A few weeks ago our nation corporately shared the grief of the explosion of the space shuttle, Challenger. It was the worst disaster in the history of America’s space program. This tragedy stunned people around the world. It also precipitated an intense investigation to determine the cause of the accident. NASA and the American public wanted to know how such a disaster could have happened with so much scientific expertise, so many safety checks, and so much dedicated talent involved. Initially, the focus of the investigation was physical and mechanical. The ocean bottom was searched and pieces of wreckage are still being brought to the surface and carefully scrutinized. From pictures of the launch, attention quickly turned to the seals which were used between the sections of the rocket’s main fuel tank.
As time has on, however, the investigation has turned more and more to the human factor. Why did the warnings from top scientists and engineers about the dangers of a cold weather launch go unheeded? What was it that kept this troubled launch from being shut down? How much part did politics and economic considerations play? In the final analysis I believe that it will be concluded that while there were mechanical problems, it was human failure that was a major contributing factor to this disaster.
The investigation of the space shuttle tragedy will undoubtedly have some very positive results. Not only will potential or actual mechanical problems be identified and corrected, but the human errors which led to the tragedy will be identified as well. In the long run, the investigation resulting from this disaster may save many lives and enhance man’s conquest of space.
Exodus 32-34 is God’s report on a disaster of even greater proportions. Like the launch of the Challenger, it all began with great excitement and expectation. Like the Challenger tragedy, it ended with horror at the loss of life and with wonder at how such a disaster could have happened in the first place. It was not the failure of a seal, but that of a covenant which our passage describes. And while the covenant had its weaknesses, it was ultimately human failure that was to blame.
A number of the commentators who have studied our text in Exodus chapter 32 have pointed to the fact that one of the principle sins of Israel here is that of impatience. I have come to think otherwise. It is not Israel’s impatience which is condemned here, but her idolatry. Idolatry is one sin that we may feel is far removed from 20th century Christianity. I would like to differ which such thinking. The idolatry of our day differs only in form from that which we will find in ancient Israel in our text. A further investigation of this tragedy in Israel’s history will greatly enhance our understanding of the covenant which has just been made and broken. It will enable us to understand why the Mosaic Covenant cannot save or sanctify men. And it will enable us to see how we are idolaters today, even within the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us listen well, then, to the warnings of this text for us. And let us learn from this disaster, so that future tragedies of this type do not happen to us.
Chapters 1-17 of the Book of Exodus have brought us from Israel’s bondage in Egypt to her encampment at the base of Mt. Sinai, a stay which lasted the better part of a year.67 Chapters 18 through the end of the Book of Exodus deal with Israel’s experience at Sinai. Chapters 19-24 focus on the revelation and ratification of the Mosaic Covenant. Chapters 25-31 and 35-40 deal with the plans and the construction of the tabernacle, along with its furnishings. Chapters 25-31 contain the “blueprints” for the tabernacle and its furnishings. These are given Moses during the 40 day period that he is on Mt. Sinai. Moses also saw the heavenly sanctuary, after which the earthly model was to be patterned (25:9, 40; Acts 7:44; Heb. 8:2, 5). Chapters 35-40 describe the construction of the tabernacle, climaxed by the presence of God being manifested in the tabernacle (40:34).
Chapters 32-34 separate the plans for the tabernacle from the report of its construction. There is a very important reason for this, as we shall soon see. It is vitally important to remember that some of the events of chapters 25-31 are happening simultaneously with some of those in chapters 32-34. That is, while God and Moses are discussing the construction of the tabernacle, the Israelites and Aaron are making preparations for the construction of the golden idol.
In terms of time, Exodus chapter 24 depicts the events which provide the historical backdrop for chapters 32-34. Only days have passed since God had spoken from the mountain, giving Israel this commandment:
“You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me” (Exod. 20:3-5).
“‘You shall not make other gods besides Me; gods of silver or gods of gold, you shall not make for yourselves” (Exod. 20:23).
To these commandments, along with all the others, Israel repeatedly affirmed, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do!” (Exod. 24:3; cf. 24:7; 19:8).
Chapter 32 is written to create an emotional impact on the reader. We are caught totally off guard by the blatant disregard for the covenant which Israel has just ratified. We are shocked by the idolatry which is a flagrant violation of the commandment of God. We are puzzled by the way things go wrong so quickly, and that Aaron seems to not to offer so much as one word or one moment’s hesitation. How can we possibly explain such a rapid turn of events? How can those who have enthusiastically committed themselves to keeping the covenant which God has made suddenly reject it, not in some backhanded and indirect way, but in a high-handed, bold act of rebellion?
