Exodus 32: The Golden Calf

Exodus 32: The Golden Calf

Before we read Exodus 32, it’s important that I lay out the setting of this story.
Within the previous few months, Israel had seen some of the most spectacular, awe-inspiring events in human history.
• Ten plagues of judgment on their cruel oppressor, Pharaoh of Egypt. Unparalleled judgment, yet Israel was completely spared. Miracle after miracle.
• Then the greatest one: their backs were against the Red Sea and the mighty Egyptian army was bearing down on them. God then parted the sea, created dry ground, allowed the entire nation of several million people to escape, and then crushed the greatest army in the world.
Then a short time later, after patiently enduring Israel’s complaints and grumbling about water and food, the Lord extends a beautiful, heavenly offer.
Exodus 19:4–6 CSB You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you will carefully listen to me and keep my covenant, you will be my own possession out of all the peoples, although the whole earth is mine, and you will be my kingdom of priests and my holy nation.
The Creator of the heavens and the earth bent down and offered them an intimate, holy relationship with himself. For no reasons of merit and deservedness on Israel’s part, the Lord shows again he loves them and will care for them.
Israel’s response is beautiful:
“We will do all the Lord has spoken.”
It’s like God offered a marriage proposal to them, and they, the bride, vowed, “I do.” The bride commits herself to be faithful, true, and respectful to her husband.

Today’s passage is a tragic turn on that marriage vow they made. So as we read this, keep that marriage image in your mind. Israel is the newly married bride.
That’s the background of the past couple of months.

Now the immediate setting of the story here in Exodus 32 is that Moses has been up on Mt. Sinai in the presence of God for 40 days. The Lord has been giving him detailed instructions for the tabernacle, the holy place where the presence of God will dwell, and where Israel will worship and offer sacrifices for sins. So again, Moses has been gone just 40 days. That’s just 5-1/2 weeks.

Exodus 31:18 CSB
18 When he finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the testimony, stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God.

Exodus 32 CSB
1 When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come, make gods for us who will go before us because this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him!”
2 Aaron replied to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me.”
3 So all the people took off the gold rings that were on their ears and brought them to Aaron.
4 He took the gold from them, fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made it into an image of a calf. Then they said, “Israel, these are your gods, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”
5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of it and made an announcement: “There will be a festival to the LORD tomorrow.”
6 Early the next morning they arose, offered burnt offerings, and presented fellowship offerings. The people sat down to eat and drink, and got up to party.

7 The LORD spoke to Moses: “Go down at once! For your people you brought up from the land of Egypt have acted corruptly.
8 They have quickly turned from the way I commanded them; they have made for themselves an image of a calf. They have bowed down to it, sacrificed to it, and said, ‘Israel, these are your gods, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.’ ”
9 The LORD also said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and they are indeed a stiff-necked people.
10 Now leave me alone, so that my anger can burn against them and I can destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

11 But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God: “LORD, why does your anger burn against your people you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and a strong hand?
12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘He brought them out with an evil intent to kill them in the mountains and eliminate them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger and relent concerning this disaster planned for your people.
13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel—you swore to them by yourself and declared, ‘I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and will give your offspring all this land that I have promised, and they will inherit it forever.’ ”
14 So the LORD relented concerning the disaster he had said he would bring on his people.

15 Then Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides—inscribed front and back.
16 The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was God’s writing, engraved on the tablets.
17 When Joshua heard the sound of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a sound of war in the camp.”
18 But Moses replied, It’s not the sound of a victory cry and not the sound of a cry of defeat; I hear the sound of singing!

19 As he approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses became enraged and threw the tablets out of his hands, smashing them at the base of the mountain.
20 He took the calf they had made, burned it up, and ground it to powder. He scattered the powder over the surface of the water and forced the Israelites to drink the water.

21 Then Moses asked Aaron, “What did these people do to you that you have led them into such a grave sin?”
22 “Don’t be enraged, my lord,” Aaron replied. “You yourself know that the people are intent on evil.
23 They said to me, ‘Make gods for us who will go before us because this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him!’
24 So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off,’ and they gave it to me. When I threw it into the fire, out came this calf!”
25 Moses saw that the people were out of control, for Aaron had let them get out of control, making them a laughingstock to their enemies.

