Moses was up on the mountain for forty days and nights (24:18), and apparently the people got a little restless. This fall comes at the close of the “creation week” (ch. 25-31), and therefore we see that Israel, the son of Yahweh, the new Adam, is still much like his first father.
Literally, the people see that Moses “delayed with shame.” This seems to indicate that they were beginning to be embarrassed with how long it was taking him up there. They’re feeling insecure. Think about Saul and the sacrifice (1 Sam. 13:8ff). Israel puts distance between itself and Moses by referring to him as “this man,” and they say that they don’t know what happened to him (32:1).
This great apostasy that Israel commits is much like Adam’s in that it expressly breaks the covenant that God has made with Israel. The most obvious points of the breach are the first and second commandments against having any other gods before Yahweh and making carved images to bow down to and serve (cf. 20:2-4ff). We know that Aaron is a major player in this incident, but there are others involved as well: “They say, ‘This is your god, O Israel…” (32:4). Here the first commandment is breached, the carved image has an altar in front of it for worship and service (32:5), but this is clearly also a great sin against the name of Yahweh (third commandment) which God has repeatedly emphasized as being significant to the action of the Exodus (Ex. 6:3-6, 7:5, 10:1-2ff, 12:12, 15:3ff). Remember, it was Pharaoh who originally said that he did not know this “Yahweh God,” but the entire narrative is set up to show us who this God is and what his name means. Finally, the fact that a feast is declared is a breach of the fourth commandment. The Sabbath is the weekly feast to Yahweh who gives his people rest and joy. This pseudo-Sabbath is a feast to the gold calf and the gods he represents. Yahweh does not miss any of this (32:7-9). Literally, he says, “now let me have rest, that my wrath may burn hot against them…” (32:10). He wants to take a Sabbath and make an end them (32:10) which is sort of what he did when he finished creating (Gen. 2:1, Ex. 20:11). Yahweh has just finished speaking the instructions for the creation of a new world (ch. 25-31), but now because of Israel’s sin, he wants to make an end of it in a different way.
Moses “pleads” with Yahweh (32:11), but the word here is often used for being “weak or ill” (e.g. Gen. 48:1, Jdg. 16:7). It also has the same consonants as the word for the “cakes” of bread offered with many of the sacrifices (e.g. Ex. 29:2, 29, Lev. 2:4, 7:13). Moses’ prayer is “sacrificial” in so far as it is mediation of God’s fierce fiery-wrath. Moses’ prayer is almost entirely an appeal to Yahweh’s reputation (32:12-13). Moses appeals to what he has done, what the Egyptians will think, and his promises to the patriarchs. The fact that the camp is full of the noise of “singing” is striking since this is something that has not been explicitly mentioned since the Exodus. The word literally means “answer/respond,” but it is the same verb used here as describes Miriam singing their song of victory (15:21). Remember that Israel is picture throughout the Exodus narrative as the “armies” of Yahweh, and thus instead of fighting the battles of Yahweh, they have turned away and are singing the praises of this new god who brought Israel out of Egypt. Notice that Moses is able to plead with God on behalf of Israel and still burn with anger against them (32:10-11, 19).
Moses recognizes that Aaron is largely responsible for this great fall, and yet Aaron (like Adam) blames the bride (32:22-24). Aaron did not guard and restrain the people just as Adam failed to guard and restrain his wife in the garden (32:25). As Yahweh placed cherubim at the entrance of the garden with a flaming sword so too, Moses calls the faithful Levites to himself at the entrance of the camp with their swords, and they cut down about 3,000 of the people (32:26-28). The Levites are the new angelic guards of the sanctuary.
Moses calls the people to consecrate themselves because there has been a great battle between fathers, sons, and brothers (32:29). The judgment of the Levites is surely part of this, but the implication seems to be that the “great sin” of Israel is not merely against God but against their neighbors and families. There is also more going on because Moses calls upon them to literally “fill their hands” to the Lord (32:29). Remember that “filling the hands” was an integral part of the ordination rite of the priests (29:24), but literally the command to “ordain/consecrate” Aaron and his sons is to “fill their hands” (28:41, 29:9, 29, 33, 35). The ESV makes the connection most explicit by saying “Today you have been ordained for the service of the Lord…” This draws attention to the rest of the “hands” in this passage: the gold in the hands of Israel (32:4), the mighty hand of Yahweh (32:11), and the stone tablets cast out of the hands of Moses (32:19).
The next day, Moses declares that Israel has committed a great sin, but he will go up to Yahweh and seek to make atonement for them (32:30). He returns to the Lord and confesses their sins and offers to take their punishment for their sin (32:31-32). The Lord seems to reject this offer, relenting slightly, but nevertheless promising punishment for their sin (32:33-34). The final statement may be a summary of the judgment of the Levites or God may have actually struck them with a plague (32:35).
Conclusions and Applications
This is an enormous apostasy on the part of Israel. They have blatantly and flagrantly broken the covenant, but notice Moses’ response. He pleads for mercy and offers to take their place. This is the greatest kind of love, Jesus says, when a man lays his life down for his friends (Jn. 15:13). God has bestowed this kind of love upon us in the face of our blatant and flagrant sins, and we are called upon to offer the same sacrificial love.
Confessing sins is an ongoing duty for all of us when we blow it big and in the little things. Men, you are called upon to name your sins and confess them. And as covenant heads, learn to confess the sins of your households (e.g. Job 1:5), but as the priests and kings of our communities, we confess the sins of our people as well.
Lastly, the call to repentance is always a call to “ordination.” Your ordination was accomplished in your baptism, and we renew that ordination in worship. Here, we renew our cleansing with confession, we renew our faith and commitment in the Word, and we renew our communion in the Eucharist, and hands are placed upon us in the benediction.
What is in your hands? What are you filling your hands with?
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!
Closing Prayer: Almighty and Gracious Lord, we give you thanks and praise that you have given us your Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, to consecrate our lives to you, and to empower us to serve in your kingdom. We ask that you would make us like the sons of Levi, that we would follow Jesus in his warfare against all sin and wickedness and at the same time, teach us to intercede for the wicked, for the erring, and for the lost. We ask that you would make us living sacrifices.