There are several essential observations which must be made from this text before the answers to our questions can be found. These observations pertain to the facts of the case. Our findings, our conclusions (or interpretations) must be based upon these facts:
(1) The sin of the Israelites happened very soon after the Mosaic Covenant was ratified in Exodus chapter 24—sooner, in fact than 40 days. Moses had prepared the people for him to be gone for some time,68 and part of the forty days had passed. I believe that a good part of the forty days could not have passed before the people of Israel proposed that Aaron fashion an image. Making this idol involved the collection of the contributions of gold from the Israelites, melting it down, determining what form the idol would take, making a cast, and then tooling the roughly cast image. Since Moses was absent 40 days and the idol was completed by the time he returned, we must conclude that somewhat less than 40 days had elapsed when Israel practiced idolatry.
(2) The absence of leadership is a contributing factor to Israel’s idolatry. There is a direct, cause-effect relationship between the absence of leadership and the practice of idolatry. It is obvious that Moses is absent. He is on the mountain with God, gone for 40 days and nights (cf. 24:18). His absence gave the Israelites a pretext for taking action, and also the opportunity for doing so (Moses wasn’t there to stop them). Aaron, of course, was present, but he hardly deserves the title “leader” here. The seventy elders who ate the covenant meal in the presence of God, Whom they saw (24:9-11), are not so much as mentioned, and yet they are most likely in the camp. How could they not have exercised some leadership in this situation? Moses had given only Aaron and Hur authority to handle legal disputes (24:14), and even Hur’s name is not mentioned in chapter 32. Perhaps even more interesting, no leaders are named of the group which wanted an idol. In other places the rebel leaders are named (e.g. Num. 16:1-3), but in our text the only designation given is “the people” (32:1, 3, 6). The absence of leadership plays a significant role in the idolatry of Israel.
(3) The hostility of the people plays a significant role in explaining the role which Aaron played in Israel’s sin. The crowd which had “assembled about” Aaron was not a friendly group, gathering for small talk and making casual suggestions. The expression used here suggests that this was an angry, aggressive mob, whose presence Aaron perceived to be a threat to his safety, perhaps even his life. Given the actions of the Israelites before and after, Aaron was probably right to see this situation as one that was “dangerous to his health.”
The same expression which is rendered “assembled about” in Exodus 32:1 is rendered differently in the Book of Numbers, in a way that is very similar to the assembly about Aaron in our text: “And they assembled together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘You have gone far enough, for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is in their midst; so why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?’” (Num. 16:3, emphasis mine; cf. 20:2).
One could hardly say that the assembly in Numbers 16:3 is a friendly group. In the context the people have gathered to rebuke Moses for keeping the leadership of the nation restricted to himself and Aaron. We are not told what this angry mob intended to do, but God’s action against them would suggest that the matter was indeed serious. The same sense is present in this assembly in Exodus chapter 32. Aaron was under fire. He capitulated, and wrongly so, but he folded because he feared this hostile crowd and what they might do if he failed to give them what they wanted.
Further evidence of the aggressiveness and hostility of the crowd is to be found in the expression, “Come” (32:1, NASB). I believe that the Berkeley Version more accurately conveys the demand of the people in this imperative, when it renders the verse this way:
When the people noticed that Moses delayed his coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and told him, “Get up! Make gods for us to lead us on; for this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we have no idea what has happened to him” (Exod. 32:1, Berkeley Version, emphasis mine).
The only other place in the Book of Exodus where this expression “Get up!” is found is in chapter 12, where Pharaoh was speaking to Moses, whom he disliked greatly, but was eager to remove from Egypt, after the death of his son. The Berkeley Version consistently renders the expression the same way: “During the night he [Pharaoh] sent word to Moses and Aaron, ‘Get up and get out from among my people; both you and the Israelites. Go and serve the LORD as you argued’” (Exod. 12:31, Berkeley Version, emphasis mine). Just as Pharaoh spoke with authority here, the people spoke authoritatively to Aaron. They were not asking for an idol, they were demanding one. No wonder Aaron responded so quickly, and with no resistance.
(4) There is a military motivation behind Israel’s demand to have a graven image. What was it that the Israelites thought the graven “god” could do for them? I have concluded that there is a rather strong military factor here. Twice in our text, the expression, “who brought us up from the land of Egypt,” has occurred, the first time with regard to Moses (32:1), the second, with respect to the idol which was made (32:4). Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. This victory was viewed as a military victory over the army of Pharaoh (cf. Exod. 15). The idol which the Israelites demanded was to serve as the nation’s military leader, which would lead them to victory over her enemies.