26 And Moses stood at the camp’s entrance and said, “Whoever is for the LORD, come to me.” And all the Levites gathered around him.
27 He told them, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says, ‘Every man fasten his sword to his side; go back and forth through the camp from entrance to entrance, and each of you kill his brother, his friend, and his neighbor.’ ”
28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand men fell dead that day among the people.
29 Afterward Moses said, “Today you have been dedicated to the LORD, since each man went against his son and his brother. Therefore you have brought a blessing on yourselves today.”

30 The following day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a grave sin. Now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I will be able to atone for your sin.”
31 So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Oh, these people have committed a grave sin; they have made a god of gold for themselves.
32 Now if you would only forgive their sin. But if not, please erase me from the book you have written.”
33 The LORD replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will erase from my book.
34 Now go, lead the people to the place I told you about; see, my angel will go before you. But on the day I settle accounts, I will hold them accountable for their sin.”
35 And the LORD inflicted a plague on the people for what they did with the calf Aaron had made.

Comments on Ch. 32

Vs. 1
Moses has been gone just 40 days, and the people have completely forgotten God. Now it’s only been a couple of months that they’ve known the One True God, so we might be inclined to cut them some slack. Their knowledge of the Lord, Jehovah, is all quite new. We want to excuse them.
But consider what they have seen and experienced and now forgotten.
• They have forgotten the profound and dramatic 10 Plagues on Egypt, their 400-year oppressor.
• They have forgotten their stunning deliverance at the Red Sea. They have “Red Sea amnesia.”
• They are ungrateful for God’s miraculous, daily provision of food called manna in a dry, harsh wilderness.

Vs. 2
So what do they do? They turn back to what they have all grown up with: Egyptian-like gods. Gods of metal. Images to worship made out of metal. And then we have Aaron, Moses’ brother. He and Moses have been in the middle of the Lord’s miracles for the past several months. So Aaron has had a front-row seat to the glory of God. Now he succumbs to the evil demands of the people. Instead of saying, “No, you cannot and must not,” he quickly caves in.
When I read this story, I’m astonished at Aaron. I find I want to insert myself here into the story, and say, “No, no, no, Aaron! Don’t do this. Have courage. Be strong. Remember the Lord!”
Israel in this moment reminds me of the NT (2 Timothy 4:3), where the Apostle Paul says that some people don’t want truth. They simply their itching ears scratched. They want to hear what feels good for the moment.

Vs. 5
Then Aaron announced, “There will be a festival to the LORD (Yahweh).” He invoked the LORD’s name with idol worship.
All this is in direct violation of the first three of the Ten Commandments.

  1. Have no other gods besides the Lord. No other lovers.
  2. Make no idols. No images you bow down to.
  3. Then Aaron invoked the Lord’s name in demonic worship!
    It’s like after a couple of months of marriage, she decides to find another lover. Marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman for life, “until death parts us,” but adultery is when one person in that marriage chooses to break that covenant. It’s a betrayal of the worst kind. I have heard people say that to be betrayed like that in marriage is as bad and even worse that losing your spouse to death. The anger and the pain is extreme.
    Stories like that on a human level are a picture of the failure here by Aaron and Israel.

Vs. 6
To what God did they offer sacrifices and offerings? The Apostle Paul says (1 Corinthians 10:19-22) that sacrifices offered to idols are actually sacrifices to demons! Israel is not ultimately worshiping a golden calf. They are worshiping demons. That is how serious this is.

Vs. 7-10
Moses is still up on the mountain, so the Lord who knows all things tells Moses what is happening in Israel’s camp. The people are running wild, and so the Lord intends to wipe them out in his fierce judgment.

Vs. 11-14
Here is a remarkable heart from Moses. Moses has a very, very difficult job: leading these hard-hearted people out of a dangerous country through a wilderness. Wouldn’t it be so tempting to think: “Oh, Lord, you’re going to wipe them out? YES! I’ll take that.”
But what does he ask? He asks the Lord to let the nation live. And on what basis does he ask? Does he ask because Israel isn’t really that bad? That they didn’t mean to do it? To give them a break since it’s just the first time they’ve worshiped demons? No. The basis of his request for mercy is for the reputation of God because of his great promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (a.k.a., Israel) to make them into a great nation. And…he asked for mercy so that the surrounding nations would not be able to mock God’s name. “See, he had to kill his chosen people. God must not be very smart or very worthy to follow.”
The appeal of Moses’ prayer is for the honor and glory of the Lord’s great name. What a beautiful request!
The Lord heard his prayer and answered it. He relented from wiping out the nation in his righteous judgment.

