Israel and Aaron at the Hand of Moses (Exodus 32:15-35)
The second half of Exodus chapter 32 reminds me of the T.V. western, where evil forces cause a herd of cattle to stampede, racing out of control, and threatening to trample over a helpless heroine. The hero must somehow find a way to single-handedly turn the crazed cattle around and avoid disaster. That is precisely what Moses must do here. He must turn a mob of two million people around. They are in a crazed state, worshipping a golden idol, dancing in a
The second half of Exodus chapter 32 reminds me of the T.V. western, where evil forces cause a herd of cattle to stampede, racing out of control, and threatening to trample over a helpless heroine. The hero must somehow find a way to single-handedly turn the crazed cattle around and avoid disaster. That is precisely what Moses must do here. He must turn a mob of two million people around. They are in a crazed state, worshipping a golden idol, dancing in a state of frenzy and engaged in immorality. For all intents and purposes, they are behaving just like the Canaanites, whom they are to dispossess.
The people have been brought safely out of Egypt by God, led by Moses, God’s chosen leader. God has just given the Israelites the Mosaic Covenant and they have enthusiastically and intelligently committed themselves to live in obedience to God’s commands. Moses has been gone for 40 days, during which time he has been on Mt. Sinai in the presence of God, seeing the heavenly tabernacle and receiving the earthly pattern, so that it may be constructed. He has also received the commandments, written by the finger of God in the two stone tablets.
During his absence, the people have decided to worship another god, whose presence will be visible and assuring, in the form of a golden image. Initially, I was inclined to think that the Israelites but wanted a visible representation of Yahweh, the one true God. I have changed my mind, however. I believe that Israel actually rejected both God and His appointed leader, Moses, and chose to serve a different god altogether. I have come to this conclusion for several reasons:
(1) First, when the Israelites spoke of their new idol as their “god” they consistently used a term which the pagans used for their gods (which, as the marginal reading of our text indicates, is plural). It can be used of Yahweh, but I don’t think it is used in this sense by the Israelites. Only Aaron spoke of this “god” in terms reserved for Yahweh (cf. v. 5). I believe that Aaron was feebly and foolishly trying to syncretize the false worship of the people with the true worship of Yahweh. Israel’s “golden god” will be given credit for leading Israel out of Egypt, and will be the guarantee of future victory in battle, as the Israelites press on to dispossess the Canaanites and dwell in the promised land.
(2) Second, when Moses drew the line, asking people to declare their allegiance to Yahweh, the majority of the nation failed to identify themselves with the Him. If Israel refused to stand on God’s side, then they had already rejected Him, choosing their golden god instead.
(3) Third, the severity of Moses’ response to what he saw, on coming back to the camp of the Israelites, signals to us the seriousness of Israel’s sin.
As we read the events of the last half of Exodus chapter 32 we should bear in mind a dialogue between Moses and God which is recorded in the 3rd and 4th chapters of this same book. Moses was commissioned by God to go to his people, the Israelites, to lead them out of Egypt, and to confront Pharaoh, demanding that he let Israel go. There, Moses, who is later called the “meekest man on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3), protested that he was not eloquent in speech. Aaron was given to him as his mouthpiece, and after angering God with his reticence, Moses went to Egypt, with Aaron.
It is good to remember this, for we would never have believed such could have been the case from reading Exodus chapter 32. Moses, the meekest man on the face of the earth, the man who is not powerful in speech, is able to single-handedly confront two million Israelites, including Aaron, to tear down their idol, grind it to powder, and make them all drink the gold dust in the water. Aaron, on the other hand, the man on whom Moses would lean, who was such an eloquent man, is the one who caved in to the demands of the people, as described in the early part of the chapter, and who, when confronted by Moses, can but reply that he threw the gold into the fire and “out came a god.”
What is it that made such a meek man so mighty, a man of poor speech so eloquent, a single man able to turn around a hostile multitude of two million people? And what is it that makes an eloquent man so mousy, and a leader such a weakling? A thorough study of our passage will take us a long way in finding the answer to these questions.
The Structure of This Scripture
Exodus 32 began with a description of Israel’s sin in the absence of Moses (vss. 1-6). The people’s demand to have an idol was quickly met through none other than Aaron. It was Aaron who hastily fashioned the “golden god,”75 with the involvement of the people (cf. v. 20). God then terminated Moses’ stay on the mountain with a command to return to the camp, informing Moses of the evil which the people had committed, of the roots of their sin, and of the severity of the judgment which their actions called for (vss. 7-10). Moses’ intercession resulted in at least a momentary stay of execution for the Israelites (vss. 11-14).
Our study takes up at this point. In verses 15-20, Moses’ response to the sins of the people is described. Two major actions result: the demolishing of the tablets of stone, on which God had written the commandments; and, the demolition of the golden calf, which included making the Israelites drink water which contained the ground gold of the idol. In verses 21-24 Moses confronts Aaron for his role in this apostasy. Verses 25-29 describe the severe action which is required to bring the Israelites back under control. Finally, in verses 30-35, Moses intercedes for the Israelites, petitioning God to forgive them. Nevertheless, God says that they will be accountable for their sin, and brings a plague upon them.