The Israelites had faced the Egyptians and won. They have also been opposed by Amalek at Rephedim (Exod. 17:8-16). They are now facing the conquest of Canaan, which is also a military matter. I believe that the people want a visible symbol, a kind of mascot god, which they can take before them as they proceed on to Canaan. Since Moses was not there to go before them, their idol will be their leader. The expression “to go before” definitely conveys the idea of leadership, and it has a military connotation: “The LORD your God who goes before you will Himself fight on your behalf, just as He did for you in Egypt before your eyes” (Deut. 1:30; cf. also Exod. 14:19; 23:23; 32:34). If the Israelites cannot look to Moses to lead them to victory, then they will have a “god” who will “go before them” as they march into Canaan, to possess it.
(5) Idolatry is not something new to the Israelites; it is something which has characterized this people from the very outset of their history. Israel’s idolatry should not be viewed as some new form of evil, never known among them before. Instead, it is the recurrence of an age old problem. It is a reverting back to her old ways:
“Now, therefore, fear the LORD and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD” (Josh. 24:14).
“Did you present Me with sacrifices and grain offerings in the wilderness for forty years, O house of Israel? You also carried along Sikkuth your king and Kiyyun, your images, the star of your gods which you made for yourselves” (Amos 5:25-26; cf. Acts 7:43).
“Like all the deeds which they have done since the day that I brought them up from Egypt even to this day—in that they have forsaken Me and served other gods—so they are doing to you also” (1 Sam. 8:8).
Moses has been on the mountain, away from the camp, long enough for this nameless group of Israelites to conspire to create an idol to represent God, in direct, deliberate disobedience to the commandment of God prohibiting the making of idols. These people came to Aaron demanding that he make them an idol (literally “gods”).69
Aaron responded to “the people” by telling them to “tear off” the gold rings. This gold jewelry was undoubtedly Israel’s “wages” from the Egyptians (cf. 3:21-22; 12:35-36). This gold should also have been what was contributed for the construction of the tabernacle, rather than the golden idol (cf. Exod. 25:3). The expression, “tear off,” seems to suggest that what the Israelites did was a hasty, spontaneous, act. Spur of the moment decisions and actions are often suspect.
Seemingly it was Aaron who decided on a calf, or, better, a young bull, as the symbolic representation of God. He melted the gold, cast the idol and fashioned it. When “the people” saw this idol they responded, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt” (v. 4). Seeing that the Israelites regarded the image as their “god,” Aaron began to play the priest, solemnizing this idolatrous occasion with “worship” which strikingly mimics the actions of Moses in chapter 24. Aaron built an altar (32:5), just as Moses had (24:4). Aaron proclaimed a feast (a covenant meal?), a “feast to the Lord” (v. 5), just as there was a meal on Mt. Sinai (24:11). Israel’s early rising (v. 6) indicates the zeal with which this “worship” was pursued. Burnt offerings and peace offerings were sacrificed, too, (32:6), just as these had been sacrificed in chapter 24 (v. 5). All the people sat down to eat and to drink.
There was a very great difference between the “worship” of the people before the golden calf and that of the elders on the mountain. The people not only ate and drank, they “rose up to play” (32:6). This term “play” refers to illicit and immoral sex play. The same expression is used in Genesis 26:8, where Abimelech “looked out through a window, and saw, and behold, Isaac was caressing his wife Rebekah” (emphasis mine). Thus, this “worship” had turned into an orgy. And so another of the commandments, the prohibition of adultery, is most likely violated.
When you visualize this incident in your mind’s eye it is a scene of incredible evil. Those who had fervently vowed to keep God’s commandments are blatantly violating them. They are in a drunken frenzy, worshipping an idol, engaging in sexual indecencies. Their worship is little different from that of the Canaanites, whose sins are the reason for their being cast out of the land (cf. Deut. 9:5). And all the while they are worshipping in front of that idol, behind and beyond them, Mt. Sinai still is covered with the cloud of the glory of God, with God appearing as a consuming fire (24:17; cf. Deut. 9:15). And while the Israelites are supposing that they have the presence of God among them, God is handing down the plans for the tabernacle, by means of which God will manifest His presence among the people. What tragic irony!
