God has explained to Moses how to recreate heaven on earth by building a place for God to live with his people. Moses holds in his hands two tablets of stone inscribed with Yahweh’s testimony (Ex 31:18). Now it’s time to execute the Lord’s instructions. But what will happen when a uniquely righteous God tries to dwell among his sinful people?
Observation of Exodus 32:1-35
Most repeated words: said (21 times), people (20x), Moses (17), Lord (13), out (12), Aaron (9), brought (9), sin (9), up (9), made (8)
- while these words summarize the main action of the story, I don’t see any further significance to their repetition (but I always start observing with repetition, as it’s easy to observe, and it often suggests a direction for inquiry).
The first section (Ex 32:1-20) describes parallel scenes at the top and bottom of the mountain
- Bottom of the mountain (Ex 32:1-6): The story’s conflict/tension arises when the people get nervous at Moses’ delay and ask Aaron to make them gods for revelry.
- Top of the mountain (Ex 32:7-10): Yahweh tells Moses what is happening at the bottom, and he prepares to consume the people (“your people,” not “my people.” Yikes!).
- Top of the mountain (Ex 32:11-14): Moses implores Yahweh and persuades him to relent from consuming the people.
- Bottom of the mountain (Ex 32:15-20): Moses delays no longer but descends and sees the gods and revelry.
The second section (Ex 32:21-24) shows Moses uncovering Aaron’s motive for leading the people into “such a great sin”
- First, Aaron blames the people (Ex 32:22).
- Second, Aaron blames his circumstances (Ex 32:24) – “It’s not my fault, Moses; out came this calf!”
- In between Aaron’s two self-justifications, he reveals his presenting problem: the nervousness people felt at Moses’ delay (Ex 32:23).
The third section (Ex 32:25-35) narrates a quasi-resolution to the conflict between the people and God
- The Levites prove to be on Yahweh’s side by executing their countrymen (Ex 32:25-29).
- Moses will go back up the mountain; perhaps he can cover (“make atonement for”) their sin (Ex 32:30-32).
- But to move forward, Yahweh must punish sin (Ex 32:33-35).
Interpretation of Exodus 32
Some possible questions:
- Why does Moses’ delay make the people so nervous that they would resort to such wild idolatry and revelry?
- How is it possible for Moses to persuade God to relent from consuming the people?
- Does God truly relent, if he visits their sin on them and sends a plague (Ex 32:34-35)? Is he just a whiny, capricious god?
- So what is the point of these three resolutions in Ex 32:25-35? How do they help?
My answers (numbers correspond to the questions):
- We were told that Moses was on the mountain for 40 days (Ex 24:18), but the characters in the story were never told. All they knew was that they were to take care of any disputes while they waited for Moses to return (Ex 24:14). But Yahweh has heard the cries of these people before (Ex 3:7). They were to him as a son (Ex 4:22-23). They are now his treasured possession among all peoples (Ex 19:5). But now they forget who actually rescued them (compare Ex 20:2 with Ex 32:4) and who now leads them (Ex 32:1, where they want “gods who shall go before us”). In forgetting these things, they bring into question whose people they truly are (no longer “my people” but “your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt” in Ex 32:7). Clearly, this is extremely unsettling for them.
- In this chapter, we finally see Moses settling into his appointed role as the mediator between God and his people. The main point of Ex 1:1-7:7 was to train him for this role. Clearly this was a part of Yahweh’s plan all along, and this incident of sin is no real surprise to him. It’s no accident that Moses appeal to the same promises (Ex 32:13) that motivated Yahweh to free these slaves in the first place (Ex 2:24-25). Thus, in speaking to Yahweh, Moses is acting like Yahweh. And when Moses goes to speak to the people, he still acts like Yahweh (compare Ex 32:9-10 with Ex 32:19). Here is just the mediator they need.
- Yahweh does not follow through on his threat to consume the people and re-create a nation through Moses (Ex 32:10). But he can’t just wave his hand and pretend the sin didn’t happen. He shows that payment must still be made for it (Ex 32:33-35).
- First, Yahweh blesses non-conformity to the fear and sin of the age (Ex 32:25-29). Second, there is hope that he just might cover (“atone for”) their sin (Ex 32:30-32). Third, this covering can only take place if payment is made (Ex 32:33-35).
Train of thought:
- They get themselves into trouble when they forget who rescued them and now leads them.
- This brings into question whose people they are.
- The most troubling part is the potential severing of this covenant relationship and closeness to Yahweh!
- Self-medicating the fear and anxiety with false assurance and pleasure does nothing to help.
- But Yahweh’s mediator might make it right again by not conforming but covering the sin by paying for it.
Main point: God has a superior solution to our most troubling trouble. He can make a way to bring us back to him.
Connection to Christ: Moses couldn’t do it himself, but Jesus could. Jesus not only acts or speaks like Yahweh; he is Yahweh in the flesh. He never confirmed to the sinful pattern of this world. He shed his own blood to pay for our sin, such that his blood now covers those who trust him with their life.
My Application of Exodus 32
Head: I know the theology, that Jesus is the only savior. But when I feel anxious or afraid, I am still mostly inclined to self-medicate with pleasure, selfishness, blame-shifting, or anything else. When I face such temptation, I must remind myself of who alone can save me and lead me.
Heart: When I remember the Lord Jesus, I love him more than my false saviors.
Hands: I can close the browser window, set aside the video game, and choose not to attack my critic. Such things have never been able to save me in the past or lead me into paradise. Jesus is all in all, and being close to him is all that matters.
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