The Golden Calf (Exodus 32)

The notorious golden calf incident. This was a BIG deal, especially in light of the events leading up to this narrative:

  • Israel has passed through the saving waters of the Red Sea and freed from the evil and enslavement of Egypt (Ex. 14-15) by power of Yahweh.
  • God makes a covenant with Israel and gives them His ten commandments/words of the covenant (Ex. 19-20), established by blood sacrifice and a covenant meal (Ex. 24).
  • God commissions the building of the Tabernacle, a type of the Garden of Eden, as the Creator will dwell in their midst (Ex. 25-31).

What happens is a hyperlink to the Fall (Gen. 3). The ink, if you will, wasn’t even dried on the stone tablets before Israel started breaking them. In fact, Moses is still on Mount Sinai while this was going on!

First of all, let’s figure out which commandment Israel has broken. Here are our options from the ten words:

  • Do not have other gods beside Me. (20:3)
  • Do not make an idol for yourselves, whether in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth… (20:4)

You may be thinking, “What’s the difference?” Firstother gods, refers to worshiping many gods, such as the gods of Egypt, even if they also acknowledge Yahweh. The LORD  is a personal God (20:5) and will not be shared. Humans were made in His image (Gen. 1:26).  The second, refers to man made idols, even those that represent Yahweh. The point of the commands: The God of Israel was not like other gods and refused to be depicted like them.

The text reveals the answer:

Exodus 32:4-5, …then they said, “Israel, this is your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” When Aaron saw this, he build an altar before it; then he made an announcement: “There will be a festival to the LORD (Yahweh יהוה) tomorrow.”  (emphasis mine)

To say the LORD wasn’t happy is an understatement. Did you notice God refers to Israel as those you (Moses) brought out of Egypt? (v. 7) Sounds like a parent when their children do something wrong. “Did you hear what your child did?” What’s that about? God has distanced Himself from Israel because of their great sin (v. 30 ESV). This was the great consequence of the Fall in Eden (Gen. 3:24).

Before this incident, Yahweh called them My people (3:7; 5:1; 7:4, 16; 9:1, 17; 10:3-4). Now they are referred to as stiff-necked or stubborn people (v. 9). The ten words were not the only warnings they were given about idolatry (20:23; 23:13, 24-25, 32-33). It seemed they were not capable of carrying out their covenant with God, they had already broken their covenant (symbolized by Moses shattering the tablets). The LORD is ready to wipe them out and start over with Moses (v. 10). Does this sound familiar to an earlier narrative? Noah. It didn’t work then (Gen. 9:20-23), and it wouldn’t work now. In fact, if you will look at the account of Noah’s sin, it came after God made a covenant with him.

Incidentally, Israel was not destroyed (whew, close call), but it wasn’t because the people had repented, or the high priest (Aaron) made restitution for them, but the fact Moses appeals to Yahweh based on His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (vv. 13-14). Moses is acting as the high priest of God (vv. 11-14, 30-32). This becomes an important part of the narratives from here on out. Israel is just getting started and they will continually break their part of the covenant with God, yet He remains faithful even if they’re not. This is an important theme of the faithful love (hesed – חםד) of God (20:6) that continues to develop.

But there were serious consequences. Moses may have saved Israel, but he dealt harshly with them for their sinfulness vv. 25-28. And, like the Fall (Gen. 3), this narrative is a major turning point in the LORD’s dealing with His people.

  • After the tenth plague/sign of the death of the firstborn, God ordained the firstborn of Israel to be consecrated for God’s service (13:1-2). After the golden calf, the Levites replace the firstborn as priests (32:26-29).
  • Israel’s relationship with Yahweh has changed. The promise is made, as before (23:20, 23), God will send His angel before the people to guard them (33:2), but something is different – the LORD will not go with them (33:3). Once again stressing separation from their fall.
  • The tent of meeting, often referred to as the Tabernacle (27:21; 28:43), is set up far away from the camp (33:7). This was not the Tabernacle, as it had not yet been constructed (36:8-38), but it served in a similar way. This is the place Yahweh will meet with Moses on behalf of the people. Once again it stresses their distance from God. The people can only watching from a distance (33:8-11).
  • Before the golden calf, “the fall,” Yahweh came down and displayed His glory to Israel (24:16-17). Now, God’s glory is passed before Moses (33:14-23). The people could only see the glory of God from the glow left on Moses’ face (34:29-35).

The tragedy of sin and failure is seen from Genesis 3 throughout the rest of the Bible. Its consequences were far deeper than not inheriting the Promises Land. It was the separation from the holy and glorious God who had chosen them, saved them, blessed them and loved them in ways no other god could. Even so, what the people learned through the golden calf, is Yahweh still loves them and longs to redeem them.

How do you view your sinfulness?

Are we so worried about “not going to heaven/going to hell” or God “punishing” us, we fail to realize what is really going on? Our relationship changes with the One who saved us through the waters by destroying our enemy and delivering us from the slavery of sin. We break the covenant of Christ that had been established by His blood. We partake of the covenant meal, Communion, before Jesus in an unholy manner. We bring reproach upon the Tabernacle/Temple of God, our own selves, since we house the very presence of God’s Spirit.

Look up and see how far you have fallen. Repent! And know this, no matter how vile the sin, our God still loves us and pursues us in ways we can hardly imagine. He longs for us to be in His presence and glory! To be in relationship with Him!

What an amazing God!

*All Scripture quoted from the Holman Christian Standard Bible

*Blog resources: The Pentateuch As Narrative by John H. Sailhamer

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