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The Apostasy and Restoration of IsraelWe already noted that Moses stayed up on Mount Sinai for forty days and nights when he received the law from God (Exodus 24:18). Exodus 32 begins by saying:
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. 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” (Exodus 32:1).This is a very odd reaction to someone who has only been gone for forty days, let alone for a people who had seen God work His amazing miracles not only against Egypt but also in providing manna and water for the people. Less than forty days after Moses disappeared, they were clamoring to make their own gods—the very gods they had just seen destroyed by the real God.
Sadly, Aaron himself would take the gold that had been given to the people as they looted the Egyptians and would furnish a golden calf:
And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD” (Exodus 32:4-5).Amazingly, Aaron not only built an altar before an idol he knew was not God, but he then proclaimed that by worshipping the idol, they would be worshipping the LORD at the same time. This idea was very common in the ANE, and it even remains so today. It’s known as syncretism, wherein different religions are merged together. Israel’s idolatry rarely was from the fact that they had turned away from God completely, but rather that they tried to add more gods—in this case the golden calf—into the religious sphere along with YHWH.
We know, because we already read the Ten Commandments, that God said there should never be other gods or graven images made by Israel. His reaction to their apostasy is recorded in the next few verses:
And the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you” (Exodus 32:7-10).God’s anger is obvious. It was He, not some golden calf that hadn’t even existed yet, who had brought Israel out of Egypt. Yet the people were stubborn. They had violated the covenant they had agreed to, and with such rapidity as to be shocking. For their apostasy, God tells Moses that He will destroy the entire nation and rebuild it with Moses alone. It is obviously something that God could do, for we have seen that He had done that with Noah and the Flood.
Pay special note to the final sentence. It almost reads as if the LORD is asking permission from Moses for Him to go and destroy the people of Israel. “Let me alone,” He says. This is a rather curious way to phrase it, especially since we have already seen God did as He pleased with Pharaoh, going so far as to say that God Himself raised up Pharaoh in order to display His power and might. Why, then, would He turn to Moses here as if to ask permission from Moses to destroy Israel?
I think in part God was giving Moses a chance to echo Abraham here. Remember, when God wanted to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham interceded to ask God to spare the righteous. Now, God gives Moses a chance to intercede in a like manner. While this is a bit of speculation on my part, I think that it has to do with the fact that God had made great covenants with both of these main characters. Abraham would be known by the Abrahamic covenant throughout history, and therefore Abraham as the representative of that covenant would need to demonstrate the character attribute of being willing to intercede for his people. In the same way, God made His next covenant with Moses by handing down the laws to him. The fact that Moses, too, could now intercede to demonstrate the need for intercession seems too much of a coincidence to not be planned out by God. Almost as if God’s entire purpose for covenants was to clue us into the concept of intercession.
But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. Instead, let us look at how Moses interceded:
But Moses implored the LORD his God and said, “O 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 say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against 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 offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people (Exodus 32:11-14).Notice here how Moses’s intercession differs from Abraham’s intercession on behalf of Sodom. Abraham appealed to God on the basis of the existence of righteous people in Sodom, and God agreed He would not destroy the righteous along with the wicked. Moses, however, appealed to God’s Name, which He had given to His people, and which had been used before the entire country of Egypt. After having saved Israel with His might, would the Egyptians get the last laugh as God destroyed the people He had just saved?
In addition to that appeal, Moses also appealed to the covenant God had made with Abraham and reaffirmed with Isaac and Jacob. In this way, Moses included God’s promises to the nation of Israel in his appeal for mercy to that nation.
And in many ways, this was a superior argument for mercy. After all, Abraham’s appeal did not ultimately work because there were not even ten righteous people in the town of Sodom. Moses, by relying not upon the goodness of the people involved but instead upon the promises God had made, was successful in his intercession. God did not destroy the nation of Israel.
This is not to say that there were no consequences for Israel. Indeed, when Moses arrived in the camp from the mountain, in anger he destroyed the stone tablets upon which God had engraved the law. He likewise destroyed the calf, scattered it on the water and made Israel drink it.
