1 “At that time the Lord said to me, ‘Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to me on the mountain and make an ark of wood. 2 And I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets that you broke, and you shall put them in the ark.’ 3 So I made an ark of acacia wood, and cut two tablets of stone like the first, and went up the mountain with the two tablets in my hand. 4 And he wrote on the tablets, in the same writing as before, the Ten Commandments that the Lord had spoken to you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly. And the Lord gave them to me. 5 Then I turned and came down from the mountain and put the tablets in the ark that I had made. And there they are, as the Lord commanded me.”
6 (The people of Israel journeyed from Beeroth Bene-jaakan to Moserah. There Aaron died, and there he was buried. And his son Eleazar ministered as priest in his place. 7 From there they journeyed to Gudgodah, and from Gudgodah to Jotbathah, a land with brooks of water. 8 At that time the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the Lord to stand before the Lord to minister to him and to bless in his name, to this day. 9 Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers. The Lord is his inheritance, as the Lord your God said to him.)
10 “I myself stayed on the mountain, as at the first time, forty days and forty nights, and the Lord listened to me that time also. The Lord was unwilling to destroy you. 11 And the Lord said to me, ‘Arise, go on your journey at the head of the people, so that they may go in and possess the land, which I swore to their fathers to give them.’” – Deuteronomy 10:1-11 ESV
The scene that had taken place at the base of Mount Sinai some 40 years earlier had been a tense and potentially deadly one. God had called Moses up to the top of the mountain and had provided him with the tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments. But even while the mountain displayed the powerful presence of God, in the form of fire, smoke, and ground-shaking tremors, the people had decided to manufacture an idol of gold in the form of a calf. This tangible manifestation of a deity was familiar to them and likely called to mind the false gods they had worshiped during their 400-year stay in Egypt.
But their actions that day had brought down the wrath of God. Without realizing it, they had violated the very first of the ten commandments written on the stone tablets that Moses had carried down the mountain.
“You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me.” – Exodus 20:3-5 NLT
God knew His chosen people well, and it is evidenced by the very fact that this was the first of His prohibitions. But before Moses could even deliver the commandments to the people, they had broken the first and most important one of them. And their violation of that command was worthy of God’s righteous judgment. In fact, even before Moses was aware of what had taken place down at the base of the mountain, God informed him of His intentions to destroy the people of Israel.
“I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stubborn people. Let me alone, that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven. And I will make of you a nation mightier and greater than they.” – Deuteronomy 9:13-14 ESV
But Moses had intervened on behalf of the people.
“Then I lay prostrate before the Lord as before, forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all the sin that you had committed, in doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord to provoke him to anger. For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure that the Lord bore against you, so that he was ready to destroy you. But the Lord listened to me that time also.” – Deuteronomy 9:18-19 ESV
God commanded Moses to return to the mountaintop, where he received a second set of the commandments. In a sense, God renewed His covenant with the people of Israel. He provided them with a second chance to prove their allegiance to Him. Their actions had earned them the wrath of God, but God had chosen to postpone His judgment and bless them His unmerited and undeserved favor instead.
But before we jump to the wrong conclusion and assume that Moses talked God out of enacting His just and righteous judgment against a people who were guilty and fully deserving of punishment, we have to look at the same event as described in the book of Exodus. There we find that Moses, upon seeing the sin-fueled spectacle that had been taking place in the valley, called on volunteers to enact God’s judgment upon the guilty.
So Moses stood at the entrance of the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” All the Levites gathered around him, and he said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Each man fasten his sword on his side, and go back and forth from entrance to entrance throughout the camp, and each one kill his brother, his friend, and his neighbor.’”
The Levites did what Moses ordered, and that day about three thousand men of the people died. – Exodus 32:26-28 NLT
According to Hebrews 9:22, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” This is based on the word of God found in Leviticus 17:11:
“I have given you the blood on the altar to purify you, making you right with the LORD. It is the blood, given in exchange for a life, that makes purification possible.”
While the entire camp of Israel had taken part in the orgy-like display that day, only 3,000 individuals lost their lives. All had been guilty and been worthy of death, and yet, most were spared. But God was not done.
When Moses had returned to the mountain, God informed him that there would be more deaths.
“Whoever has sinned against me—that person I will wipe out of my book. So now go, lead the people to the place I have spoken to you about. See, my angel will go before you. But on the day that I punish, I will indeed punish them for their sin.”
And the Lord sent a plague on the people because they had made the calf—the one Aaron made. – Exodus 32:33-35 NLT
With the deaths of the 3,000, the rest of the sinful Israelites must have assumed they had somehow escaped the judgment of God. They had gotten away with their sin. But they were wrong. God continued to pour out His wrath. But He did spare the nation as a whole. He allowed a remnant of these rebellious people to remain alive so that He might fulfill His covenant promises to Abraham.
But some else took place occurred that fateful day that is easily overlooked. When the Levites joined Moses in enacting the judgment of God against the people of Israel, Moses told them, “Today you have been ordained for the service of the Lord” (Exodus 32:29 ESV). They became God’s priests and were given the task of representing the people of Israel before God. But it is essential that we remember what God had said to the people of Israel before He gave them His commandments.
“…if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…” – Exodus 19:5-6 ESV
With their actions at Mount Sinai, the rest of the tribes had forfeited their right to act as priests of God. Rather than acting as intercessors for the sins of others, they would require intercession. Their rebellion had resulted in their removal as priests of God.
Moses informed them, “The Lord was unwilling to destroy you” (Deuteronomy 10:10 ESV), but their relationship with God was dramatically altered that day. God would allow them to remain alive and He would continue to guide them to the land of promise, but that generation would continue to display its propensity to reject and rebel against Him. Even Moses called them out for their serial rebellion, flatly stating: “you have been rebelling against the Lord as long as I have known you” (Deuteronomy 9:24 NLT).
And yet, in spite of them, God told Moses, “Get up and resume the journey, and lead the people to the land I swore to give to their ancestors, so they may take possession of it” (Deuteronomy 10:11 NLT).
But notice that subtle, yet significant phrase, “the land I swore to give to their ancestors.” The generation that rebelled against God at Mount Sinai would be the same generation that refused to enter the land of Canaan, and they would all die in the wilderness. Not a single one of them would ever set foot in the land of promise. They would give birth to a new generation of Israelites, whom God would give the privilege of entering and possessing the land He had promised to Abraham. But the original generation of Israelites who “rebelled against the commandment of the Lord…and did not believe him or obey his voice” (Deuteronomy 9:23 ESV), would never have the joy of experiencing God’s ultimate blessing: the land of promise.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.