Exodus Chapter 32
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Go to Bible: Exodus 32
“a god.” The Hebrew word Elohim can be “gods” or “a god.” Aaron made the people a god, so that translation seems best here. However, it is possible that eventually they might have wanted more gods.
“Break off.” The phrase “break off” seem strange and extreme to us, but it is what the Hebrew text says. It is possible that Aaron is using it to communicate the urgency of the situation in the minds of the people.
“that are in the ears of your wives, of your sons and of your daughters.” The people had a lot of gold that they gave to build the Tabernacle, and it seems likely that quite a few of them would have had some gold without having to use the gold of their earrings. It seems Aaron could have simply said, “Everyone bring some gold to me.” It is possible that Aaron thought that by this request for their gold earrings there would be such a large outcry and complaint that the people would be dissuaded from their goal to make a god. If so, the ploy did not work.(top)
|Exo 32:3||- (top)|
“This is your god.” Since the Hebrew word translated as “god” is Elohim, which is always plural, the Hebrew text reads in the plural to match the noun and thus reads, “These are your Elohim.” But if “Elohim” is referring to a single god, the English should read “This is your god.”(top)
“he built an altar before it.” Aaron purposely built an altar on which to sacrifice animals in front of the golden calf idol. It is only by the mercy of God that he lived (cp. Exod. 22:20).
“Tomorrow will be a feast to Yahweh.” Why would Aaron say this? The golden calf was not Yahweh! Sadly, throughout history people have made “God” to be what they wanted Him to be. In the Bible, God says who He is, how He is to be worshiped, and what a person is to do to be obedient to Him. But people do not read the Bible. Instead, they do what they want to and say they “love God,” and believe in Him. People can get away with that on this earth today, but there is a Day of Judgment coming when people will be judged by God’s actual standards, not by the man-made standards that people called God’s standards. That will be a bad time for a lot of people.(top)
“to play.” The Hebrew word is general and can refer to different types of play, including singing and dancing, but the context almost certainly involves sexual play as well, which was standard in the worship of a fertility god. Sexual revelry broke out later in the wilderness wanderings as well (Num. 25:1-15). It seems if all the people did was dance before the idol, the text would have used a more specific word, and besides, the Israelites could sing and dance before Yahweh if all they wanted to do was to sing and dance. But in contrast to an Egyptian bull god that would have encouraged all kinds of sexual activity, God, in the Book of the Covenant that the Israelites had just agreed to, was very pure when it came to sex. Marry, do not commit adultery, do not covet your neighbor’s wife, etc.
The golden calf idol no doubt came from the many years Israel had spent in Egypt, and the worship of the bull god Apis was very popular in Egypt, although the bull gods of Mnevis and Buchis were also worshiped. The bull was a symbol of fertility and strength, and was also linked with the afterlife. The fact that the Israelites made a calf god is more good evidence that sex was a prime motivator in the making of this particular god and that the worship of it would have involved sexual activity.(top)
“For your people who you brought up out of the land of Egypt.” God distances Himself from Israel by saying that they were Moses’ people and he brought them up from Egypt.(top)
“bowed down.” The common biblical way of bowing down before people or God was to fall to one’s knees and bow the upper body to the earth. It is the same Hebrew word as “worship.”
