Exodus 32:1–34:10. Moses and God.
Key Notes: The gold calf threatened Israel's existence. Moses interceded three times for Israel. Moses and God reverse roles. Speaking with God face to face. Not seeing the Father's face. May we see the glory of God?
Moses came down from communing with God with instruction about the building of the Tabernacle, Israel‘s future worship center. The details of the tabernacle (Ex.25–31) will be covered in the next lesson when the building of the sanctuary is laid out in detail. (Ex.35–40).
He came down to rescue Israel. They were worshiping an idol, a golden calf. This account starts with a wild orgy--- and concludes with the glory of God. God will be seen in two forms, both strikingly different. The story is both frightful, and magnificent. It is a passage to meditate on for a lifetime.
32:1–6 Moses stayed on the Mountain for forty days, and the Israelites believed him dead. They needed a god to galvanize the people and help to organize them. Aaron was helpful. He solicited gold, and fashioned it into the shape of a bull, probably overlaying gold on a wood frame since it was later burned. The bull was not a random image. The Egyptian bull god Apis was well-known.
The people approved of the idol. “These are your gods, O Israel, that brought you up out of the land of Egypt. “
Flushed with success, Aaron built an altar and proclaimed a festival “to the LORD”. After they ate and drank, they rose up to "play"--a pagan orgy.
32:7–14 Up on the Mountain, God informed Moses of the revelry and proposed to annihilate the whole two million Israelites and start over with Moses. He said that Moses’ people, whom he brought out of the land of Egypt had corrupted themselves.
God announced His detachment from Israel. It is an automatic response. The separation of God from His people is due to their sin. Sin separates us from God.
“Call his name ‘not my people’, for you are not My people and I am not your God.” (Hos.1:9)
“Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or His ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hid His Face from you, so that He does not hear.” (Isa.59:1–2)
Moses reacted strongly: Israel was God’s people whom He had brought out of the Egypt. What would the Egyptians think of God if Israel died in the desert? What about the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob for a large nation and a perpetual homeland? The LORD relented.
For an extended text on how God deals with sin, read Ezekiel 12. It describes His unchanging attitude toward sin. If we rebel, He condemns. If we repent, He forgives.
32:15–20 Now Moses came down out of the Mountain, picking up Joshua along the way. They heard the music, saw the calf and the dancing. Moses was furious and smashed the tables of the Law. The Law had been broken symbolically and now he broke it literally. He broke up and burned the golden calf and made the people drink the polluted water.
32:21–24 When he confronted his brother, Aaron blamed the people and made up a fantastic story about the idol emerging from the fire. He appeared weak and foolish.
32:25 The next step was to restore authority. Moses called for men who would be on the LORD’s side. The men of the tribe of Levi came forward and he sent them to strike people down at random, not sparing acquaintances and relatives. Three thousand died. We presume they were a small sample of the revelers. That day the Levites were ordained into the LORD’s service and given a blessing.
32:30–35 Moses had more work to do and he told Israel that perhaps he could make atonement for their sin. He made his second appeal for forgiveness before God, putting his own life on the line in place of Israel. His name in the book refers to the Book of Life. (Dan.12:1; Rev.17:8). God acceded to his request, but promised appropriate punishment and a plague felled more of the people. As in David’s case, there was forgiveness, but “the sword did not depart from David’s house”. (IISam.12:10). An angel would be sent with them, but God Himself would not be present.
We note that the interaction between Moses and God is now reversed. At the burning bush, Moses was most reluctant to do anything to save Israel. And God pressed him hard to take up the task. Now he is begging God to take Israel back and lead them again. We saw Moses yield under pressure, and now we see God responding to Moses’ pleas. Through this stressful spiritual wrestling (think of Jacob’s wrestling with God, Gen.32:24), God is enabling Moses to grow in strength and intimacy with Himself and he will become a model of spiritual leadership. [Centuries later, Moses will talk to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration about His coming Exodus! (Lk.9:31)]. We also observe that the atonement which Moses seeks depends not on sacrifice and offering, but the promise of God’s forgiveness and restoration through Moses’intercession, accompanied by a change of heart of the people.
