30 The next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” 31 So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” 33 But the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book. 34 But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.”
35 Then the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf, the one that Aaron made. – Exodus 32:30-35 ESV
It is easy to overlook the gravity of the situation that had taken place in the valley below Mount Sinai. The people of Israel had done far more than order the creation of a false god that they might worship. Their little festal celebration was far much more than a party to commemorate their new deity. It was all blatant rejection of God Almighty and a patent refusal to keep the commitments they had made to Him. They had made a conscious decision to turn their backs on Yahweh and renege on their vows to obey His laws.
But God took their actions as a direct affront to His sovereignty and as a willful violation of the gracious covenant He had made with the people of Israel.
“Now therefore, 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
And on two separate occasions, the people had responded to God’s call to covenant faithfulness by making a corporate oath to obey.
“All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” – Exodus 19:8 ESV
“All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” – Exodus 24:3 ESV
But their actions spoke louder than their words. While Moses had been up on Mount Sinai receiving God’s plans for the Tabernacle, the people had grown restless. His absence had left them with a leadership void and a growing sense of dissatisfaction with their nomadic lifestyle in the wilderness. Despite God’s ongoing provision for all their needs, they were wrestling with discontentment and disappointment over their circumstances. They had yet to fully accept Yahweh as their God. They viewed Him as a distant deity who resided among the thunder, lightning, smoke, and fire that covered Mount Sinai. They feared Him but did not yet revere Him. They understood Him to be powerful and potentially dreadful but did not view Him as relational.
What makes their predicament so precarious is that they stood before God as guilty of having violated two of the primary commands that had been written by the finger of God on the tablets of stone that now lay shattered on the valley floor. God had clearly prohibited their worship of any other God but Him.
“You shall have no other gods before me.” – Exodus 20:3 ESV
This was not an optional clause in the covenant. It was a command that completely ruled out the worship of any other gods but Yahweh. And to make sure the people understood the nature of this restriction, God provided further clarification.
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me…” – Exodus 20:4-5 ESV
And yet, what had they done? In Moses’ absence, they had grown impatient and decided that these laws were no longer applicable or amenable to them. Incited by a group of disgruntled malcontents, the people demanded that Aaron provide them with a new god to replace the one that Moses had introduced them to.
“Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” – Exodus 32:1 ESV
During their long stay in Egypt, they had grown accustomed to the concept of a plurality of gods. In fact, they had adopted many of those gods as their own (Joshua 24:14-15). So, the idea of worshiping one god was new to them. And this God of Moses had proven to be a particularly difficult deity to embrace because He was invisible and seemingly unapproachable. By demanding that Aaron manufacture a new god, they were hedging their bets. They were hoping he could produce a second or third option when it came to divine assistance.
But Moses understood the gravity of their sin. He had heard the voice of God stating His divine displeasure with His people.
“I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. 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.” – Exodus 32:9-10 ESV
Now, as he stood before his brother and the surviving members of the Israelite nation, Moses warned them that they were not out of the woods yet. The execution of the ringleaders had not solved their problem.
“You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” – Exodus 32:30 ESV
What is amazing to consider is that Aaron was still alive. Moses had demanded his death along with the rest of the men who had instigated the rebellion. Even though Aaron had given in to their demands and had fabricated the false god, he had been spared death. This is likely linked to Moses’ understanding that Aaron had been set apart by God to serve as the future high priest of Israel. But although Aaron was alive, he was far from guiltless.
As the mediator for God’s people, Moses headed back up the mountain to intercede on their behalf before Yahweh. He entered again into God’s presence as the people stood in the valley below, waiting to hear what the verdict would be. Moses had left them in a state of anxious insecurity, having indicated his own doubts concerning the outcome of his efforts.
“…perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” – Exodus 32:30 ESV
He would do his best, but he could not assure the people that God would forgive them for their actions.
Once he arrived back at the summit, Moses addressed his concerns to God in the form of an ultimatum.
“Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” – Exodus 32:31-32 ESV
Moses seems to bargain with God. He confesses the sins of the people and knows that they deserve death for what they have done, but he pleads for God to forgive them. If God, in His righteous judgment, should refuse to forgive, Moses asks that God absolve him of all responsibility for the people. By asking that he be blotted out of God’s “book,” it appears that Moses is asking for a premature death. He would rather die than have to watch the divine annihilation of his fellow Israelites. By referencing this “book,” Moses is likely indicating his belief in a divine record of all living humans. Moses preferred death to life if God was not going to forgive the people of Israel. He knew that God had every right to mete out justice and judgment upon His rebellious people. But Moses longed for forgiveness.
God responded to Moses’ request with a declaration of His intent.
“Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book.” – Exodus 32:33 ESV
Moses would not die. God was not going to punish Moses for the sins of the people. But He would hold responsible all those who had willingly joined in the rebellion. They would pay with their lives. And God chose to punish the guilty with a plague. He brought upon them the same kind of judgment He had used against the nation of Egypt. We are not told the nature of the plague, but it is clear that God poured out His wrath on the guilty. He did not accept Moses’ offer to serve as a substitute for their sins. Moses could not offer atonement with his life because he too was a sinner. Those who were guilty would have to atone for their own sins with their own lives. But not all died because not all had participated in the rebellion.
God instructed Moses to continue his role of leading the people. He had a job to do and God had a promise to fulfill. The rest of the people of Israel would continue their journey to Canaan and one day cross over into the Jordan River into the promised land.
“…now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you.” – Exodus 32:34 ESV
God would be faithful to His covenant. But for all those who had chosen to break the covenant with God, they would pay dearly.
“Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.” – Exodus 32:34 ESV
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.