The Sequence of These Events
As I have studied verses 15-35 I have come to the conclusion that the events described here may not be dealt with chronologically. This conclusion is based upon several observations:
(1) First, the paragraphs seem to reflect a topical unity rather than a chronological sequence. Verses 15-20 seem to encompass the entire nation; verses 21-24 focus upon Aaron; verses 25-29 focus on the Levites; verses 30-35 depict the intercession of Moses with God. The presentation of this material then, seems to be governed by a topic not a time.
(2) It is very difficult to grasp all the events of this chapter occurring in the order in which they are mentioned. If viewed chronologically, the golden calf, for example, would be destroyed, ground to powder, and drunk by the people (vss. 19-20), before Moses confronted Aaron (vss. 21-24). This would then be followed by the slaying of many Israelites, still running out of control (vss. 25-29), and a plague is yet to come (v. 35).
(3) A corresponding description of the events which occurred here is given in Deuteronomy chapter 9, and the sequence of events is not the same. Let me briefly summarize the sequence of events of the two accounts, to show the difference in the two accounts:
Tablets smashed, v. 19
Tablets smashed, vss. 16-17
There is, in the account of Deuteronomy 9, the suggestion that another 40 day and 40 night period of fasting and prayer was involved (vss. 18-19) in addition to the two others, at which time the Law was written on the stone tablets. Moses’ intercession is described in 9:18-20 and again in 9:25-29. These may be the same occasion. If so, then chronology is not the governing factor here. So, too, the destruction of the idol seems to come later in the account in Deuteronomy. I take it, then, that chronological sequence is not in Moses’ mind here, but rather a logical and topical sequence, which best portrays the evil of Israel and Moses’ actions to remedy it. The sequence may roughly approximate this:
- Moses returns from the mountain and gets the people’s attention
- Moses smashes the tablets of stone
- Moses tears down the golden calf and throws it into the fire, to melt
- Moses rebukes Aaron
- Moses calls the Israelites to declare allegiance/Levites to slay others
- Moses grinds golden calf to power, makes Israelites to drink it
- Moses intercedes for people
- God brings plague on them
Moses and the Israelites
What a contrast Moses must have sensed, coming down from the mountain top, from the midst of the cloud of God’s glory, to the pathetic pandemonium below. In his hands were the two stone tablets, written on both sides, by the very finger of God (vss. 15-16). And all the while, the mountain behind was ablaze: “So I turned and came down from the mountain while the mountain was burning with fire, and the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands” (Deut. 9:15).
Joshua had accompanied Moses, at least part way up the mountain, and had waited for him to return (cf. Exod. 24:13). He was thus not privy to that which God had told Moses about the debauchery going on below (cf. 32:7-8). As they drew nearer to the camp of the Israelites, there was a loud noise originating from the camp. It was so loud and so animated, Joshua thought it was the sound of war (v. 17). Moses knew better, however, and told Joshua that it was not the sound of war, neither the shouts of victory nor of defeat, but rather of revelry: “It is not the sound of the cry of triumph, Nor is it the sound of the cry of defeat; But the sound of singing I hear” (v. 18).
We are not told what Joshua’s reaction to these sounds was, but we are told how Moses responded (vss. 19-20). As he approached the camp, Moses saw both the idol which “they” (both Aaron and the people are involved here, cf. v. 4) had made, and the dancing of the Israelites. This dancing was surely related to the “playing” mentioned by God in verse 6, as well as the abandonment (literally “let loose”) of verse 25. Thus, this dancing was a part of a sexual orgy, which was typical of pagan fertility rites.
Seeing this, Moses was furious. The text tells us that “his anger burned” (v. 19), an expression used earlier for the anger of God (v. 10). Moses then threw down the tablets, shattering the tablets which were written on by the very finger of God. The account in Deuteronomy gives an additional detail: “And I took hold of the two tablets and threw them from my hands, and smashed them before your eyes” (Deut. 9:17). All Israel’s attention was thus riveted on Moses as the tablets were thrown down and then, it seems, pulverized.76 In this act, Moses was dramatically confronting the nation with their sin and with its consequence—the breaking of the Mosaic Covenant. The blessings promised by this covenant were contingent upon Israel’s obedience. Israel’s relationship to God was specified by this covenant. Now, due to the sins of idolatry and immorality, that covenant was shattered.
Imagine, if you can, having the president of the United States taking the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States and tearing it up before the eyes of the nation on national T.V. We would wonder what rights we would be guaranteed. We would wonder how we would be governed. We would have no assurance of the protection of the Law, of the limits placed on the power of the president. We would have no sense of security, no basis for governing our own actions or dealing with the actions of others. We would have no sense of security as a nation. That, I believe, gives us a taste of what Israel should have felt, with one added feature: Israel had no basis for having any relationship with God, the God she had just rejected.
It has been suggested that Moses was wrong to smash the two tablets.77 There is no suggestion in the text, so far as I can see, that this was wrong. When Moses did sin, such as the time that he smote the stone (Num. 20:1-13), God quickly and severely disciplined him for doing so. Had Moses been wrong here, I believe that we would have been told so in very clear terms. Moses’ actions were a reflection of the righteous indignation of God. From the words which God had spoken to Moses in verse 10 of Exodus 32, Moses had every reason to expect that God had viewed this covenant as violated and set aside.
