For the last month, we have been taking a look at God giving His instructions to the children of Israel. A couple weeks ago, we saw the Lord and Israel come to an agreement to the Israelites being obedient to His instructions. In our lesson last week, we saw Moses go higher up into the mountain to meet with God. We were told that Moses met with the Lord for forty days and forty nights (Ex. 24:18). Our lesson this week takes a look at the great sin that Israel Committed. This week’s lesson is being taught from Exodus 32:1-14.
The Great Sin of Israel
Now, I have been referencing this great sin in several lessons since we first saw that the children of Israel desired God’s instructions. So, what exactly leads them to sin? The first verse of our lesson sets up the reasoning from the Israelites perspective so let’s take a look at their reasoning.
Israel’s bizarre reasoning
Moses had been away for forty days and forty nights, so they saw this as a “delay”. They go to Aaron, who I believe we can assume has come down from where he, his two sons, and the seventy elders had been in the mountain (Ex. 24:1, 9). (We read last week that they were supposed to wait where they had worshiped God and fellowshipped. It’s possible that they stayed at that spot but also possible those men did not wait at that spot and returned to the bottom of the mountain.)
The people say to Aaron, “make us gods that shall go before us”. (Let’s pause here for a moment.) This is a very strange request from the people. God has always been the one to “go before the people”. He showed them this when He fed them with quail and manna (Ex. 16:12). This was shown again when God brought victory over the Amalekites. He has been the one leading them by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Ex. 13:21) – not anybody else!
To further show you how strange this request is, Moses had spoken to the people the words God had spoken to Him (the commandments and the law) (Ex. 24:3). What makes their reasoning even more odd is that they say, “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.” Yes, Moses was their spiritual leader but he was not necessarily the one leading them. Even Moses tried to explain to the people that he was not a god (Ex. 16:8).
So, yes, they have come up with their reasoning for their request to Aaron to make them a god, but their reasoning is flat out foolish! Solely based on the fact that Moses spoke of the commandments and the law to the people, they would have had to know that this was wrong. So, what we see them doing here is trying to justify their sinful thoughts and action. (They are trying to put the blame on Moses for taking too long to return.) All of us try to justify our sins when there is no reasoning we can use to justify them.
Aaron goes along
The most disappointing part here is that in the next few verses of our lesson, we see Aaron go along with the sin (vss.2-6). Let’s remember that Moses essentially left Aaron and Hur in charge of the camp from what we saw last week (Ex. 24:14). Remember that Aaron and Hur were supposed to be there for the people if “any man [had] a difficulty”.
I would say that this is a difficulty, and Aaron offers up no wall to the sin (v.2). The sin could have been stopped right then and there but we see Aaron not even try to stop the people. The old Ten Commandments movie tries to portray Aaron as one building the calf begrudgingly, but scripture does not show us any struggle or sorrow from him.
We are told that Aaron took the gold from the earrings the women and girls were wearing and fashioned it with an engraving tool and made a molded calf (vss.3-4). In other words, he melted the gold down and then covered the calf statue. I do find it interesting that they (or maybe Aaron himself) chose to go with a calf. It is suggested that the children of Israel saw how the Egyptians and Canaanites used animals as representation of their gods and copied those nations. (I agree with this.)
The great sin
This – idolatry – is a big no-no for the Israelites and even for us as Christians today. In our lesson on the Ten Commandments, we saw how the first section of commandments were all geared towards how the Israelites were to worship God (Ex. 20:2-11). God specifically commanded, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth (Ex. 20:4).”
Again, the people – especially Aaron – knew about this command. Even worse is that Aaron built this calf of gold as a representation of God! Aaron built an altar and then proclaimed a feast to the Lord before the altar (v.5)! This gets worse and worse because we then see the people come before the idol and burn offerings (sacrifices) and have their feast (v.6).
Again, going back to the Ten Commandments, God commanded the people not to do this! Here is the command (Ex. 20:5): “ you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” They were not only bowing down and worshiping this calf of gold, but they were taking God’s name in vain (Ex. 20:7). So, I hope you understand the magnitude of the sin the children of Israel were committing.
