Exodus 32:1-33:11

At the beginning of chapter 32, our thoughts are carried from the mount, where God communed with Moses, to the plain where the people were encamped during his absence. We can well imagine that as the forty days drew toward their close they became restive. They had seen him disappear into the cloud on the crest of Sinai and to them it seemed as though he was gone from them for ever. Tested as they were in this way, they showed very plainly that they walked by sight and not by faith. Moses had at least been a visible leader, though already a rebellious and unbelieving spirit in regard to him had been manifested. They had not the faith which would have made the unseen Jehovah a reality to them.

Consequently they desired a visible something which should represent the invisible before their eyes. They had been familiar with the veneration of bulls and calves in the depraved idolatry of Egypt. Aaron weakly acquiesced. The ears of the people, which should have been used to hearken to the Word of God, were adorned with gold rings like the ears of the heathen, and these were taken to make the golden calf, which they saluted as though it were a god.

Verse 5 shows that in some way the unseen Jehovah was to be represented by the visible calf—so they thought. Now it is a fact that among the heathen the visible idol does represent an unseen power as 1 Corinthians 10: 20 shows. The idol is nothing, but the power it represents is that of a demon. Hence if any power was behind the golden calf, it was of a Satanic kind and not of God.

In this crisis Aaron appears in a very unfavourable light. He had not had the schooling that Moses had endured during the 40 years in the backside of the desert, and hence he was less in touch with God, and more influenced by the wishes of the people, who began to attribute their miraculous deliverance from Egypt to the calf. By instituting an altar and sacrifices he did indeed attempt to give the festivities the semblance of a feast to the Lord. But it was something that he devised out of his own heart and not a feast ordained by the Lord.

The real character of what ensued is indicated in verse 6. "The people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play." This is quoted in 1 Corinthians 10: 7 as a proof that they were idolaters, and a later verse in our chapter (verse 5) indicates how such idolatry at once degenerates into licentiousness and obscenity.

Do we wonder at such a warning being needed by the church at Corinth? But if we know how sodden Corinth was with these evils, we are not surprised; nor shall we be surprised that we need the warning today, if we realize how full the present world is of idolatry of a subtle nature. For what is the chief good, to which all the peoples of the earth hope to arrive? It is summed up in the words of the parable; to have, "much goods laid up for many years," so that they may say to themselves, "take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry" (Luke 12: 19). These words are almost identical with what we have just read in verse 6. The Lord stigmatized the attitude of the rich fool of Luke 12 as covetousness, and in Colossians 3: 5 the Apostle Paul writes, "covetousness which is idolatry."

The programme of the rich fool was: plenty of leisure, plenty to eat and drink in spite of slacking as to work, plenty of fun and pleasure to fill up the hours of leisure. This is precisely the ideal dangled before mankind today. If attained, it means idolatry. As Christians may we have grace to mortify our members which are on the earth, one of which is this covetousness which is idolatry. Israel enjoyed these "pleasures of sin" for a very brief season, until Moses reappeared; a man who, rather than enjoy them, had chosen to "suffer affliction with the people of God." (Heb. 11: 25).

The forty days were expired, and God sent Moses back to the people, revealing to him first how they had corrupted themselves and utterly broken the law in its most fundamental requirement. Verses 7-10 indicate the completeness of the collapse of the people under the law, that so light-heartedly they had undertaken to keep in all its details. They had revealed themselves to be a stiff-necked people, subject to death and the hot wrath of God. Everything had been lost, and God disowned them, speaking of them to Moses as "thy people," and not "My people," as He had spoken of them to Pharaoh in Egypt.

So fully had they placed themselves under the death sentence that God spoke of removing them entirely, and of raising up a new and great nation from Moses himself. He had already set aside the old world and started afresh in Noah and his sons. Again He had turned from the idolatrous world and started afresh with Abraham and Isaac, the child of promise. He could have done the same thing in principle the third time, starting afresh with progeny derived from Moses.