Just as Moses had smashed the two stone tablets, he smashed the golden idol (which Moses called “your sin” in Deut. 9:21) also. Moses’ actions once again conveyed to the Israelites the attitude of God toward this abominable idol and of Israel’s worship of it. It was thus destroyed in a way that was consistent with the command God gave Israel regarding their dealing with the heathen idols of the Canaanites: “You shall not worship their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their deeds; but you shall utterly overthrow them, and break their sacred pillars in pieces” (Exod. 23:24; cf. Deut. 7:5, 25-26).
This act has a very interesting parallel in ancient Near Eastern literature: “The destruction of this idol finds an interesting parallel in one of the Ugaritic texts. The goddess Anath is described as destroying the god Mot. This destruction included burning him, grinding him as grain in the handmill, and casting the remains out in the fields for birds to eat.”78
This was not only an act which depicted abhorrence of this idol, but which made it impossible to repeat the worship of this particular idol ever again. The idol was burned, then crushed and ground into fine powder—gold dust—and then poured out on the surface of the water (“the brook that came down from the mountain,” Deut. 9:21), from which the Israelites were forced to drink. There would be a real irony here if the Israelites had been drinking to their god, for Moses made them drink their god.
What I am about to suggest may make some of your eyes roll in wonder, but I shall say it anyway. Had Moses not made the people drink this gold dust, I believe that you would have found the whole nation of Israel out at that brook, panning for gold. It might have made the California gold rush look like a picnic. That gold was defiled, so that it must not be used again, especially not for the construction of the tabernacle (cf. Exod. 25:3; 35:5, 22). By making the Israelites drink the gold dust, it would emerge from their bodies as something unclean and defiled. Thus, they would never touch it again. Drinking the gold was thus the process of defiling it.79
Moses and Aaron
Aaron was in a great deal of trouble for his prominent role in Israel’s idolatry. As Moses writes elsewhere, “And the LORD was angry enough with Aaron to destroy him; so I also prayed for Aaron at the same time” (Deut. 9:20). It may be well for us to remember that the one who Moses rebuked to his face was also the one for whom Moses interceded before God.
The question which Moses asked would be especially convicting to Aaron: “What did this people do to you, that you have brought such great sin upon them?” (v. 21). The inference of Moses’ words is that the people must have done something terrible to Aaron, inflicted some painful torture, made some nasty threats, for him to give in to their demands. The text gives us no such indication, however. The thrust of all this is that Aaron gave in quickly and easily, without any resistance, and without any great threat to his safety or harm to his person. In the words of the writer to the Hebrews, “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin” (Heb. 12:4).
Aaron’s response is intended to reduce the anger of Moses. One wonders whether Aaron realized how great the danger was for him with regard to God’s anger. His explanation for making the idol is exceedingly weak. His first line of defense is to project his sin on the people: “… you know this people yourself, that they are prone to evil” (v. 22). Aaron was right, of course. God had said so in even clearer terms in verses 7-9. The difference between Aaron and God is that Aaron used the sinfulness of the people around him as an excuse for his own sin. God would reveal His righteousness in response to the sins of the Israelites; Aaron would reveal his unrighteousness in response to the sins of Israel. Unlike Aaron, Moses responded to Israel’s sins as God did. It is not enough for us to recognize merely the depravity of man, we must resist it.
If Aaron emphasized the evil of the Israelites, he also minimized his own role, the role of a leader, who went so far as to fashion this god, and to guide in the worship of it. His words would suggest that he simply threw the gold into the fire and that a golden calf just popped out. “It was a miracle!” Aaron seemed to say. It was something like the commercials we see today, an “instant god”—just pop a little gold jewelry into the fire and wait for a few minutes, and out comes an idol.
There is here, I think, a strong contrast between the love of Moses for the people, and his willingness to die with them, as well as to intercede for them, and the disdain which Aaron reflects for the people in v. 22. I believe that it was Sigmund Freud who had a great disdain for people. Even in Moses’ strong and seemingly harsh dealing with the sins of this people, he loved them more in doing so than Aaron did in giving way. If Aaron did not disdain the people, he at least had a “boys will be boys” attitude toward their sin.
Aaron’s words sort of drift off, without any response from Moses. Actually, there is no need for Moses to say anything further. Aaron has condemned himself, with his own words. There are no eloquent words to excuse or explain such a sinful act as Aaron’s.
Moses and the Levites
Precisely when the events of this paragraph took place in the chronological sequence of the golden calf incident, I don’t know. If this happened shortly after Moses’ return to the camp, it may have been the means of shutting down this pagan worship quickly. If, however, some time had elapsed (for example, enough time to have allowed Moses to melt down the golden calf, pulverize it, sprinkle it on the water of the nearby brook, and then make the people drink it), then the fact that the people are still out of control would only serve to emphasize the seriousness of the sin of the Israelites.