Vs. 15-19
Then Moses goes down the mountain and sees what is happening. What is his response? He is hot with rage! Furious with the people. Then he takes these two sacred tablets written by God himself and he throws them on the rocks, smashing them to pieces. This is a highly significant moment. Since the tablets with the Ten Commandments represent the covenant—this marriage— God made with Israel, the smashing of them is highly symbolic. Israel has violated their covenant agreement. Remember, they vowed to the Lord back in Chapter 19, “We will do all the Lord has spoken.” That was like their marriage vow to be faithful and true. In the yielding of their hearts to a golden calf, really demons, Israel broke their sacred vow.
So the shattered tablets picture a shattered covenant. It’s a devastating moment.

Vs. 20
Vs. 20 makes me smile. Moses takes the gold from the calf, burns it, and grinds it into powder. Then he puts it in water and makes the Israelites drink it! You don’t have to be a biology major to know what happened next. The gold went into their intestines and eventually came out in their feces. This precious gold from the calf ended up on the ground in smelly, disgusting poop. So much for the glory of this idol they had just worshiped!

Vs. 21-25
Now we come to my favorite part of the story. Moses turns to Aaron, his own brother. The leader of these people. He asks what anyone would ask: “Aaron, what happened? How did you let all these people do this terrible thing?”
Aaron’s response is classic:

  1. First he says, “Well, you know how sinful these people are, right? I mean, they’re terrible!”
    Classic blame shifting.
  2. Then he says, “They commanded me to make gods to lead us because obviously they all knew you weren’t coming back. So I collected all this gold, threw it into the fire, and this golden calf simply came out! I’ve never seen anything like it.”
    He sounds like a 5-year old making up a story when he gets caught by Mom doing something bad.
    I can’t decide if Aaron’s excuses are hilarious or pathetic. But then when I realize I make many excuses for my sins that, if I’m honest, are just as pathetic.

Vs. 26-29
Now the most sobering part of the story happens: God brings judgment on the people. The Levites side with Moses, and they go out into the camp and kill 3000 people. We don’t know how they chose whom to kill. Perhaps it was those who were instigators of this devil worship.
What we see is how serious it is to sin against the Lord. Even the NT tells us this: Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death.” Death is the end for every person because of spiritual adultery against the Creator of the heavens and the earth.
This is the message from Genesis 3 to Revelation 21 and many, many places in between. God is so holy and glorious that to disregard him is the gravest of actions.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that 3000 people died that day. If anything, we should be surprised that everyone didn’t die.

Vs. 30-35
If the story ended here, it would be sad and perhaps feel hopeless. But what does Moses do? He goes back up the mountain to talk to the Lord on behalf of the people. “Perhaps,” he says, “I will find a way for your sins to be atoned for.” Moses will see if mercy and forgiveness is possible.

Vs. 31-32 are so beautiful: He acknowledges Israel’s heinous crimes. But then he pleads for mercy. That they Lord would somehow show kindness to these rebellious people. But then Moses says something startling: “If you won’t forgive their sins, then let me take the punishment for them. Take eternal life away from me.”

Who does Moses remind us of? Jesus Christ. Two weeks ago we talked about the Holy, Innocent Son of God took the punishment of the people upon himself when he went to the cross and died as the Lamb of God. As the Substitute Lamb, to exchange his life for the lives of all who would believe. If you missed that sermon, I suggest you listen to it. Go to www.stonebrook.org.

What Now?

What a chapter. What a dark, dark day in the history of God’s people. What do we do with this story?
Well, all the stories of the Bible are written for a reason. Actually for multiple reasons. One of those reasons for us for these OT stories is to help us to learn something. Referring to incidents just like this while Israel was wandering for 40 years in the wilderness, the Apostle Paul said,
1 Corinthians 10:6 CSB Now these things took place as examples for us, so that we will not desire evil things as they did.
We think we would never do what Israel did. But Paul knows we all have the potential, so he tells us, “Humbly learn from the stories of Israel.” So in humility, what can we learn? How can we apply this chapter to our lives?

Let me zoom in on just two things.