This was incredibly terrible, and it is truly saddening that Aaron did not step up in leadership. It is one thing when you say something to try and prevent others from sinning but they choose to sin anyway. (In that sort of case, there really is nothing that you can do – just turn it over to God and let Him deal with it.) It is a completely different thing when you say nothing at all and join in with the sin.
God’s Response to this Great Sin
So, how do you suppose the Lord is going to respond to what the children of Israel have done? I feel that this is a really good question to ask at this point. Should the children of Israel be destroyed for the sin that they have committed? If you believe so, please answer to yourself why you believe so. We will see how the Lord responds to the actions of the children of Israel in the rest of our lesson (vss.7-14).
Firstly, God tells Moses to get back down to the people (v.7). Moses certainly had no idea what the children of Israel had been doing while he was away. As I pondered in last week’s lesson, I honestly don’t believe time and what may have been going on around him, was relative to Moses when he was with God. So, the Lord has to inform Moses of all that the Israelites had done (v.8).
The Lord’s fiery anger
God was not pleased! He called the children of Israel a “stiff-necked” people (v.9) – meaning they were stubborn as a mule. The children of Israel were supposed to be turning themselves over to the Lord, but in their idolatry, they were refusing to turn. We can be this way as well, when it comes to fully submitting ourselves to the way of the Lord.
Now, I really want to take a close look at what is shown in the next few verses that close out our lesson (vss.10-14). God says to Moses, “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 (v.10).” So, it would seem, at first glance, God has chosen to destroy the Israelites, right? Let’s pause and take a closer look into this for a moment because something does not seem right about this.
Was God really going to consume the people? I suppose, my first thought about this would be – why did He first tell Moses to go back down to the people (v.7) if all He was going to do is destroy them? That just does not seem to add up to me. Was he going to send Moses down just to watch their destruction? Secondly, what about the promises that God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?
Wouldn’t making a great nation of Moses, in a way, break the promise made to the other three men? I suppose we could say that technically through Moses, a great nation of people would come still through the seeds of those men. Yet, something about this still seems… not right.
Moses questions the Lord
Moses also felt that something was not quite right about this. He questions, “why does Your wrath burn hot against Your people (v.11)?” Surely Moses, just like us, understands what has the Lord upset, but to move to destroying the people, seems to go against God. (The Lord did say in His commandments that He would visit His iniquity of the fathers upon the children for generations to those that commit idolatry. That does not seem to mean utter annihilation – Ex. 20:5.)
Moses then points out to the Lord that if God were to take the actions of destroying the Israelites, the Egyptians would mock Him (v.12). Moses also reminds the Lord of His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel) (v.13). This is all very interesting because in the last verse of our lesson, we read, “So the Lord relented (repented – KJV) from the harm which He said He would do to His people.”
The scripture would seem to suggest that Moses had to talk God down and remind God who He is. Very similar to what Abraham did when the Lord was set to destroy Sodom (Gen. 18:16-33). Let’s make something clear: God did not have to be talked down nor reminded about anything. What was really going on here?
Some suggest that this was a test of Moses’ faith – one could certainly see that. God, I do not believe, ever intended to destroy the children of Israel. He told Moses to get back down to the people because Moses was going to have to set the people straight. Where Aaron lacked in spiritual leadership and catered to the wishes of the people, Moses would not be able to do such a thing. Remember, Moses was going to have to further teach those people the commandments and the law.
Moses showed the type of leader that he was – he was similar to Abraham. I am reminded of the later times for Israel during the kingdom years when there was lawlessness and no justice. The Lord was displeased that no man interceded for the nation (Is. 59:15-16). In that time, the Lord allowed the nation of Israel to be conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians, but even in that time, the nation was not completely destroyed.
Moses did exactly what God was looking for – he interceded (or acted through his faith in God). I don’t believe there is anything wrong with questioning the Lord and “reminding” Him of the promises He’s made towards us. This shows that we have listened, understood well, but most importantly, trust in what God has promised. The Lord will never seek to destroy His own child. He certainly will work on us, but God is a merciful and forgiving God to those who are genuine in their faith and obedient to His way.