One of the responsibilities of Aaron as a leader was to “keep things under control.” Obviously, he had failed to do so (v. 25). The unruliness of the Israelites may have been manifested in nakedness80 and in frenzied worship, which seems to have included wild dancing and unrestrained passions. The text of verse 25 rendered “out of control” literally reads, as the marginal note indicates, “let loose.” I cannot help but think of the beer commercial which went something like this, “Turn it loose, turn it loose tonight!” Israel did turn it loose, and it took a very serious course of action to get matters back under control.
I think that it is safe to say that worship which gravitates from enthusiasm and exuberance to abandonment and loss of control is never from God. Paul made it clear that when one was under the control of the Holy Spirit, one was also to be in control of oneself (cf. 1 Cor. 14:32). Thus Paul could condemn unruly worship (1 Cor. 11:17ff.) and could instruct the church to “do everything decently and in an orderly fashion” (1 Cor. 14:40).
The unruly behavior of the Israelites was wrong not only because it was being practiced without self-control and restraints, but because it was being observed by Israel’s enemies and was a “derision among her enemies” (v. 25). Having already fought with the Amalekites (Exod. 17:8-13), and soon destined to fight with other Canaanites, Israel was being watched very closely by their enemies (cp. Num. 22:1-3). The frenzied worship of Israel was noted by their enemies, and would eventually serve to haunt them, as we shall see later in this message.
Moses stood at the gate of the camp and called for every Israelite to make a choice: “Whoever is for the LORD, come to me!” (v. 26). We are told that the entire tribe of Levi, the tribe of Moses and Aaron (Exod. 2:1), gathered to Moses. This does not necessarily mean that no one else joined Moses, only that all of the Levites did pledge their allegiance to the God of Israel.81 Many did not join Moses, however, revealing their rebellion against Yahweh. They really had turned to another “god” and rejected God.
The Levites are then instructed to strap on swords and go about the camp in a systematic fashion (from gate to gate, v. 27), killing anyone they met, including they be friend or relative. This action seems exceedingly harsh at first glance, but this is not the case, as can be seen from the following factors:
(1) The order for the Levites to kill their fellow Israelites was a command of God, not just of Moses. The command to kill was preceded by, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel” (v. 27).
(2) What God commanded the Levites to do to the apostate Israelites is precisely what He commanded the Israelites to do to the Canaanites. The idolatrous worship of the Israelites was Canaanite-like and thus requiring the same remedy:
“When the LORD your God shall bring you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and shall clear away many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and stronger than you, and when the LORD your God shall deliver them before you, and you shall defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them” (Deut. 7:1-2; cf. Num. 31:17).
(3) The same severity was called for in dealing with those Israelites who followed foreign gods and attempted to draw others after them in their apostasy:
“If your brother, your mother’s son, or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul, entice you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods’ (whom neither you nor your fathers have known, of the gods of the peoples who are around you, near you or far from you, from one end of the earth to the other end), you shall not yield to him or listen to him; and your eye shall not pity him, nor shall you spare or conceal him. But you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people” (Deut. 13:6-9).
We must remember that those who are to be killed are those who have rejected the God of Israel, choosing to serve a foreign god instead. Worse than this, they have also rejected the rebuke of Moses and have refused to turn from their “god” to the one true God. Those who died were those who refused to pledge their allegiance to Yahweh.
(4) The slaying of 3,000 Israelites was necessary to bring them under control, thus sparing the entire nation of greater judgment. Had this not happened, a great disaster may have been required. The killing of the few may have spared the lives of the remainder. Thus, the killing of the Israelites was necessary, and, in the long run, for the benefit of the nation. Sometimes kindness is cruel and “cruelty” is kind.
The exact meaning of verse 29 is difficult to determine, and there are differences of opinion among the scholars.82 I am inclined toward the position taken by Gispen, which is supported by the translation of the King James Version:
I prefer to translate verse 29 as follows: ‘For Moses had said’ (cf. KJV) when he issued the order to kill brother, friend, and neighbor, ‘offer today to the LORD, each one his brother, his friend, and his neighbor, in order that the LORD may bless you today’; this rendering agrees with that of Buber-Rosenzweig, and the KJV.83
Thus rendered, when Moses commanded the Levites to go about the camp, slaying those who had rejected Yahweh, he, at that time promised them a special blessing (the priesthood) for doing so. There is a sense, then, in which the slaying of the sinful Israelites was a kind of dedicatory sacrifice, inaugurating the Levites into the priesthood. The blessing pronounced on the tribe of Levi by Moses, at the end of his life, is related to the obedience of the Levites:
And of Levi he said, “Let Thy Thummim and Thy Urim belong to Thy godly man, Whom Thou didst prove at Massah, With whom Thou didst contend at the waters of Meribah; Who said of his father and his mother, ‘I did not consider them’; And he did not acknowledge his brothers, Nor did he regard his own sons, For they observed Thy word, And kept Thy covenant. They shall teach Thine ordinances to Jacob, And Thy Law to Israel. They shall put incense before Thee, And whole burnt offerings on Thine altar. O LORD, bless his substance, And accept the work of his hands; Shatter the loins of those who rise up against him, And those who hate him, so that they may not rise again” (Deut. 33:8-11).