  1. Ensure our prayers are centered on God’s honor, not on our selfish, self-centered desires.

Moses’ prayers are examples to us…to have prayers that are God-centered, not me-centered.
• He knew Israel didn’t deserve mercy. He knew his life would be a whole lot easier if they were simply gone.
• But he was willing to give up his life, even eternally, for the sake of the people.
• What unselfishness and love. And what a heart for God’s honor.
What about our prayers?
• It’s easy to have my prayers be all about me.
• It’s tempting to have my prayers centered on how God owes me. I deserve him to listen to me.
• It’s common that we won’t pray for the good of some people because, honestly, they simply don’t deserve it.
• James 4 says, “You don’t have because you don’t ask. And when you do ask, you ask with wrong motives, for your own pleasures and comforts.”
Is God to us more like our Genie in the bottle, to be enslaved to us to grant us our three wishes, whatever we want in the way we want? And when he doesn’t, we’re angry with him? Is Christ at the center of my universe? Or am I?
Moses respected and honored and trusted the Lord so much that he could pray for the good of the people in spite of themselves. And so that the Lord’s name would be honored. This is the heart of Christ. It is why He went to the cross. And so this is the heart of the follower of Christ.

We might pray something like,
• Lord, for your honor, would you save my wayward child, that he might become a trophy of your amazing grace?
• Oh Lord, to display your great power, would you heal my family member’s diseased body?
• Father in heaven, my Christian friends’ marriage is almost destroyed. Would you heal and preserve it so that your name won’t be mocked by the unsaved world?
• Oh, Lord, so that your name would be holy in all the earth, would you do this great thing we are asking of you?
Like Moses, we plead to God based on his honor.

Jesus’ disciples wanted him to teach them how to pray.
So consider the first half of his instructions to them in what we call “The Lord’s Prayer” in Matthew 6:
• Our Father in heaven, hallowed (i.e., holy) is your name.
We begin with worshiping our holy God.
• May your kingdom come.
May you be made King in the hearts of men and women, and may your kingdom be established soon.
• May your will be done on earth as it is done in heaven.
I have my will, Lord, but ultimately I want your will to be done here on earth. In my heart. In my actions. Today. This afternoon.
Is our highest priority for our honor or for the Lord’s? For our name to be great, or Christ’s? For our will to be done, or our heavenly Father’s? Let us examine our prayers. And let us make the center of those prayers to be for the glory and honor of our great God and Savior.
Where is God in our prayers? Are we just requesting something of him we want (even a good thing), or is he in the very motivation and grounding of the request?

A second lesson from this chapter:

  1. Remember the Lord and the works he has done for us.

Remember God’s grace and our salvation.
Israel simply forgot God. It seems unimaginable, but it could happen to us.
Psalm 106:7,19-21,24 CSB
Our ancestors in Egypt did not grasp the significance of your wondrous works or remember your many acts of faithful love; instead, they rebelled by the sea—the Red Sea…
At Horeb they made a calf and worshiped the cast metal image. They exchanged their glory for the image of a grass-eating ox. They forgot God their Savior, who did great things in Egypt…
They despised the pleasant land and did not believe his promise.
What happened to Israel can happen to us. So we must learn to actively and frequently remember our salvation in Christ
Otherwise, when pressures and fears and even boredom creep into our lives, to whom or what will we turn?
• Will we turn to our precious Savior, who invites us daily to himself to find rest in him from our weariness and fears?
Matthew 11:28–29 CSB “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
Will we actively and deliberately remember Jesus and quickly turn to him in our pressured days, and so find rest in our souls? Memorizing Scriptures that help. Listening to music that reminds us of our Red Sea salvation. Reading the Word frequently to keep our minds on heavenly things.
So will we turn to our precious Savior when the pressures and fears come?

• Will we turn to our golden calf? Our pleasures and comforts that we cling to apart from Christ. Such things will eventually be ground into dust, and we will drink our idols…our worthless idols. And they will come out like feces on the ground.

And just as importantly, will we help one another remember Christ? Let me speak especially to those of you who are, say, 30 years and older. You have a responsibility to speak of Christ to the generation below you.

Let’s read these words to Israel that are applicable to us.
Psalm 78:4–8 CSB We will not hide them from their children, but will tell a future generation the praiseworthy acts of the LORD, his might, and the wondrous works he has performed. He established a testimony in Jacob and set up a law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach to their children so that a future generation— children yet to be born—might know. They were to rise and tell their children so that they might put their confidence in God and not forget God’s works, but keep his commands. Then they would not be like their ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not loyal and whose spirit was not faithful to God.
Are you engaged in some way at some level in telling those younger than you about Jesus Christ and his glorious deeds to save us and keep us? Your children. Grandchildren. Neighbors. Younger people in this church. Helping them to find a deeper walk with Jesus. To develop more solid convictions on why and what they believe.
Life in Christ is at stake. Walking in a vibrant, Spirit-filled life is at stake. We must remember our great salvation, and then pass it on to the next generation. For the honor of God’s name and the good of the people.