Sin in the Camp

14 And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.

15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written. 16 The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets. 17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” 18 But he said, “It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear.” 19 And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it.  – Exodus 32:14-20 ESV

Did Moses really change the mind of God? Was his intercession on behalf of the people the reason “the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (Exodus 32:14)? It would appear from the text that Moses was successful in persuading God to spare the people of Israel from His wrath. But this conclusion would stand in direct contrast to other passages in the Bible that teach of God’s immutability or unchanging nature.

“For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. – Malachi 3:6 ESV

In this passage from the book of Malachi, God was declaring His intentions to judge His people for their apostasy, but He would not completely destroy them because He had made a covenant promise and was going to fulfill it.

In the New Testament, James picks up on this theme when he writes:

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. – James 1:17 ESV

God is consistent in character and action. He doesn’t say one thing and then do another; a fact that is recorded in the book of Numbers.

God is not man, that he should lie,
    or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
    Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? – Numbers 23:19 ESV

God had made a covenant commitment to Abraham, that He would produce from him a great nation and one day give them the land of Canaan as their inheritance.

“And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:7-8 ESV

And over the centuries, God reiterated and reconfirmed that covenant to Abraham’s descendants, all the way down to Moses and the people of Israel whom He had freed from captivity in Egypt. When God had commissioned Moses to be the deliverer of the people of Israel, He told him, “I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:17 ESV). God made a commitment and He was going to keep it.

So, what did God mean when He said to Moses, “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” (Exodus 32:10 ESV)? Was He lying? Did He not mean what He said?

When reading a passage like this one, it is essential to consider the participants in the conversation. God was speaking to Moses, His chosen servant. This was an intimate conversation between the Lord and the man He had selected to lead His people out of captivity and all the way to the land of Canaan. Nothing about what happened in the valley had surprised God or caught Him off-guard. When He described the Israelites as “a stiff-necked people” (Exodus 32:9 ESV), He was not stating a fact He had just discerned from their most recent activity. He had known it all along, and Moses was also well aware of their stubborn disposition.

This entire exchange between God and Moses was meant to be a test – of Moses. God knew what had happened in the Israelite camp. Because of His omniscience and omnipresence, He had witnessed all that they had done to reject Him as their God. But Moses had been completely unaware of the sordid scene going on in the valley until God had informed him, and he had still not seen the extent of Israel’s wickedness with his own eyes.

Notice the wording of God’s statement to Moses. He places the burden on Moses when He says, “therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them” (Exodus 32:10 ESV). In other words, God informs Moses that the fate of the Israelites is in his hands. God doesn’t say He is going to destroy them. He states that their destruction will come if Moses fails to intercede. And God knew the outcome before Moses did. Because of His omniscience, God knew exactly what Moses was going to do, even before Moses did.

And it is essential to note how Moses responded to God. He reminded the Lord of His power, faithfulness, reputation, and His covenant commitment. But God didn’t need a primer on His character or a pep talk about remaining faithful to His promises. This was a test to see if Moses fully understood the vast gap between the graciousness and goodness of God and the sinfulness of his own people. Because Moses was about to get a wake-up call concerning the moral and spiritual poverty of the people of Israel when he walked back into their camp. He would discover just how evil and worthy of God’s wrath they really were.

God was preparing Moses for the worst. He knew His servant was in for the shock when the full extent of Israel’s sinfulness became apparent. So, when Moses interceded and appealed to God’s faithfulness and reminded Him of His covenant commitment, it revealed that Moses understood that Israel’s future was fully dependent upon God’s mercy. They were incapable of living up to God’s holy requirements, and the only thing that kept God from destroying them was His mercy, grace, and commitment to keep His covenant promises.

The following insights from Philip Graham Ryken shed light on this difficult passage.

“It was never God’s purpose to destroy the Israelites, but only to save them. Even as he threatened wrath, there were hints that he would show mercy. First there was the simple fact that God commanded Moses to go down. If he really intended to destroy the Israelites, then why send Moses down at all? The answer is that he was planning to save them through the intercession of their mediator. the Israelites had not sinned themselves outside the grace of God. He was sending Moses to pray for their forgiveness.

Then there is the fact that God refers to the Israelites as the people of Moses: ‘Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt…’ (Escod. 32:7). By talking this way, God was showing that the people were alienated from him by their sin. If they were going to make a cow and say, ‘These are your gods, O Israel!’ (v. 4b), then God was going to say to Moses, ‘these are your people.’ But he was not trying to shift the blame. Rather, he was helping Moses identify with the Israelites. There is a sense in which they were his people. Moses was their spiritual representative.” – Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus

From Moses’ perspective, it appeared as if God relented or changed His mind. Moses fully expected God to destroy the people of Israel because they deserved it. But rather than rain down judgment on His disobedient people, God sent Moses down the mountain carrying the two tablets containing His laws. In his arms, Moses’ held the Decalogue, but his mind was weighed down by all the details concerning the plans for God’s house and the installation of the priesthood. This poor man must have been confused and conflicted as he made his way down the mountain with Joshua, his companion. And when the camp of Israel came into sight, Moses was appalled by what he saw. It was worse than he could have imagined.

…as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. – Exodus 32:19 ESV

In a fit of rage, Moses destroyed the two tablets containing God’s law. This is the same man who dared to ask God, “does your wrath burn hot against your people?” (Exodus 32:11 ESV). He had the audacity to advise God, “Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people” (Exodus 32:12 ESV). But now, having gotten a first-hand look at the magnitude of the problem, Moses was so angry that he broke the two tablets upon which God had engraved the Ten Commandments.

The people had been violating God’s laws, but in his anger, Moses actually destroyed the laws of God. In a sense, Moses acted out the entire problem with the law and Israel’s licentiousness. The law was never going to hold back their propensity for sin. In fact, Paul states that the purpose behind the law was never to irradicate sin, but to reveal it.

…its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God. For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. – Romans 3:19-20 NLT

And since Moses had already relayed God’s laws to the people of Israel, they were without excuse. They knew that what they were doing was in violation of God’s laws, but they did it anyway. They willingly disregarded God’s commands. Not only that, they blatantly disregarded God Himself by making false gods meant to replace Him.

But in his white-hot anger, Moses destroyed the golden calf, burning it with fire and grinding what was left into a fine powder that he mixed with water and forced the people to drink. The people had been consumed by their own sin; now they were forced to consume their sin in the form of the foul-tasting concoction that Moses whipped up. There is no explanation given for this strange disciplinary action. But it must have left a powerful impression on the people as they gagged down the idol-laced water and considered the weight of their sin. But despite the distasteful nature of their judgment, it didn’t take long before the excuses began to flow and the blame game began. No one wanted to take responsibility for what had happened. But while God would not destroy the people of Israel, He would bring judgment against them. They would pay dearly for their sins and learn a painful lesson regarding the gravity of failing to obey god.

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.