One person’s prayer saved a nation. Aaron, Joshua, and Israel’s elders were not there.
33:1–6 Fellowship between Israel and God was not yet restored, but the covenant was confirmed and Israel will go to the Promised Land without God’s presence. Hearing that sad word, the people were in tears and no longer wore their jewelry.
33:7–11 We have a view of Moses as intercessor, speaking with the LORD ” face to face, as a man speaks with His friend.” He had pitched a tent outside the camp (the Tabernacle was not yet built) where he would meet with God, Joshua standing by and the people at their tent-doors. This can be none other than the pre-incarnate Christ with whom he could speak as a friend on a daily basis. My understanding is that the negotiations were done as if “man to man” (God said ”mouth to mouth,” Num.12:8). We think salvation is done as if from outer space, but here it is shown to be with the Lord Christ and Moses standing on the ground, only inches apart. Abraham’s intercession for the people of Sodom was similar: he drew near to the LORD, who stood there in visible form. Gen.18:25
33:12–16 Moses made a third appeal for God’s personal fellowship and the LORD promised that His Presence would go with them. Moses pointed out that God’s presence was the basis of Israel’s distinctiveness in the world. Moses repeated his story to Israel in detail forty years later. Deut. 9:9–21, 25–29.
33:17–23 Moses boldly stepped up once more, praying to see God’s glory. No one else in Scripture made such a request. The Greek (LXX) puts it simply: “May I see You?”
The Lord replied that Moses would see His goodness, grace and mercy manifest. But the face of God would not be seen “for man shall not see Me and live”. God would put Moses behind a rock and cover him with His hand, so that he could see His train pass by, awesome and beautiful. I believe we have here an appearance of the glory of Father “who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see.” (I Tim.6:16)
34:1–9 God ordered Moses to cut two more stone tables and come the Mountain next morning. He was to come alone with everyone below standing clear of the Mountain. We are not told what he saw except a cloud, but we know what he heard God say.
I AM, I AM, Elohim Merciful and Gracious,
slow to anger and abundant in mercy and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for thousands,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
by no means clearing the guilty,
visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children,
to the third and fourth generation.
The last words are the same as God spoke them at the first giving of the law. (Ex.20:5). Moses bowed in worship and begged the LORD to go with them, pardoning sin and restoring their inheritance.
34:10–17 God’s going with them will not be passive. He will drive out the tribes of Canaan. He warned against worshiping their gods and intermarrying with them. No more molten idols!
34:18–27 They were to faithfully observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread ( Passover).
The firstborn of man and cattle belong to the Lord and must be redeemed.
Sabbath was to be observed even in plowing and harvest-times. God will assure them of peaceful ownership of their land if they are faithful to the three annual festivals.
34:28 Moses’ life was miraculously preserved during these 40 days of communion. When he came back into the camp, people were afraid because his face glowed. It was not a sunburn, but a reflection of the glory of God. He had to wear a veil in front of his leaders and the reluctant people.
Paul uses this event to teach us to deepen our walk with God.
“Now if the dispensation of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such splendor that the Israelites could not look at Moses’ face because of its brightness, fading as this was, will not the dispensation of the Spirit be attended with greater splendor?”
“For if what faded away came with splendor, what is permanent must have much more splendor.”
“Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the fading splendor.”
“…but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (IICor.3:7, 9, 11, 12, 16–18)
To put it simply, Moses eagerly pursued the glory of God and he was rewarded with a stunning vision of the glory of God. That was a unique event in Israel’s life but it is the normal Christian life. Beholding the glory changes us into Christ’s likeness and our spiritual formation is energized by the Holy Spirit.
Lift up your eyes to Christ and may your face be light.
P.S. The discussion of IICor.3:18 is taken up in more detail in the New Testament text.