The plans for the tabernacle have been given to Moses, along with the two tablets of stone, on which the commandments have been written by the finger of God (31:18). Knowing all that has been going on in Moses’ absence, God told Moses to go down to the people. Before Moses departed from God’s presence, God first diagnosed Israel’s condition, and then threatened judgment which Israel richly deserved.
God gave Moses a three-fold description of the sin of the Israelites. The first two characterize the sin which the nation has just committed. These are expressed in the past tense “have corrupted themselves” (v. 7); “have quickly turned aside” (v. 8). The third term focuses on the root problem, the spiritual condition of the nation which has produced these symptomatic sins seen in chapter 32. By worshipping this idol, Israel has violated the covenant they just made with God, and have thus “corrupted”70 themselves. They are not the “holy nation” which God had set them apart to be (cp. 19:5-6). Furthermore, they have “quickly turned aside” from the way which God had shown they should walk and live, the “way” declared by the commandments. The nation had not only corrupted themselves by their disobedience, they had done so quickly. With this we should all be able to heartily agree.
The cause of Israel’s quick corruption is declared by God in verse 9: “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people.’” In one word, the people of Israel are obstinate. That is, they are stubborn, willful, and rebellious. Literally, the Israelites were “stiff-necked,” a term which was frequently employed to identify Israel’s sinfulness (cf. 33:3, 5; 34:5, 9; Dt. 9:6, 13; 10:16; 31:27; 2 Chron. 30:8; 36:13; Ps. 75:5; Jer. 17:23; Acts 7:51).
What the Israelites have just done (or are presently, from the perspective of the text, doing) is the result of what they are. What the Israelites are, here, is not a new thing, not a new condition. God said, “I have seen this people” (v. 9). What Israel now is, Israel has always been. Israel is not, just now, idolatrous, they have always been so.
God’s words in verse 7-10 reflect the consequences of sin—a separation from God and the ominous threat of judgment. God spoke no longer of Israel as “His” people, but rather as the people of Moses: “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves” (Exod. 32:7, emphasis mine). Both in what God says and in the way He says it, Israel’s sin has put the nation in great danger.
God then threatened to annihilate the entire nation, to wipe them out, and to start over, making a new nation of Moses: “Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them, and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation” (32:10). These words pose an ominous threat to Israel’s future. It looks as though Israel will be wiped out, and, we must say, God would have been wholly just in doing so, at least from the standpoint of the seriousness of Israel’s sin.
God’s words here are intended to convey the great danger which Israel is now in. But they are also intended to produce something different than destruction which is not only suggested by the outcome of the story, but is also implied by the words themselves.
If God had intended to wipe Israel out, what reason was there for Him to tell Moses about it, and then send Him down to the people? God tells of judgment in advance so as to afford an opportunity for men to repent. Furthermore, the words, “let Me alone,” suggest to Moses that if he did not leave God alone, the people would not be destroyed. The inference is that if Moses did intercede for Israel, God would likely turn His wrath from His people.
Finally, Moses knew that God’s threatened action (of destroying Israel) and His offer to Moses (of making a new nation through him) would have been inconsistent with His character and His covenant with Israel. The Egyptians would have taken pleasure in the fact that the Israelites were destroyed, which was precisely what they had attempted to do (cf. Exod. 1:8-22). The character of God would have been demeaned, for God would not have kept His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Messiah could not come through Moses, for he was of the tribe of Levi, while Messiah must come through Judah (compare Exodus 2:1-2 with Genesis 49:10). Thus, the words which God spoke were intended to stimulate Moses to intercede for his people, and thus to bring about forgiveness.
Moses was never more noble, more fervent, or more eloquent than he was here. He took his clues from the words God had spoken and appears to change God’s mind. His appeal71 employs several lines of argumentation. Summarized, I believe the argument includes the following:
(1) The Israelites God threatened to destroy are the same people God chose and brought out of Egypt. Idolators? Yes, and so they were when God brought them out of Egypt (cf. Amos 5:25-26). Stiff-necked? Yes, as they were the day God brought them out of Egypt (cf. 1 Sam. 8:8). The people of Israel have not changed. They are now what they were then.
(2) The purposes and promises of God require God to finish what He began. God had promised Abraham, Isaac, and Israel that he would make a great nation of their seed, and that they would possess the land of Canaan (v. 13). The Lord had brought this people out of Egypt, for the purpose of possessing Canaan. For God not to complete what He promised and began to do, would be to deny Himself.