In verses 11-13 we have the reply of Moses, which is very fine, and reveals him indeed as, "very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth" (Num. 12: 3). Here was an offer at which the natural heart of man would have jumped—an offer which would have given Moses a place of extraordinary prominence and renown. Yet Moses besought the Lord against it. He insisted that after all the children of Israel were not his people but Jehovah's people. This comes out in verse 11.

In verse 12 he displays his zeal for the name of the Lord, lest it should have its glory dimmed in the minds of the Egyptians. They had felt the mighty power of the arm of the Lord in the deliverance of His people. Were they now to hear that those that had been acknowledged as His people were likewise destroyed? The proposed act of judgment would be right; but would it have the appearance of being right in the eyes of men?

In verse 13 we have a third thing of great significance. Moses, the servant of God through whom the law was given, falls back, not on the law covenant—all was lost on that basis—but on the unconditional covenant made much earlier with Abraham, Isaac, and Israel—using that name, and not Jacob, the name after the flesh. By an instinct divinely given, Moses in his plea forsook law for grace. On that ground his plea prevailed, in keeping with what is stated in Galatians 3: 17, "the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect."

So the Lord "repented" of the proposed evil, and this statement does not in any way clash with Romans 11: 29, but rather confirms it. When it is a question of God's gifts and calling, which are according to His purpose, no change of mind is possible. When it is a question of His ways with sinful men, they vary in detail, though ultimately all achieve His purpose. God tested Abraham, telling him to offer up Isaac, but when he had fully responded, God cancelled the order, having reached His purpose. Similarly here, He tested Moses by this proposal, so attractive to a self-seeking mind, and the test completed, He turned from the proposal and reverted to the ancient covenant which was the expression of His purpose.

In keeping with God's command Moses descended from the mount, meeting Joshua on his way down, and having the two tables of stone in his hand. The tables themselves were the work of God, and the testimony inscribed on them was the writing of God. In the coming day under the new covenant the law will be written in the hearts of the people. At the present time the Spirit of God is writing not the law but Christ upon the hearts of those who receive the Gospel. But here God's righteous demands on men were inscribed on stone.

Hence, bearing in mind the condition of things in Israel, we see at once that the tables of the testimony brought a ministration of condemnation and death. Approaching the camp in its dreadful state, Moses instinctively felt this, and he broke the tables before he came amongst the people. We read that, "Moses' anger waxed hot," so, directly he saw the evil for himself, he shared the Divine anger, which was made known to us in verse 10.

Moses had pleaded for the people and they were not to be destroyed, but the very man who had acted as intercessor on their behalf, now acted in a governmental way to bring home to them the bitterness of their sin. He burnt the golden calf and then ground it to powder—a humiliating end for the supposed "god," that brought them up from Egypt! And not only this. He also mixed the burnt dust with water and made the people drink their "god," instead of drinking in honour of it, as they had been doing.

The chemical process involved in doing this unusual thing was known to the Egyptians, and Moses, we must remember, was "learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians," and so knew well how to do it. There was, we are told, an ironic suitability about this punishment inflicted upon them, since gold thus treated and made into a drink has a most nauseous taste. In this literal and material way the people had brought home to them the filthiness and bitterness of their great sin.

The chief weight of the sin lay upon Aaron, and his attempted defence was feeble in the extreme. He attempted to remove the blame from himself and put it upon the people. When sin first entered, Adam attempted to put the blame on to Eve, as we saw in Genesis 3: 12. The same thing in principle appears now that we have reached the first and greatest sin under the law. Moreover he attempted to minimize his sin, as we see in verse 24. He did indeed cast the gold into the fire, but, as verse 4 recorded the calf was not only "molten," but also he "fashioned it with a graving tool." By telling a half truth he tried to disguise the whole truth.

