When Holiness Contends with Wickedness (Exodus 32-33)

Scripture reading– Exodus 32-33

For “forty days and forty nights” (24:18), Moses and Joshua had been on Mount Sinai, with the LORD. Their appointment with the LORD being ended, the LORD had given to Moses “two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God” (31:18).

Moses was unaware of events that were transpiring in Israel’s camp, but the LORD knew. He had heard the wicked demands of the people (32:1), and observed Aaron’s failure to hold the people to the covenant Israel had vowed to the LORD (32:2-3).

Aaron had cast in gold “a molten calf” for the people to worship (32:4), and the people blasphemed the LORD, saying, “These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (32:4). Aaron accommodated their wickedness, and “built an altar before [the calf]; and [proclaimed]… To morrow is a feast to the Lord” (32:5).

Disavowing their covenant with the LORD, the people gave themselves to a worship that was like the idolatry they had witnessed in Egypt, and “offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play” (32:6). The implication is that their conduct was not only idolatrous, but morally depraved.

Angered by the sins of the people, God vowed to judge them in His wrath (32:7-10), to cut off the nation, and covenant with Moses to “make of [him] a great nation” (32:10). Moses, however, humbly interceded for the people, and was jealous for the LORD’s testimony with Egypt, and other nations. He implored the LORD to remember His covenant with “Abraham, Isaac, and Israel” (32:13).

The LORD heard the prayer of Moses, and He “repented [lit. had a change of mind or heart] of the evil [judgment; destruction] which he thought to do unto his people” (32:14).

Moses descended the mount, and the “two tables of the testimony were in [his] hand: the tables [The Ten Commandments] were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. 16And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables” (32:15-16).

When Joshua heard the clammer of voices in the camp, he wondered if it was the “noise of war” (32:17). Moses, however, knew it was the sound of frolicsome singing, and when “he saw the calf, and the dancing…[his] anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount” (32:19).

Words fail to describe this tragic moment in Israel’s history. How soon the nation had turned from their covenant with the LORD, and had given themselves to wickedness and idolatry!

Incensed by their wickedness, Moses “took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it” (32:19b-20).

Turning to Aaron, Moses rebuked him, and questioned, “What did this people unto thee, that thou hast brought so great a sin upon them?” (32:21)

Aaron’s retort was sadly, much like many in spiritual leadership; he put on the people the responsibility for his own failure and said, “thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief” (32:22).

The full conversation that passed between those brothers is not recorded, but the Scriptures indicate that Aaron not only failed to resist the people, but implicated him as a willing participant, for we read: “Aaron had made [the people] naked unto their shame among their enemies” (32:25).

The time to stand for the LORD had come, and “Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the Lord’s side? let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi [the priestly tribe; the tribe of Moses and Aaron]gathered themselves together unto him” (32:26). Three thousand men were slain for their wickedness (32:28), and Moses rebuked the people saying, “Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto the Lord; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin” (32:30).

The LORD, in answer to the intercessory prayer of Moses (32:31-32), and in act of mercy and grace, gave Israel a reprieve from utter destruction. Tragic consequences owing to the sins of the people followed; however, the Lord did not destroy the nation altogether (32:12-35).

I will review some of the effects of Israel’s sin in a later devotional (Exodus 33).

Copyright 2021 – Travis D. Smith