Moses and God
Having put an end to the false worship and immorality of the Israelites, Moses must once more beseech God to forgive the people for their sin. Moses did not minimize the seriousness of Israel’s sin, nor did he promise them that his efforts would bring about forgiveness. Before he left to return to the top of the mountain, Moses told the people, “You yourselves have committed a great sin; and now I am going up to the LORD, perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (v. 30).
Think of how the Israelites must have felt, having just heard these words from Moses, watching him plod once more up that mountain, with the mountain probably still burning with fire (cp. Deut. 9:15). The Israelites had no covenant at this time, assuring them of God’s presence with them. They even had no assurance that God would allow the people to live, after their great sin. And the Mosaic Covenant, which had just been ratified and broken, had no solution for sin such as that which they had just committed. Moses could not smile, assuring the people that God would forgive them. Their only hope was in the grace of God and in the mediatorial role of Moses.
In verses 31 and 32, Moses mediated on behalf of his people. He acknowledged the great sin of the Israelites (v. 31), and he asked God to forgive their sin (v. 32). Many have thought that Moses, like Paul (cf. Rom. 9:1-3) was petitioning God to save the Israelites at the sacrifice of his own soul, when he prayed, “But now, if Thou wilt, forgive their sin—and if not, please blot me out from Thy book which Thou hast written!” (v. 32).
While there are many different interpretations given here, I understand the “book” of which Moses spoke here to be the “book of the living,” not the “book of life” of the New Testament.84 Moses is not trying to exchange his soul for the salvation of his people, but is petitioning God to forgive, not on the basis of anything he or Israel can do, but only on the basis of God’s goodness and mercy. If God will not forgive Israel, then Moses wishes to die as well. This very effectively declines the offer of God to make a new nation of him.
God’s response is recorded in verses 33-35. Every man is accountable for his own sin, and the penalty is death. This is simply another statement of the Old Testament warning, “The soul who sins will die” (Ezek. 18:4), an Old Testament equivalent of the New Testament statement that “the wages of sin in death” (Rom. 6:23). The death will not come immediately, however, so that God’s covenant promises may be fulfilled to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. Thus, Moses is instructed, “But go now, lead the people where I told you. Behold, My angel shall go before you; nevertheless in the day when I punish, I will punish them for their sin” (v. 34).
Moses is commanded to lead the Israelites on toward Canaan. God’s angel will go before them, but not God Himself. There will still be a day of reckoning, however, when the penalty for Israel’s sin must be paid. I believe that the penalty God is referring to here is the death of this entire generation in the desert, because of this sin and others which will follow, including Israel’s rebellion against God at Kadesh (Num. 13, 14). I believe that the writer to the Hebrews confirms this: “For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?” (Heb. 3:16-17).
The sins of the Israelites were many, of which this was the first great act of rebellion. In the later account in Deuteronomy Moses included a number of other sins, to show that this was but one of many serious acts of rebellion against God (Deut. 9:22-24). The 40 years delay in God’s judgment thus gave Israel further opportunity to prove she was worthy of God’s sentence of death, as well as providing sufficient time for the second generation of Israelites to grow up, so that God’s purposes might be realized through them, and not their fathers.
The final verse of the chapter (v. 35) speaks of a plague which God brought upon the people.85 I understand this plague to be something different from the slaying of the 3,000. I do not see this plague as the fulfillment of the promise of a later day of judgment. No deaths are reported as a result of this plague. Thus, it could have been a non-lethal plague, which brought discomfort on the Israelites, but not death. Thus, God made His displeasure known to the entire nation.
It will be of help to us in our efforts to interpret and apply this chapter by surveying two incidents in the Old Testament which reveal the ways in which men of old interpreted and applied it to their lives. In these two incidents, there is an example of the wrong use of biblical history and a corresponding illustration of a godly use of the incident at Mt. Sinai.
The first of these incidents is found in the Book of Numbers, chapter 25. In chapter 22, we are told that the Moabites feared the Israelites, and thus Balak, the king of Moab, sought to entice Balaam, a prophet (whether a true prophet or a false one is debated), to pronounce a curse of Israel. Time after time, Balaam blessed the nation which he was trying to curse. And yet, what Balaam could not do by attempting to pronounce a curse, was nevertheless accomplished:
While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the LORD was angry about Israel (Num. 25:1-3).
When it became apparent that paying Balaam to curse Israel would never work, another plan was recommended by Balaam—that the Moabite women use their wiles so as to sexually intermingle with and ultimately to intermarry with the Israelites, thus turning their hearts from God to their gods: “And Moses said to them, ‘Have you spared all the women? Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD’” (Num. 31:15-16)
Where do you suppose Balaam came up with the idea that Israel could be turned from worshipping God in the fashion which he proposed? The only convincing explanation is that Balaam figured out this plan, based upon what he had either seen or heard about Israel’s conduct in the worship of the golden calf. You will remember that Israel’s conduct here was said to be a “derision among their enemies” (Exod. 32:25). I believe that Israel’s conduct in Exodus chapter 32 revealed a fundamental weakness, which Balaam’s counsel capitalized on in Numbers chapter 25. Thus, Balaam applied the passage in an evil way, so as to promote sin and his own selfish interests. For this, incidentally, he paid with his life (Num. 31:8).