In Hebrews 3: 5 we read "Moses verily was faithful in all His house, as a servant," and though this is not stated specifically of the incident we are considering, it was exemplified here in a striking way. The calf was a direct challenge to the supremacy and glory of God. Moses fresh from the presence of Jehovah was altogether on His side in the controversy, and he challenged all the people to declare themselves. They had been dancing round the calf: now let them gather round Moses, and thus declare themselves as on the side of Jehovah. To this challenge the sons of Levi responded.

The sin was of so drastic a character that judgment was inevitable. They were now under the law, and, "the law worketh wrath" (Rom. 4: 15). The sons of Levi, who had cleared themselves from the evil, were chosen to execute a limited judgment as a token of the judgment that lay upon all, and about three thousand men died. They had to consecrate themselves to the Lord in this way, for the claims of God are supreme. In Matthew 10: 37, we find a similar claim made by the Lord Jesus, though He was revealing grace and not law.

Only in Galatians 3: 19 is Moses spoken of as a mediator, yet in verse 30 we see him formally taking his place as such. In consequence we see at once the contrast between him and the Lord Jesus, who is "the Mediator of a better covenant" (Heb. 8: 6). Moses realized that nothing short of an atonement for the sin was needed, and he proposed to go up to the Lord and offer himself; such was his fervent love to his erring people. His plea was for the forgiveness of the sin, and if not that he instead of the nation might be blotted out of the Divine Book. But he was only able to undertake the office with "Peradventure" on his lips. How great the contrast between this and what we have in 1 Timothy 2: 5, 6.

Moses, though so eminent and faithful a servant, was not a perfect man, but himself a sinner. The words of the Lord, which are recorded in verse 33, reminded him that consequently he himself was liable to be blotted out of the book and hence he could not stand as a ransom for anybody else. The true Mediator, "the Man Christ Jesus," has given Himself a ransom, not merely for the one sin of one people but for "ALL." The efficacy of His ransom is guaranteed by the fact that He is God as well as Man.

The answer of the Lord nevertheless assured Moses that He would act in forbearance toward the erring people and lead them onward by His Angel, as He had originally promised in chapter 23: 20-23, though His governmental judgment would still further come upon them. This came to pass, as verse 35 records, though details of the plague are not given.

Exodus 33 opens with the command that the people prepare themselves to go forward to the land, which was to be theirs, not because they deserved it under the law, but because of the unconditional covenant that had been given originally to Abraham. God would still act on their behalf, driving out the nations before them and bringing them in, but this would be done by the Angel. On Sinai God was in their midst in a special way. Henceforward He would be amongst them by His Angel. His presence in a more immediate way might involve judgment upon them. Verses 4-6, show how near they had been to complete destruction, and how their only becoming attitude was to stand mourning in the presence of God, and stripped of all that they might imagine beautified them.

Verses 7-11, record how Moses took an action, which was endorsed by the Lord, though there is no record of it having been commanded by Him. He took a tent and pitched it outside and afar off from the camp, calling it the tent of the congregation. We must remember that Moses had only just come down from the mount, having received the instructions as to making the Tabernacle, and there had been as yet no time for its construction. The word used here is not the one indicating the tabernacle proper, but rather the outer covering, as we saw when reading Exodus 26. Yet God honoured the action of Moses and placed the pillar of cloud on this tent outside the camp.

The significance of all this must have been plain to the people. If any of them sought the Lord, outside the camp they had to go, in order to find Him, for they had forfeited His presence by their sin. Communion between Jehovah and Moses was not broken, for he had not participated in their sin. To him God spoke face to face on a friendly basis, but they could only witness this and not in any way participate. Joshua was with Moses in this, for he too had not been involved in the transgression.

This withdrawal from the camp was only provisional and in order to impress on the people the gravity of their sin. Presently normal conditions were restored, and when the Tabernacle was made it stood in the midst of the camp. The reference in Hebrews 13: 13 is not to this incident but to the law of the sin offering. The "camp" out of which the Hebrew believers were to go forth was not one which they were to re-enter long after. The rejected Christ, slain as the sin offering, has been "outside the camp" for nineteen centuries, and we are to be outside with Him, and not return to it.