And so it is no surprise to us that God “changed His mind” (v. 14). He did appear to change His mind, but from the context we know that God simply turned His anger from destroying His people. In reality, God’s actions here show that He persisted to do what He had purposed. As Hyatt, points out, God’s “change of mind” was one which we should expect: “The bases of Yahweh’s repenting are three: (i) intercession, as here and in Am. 7:1-6; (ii) repentance of the people (Jer. 18:3ff.; Jon. 3:9f.); and (iii) Yahweh’s compassionate nature (Jg. 2:18; Dt. 32:36; 2 Sam. 24:16).”72
There is only one word which can describe the events which we have read about in our text—incredible. Before the “ink has even dried” on the Mosaic Covenant, Israel has broken it, in spite of the repeated, zealous affirmations of the Israelites that they would obey it. At the very time when God is giving Moses the pattern for the tabernacle, where He will manifest His presence to the Israelites, the Israelites are fashioning an idol, which they hope will manifest God’s presence among them. Not years, I suspect not even a month, has passed before this evil plan was set in motion.
How could something like this possibly have happened? I was hoping that my study of this text would uncover some scarcely recognized secret, which would unveil the failure of Israel, and would prove to be the key to our own spirituality. The simple fact is, there is no such hidden truth. And that, I believe, is one of the most significant truths which we learn from this text.
God Himself has diagnosed the failure of Israel in clear and simple terms: Israel corrupted herself, turning quickly from the way God had prescribed because of a malady common to man—the “stiff-neck syndrome” (theologians call this the “depravity of man”). The Israelites, like every other people who have ever lived, were sinners, and thus were rebellious, stiff-necked, stubborn people. Given this fallen condition, a sin as serious of the pagan worship of a forbidden golden idol should not surprise us at all. In no way is this meant to justify Israel’s sin, but it does help explain it.
If we are at all observant of our own Christian community, there are scores of Christians who have suddenly fallen into sin. We often agonize of such spiritual catastrophes, wondering how a person so sincere, so spiritual, so devoted to the Lord could ever do such a thing. The reason for such sin is the same as that for Israel’s sin—depravity. We, like Israel of old, are stubborn and stiff-necked. We, like they, can quickly turn from the way God has prescribed, corrupting ourselves in the process. Our unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others betrays our grasp of one of the most fundamental of all truths—man is sinful and desperately wicked, and his spiritual downfall can come quickly.
The Mosaic Covenant, ratified approximately one month before Israel’s idolatry of Exodus 32, defined the relationship which Israel had with God. Obedience to it promised certain blessings. Disobedience implied negative consequences. In the appeal which Moses made on Mt. Sinai for his people he did not refer to the Mosaic Covenant, even though this covenant is so prominent in Israel’s history and in the Book of Exodus. Why is the Mosaic Covenant not the basis for the mediation of Moses for his people? The reason is that the Mosaic Covenant is able to condemn sin, but not to remedy it.
I believe that the sudden failure of the Israelites serves a vitally important purpose in the progressive revelation of the Old Testament. It serves to show us, as it did the Israelites, that there was no way that the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant could ever be fulfilled by means of Israel’s obedience to the Mosaic Covenant. There was nothing really wrong with the Mosaic Covenant; the problem was with the Israelites. The covenant could promise blessings for those who would obey it, but no cure for those who did not. Given their depravity, their stubborn, stiff-necked rebellion, there was no way that they could ever hope to keep the Law in order to obtain the blessings which God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As Paul put it centuries later,
Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified (Gal. 2:16).
For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them” (Gal. 3:10).
Put bluntly, the Law can only condemn, it cannot save. Thus, when Moses appealed to God, pleading with Him not to destroy the Israelites as He threatened, he did not make his appeal on the basis of the Mosaic Covenant, just inaugurated; he appealed to the Abrahamic Covenant, made centuries before. The Law was God’s provisional covenant, given to men because of their depravity, but it was not the cure. If the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant were to be fulfilled, it would have to be by some other covenant than the Mosaic Covenant.
Within the provisions of the Mosaic Covenant, there was really only one solution for sin—death. God was right in proposing the destruction of the entire nation to remedy their sin problem. Death was the only way that the Law could remove sin. And this is what the Law has done, only it is not we who have died for sin, but Christ. He died, under the curse of the Law, so that the problem of sin could be removed. He also rose from the dead, giving us a new covenant, and the power of the Holy Spirit, so that sin need no longer rule over us.