There is a bright side to this dismal scene, however, for if Balaam learned an evil lesson from Exodus 32, Phinehas learned a lesson in righteousness. Moses had given orders to the leaders of each tribe to slay those under their authority who had sinned against God in their immorality, just as God had instructed (Num. 25:4-5). We don’t know how faithful these judges of Israel were, but Phinehas is cited as an example of righteous zeal:
Then behold, one of the sons of Israel came and brought to his relatives a Midianite woman, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, while they were weeping at the doorway of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he arose from the midst of the congregation, and took a spear in his hand; and he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and pierced both of them through, the man of Israel and the woman, through the body. So the plague on the sons of Israel was checked (Num. 25:6-8).
Phinehas was a Levite. He had to have known of the incident described in Exodus chapter 32. I believe that he understood the conduct of the Israelites with the Moabite women to be similar in nature to that of the Israelites with their golden calf. Thus, when he saw an Israelite man flaunting his sin publicly, he took his sword and ran both the man and the woman through. The actions of the Levites in Exodus 32 and that of Phinehas, the Levite, in Numbers 25 are similar, as are the results—God’s blessing (cp. Exod. 32:29 and Num. 25:10-13).
While Balaam learned a lesson in evil, Phinehas learned a lesson in righteousness, from the same incident, from the same text of Scripture.
The second incident is found in 2 Kings, chapters 22-23. The counterpart of Balaam is Jeroboam, the wicked king of Israel. The counterpart of Phinehas is righteous king Josiah. When the kingdom of Israel was split, Jeroboam, king of the northern kingdom of Israel feared that the Israelites would worship in Jerusalem, and thus be reunited with Judah, the southern kingdom, so that he would lose his throne. Attempting to prevent this, Jeroboam built two golden calves:
Then Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will return to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will return to their lord, even to Rehoboam king of Judah; and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.” So the king consulted, and made two golden calves and he said to them, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem; behold your gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt.” And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan (1 Ki. 12:26-29).
Notice the similarity of what Jeroboam did with what Israel did as recorded in Exodus chapter 32. Israel had a golden calf in Exodus 32. Jeroboam built two golden calves for his people. And note the words which Jeroboam spoke, “Behold your god, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt” (1 Ki. 12:28). They are the same as those Aaron spoke at the foot of Mt. Sinai, in the absence of Moses. I contend that wicked Jeroboam learned a lesson in evil from Exodus 32. He willfully duplicated the evil of Israel, knowing that it was a great sin, and one that nearly destroyed the nation.
Jeroboam’s wickedness, like that of Balaam, is countered by a righteous man, who also learned a lesson in righteousness from the account of Exodus chapter 32. In 2 Kings chapter 23 we read of this incident, brought to pass by righteous Josiah:
Furthermore, the altar that was at Bethel and the high place which Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel sin, had made, even that altar and the high place he broke down. Then he demolished its stones, ground them to dust, and burned the Asherah. Now when Josiah turned, he saw the graves that were there on the mountain, and he sent and took the bones from the graves and burned them on the altar and defiled it according to the word of the LORD which the man of God proclaimed, who proclaimed these things (2 Kings 23:15-16).
It is important to our understanding of this incident to realize that it was just prior to Josiah’s reforms that the “book of the Law” was found:
Then Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the scribe, “I have found the book of the Law in the house of the LORD.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan who read it. And Shaphan the scribe came to the king and brought back word to the king and said, “Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of the workmen who have the oversight of the house of the LORD.” Moreover, Shaphan the scribe told the king saying, Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read it in the presence of the king. And it came about when the king heard the words of the book of the Law, that he tore his clothes (2 Ki. 22:8-11).
The Law had been neglected and unread until the reign of Josiah, when it was providentially discovered. Josiah’s actions are the direct result of his response to the reading of the Law, which would have included the account of this incident in Exodus 32. Thus, just as Moses tore down the golden calf which Aaron had fashioned, Josiah tore down the golden calf which Jeroboam had made. So, too, this second calf was pulverized, the altar torn down, and the rubble defiled by human remains, so that it would never again be used. Josiah’s actions are a direct application of the lesson which Exodus 32 was written to teach Israel about the evils of idolatry.
In the case of Balaam and of Jeroboam, the evil of Exodus 32 was a pattern for their own sins. In the case of Phinehas and Josiah, the response of Moses to the sins of the people was a pattern for their righteous obedience to God.
What, then, should we learn from Exodus 32, and from the example of Phinehas and Josiah? First, we should learn to take sin as seriously as God does. We dare not minimize its evil. We dare not tolerate its existence? We dare not, in the name of compassion, fail to deal decisively and severely with those who sin. And if we would apply this to our own lives, we must deal as drastically with our own sin as well. This, I believe, is taught in both the Old Testament and in the New as well.
O that Thou wouldst slay the wicked, O God; Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed. For they speak against Thee wickedly, And Thine enemies take Thy name in vain. Do I not hate those who hate Thee, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against Thee? I hate them with the utmost hatred; They have become my enemies (Ps. 139:19-22).
