7 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. 8 They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” 9 And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. 10 Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.”
11 But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” – Exodus 32:7-13 ESV
God knew something to which Moses was completely oblivious. For 40 days and nights, Moses had been sequestered at the top of Mount Sinai where he had just received God’s plans for the Tabernacle and instructions for commissioning his brother, Aaron, as the high priest. But while Moses had been away, things had taken a decidedly dark turn down in the valley. His brother, under pressure from the people, had decided to play the role of a priest over his very own religion with its very own god.
Moses had just taken down all the details concerning the construction of God’s house, an elaborate sanctuary designed to be Yahweh’s throneroom on earth. This sacred structure was to be His self-designed dwelling place among the people of Israel.
“…let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.” – Exodus 25:8-9 ESV
But along with the plans for the Tabernacle, God had given Moses instructions regarding the investiture of Aaron and his sons as priests.
“…bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests—Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar.” – Exodus 28:1 ESV
These men had been divinely chosen to serve as mediators between Yahweh and the people of Israel, ministering on their behalf in the Tabernacle. To accentuate the sacred nature of their new role, God ordained the creation of distinctive garments that would set them apart as holy and serve as reminders of their sanctified status as priests.
But, unbeknownst to Moses, Aaron was already serving as a priest by offering sacrifices to the golden calf idol he had commissioned. Not only that, he had declared a holy day on which the people would honor their new god with sacrifices and a raucous celebration that included plenty of feasting and drinking. And, as if this wasn’t bad enough, the people “rose up to play” (Exodus 32:6 ESV). The Hebrew phrase can be translated as “they stood up to laugh, mock, or play.”
They had sat down to eat a meal but followed it with dancing and celebration. And this imagery of a feast is significant because it ties directly to the meal that Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel had shared together in the presence of God.
Then Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel climbed up the mountain. There they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there seemed to be a surface of brilliant blue lapis lazuli, as clear as the sky itself. And though these nobles of Israel gazed upon God, he did not destroy them. In fact, they ate a covenant meal, eating and drinking in his presence! – Exodus 24:9-11 NLT
That remarkable moment in time was meant to seal the covenant that God had made with the people of Israel. Those leaders had been privileged to break bread with Yahweh Himself and that memorable event was intended to ratify their agreement to obey the commands of God. They served as representatives of the people and their presence before God affirmed what the people had agreed to do.
“All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” – Exodus 24:7 ESV
And yet, those very same men were part of the crowd that was feasting and playing in celebration of their newfound god. They rose up from another covenant meal and worshiped an altogether different god. In doing so, they broke the covenant they had made with Yahweh. They violated the very commands they had pledged to keep. And God was not happy.
“How quickly they have turned away from the way I commanded them to live! They have melted down gold and made a calf, and they have bowed down and sacrificed to it. They are saying, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.’” – Exodus 32:8 NLT
Even God appears stunned by how quickly the people turned their backs on Him. But He wasn’t surprised or caught off guard. In His omniscience, God knew that the people of Israel would prove unfaithful and incapable of keeping His commands. His description of them as “a stiff-necked people” (Exodus 32:9 ESV) is not a statement of revelation. It is not as if He just discovered that fact, but He has known all along. From the moment He chose to deliver them from their captivity in Egypt, He knew they would prove to be a stubborn and rebellious people, and they had proven that fact every step of the way from Goshen to Sinai.
These people had a habit of murmuring and complaining. They had a track record of ingratitude and dissatisfaction with God’s way of doing things. And now, they had topped off their not-so-subtle attitude of rebellion by dismissing Yahweh altogether. They dumped their Deliverer and replaced Him with a god of their own making. And describes their actions in highly unflattering terms.
“Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves.” – Exodus 32:7 ESV
The Hebrew word, שָׁחַת (šāḥaṯ), carries the idea of decay, spoilage, or ruin. The actions of the people of Israel had made them unacceptable in the eyes of God. They had made themselves impure and morally reprehensible to a holy God. In a word, they defiled themselves, and God held them personally responsible.
This led God to reveal to Moses His plan for dealing with their blatant display of apostasy.
“Now leave me alone so my fierce anger can blaze against them, and I will destroy them. Then I will make you, Moses, into a great nation.” – Exodus 32:10 NLT
This statement was intended to let Moses know just how serious this situation was. God was so offended that He was willing to start from scratch, and this would not have been the first time. When the sins of mankind had reached a fever pitch during the days of Noah, God had chosen to begin again by destroying every human being but Noah and his immediate family. But even with a new start, humanity continued to display its propensity for rebellion and godlessness. That led God to choose Abram, a pagan from the land of Ur, through whom He started a brand new nation that eventually became the people of Israel.
But the Israelites had displayed their hand. Even after God had rescued them from their captivity in Egypt and pledged to make His divine presence a permanent part of their community, they turned their backs on Him. So, God informed Moses that He was willing to start all over again. He would reboot the system once again; this time allowing Moses to play the role of Abraham.
Moses had to have been shocked by what God told him. He too must have been angered by this latest news of his people’s rebellion. Moses must have been appalled by Aaron’s role in the whole affair. But rather than embrace God’s plan to start over, Moses intervened. He interceded on behalf of his rebellious people and begged God to reconsider.
“O Lord!” he said. “Why are you so angry with your own people whom you brought from the land of Egypt with such great power and such a strong hand? Why let the Egyptians say, ‘Their God rescued them with the evil intention of slaughtering them in the mountains and wiping them from the face of the earth’? Turn away from your fierce anger. Change your mind about this terrible disaster you have threatened against your people!” – Exodus 32:11-12 NLT
Moses appealed to God’s faithfulness and reminded Him of His own reputation. The last thing God would want is for the nations of the world to view His actions in a negative light. For God to destroy the people of Israel now would send the wrong message and portray Him as unfaithful and untrustworthy. Yahweh would come across as just another fickle, revenge-minded deity who viewed human beings as nothing more than pawns in some kind of divine game of chance.
Moses reminded Yahweh of the covenant He had made with the patriarchs of Israel.
“Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You bound yourself with an oath to them, saying, ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven. And I will give them all of this land that I have promised to your descendants, and they will possess it forever.’” – Exodus 32:13 NLT
In all of this, Moses was revealing his understanding of God’s nature and his awareness of the bigger picture concerning the people of Israel. They were on their way to the land that God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That was the destination and it was all part of the sovereign strategy that God had put in place centuries earlier. This moment in the wilderness was just a phase in the long-established plan of God and should not be allowed to deter or derail what God had ordained.
Moses was revealing his growing sense of trust in the promises of God. There had been times along the way when he had been ready to give up and go home. The constant complaining of the people had gotten on his nerves and tempted him to throw in the towel. But he was learning to trust in the will of God and to view the ups and downs of life as part of His divine plan. The Egyptians had been no problem for God. The lack of water in the wilderness and the Israelite’s diminishing supply of bread had not thrown a wrench into God’s plan. And as far as Moses could see, their blatant display of rebellion should pose no threat to God’s providential plan either. Yahweh was far too faithful to let this incident prevent His sovereign will from being done.
Moses knew that God was great. He was well aware of God’s holiness and transcendence. He was intimately familiar with God’s power. But he had also grown to understand God’s unwavering faithfulness. With the plans for the Tabernacle in his hands, Moses longed to see it take form in the valley below so that the people might know and experience the joy of God’s presence. So, he went to the mat with God and urged Him to display His faithfulness once again – in a big way.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
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.