In Ex. 19 Israel comes to Mt. Sinai and Moses went up on the mountain in response to God’s call. In Ex. 19:4-6 God thru Moses gives them the invitation to be His covenant people. The Jewish people in response promised to obey whatever God told them to do (Ex. 19:8; 24:3, 7; 20:19). The book of Deuteronomy (Heb. Devarim) is written in the form of a marriage covenant, and this is confirmed by the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea. So, what happens in this chapter is based on Israel’s infidelity to her marriage covenant to the Lord.
Exodus 32:1-6 Moses is up on Mt. Sinai receiving from God the testimony of the Covenant that they entered into earlier. These events occur at the foot of Sinai where Moses is receiving God’s Covenant with Israel. Moses had been on the mountain with God for over a month at the Lord’s command. Rather than trusting in the unseen God who is always present, their faith depended on Moses who was not. If our faith is in men we will always be disappointed but if God we will not.
Israel had seen the deliverance at the Red Sea, the provision of food and water, and the daily leading of God by the pillar of cloud and fire. They were rebelling against the Lord who had redeemed them. Their lack of gratitude provoked God to anger (Deut. 9:7). Israel’s faith was weak because they forgot and/or doubted His promises to them.
Aaron and Hur had been given authority from Moses to lead in his absence (Ex. 24:14). According to Jewish tradition, and though they were men who had seen God’s mighty acts, they failed God and Moses. Instead of restraining the people, Aaron went along with them and gratified the desires of their sinful hearts. Later, he offered a feeble excuse and tried to blame the people (32:22–24), but God knew better. God was so angry that He would have killed Aaron had Moses not interceded for him (Deut. 9:20).
Israel’s lust for idols was born in Egypt and still worked in their hearts (Josh. 24:14; Ezek. 20:4–9; 23:3, 8). Aaron fed that appetite by giving the people what they wanted. Much is being said these days about “meeting the felt needs of people,” but here was a nation that didn’t know what its needs really were. They thought they needed an idol, but what they really needed was faith in their great God, who had revealed Himself so powerfully to them. Israel exchanged the glory of the true and living God for the image of an animal (Ps. 106:19–23), which means they acted like the heathen nations around them (Rom. 1:22–27). Many people can rise early to sin but not to pray.
Exodus 32:7–14 The great test – In leadership, the difficult experiences with our people either make us or break us, and Moses was about to be tested. God called Israel “your people whom you brought out of Egypt,” as though the Lord were abandoning the nation to Moses, but Moses soon reminded God that they were His people and that He had delivered them. Furthermore, God had made a covenant with their forefathers to bless them, multiply them, and give them their land (Gen. 12:1–3). Moses intended to hold God to His word, and that’s what God wanted him to do.
The Lord then took a different approach: He offered to wipe out Israel and make a new nation out of Moses’ descendants. A lesser man might have accepted this invitation, but not Moses. He loved his people, sinful as they were, and he wanted more than anything else to glorify the God of Israel and see Him fulfill His promises. Moses wasn’t worried about his own future; he was concerned with God’s reputation. What would the Egyptians say about God if they heard that the whole nation of Israel had been destroyed at Sinai?
God had a right to be angry at Israel’s flagrant sin of idolatry and sensuality (Ex. 32:10–12), but Moses convinced God not to destroy Israel. In writing this account, Moses used human terms to describe divine actions, which is why he wrote in verse 14 that God “repented.” The Hebrew word means “to grieve, to be sorry” (Gen. 6:6; 1 Sam. 15:29) and describes God’s change of approach in dealing with His people (Jer. 18:1–12; 19; 26). God’s character doesn’t change, but God does respond to the prayers and confessions of His people.
The great discipline (32:15—33:11). God in His grace forgives our sins, but God in His government allows sin to work it’s terrible consequences in human life. We reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7–8). For example, God put away David’s sin, but warned him that the sword wouldn’t depart from his own household (2 Sam. 12:1–14). What a tragedy it is to reap the consequences of forgiven sin!
Exodus 32:15-29 Moses disciplined the people. As he came down the mountain, he asked Joshua to join him (Ex. 24:12–13). One day Joshua would replace Moses, so he needed to learn how to handle these difficult matters. Moses was angry (32:19, 22), but it was anger tempered by love, which is sorrow. The breaking of the stone tablets was a symbolic act: Israel had broken the covenant and would have to face discipline. But before he dealt with the people, Moses confronted Aaron, for the privilege of leadership brings with it both responsibility and accountability. Evangelist Billy Sunday said that an excuse was the skin of a reason stuffed with a lie, and Aaron’s feeble excuses didn’t convince Moses.
Then Moses turned to the people and asked, “Who is on the Lord’s side?” (Josh. 24:15; 1 Kings 18:21.) This was an opportunity for all Israel to repent and reaffirm their commitment to the Lord, but only the Levites responded to the call. Ignoring the ties of family and friendship (Matt. 10:34–39; Luke 14:26–27), they courageously killed all who were involved in the orgy, which was about three thousand men. Centuries later, Paul used this event, among others, to warn God’s people about rebelling against the Lord (1 Cor. 10:1–12).
Moses then destroyed the golden calf by burning it (it may have been made of wood overlaid with gold), grinding the gold to powder, throwing the powder into a nearby stream (Ex. 32:20), and making the people drink it (Deut. 9:21). By doing this he totally destroyed the idol and also forced the people to identify with their sin.
Moses returned to God on Mount Sinai, where for forty more days and nights he fasted and prayed for his people (Ex. 32:30–34; 34:28; Deut. 9:18–20). He told God he was willing to be killed if it would mean life for the Jews, but God rejected his offer. The Lord assured Moses that His angel would go before them, and that Moses was to lead the people just as before. However, God would punish them in His own way and His own time. Had the Jews known all that Moses endured for their sake, they might have appreciated him more, but such is the price of faithful spiritual leadership.
Exodus 32:35 through the next chapter God disciplined the people. God’s first discipline was to send a plague among the people, but we aren’t told how many were killed. The Levites had killed three thousand men who were engaged in idolatrous worship and immoral practices, but God knew who all the guilty people were. Sometimes God passes the sentence of judgment immediately but then delays executing the penalty. However, whether in the Old Testament or the New, “there is sin leading to death” (1 John 5:16–17).