The Mosaic Covenant could not change men’s hearts, and this is the root problem of sin. When the Mosaic Covenant was ratified by the next generation of Israelites, there was a much greater emphasis on the negative consequences of violating this covenant. There was also a clear word from God that the problem was with the hearts of the Israelites:
“And the LORD heard the voice of your words when you spoke to me, and the LORD said to me, ‘I have heard the voice of the words of this people which they have spoken to you. They have done well in all that they have spoken. Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever!’” (Deut. 5:28-29).
Later on, just as the Israelites were beginning their new life in the land of Canaan, Joshua challenged them to choose whether they would serve their old “gods,” which they had served in Egypt, or they would serve the God who had brought them from Egypt and had given them this land (Josh. 24:14-15). The people enthusiastically promised to serve the LORD (24:16-18). Joshua’s response is consistent with what we have learned about the people of God (their depravity) and the Mosaic Covenant (its inability to save sinners):
“You will not be able to serve the LORD, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgression of your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you after He has done good to you” (Josh. 24:19-20).
The people insist that they will serve the Lord, saying, “No, but we will serve the LORD” (24:21). Instead of assuring the people that they will be blessed in so doing, Joshua responded, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen for yourselves, to serve Him” (24:22). This is a very pessimistic word from Joshua, but it is true. Given the “stiff necks” of the Israelites and the inability of the Law to remove sin, there is no hope of God’s blessing. The solution to the problem is a new covenant, one which will change men’s hearts and will remedy the problem of sin. That solution is the promised new covenant, promised by the prophet Jeremiah.
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My Law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jer. 31:31-33).
Salvation, sanctification, and blessing can only be attained by someone other than ourselves. That person, the only person who has achieved the righteousness demanded by the Law, is Jesus Christ. He perfectly fulfilled the Law, and then died under the Law, bearing our punishment, and then rose from the dead, so that we might have life in Him (Matt. 5:17-18; Rom. 3:21-22; 2 Cor. 5:14-21; Gal. 4:4-6). The animal sacrifices of the Old Testament were thus a foreshadow of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who would die as the “Lamb of God.” Moses, the mediator of the Mosaic Covenant, foreshadowed the mediatorial role of Christ, our Great High Priest.
There are those today who would tell us that the way for us to obtain the blessings of God is to live in accordance with the Law of Moses. While the standards of the Law are those which men should strive to keep, striving to keep them in order to be saved, sanctified, blessed, or empowered is folly. The reason is simple: we suffer from the same ailment Israel did—sin, manifested by stubbornness and stiff-necked rebellion to the will and the word of God.
The sinfulness of the Israelites and the weakness of the Mosaic Covenant, as evident less than 40 days after that covenant was ratified helps us understand Paul’s strong words in the Book of Galatians to those legalists who were attempting to turn men from the work of Christ (the new covenant) back to the old (the Mosaic Covenant). To try to keep the Law in order to be saved, sanctified, or blessed, fails to understand the depravity of man, which prohibits him from keeping the Mosaic Covenant perfectly, as is required. The legalist not only overestimates the ability of man (to keep the Law), but he minimizes the work of Christ, which alone saves and sanctifies. The worship of the golden calf only a few days after the ratification of the covenant should warn us about placing too much faith in our ability to keep the Law of that covenant.
The question which comes to my mind as I consider our text is this: “Why was the sin of idolatry the first which Israel committed?” We might say that it came first because it was the worst sin. I am inclined to think that it is the first sin because it is the easiest and most likely sin men commit, and it is also the sin which leads to many others. For example, it was Israel’s idolatry which led to the sexual immorality described in our text. I think it can also be said that idolatry was perhaps the sin which was most characteristic of Israel. Over and over in the Old Testament Israel is accused of being idolatrous. Idolatry, for the Israelites, was a way of life, one which was easily reverted to. Idolatry was also a characteristic of the culture of the Canaanites.
We may think that idolatry is one sin which the Christian need not concern himself about today, at least in enlightened evangelical America. To the contrary, idolatry is also a very common sin and one which is frequently practiced by Christians today. It only differs in the form which it takes. Let us pursue this matter of idolatry further, seeking to better define it in principle and in practice.
(1) Idolatry makes something other than God one’s “god.”
(2) Among God’s people idolatry often involves the worship of something or someone other than God as though it were God. A polytheistic culture may worship any number of “gods,” but Israel’s religion is monotheistic, which means she can worship only one God. The heathen may worship their “gods” by whatever name they wish; Israel can worship a “god” only by the name of Yahweh. Israel’s idolatry is a more insidious variety because it can appear to be the worship of the true God, when, in fact, it is the worship of some other “god” in the name of the true God. This idolatry is, by far, the most dangerous, and the most prevalent among Christians. It looks and sounds so pious, but is misdirected. It has the “appearance of godliness” but not its purity or power (cf. 2 Tim. 3:5).
