Meditating on the Judgements of God:
4.3 The Golden Calf
Ex 32:27,28 Then he said to them, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: `Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’ ” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died.
As we come to this particular judgment we have to acknowledge from the outset that this must be one of the most terrible judgments we have seen. It is one thing for a flood to kill people or for a plague to kill people, but for people to kill their own brothers, friends or neighbours is horrendous. To try to make any sense out of it we must consider their recent history and, indeed, long-term future history.
First of all the facts of what has recently occurred – recent in terms of the last few months. Israel have been recipients of freedom as God judged Egypt. They were witnesses to His incredible power and destructive potential through the ten plagues and then in the Read Sea. They have witnessed His grace as when a number of times they grumbled over difficulties while travelling through the desert to Sinai, and the Lord simply provided for them again and again. There was no judgment involved.
When they arrived at Sinai they witnessed God’s presence on the mountain or at least signs of it – thunder, lightening and black cloud and trumpet blast (Ex 19:16) but that was only after the Lord had offered them a covenant relationship: “if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” (Ex 19:5,6) and when Moses presented them with this, “The people all responded together, “We will do everything the LORD has said.” (Ex 19:8). This was followed by a call to consecrate themselves (v.10) and by warnings not to go on the mountain on pain of death (v.12), a sense of God’s holiness was being created.
We then see Moses going up and down the mountain a number of times, it seems, to meet with the Lord and in that he receives not only the Ten Commandments but a series of laws which Moses wrote down and which became the basis of the covenant (Ch.21-23) and we find, “When Moses went and told the people all the LORD’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the LORD has said we will do.” Moses then wrote down everything the LORD had said. … Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.” (v.3,4,7) Three times now they have declared their acceptance of the covenant with God.
We then find, “Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.” (v.9-11) This is amazing and we tend to forget that 74 Israelite leaders were given a unique revelation of the Lord – and lived! This was the first and last time such a thing would happen – but bear in mind, in what follows, this incredible experience.
Then Moses is told to leave the others there and go up the mountain (v.12) to meet with God and receive the previously given ten commandments but now on tablets of stone that are to be a lasting reminder for Israel – and there he stayed for forty days. Now presumably the other seventy three (Joshua went at least part of the way with him (v.13) went back down the mountain to the people and no doubt told what they had seen.
This is where the crass stupidity of human Sin makes itself known. The days pass and Moses does not come down. Eventually the people tire of waiting and we find, “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” (Ex 32:1) Now you would have thought that Aaron and the other seventy two would have reminded these people of what has only recently happened and the incredible revelation they received but one way and another this either didn’t happen or it did happen and was rejected, and so Aaron gave way and the end result was a golden calf to be worshipped as an idol – and then Moses returns (Ex 32:2-8,19) and we have this terrible command to execute large numbers of Israel.
Now the problem is that we don’t have a reason given why ONLY 3000 people died and we don’t know how the Levites decided who should die. Although it is not stated I believe it is a fair assumption that the people killed were the ones who had been joining in the orgy of the golden calf. There is no other logical possibility or way they could have decided and the fact that they ONLY killed this relatively small number presupposes this was their way of deciding – the guilty will die.
Now we need to look at the big picture. In an earlier study we considered the glory of the Lord and said that one of THE most important things that Israel had to do in their role as God’s people was reveal the Lord to the rest of the world. They had to reveal the fact that idols were simply man-made images and worthless and just superstitious rubbish, and the only One worthy of worship was The LORD, the I AM.
What we have here, as hard as it seems, is a people who at least three times committed themselves to the Lord and to the task of revealing His uniqueness (holiness) to the world and yet who, within just over a month reverse or forget those commitments and, even worse, set up idol worship, there on God’s doorstep, so to speak. It was the greatest insult and rejection possible and therefore the remedy had to be absolute if this people are to start off their life with God on a right footing. The whole of their future ‘ministry’ is at stake here. A devastating judgment and yet tiny in comparison to the large number of Israel (somewhere between 1 and 2 million people), and a lesson that should be held on to, to help them keep to their role and task.
An area that we have not looked at is what would have happened if judgment had not been brought over this incident. I leave you to think about the ongoing rebellious attitude of a number within that camp and the effect they would have on the rest and the potential future for Israel, and as for the name of the Lord??? Seriously, think what alternative there was to this course of action and what harm to the ongoing wellbeing of this people would result if this hadn’t happened.