Meditations in Exodus: 70. A Terrible Cleansing
Ex 32:19,20 When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. And he took the calf they had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.
What follows here seems quite terrible at first sight, but first sight is often casual and does not think about the awfulness or details of what is happening. Moses leaves the Lord and starts back down the mountain: “Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.” (v.15,16) It is quite clear, he has two slabs of stone on which are the laws God has imparted, engraved by God Himself. On the way down the mountain he picks up Joshua and as they get lower down the mountain they hear the sounds of revelry down below (v.17,18) and so, “When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain,” (v.19) Moses is so appalled at what he sees that he flings down the two stones and they are smashed. It is as if in his anger, despite having recently interceded for Israel, he is saying, “these laws are redundant, Israel has broken the covenant, it is all a waste of time!”
But then we see his actions. He does not give up on Israel. In a fury he could have walked off and left them and gone back to looking after sheep again for this people must surely be condemned. To cope with what follows we must really take in the awfulness of what has happened – and it is awful because of the things we emphasized beforehand, that it was so clear who God was, the One who had delivered them miraculously from Egypt, the One who had kept them and provided for them in the desert, the One who came with thunder and lightning and trumpets for all the people to see, and the One who revealed Himself to the elders and leaders on the mountain. In the face of all that, a number at least of Israel grumble and demand gods or a god to be visible and Aaron had gone along with it and made them a golden calf in the image of one of the gods of Egypt and they had then had a celebration of this god, basically an orgy.
No wonder Moses is furious. But what to do about it? How can Moses pull this nation back from the brink, because although he has got the Lord to back off from destroying them all, he recognizes that this sin cannot be left and the attitude of the whole nation needs to be dealt with. What will he do?
Well, first of all, “he took the calf they had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.” (v.20) He destroys the calf and grinds it up and then scatters it on the waters in the waddi so the people have to drink it when they come for water supplies. He then challenges Aaron over his part in it, who simply makes a pathetic excuse (v.21-24). But it is not only past actions it is also the problem of the present shambles because, “Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies.” (v.25) Yes, and it is not only the shambles they are at the moment, it is also what will be told to the surrounding nations, destroying their testimony; their very future may hang in the balance here.
Let’s quickly deal with the purging that follows: “So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the LORD, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him. 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. Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the LORD today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.” (v.26-29) This sounds absolutely terrible but when we realise that only three thousand out of possibly two million were executed, we realise that actually the ‘party’ had only involved a small percentage of Israel and it was only the revelers who were executed, the ones who had grumbled, the ones who rejoiced over their new god. These are the ones who have been removed from Israel. It could have been so much worse. Yes, it is terrible but only as terrible as the actions of these people who had the potential to undermine the entire nation and bring to an end all of God’s plan to bless this people and make them a light to the rest of the world.
Moses confronts the whole nation: “The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” So Moses went back to the LORD and said, “Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin–but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.” (v.30-32) Here is Moses the intercessor again. The fact that they have sought to cleanse away the rebellious revelers may not have completely satisfied the Lord; He may yet hold the nation guilty. Moses must go and intercede for them.
He acknowledges their sin before the Lord, makes no mention of the cleansing but simply asks for mercy in the form of forgiveness and if that is not possible that his life be forfeited because he has obviously failed. “The LORD replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.” (v.33,34) The Lord’s answer is not very clear and may leave us wondering but later in the Bible Ezekiel in particular makes it clear that God only judges the guilty and He knows who are guilty and who are not, so when we read, “the LORD struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made,” (v.35) it is almost certain that that plague only struck some, the guilty ones who had escaped the sword. It is a limited judgment.
Throughout the early part of the Bible in particular disciplinary judgments come on Israel as God attempted to pull this nation back from the brink as time and again they allow groups to fester rebellion in their midst which had the potential of wrecking the nation and annulling their role as a light to the nations. If Israel did one thing, it was to show us the depth and stupidity of sin in every one of us, even when God is there working to help us. There is no room for pointing fingers because we all have the same propensity and it is only God’s mercy and grace working for us that stops us all from going into oblivion, Praise, thank and worship Him for the wonder of His love which may discipline but always seeks the overall best for His people, the people of the earth!