(3) Idolatry can be either conscious or unconscious, deliberate or defacto. In Exodus 32 Israel’s idolatry is both conscious and deliberate. In other instances, idolatry may be practiced without actually knowing what is happening.
(4) Idolatry seeks to replace what cannot be seen with something that can be seen—it is physically oriented. Thus the underlying issue of idolatry is faith, since faith focuses on what is not seen: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1; cf. 2 Cor. 5:7; Heb. 11:27).
Idolatry attempts to replace something invisible or perceived as absent with something present and visible. Ironically, while the problem was one of seeing God, He was visibly present behind them, on the mountain. Ironically, as well, it was what the Israelites “saw” that was wrong, and which got them into trouble.73 We say, “Seeing is believing,” but for the Christian the opposite may be true.
Thomas believed only because he had seen our Lord, but the risen Lord said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (John 20:29). For those who have not seen the risen Lord, we nevertheless have the promise of His presence with us, so that we do not need visible tokens (idols) of His presence: “… and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you” (Deut. 31:6; Josh. 1:5; Heb. 13:5).
(5) Idolatry is a very dangerous temptation for the New Testament saint, for the circumstances of today are very similar to those found in our text in ancient Israel. There are some remarkable parallels between the situation which Israel faced at this point in her history and that faced by the church. The more we understand these parallels, the more we will grasp the possibilities for practicing idolatry today.
In the Book of Exodus, God had come down, manifesting Himself to men. In particular, a handful of Israel’s leaders had seen God and had undoubtedly communicated what they saw to the rest of the nation. Moses, God’s appointed leader then was called up and away from the people, but they were nevertheless left with clear instructions from God regarding their conduct. Without their visible leader, Israel fashioned one of their own making, thus breaking their covenant with God and disobeying His Law.
In a similar way, God came down and manifested Himself to men in the person of Jesus Christ. A few of the leaders of the church saw Him, both before and after His death, burial, and resurrection, and they reported these things to men (cf. Heb. 1:1-3; 2:3-4). Our Lord was then taken up into heaven (from a mountain) and the church was left behind, with clear instructions as to how God wants us to live (the Bible). In His absence, Christians are tempted to look for something or someone visible to assure them of God’s presence and power. One form of idolatry will be the subject of our further inquiry.
(6) Idolatry is a matter of leadership,74 since ultimately whatever we serve is our “god” and whatever is our “god” is what we follow. Put in simplest terms, people choose their gods in order to follow after them. Thus, our gods are our leaders. Conversely, we must be very careful about who we choose as our leaders and how we view them. Just as our gods become our leaders, our leaders can become our gods.
One of the things which I have learned from my study of Israel’s idolatry in Exodus chapter 32 is that there is a very clear and direct relationship between leadership and idolatry. There was a cause-effect relationship between the absence of Moses and the act of idolatry described in our text.
To practice idolatry one does not need a graven image. There are times when our idols are people. One case of idolatry which is both significant in the history of Israel and relevant to Christians today is found in the Book of 1 Samuel:
And it came about when Samuel was old that he appointed his sons judges over Israel. … His sons, however, did not walk in his ways, but turned aside after dishonest gain and took bribes and perverted justice. Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah; and they said to him, “Behold, you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing was displeasing in the sight of Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the LORD. And the LORD said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them. Like all the deeds which they have done since the day that I brought them up from Egypt even to this day—in that they have forsaken Me and served other gods—so they are doing to you also.” … Nevertheless, the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel, and they said, “No, but there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:1, 3-8, 19-20, emphasis mine).
Notice the ways in which these events, which occurred several centuries later than the exodus, parallel the idolatry of the worship of the golden calf in Exodus 32.
First, both accounts clearly identify the sin committed as idolatry. Second, both involve Israel’s leadership, having someone or something to “go before the people.” Third, in both cases, the Israelites were rejecting God’s appointed leadership and establishing a leader of their own. Fourth, in both cases, the people are acting the same and are imitating their culture, rather than obeying God by being a distinct people.
The contribution which this passage in 1 Samuel makes is a significant one because it shows us that idolatry can be practiced by exalting men too highly, and looking to them, rather than to God. There was no golden calf in this incident between God, Samuel, and the people of Israel, only a king. But it is clear in the context that the kind of king Israel wanted was to be a “god” to them, an idol, not of gold but of flesh. Just as the Israelites of Moses’ day wanted a golden image to “go before them,” taking the place of God’s leader, and ultimately, the place of God Himself. To reject God’s established form of leadership is to reject God’s leadership.