“And if your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out, and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into the hell of fire” (Matt. 18:8-9).
Harsh words? Yes they are, but we should learn that a righteous God takes sin very seriously. Whether that sin is in our brother, or whether it is in us, we must deal with it as the deadly ailment that it is. We must rid ourselves of it like the plague it is.
Church discipline is not popular these days, partly because we are afraid of being sued, I suppose, but primarily because we are soft on sin. Moses’ dealing with the sin of his people is an example for us, as it was for Phinehas and Josiah. Parents find the discipline of their children a difficult task, and they often justify their passivity and lack of discipline by pointing to the parental abuse of some parents toward their children, or of the interference (sometimes uncalled for or excessive) of state agencies, who are not only opposed to child abuse, but to any form of discipline. Let us take sin as seriously as God does, knowing its deadly, destructive power.
The events of this chapter also dramatically demonstrate the superiority of the new covenant of the New Testament over the old, Mosaic Covenant, which has been given in Exodus. There are two particular areas of superiority evident in our text. First, the new covenant, unlike the Old, gives us the assurance that our sins are forgiven and that we have peace with God.
What a perfect illustration our passage has given us of the inferiority of the Mosaic Covenant to the new covenant. The Mosaic Covenant was based on the righteousness of men, and thus served only to condemn. The new covenant was based on the righteousness of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, and thus could be counted on to forgive men and to save them from their sin. Israel virtually “held its breath,” whenever the high priest went into the holy of holies, to make an annual atonement for sin, just as they must have anxiously waited while Moses went up that mountain, into the cloud of God’s presence. The old covenant gave no assurance of the forgiveness of sins; the new gives us absolute confidence and boldness.
Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (Heb. 10:19-22).
There was no atonement provided by the Mosaic Covenant which could cover the sins of the Israelites. They did not draw near to God, even before their sin of idolatry. Rather, they urged Moses to speak to God, while they maintained a safe distance from Him (Exod. 20:18-21). The new covenant allows every Christian to approach God boldly, knowing that Christ has made full and final atonement for their sins.
Second, there is a superiority of the new covenant over the old with regard to the High Priest. Remember that Aaron, who has quickly succumbed to the pressure of the people, who has fashioned an idol for them, and who has established a false worship ceremony, is the Aaron who is soon to be the first high priest of Israel. It was his task to go into the holy of holies to make an annual atonement for sin. How much confidence would you have with Aaron as your high priest?
Aaron truly typifies the sinfulness of all of the Levitical and Aaronic priests, who had to offer sacrifices for their own sins before they could offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people:
For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins; he can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness; and because of it he is obligated to offer sacrifices for sins, as for the people, so also for himself (Heb. 5:1-2).
Christ, our great High Priest, is different. Since He is without sin, He need not make an offering for His sins, and thus He can be a perfect sacrifice for our sins:
For it was fitting that we should have such a high priests, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins, and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, made perfect forever (Heb. 7:26-28).
How sad it is when men seek to live under the old covenant, when it could not save, but only condemn; when it could not atone for sins, but only pronounce the sentence of death; when it could not give confidence and assurance of forgiveness, but only fear of death; when it had high priests who were as fallible as Aaron. The new covenant rests solely on the work of Christ, and not on the deeds of fallible men. Let us find our salvation, our sanctification, and our security in Christ, through the new covenant of His blood.
Finally, our text gives us a great deal of insight into biblical leadership. What a contrast there is here between the “leadership” of Aaron and that of Moses. I have briefly contrasted the two in this way:
Represented God to men
There is a great deal being said about leadership today, but we must be very careful to distinguish between biblical leadership and that which is only a part of the passing trends of the day. A biblical leader is responsible to represent God to men, and to call men to obedience to the revealed will of God. A biblical leader is to keep things under control, not to be controlled. A good leader is not responsible to give people what they feel they want (like an idol), but rather to call men to their duty to do what God has commanded.
Good leaders are few and far between. Good leaders do not need the consent of the majority nor a powerful coalition with them in order to call a people to repentance and obedience. I have been very distressed to hear a well-known Christian leader say, in effect, “If we are to bring America to godly conduct, we must muster a large power block of people to get control of the government and to make leaders listen.” Moses was but one man, and he single-handedly turned Israel’s riotous idolatry around. We do not need to have large numbers to radically change the world in which we live, we need only the word of God and the power of God, and the courage to act on them. Let us learn to stand alone, like Moses, though all others (like Aaron) fail. We will find then, I believe, that there will always be a few like the Levites who will take courage and stand with us.
75 It suddenly struck me that the idol which Aaron made for the people was fashioned in a “quick and dirty” fashion. This thought came home to me when I began to compare the way in which God had the gold work of the tabernacle done (especially the work on the top of the Ark of the Covenant). The plans were meticulously worked out, and only the best craftsmen were commissioned to do the work. Aaron, on the other hand, was not a master metal worker, so far as we are told. I take it then that the haste of this project, along with the limited skill of the metal workers, such as Aaron, must have made this idol somewhat less than one of the great works of art of man’s history. It is as though that idol had stamped on its side, “Made in Taiwan.”