Incensed, Moses grilled his brother:
And Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?” And Aaron said, “Let not the anger of my lord burn hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, ‘Make us gods who shall go before us. 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.’ So I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf” (Exodus 32:21-24).Aaron was correct in that the people were set on evil—how else can one explain how quickly they abandoned God and their constant complaining? But I can’t help but chuckle at how ridiculous Aaron’s excuse was. “I tossed all their gold into the fire and this calf just magically popped out.” Such is the lengths we are reduced to when we are caught in our sins.
Moses then moved to the gate of the camp and asked, “Who is on the LORD’s side? Come to me” (verse 26), and we are told all the sons of Levi came to him:
And he said to them, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.’” And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell (Exodus 32:27-28).And here we see one of the costs of Israel’s idolatry: the deaths of three thousand men. But even that would not be the end of it, for in verse 35 we read: “Then the LORD sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf, the one that Aaron made.” In this way, God confirmed that He would not restrain plagues from Israel. Sin always has consequences. And even though God was also merciful in not destroying them completely, there would be more consequences to follow.
I should also note that verse 35 says both that the people of Israel made the calf and that Aaron made it. This keeps with the theme of how various people can be responsible in different ways for the same actions. The people themselves did not literally make the calf; Aaron did. Yet, the people are responsible for the creation of the calf since they demanded it. As such, both Aaron and the people of Israel as a whole can be said to have created that idol. While Aaron was not innocent for his role in creating the calf, it is interesting to note that he was not one of the one’s slain, and in fact he would later continue to be a priest, so it could very well be that under the pressure of the people’s demands he may have felt he had no other option but to make the calf and that was why he was not as severely punished. Either way, it is something to think about as we continue.
The next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” But the LORD said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them” (Exodus 32:30-34).Notice first how sin needs to be atoned for. We often forget that today, but every sin must somehow be atoned for because justice demands it. But look also how Moses was willing to take on that punishment himself, for the sake of his people. God did not require that of him. Instead, He repaid each individual according to how they had behaved. Those who had sinned were the ones who were destroyed. This theme lines up with how God responded to Abraham regarding Sodom too, as He had said He would not destroy the righteous along with the wicked (although there were no righteous in Sodom).
God commanded the people to leave Sinai, to follow the angel to the Promised Land. But now we reach what could have been the most severe of the consequences: “I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people” (Exodus 33:3). Indeed, God even went so far as to say in verse 5: “if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you” so great was Israel’s evil.
Moses found this to be intolerable, and once again he pleaded on behalf of the people:
And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:15-16).Moses truly understood the situation. His words here are powerful and deep, and we do well to meditate upon them. The only thing that made God’s people distinct from every other nation on Earth was that God was with them. Therefore, Moses in essence said, “If You are not with us, do not even bother bringing us from here, for we are no one without You.”
The fact that Moses truly understood his own place before his God can be seen in God’s response:
And the LORD said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:17-23).For those who know the Scriptures already, we know that Paul will later quote this section in demonstrating God’s sovereignty over whom He is merciful to. As God points out to Moses, He will have mercy on those He wishes to be merciful toward. He is not required to be merciful to anyone at all. Mercy is a gift, not something that can be demanded. But how sweet it is that God does choose to be merciful!
Thus, not only did God choose to relent here, but when Moses asked to see His glory God gave him as much as was possible for men to bear without dying. Because of this interaction with God, we read in chapter 34 that Moses’s face would shine, glowing from the glory of God. The people were terrified and he was forced to wear a veil when he was among the people, only taking it off when the LORD was speaking to him.
As part of the restoration of the people of Israel, the stone tablets were made once again and God wrote the law on them a second time. Once more (Exodus 34:10ff), God renewed the covenant with Israel. This was another mercy on God’s part. He did not have to restore the relationship with His people. Again, God can pick and choose whom He will be gracious and merciful to. He chooses to be merciful often, because that is His character, but He likewise will not be taken advantage of.
From this point until the end of Exodus, we see Israel fulfill the ceremonial commands that had been presented before they had fallen. The tabernacle was built, along with all the altars and ceremonial items. The ark was also fashioned. So too the priestly garments. Finally, in the last chapter of Exodus (Exodus 40:17), the tabernacle was erected. And we read:
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys (Exodus 40:34-38).And so God remained with Israel in the wilderness, despite all the sin Israel had committed. And Israel set up the tabernacle and all the religious significance that went along with it. Not only a new nation, now Israel also had a full religion, and (at least for now) they followed only God.