This matter of Israel wanting a king is very relevant to 20th century Christianity. You and I, in our culture, are not likely to melt down our jewelry, cast a golden image, and fall before it in worship. We are, however, very likely to look to some human leader in a way that one should only look to God. The idolatry of Samuel’s day, while similar in essence to that of Moses’ day, is much more likely the form idolatry will take in contemporary Christian circles.
This is apparent in the idolatry of both Exodus 32 and 1 Samuel chapter 8. Whenever we look to men, giving to them what only belongs to God, or looking to them for what only God can give, we are idolaters. We have made our leaders our gods, just as Israel did in Samuel’s day. We look to them instead of God. We have expectations and demands of them which are only rightly directed toward God.
This not only happens in the church, it happens in marriage. One of the most persistent complaints about husbands is that they don’t lead (the way we think they should). One of the frequent realities is that we are looking to our husbands to provide us with what only God can give. Much of the present emphasis on leadership, in my opinion, is based upon an idolatrous foundation. Let us take heed from the warning of this text and from the failure of our forefathers.
66 Parallel texts are Deuteronomy 9:7-21, 25ff.; Neh. 9:13-21; Ps. 106:19-23; Acts 7:36-43; 1 Cor. 10:1-13, esp. v. 7. Cf. also Jer. 15:1, where Moses, along with Samuel, are seen to be the foremost mediators of all time.
67 Israel arrived at Sinai three months after her departure from Egypt (19:1). She broke camp and set out for Canaan late in the second month of the second year (Numbers 10:11-12). Thus, nearly a year was spent camped at the base of Mt. Sinai.
68 God had told Moses to “Come up to Me on the mountain and remain [literally, “be”] there” (Exod. 24:12). Moses’ provision for leadership in legal matters also implied that he would be gone for some time (cf. 24:14). Thus, the Israelites should have expected Moses to be delayed and not to return to them quickly.
69 When Israel speaks of the idol, the term “gods” is used. This term can be used of God, but also of pagan idols. When Aaron spoke of the image he had made, he spoke with reference to “the LORD” (32:5), clearly identifying this idol with Israel’s God, Yahweh. The more I think about it I am inclined to think that Israel was willing to set aside the God whom Moses served, the God with whom they had entered into covenant, for a new “god.” Aaron knew better, and thus referred to this idol by God’s name. Israel seemed more willing to forsake God than Aaron.
70 Cf. Dt. 9:12; 32:5; Hos. 9:9; cf. Gal. 1:6. Of this corruption Davis writes, “The word translated ‘corrupted’ … has the idea of to ‘go to ruin.’ It is the same word that is used in Genesis 6:12 to describe the corruption of the world of Noah’s day.” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 286.
71 Some have suggested that there is an unexplainable “confusion” here in that Moses interceded with God on several occasions, all of which are similar, and yet different. The answer is to be found, I believe, in differentiating between the dangers in each case, the basis of Moses’ petition, and the outcome. In this case, the danger is that Israel is in danger of being wiped out by the wrath of God. Extinction is the problem. Moses petitioned God not to wipe the nation out, for He has promised and purposed to work through this people, sinful and “stiff-necked” though they may be. Later on, the danger will be the permanent setting aside of the Mosaic Covenant and the withdrawal of the presence of God from His people.
73 Three times in this account, the word “saw” (vss. 1, 5) or “seen” (v. 9) are used. In the case of God’s seeing, it was absolutely correct—He saw Israel’s sin. In the case of Israel’s seeing (v. 1), however, and Aaron’s (v. 5), was wrong. Both acted on what they saw, and were wrong. We often act on what we think we see, and make some very serious mistakes. We must “see” things as God does, see them in the light of what God says. We do not walk by sight, but by faith.
74 From a dispensational point of view there was a rather decisive change in the whole concept of leadership. Before Christ’s coming there were men, like Moses and David, who were sort of solo, single, leaders. These men prototyped and typified Christ in His leadership. Now, after Christ’s coming, no man is to presume to take Christ’s place (Matt. 23), and so the church, as a whole, is the body of Christ and must corporately and collectively represent Him. This is why love for one another, unity, and the functioning of every member of the body is so crucial. This is why, in the church, leadership is plural. This is why, in the New Testament, women are excluded from leading in the church.