76 “The breaking of the tablets is a repudiation by Moses (presumably acting on God’s behalf, although we are not told this) of the validity of the covenant. Because of Israel’s breach of the terms, it has been rendered null and void.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 218.
77 I think the Gispen misses the point entirely, when he finds Moses to be sinning in the breaking the tablets: “This parenthetical statement indicates that Moses’ subsequent breaking of the tablets was wrong: even he, the interceding mediator (cf. vv. 7-14), fell into sin. Verse 16, cf. Deuteronomy 9:10. It would have been much more impressive and would have placed the focus much more on God if Moses had presented the two tablets to the people side by side with the golden calf; that would have been a lesson in comparative religion! Moses had violated the ‘work of God,’ where He only had the right to destroy the work of sinful people!” W. H. Gispen, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 297.
79 There are others who would give different explanations to this act of drinking the gold dust. For example, Cole writes: “Finally, the gold dust sprinkled on the water of the wady, flowing down from the mountain, the water that Israel must drink, reminds us of the ‘water of bitterness’ to be drunk by the wife suspected of unfaithfulness (Nu. 5:18-22). As Israel has in fact been unfaithful to YHWH, her heavenly ‘husband,’ so the curse will indeed fall upon her (verse 35; cf. Nu. 5:27).” Cole, p. 219.
I do not think that Cole’s explanation is borne out in this text. In support of my explanation, notice that when Jeroboam’s golden image (fashioned after that of the Israelites in Exodus 32) and altar are destroyed, they are pulverized, like the golden calf, and they are deliberately defiled by burning dead men’s bones on them, thus assuring that no one would ever use this profane place again for worship (cf. 2 Ki. 23:15-16). Since I will refer to this text later, I will not go into this passage in detail now.
80 “We might interpret ‘running wild’ (lit. ‘unloosed’) in the sense of ‘nakedness’ (cf. KJV), since the appearance of Moses had probably settled them down, unless we are to assume an orgy of such dimensions that the masses in the camp continued to run around as if crazed. I am inclined to accept the latter interpretation, in which case only those who were near Moses had seen him destroy the golden calf. It is also possible that the destruction of the calf did not take place until afterward; or Moses may have destroyed the calf and forced the Israelites to drink the water and powder later (cf. Deut. 9:21).” Gispen, p. 299.
“The word for ‘naked’ in the Hebrew text … has the sense of loosening or uncovering. It is felt by some commentators that the term does not necessarily mean nakedness as much as giving free rein to their wild passions. The enemies who are referred to in this verse may be Amalekites who still lingered in the area (cf. Exod. 17:8-16).” Davis, p. 290.
81 I believe that the text implies that there were a number of Israelites from other tribes who joined Moses. The instruction to show no mercy to one’s brother, but to kill him (v. 27), could not very well apply to a Levite, since all the Levites joined Moses. The term could be used more generally, of course, meaning something like “fellow-Israelite.” Nevertheless, it is hard to believe that only Levites joined Moses.
82 “The idiom ‘fill the hands’ means ‘institute to a priestly office,’ ‘install,’ ‘inaugurate,’ and the like. It occurs frequently in P, but also in earlier narratives (Jg. 17:5, 12; I Kg. 13:33). It is always used in connection with the priests or priesthood, except in Ezek. 43:26, where it is used of the consecration or inauguration of an altar. The origin of the idiom is uncertain. It may have originated in a custom such as the one which is described in Exod. 29:22-24 and Lev. 8:22-29. There it is said that Moses placed in the hands of Aaron and his sons parts of a sacrifice, made the gesture of presentation with them, and then offered them on the altar. The ‘ram of ordination’ in those passages is literally, ‘ram of filling. … The Hebrew idiom, may, however, be derived from—and it is in any event similar to—the Akkadian idiom … which came to mean ‘appoint to an office,’ ‘put in charge of something,’ and the like.” J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980), p. 310.
“This is a metaphorical way of expressing the idea of ‘the world of living men,’ and at the same time stating the truth that every man’s life or death is in God’s hand. Census lists like those in Numbers I may be the origin of the expression (cf. Ezk. 13:9); the lists of God’s people might well be called ‘God’s book.’ In the New Testament, the concept becomes spiritualized, as meaning the roll of those who have entered, or will enter, into eternal life (Phil. 4:3; Rev. 3:5).” Cole, p. 221.
“The OT ‘book of the living’ (Ps. 69:28) is different from the ‘book of life’ of the NT (Lk. 10:20; Phil. 4:3; Rev. 3:5; 13:8 etc.), which was a book in which were inscribed the names of those destined for eternal life.” Hyatt, p. 311.
“This [“if Thou wilt forgive their sin”] usually means in the Old Testament that the punishment of death will be remitted (cf. David, 2 Sa. 12:13), although punishments of a lighter and disciplinary nature may well follow.” Cole, p. 221.
86 Part of our problem with leadership in America is based upon our history as a nation and upon the structure of our government. In our country leaders are representatives of the people, and thus are responsible to carry out the will of the people. Spiritual leadership is different, for we are ambassadors of Christ, representing Him, not the people. Aaron was representative of the people. Moses was a representative of God.