[For more on bowing down, see commentary on 1 Chron. 29:20.](top)
|Exo 32:9||- (top)|
“leave me alone.” In saying “leave me alone,” Yahweh gives Moses the key to saving Israel. If Moses will not leave God alone, but will pray and ask for the people of Israel to be spared, then God will not destroy them, and that is what happened. This is one of the many verses that speaks to the power of prayer. What God is doing here is asking for Moses to pray and intercede for Israel.(top)
“Moses soothed the face of Yahweh.” The Hebrew text is idiomatic, and uses language that refers to Moses calming Yahweh down. His face was angry against Israel, but Moses calmed Him down. English versions typically translate the Hebrew idiom into more common English, but in this case the Hebrew idiom is clear enough to be left in the English translation.(top)
“change your mind about.” The Hebrew word translated “change your mind” is nacham (#05162 נָחַם), and here it refers to God changing His mind. God interacts with people and will sometimes change His mind and course of action if people have a change of heart and action (see commentary on Jer. 18:8; cp. CEB; GNV; NAB; NASB; NLT; NRSV).(top)
|Exo 32:13||- (top)|
“changed his mind about.” The Hebrew word translated “changed his mind” is nacham (#05162 נָחַם), and here it refers to God changing His mind. God interacts with people and will sometimes change His mind and course of action if people have a change of heart and action (see commentary on Jer. 18:8; cp. CEB; CJB; GNV; NAB; NASB; NLT; NRSV).(top)
“Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain.” This was Moses’ fifth time down Mount Sinai.
[For more on Moses’ seven trips up Mount Sinai, see commentary on Exod. 19:3.](top)
|Exo 32:16||- (top)|
|Exo 32:17||- (top)|
“Moses said.” The Hebrew text is “he said,” but since the last one to speak was Joshua, using “he” would have been confusing. The REV and a number of other English versions substitute “Moses” for “he” here in Exodus 32:18.(top)
“Moses’ anger burned.” An idiom for the fact that Moses became very angry. When someone gets very angry their skin flushes and they get physically hot.
“and he threw the tablets out of his hands.” This record of Moses is very human and gives us an example of how human emotion often works. God had already told Moses that the people had made a gold calf god and were worshiping it (Exod. 32:7-8), so Moses knew intellectually what the people were doing. But there is a big difference between “head knowledge” and actually experiencing something. In this case, although Moses knew the people had made a gold calf god and were worshiping it, when he actually saw what the people were doing he was filled with emotion and threw down the stone tablets God had made and broke them. In the same way, most everyone has examples of times in life when we know about something that is bad or evil and yet can “keep it together” and not become overly emotional, but then when we come face to face with the bad thing we are overcome with emotion. That is a typically human trait.
We can understand why Moses would feel the way he did and break the tablets. The very first two commandments were “I am Yahweh your God...You must not have any other gods besides me. You must not make for yourself a carved image...you must not bow down to them and you must not serve them….” (Exod. 20:2-5). The people of Israel agreed to those commandments and made a covenant with God that they would obey them, and got sprinkled with covenant blood (Exod. 24:7-8). Furthermore, God had shown the leaders of Israel that He was on the mountain with Moses (Exod. 24:9-11). But now, after only a month or so of Moses being gone the Israelites completely abandoned the commitment they had made to God and turned to idols (Moses was gone for 40 days, but it would have taken a while to convince Aaron to make the calf god and then to actually make it and begin worship ceremonies, so it was likely a month or even less that Moses was gone when the process started).
There is also strong evidence that sexual activity that God would never tolerate was a prime motivator in the people making a calf god, which means that the people not only ignored the commandments they had agreed to about not making idols, they also ignored God’s commands about sexual purity (see the commentary on Exod. 32:6). In any case, when Moses actually saw for himself what the people were doing and realized that the people had broken many of the commandments that they had agreed to and some of which were written on the very tablets Moses was carrying, he was furious and broke the tablets because at that moment it must have seemed to Moses that the covenant was pointless.
“at the foot of the mountain.” The Hebrew text literally reads, “under” or “beneath” the mountain, but it means “at the foot of.” Saying “under the mountain” would be unclear in English. Moses broke the tablets with the Ten Commandments representing the covenant Israel made with God in the same place that Israel had made that covenant with God some 40 days earlier (Exod. 24:4).(top)
“the surface of the water.” The Hebrew text literally reads, “the face of the water,” but in this context the word “face” means surface. The surface of the water is called the “face” of the water because that is the part that we see, just like when we look at a person the part we see is the face, not what is behind it.
