and this calf came out) he lied.

i. Aaron no doubt meant that this calf was produced by a miracle - it just happened. But Moses - and everyone else - could see the human engraving marks on it (Exodus 32:4). Aaron claimed this was a miraculous work, but the evidence of his workmanship were all over it.

ii. Aaron gave the classic "it just happened" excuse. But it didn't just happen. Aaron thought it out, melted the gold, molded it, and fashioned it carefully with an engraving tool (Exodus 32:4).

iii. Aaron did this evil thing and made his excuse because at that moment, it seemed harder to stand for the LORD than to go along with the people, and Aaron took the path of least resistance. He was lazy. "Lazy people always find fault with their tools, and those who do not intend to work always find some excuse or other; and then they make up for their laziness by having a delicious spiritual dream. Have the nominally Christian people about us are dreaming; and they consider that thus they are doing the work of the LORD. They are only doing it deceitfully by putting dreaming into the place of real service." (Spurgeon)

iv. Aaron's sin was so great that only the intercession of Moses saved his life. And the LORD was very angry with Aaron and would have destroyed him; so I prayed for Aaron also at the same time. (Deuteronomy 9:20)

D. The call to side with either God or idolatry.

1. (Exo 32:25-26) Moses issues a challenge.

Now when Moses saw that the people were unrestrained (for Aaron had not restrained them, to their shame among their enemies), then Moses stood in the entrance of the camp, and said, "Whoever is on the Lord's side; come to me." And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him.

a. The people were unrestrained: This shows how great the problem was. There is no greater danger than for people to cast off all restraint and do whatever seems right in their own eyes; the darkest days of Israel's national history were characterized by the phrase, everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 17:6)

i. In our modern culture we regard the absence of restraint as heaven on earth. But the Bible and common sense tell us that this kind of moral, spiritual, and social anarchy brings nothing but destruction.

ii. There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death. (Proverbs 14:12) When man follows his own instincts, his own inclinations, it leads to ruin. We need to follow God's way, not our own.

iii. God has given many restraints to us: the curbs of the fear of God, of family, of culture, of conscience, of law, even of necessity. But these restraints can be - and are being - broken down.

b. Whoever is on the Lord's side; come to me: Moses gave the people of Israel the opportunity to make a stand for the Lord. The Levites, to their honor, sided with the LORD and with Moses. Sadly, they were the only significant group to come out and out for God's cause at the golden calf incident.

2. (Exo 32:27-29) The execution of 3,000.

And he said to them, "Thus says the LORD God of Israel: 'Let every man put his sword on his side, and go in and out from entrance to entrance throughout the camp, and let every man kill his brother, every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.'" So the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And about three thousand men of the people fell that day. Then Moses said, "Consecrate yourselves today to the LORD, that He may bestow on you a blessing this day, for every man has opposed his son and his brother."

a. Let every man kill his brother, every man his companion, and every man his neighbor: In this case, siding with the LORD meant siding against some people. Those who were more interested in siding with all people could never do what these Levites did.

b. About three thousand men of the people fell that day: It seems that the sin of Israel at the golden calf involved more than these 3,000 people. Yet these were undoubtedly those most flagrant in their idolatry and immorality, or these were the leaders of the sinful conduct.

E. Moses' second intercession.

1. (Exo 32:30) Moses returns to intercede for the people.

Now it came to pass on the next day that Moses said to the people, "You have committed a great sin. So now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin."

a. Now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin: Moses already interceded for the people in Exodus 32:11-14. But he prayed again for them because now he saw the sin with his own eyes, and was struck with the depths of the people's sin.

b. Perhaps I can make atonement for your sin: Moses also learned on Mount Sinai that God's penalty for idolatry was death. He who sacrifices to any god, except to the LORD only, he shall be utterly destroyed. (Exodus 22:20) He was more aware than ever of the distance between the people and God, and sensed the urgency to intercede.

2. (Exo 32:31-32) Moses' bold request on behalf of the people.

Then Moses returned to the LORD and said, "Oh, these people have committed a great sin, and have made for themselves a god of gold! Yet now, if You will forgive their sin; but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written."

a. Oh, these people have committed a great sin: Moses did not minimize the sin of the people or put it in soft terms. They were guilty of worshipping a god of gold.

i. People still worship gods of gold. In August of 1990 a man staggered to the steps of his Los Angeles office. Before he died of the gunshot wound to his chest, he called out the names of his three children. But he still had his $10,000 Rolex watch clutched in his hand. He gave his life for a god of gold.

b. Yet now, if You will forgive their sin: Moses knew the enormity of the people's sin, yet he still asked for forgiveness. This was an appeal to the mercy and grace of God.

c. If not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written: Moses asked God to forgive Israel on the basis of his own sacrificial identification with the sinful people. If God would not forgive, Moses asked to be damned in sacrificial identification with his sinful people.

i. Of course, this sacrificial heart was the same heart Jesus had in dying for our sins (1 Peter 3:18 and 2 Corinthians 5:21). The Apostle Paul also had some of this same heart of Jesus (Romans 9:3).

3. (Exo 32:33-35) The LORD's response to the plea of Moses.

And the LORD said to Moses, "Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book. Now therefore, go, lead the people to the place of which I have spoken to you. Behold, My Angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit for punishment, I will visit punishment upon them for their sin." So the LORD plagued the people because of what they did with the calf which Aaron made.

a. Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book: God agreed to spare the nation as a whole, but He definitely reserved the right to judge individual sinners.

b. Now therefore, go, lead the people to the place of which I have spoken to you: This was God's promise to stay faithful to Israel and to keep His presence with them (My Angel shall go before you).

©2004 David Guzik - No distribution beyond personal use without permission

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The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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