“and made the children of Israel drink it.” There seems to be an intentional parallel here between the “adultery” that Israel committed against Yahweh by worshiping a pagan god, and the punishment of a woman suspected of adultery in Numbers 5:11-31. In Numbers 5, there is a strange procedure in which a woman who is suspected of adultery has to drink some water that is mixed with dust from the “floor” (the ground) of the Tabernacle, and how that drink affects her reveals if she committed adultery or not. Here in Exodus 32, Israel had openly committed adultery against Yahweh and made a golden calf, and Moses ground the gold to powder and scattered it on the water and made Israel drink it—although the effect that drink had on the people is not spoken about in the text.
One thing that the parallel between Exodus 32:20 and Numbers 5:11-31 reveals is that the nature of the covenant that God made with Israel at Mount Sinai was a marriage covenant. That fact shows up in different ways in the Old Testament. For example, in Jeremiah 31:32, God says that because He made that covenant with Israel, He was a “husband” to them. Also, Israel’s worship of other gods besides Yahweh is referred to as adultery (cp. Jer. 3:8; Hos. 1:2), and when God finally leaves Israel, He speaks of giving her a bill of divorce (Isa. 50:1; Jer. 3:8).(top)
“a great sin.” The Hebrew text ends with “great sin,” giving it some emphasis (although the grammar of the Hebrew text is normal and puts the adjective last, literally, “sin great.”(top)
|Exo 32:22||- (top)|
|Exo 32:23||- (top)|
“and out came this calf.” This is a bald-faced lie but a strange one. Why would Aaron say such a thing? For one thing, it got the pressure off of Aaron, after all, he did not make the calf, it made itself! Is it possible that Aaron said that to indicate that maybe the calf was a god after all? We just don’t know why Aaron said what he did.
Aaron’s answer to Moses reveals how weak humans can be, especially if they are unexpectantly caught in doing something that they know is wrong. Aaron was normally a good man, but he had given in to the crowd and made an idol, and now Moses was trying to get him to admit it, not to shame him (although it would cause shame), but to get him to confess and repent. Sadly, at this time Aaron’s sin was still so fresh that he could not admit it. Moses realized that and moved on. It is likely, but never stated, that Moses revisited this issue with Aaron at a later time.
Aaron’s actions were human; Moses’ action was wise. It is not wise to press a person on an issue at a time when they just cannot mentally handle it. Deal with the problem later, like Moses did.(top)
“to be whispered about among their enemies.” The sin of Israel made Israel a laughingstock and an object of “whispering,” speaking badly about, among their enemies.(top)
“And all the sons of Levi gathered to him.” This is how the Levites got to be in charge of the things of God such as the Tabernacle and Temple.(top)
“Every man kill his brother...friend...neighbor.” The repetition of “every man,” and the people who are to be killed for breaking the blood covenant, the brother, friend, and neighbor, emphasizes the horror and the seriousness of the situation.(top)
|Exo 32:28||- (top)|
“You have been dedicated to Yahweh.” The Masoretic Hebrew text reads more like, “Dedicate yourselves,” but the Septuagint and Vulgate seem to be correct, and they put the event in the past as “you have been dedicated,” and the REV follows that reading. Beyond that, the Hebrew uses the idiom, “fill your hand,” thus, “You have filled your hand to Yahweh.” The idiom generally refers to putting your heart into doing something, so in this context “dedicate” seems to be a good translation.(top)
“You, you have sinned.” The Hebrew text is emphatic. Moses places the blame and responsibility squarely upon the people. This is not to unnecessarily shame them, but to get them to take responsibility for their actions so they can be forgiven. If they deny their sin they will never honestly confess it and ask for forgiveness—and then be forgiven.
“Perhaps I will be able.” The people had broken the blood-covenant they had made with God just 40 days earlier, and so it was possible that God would not forgive that sin or maintain His relationship with Israel. People who sinned unintentionally could do a sacrifice and be forgiven, but people who sinned on purpose could not simply offer a sacrifice and be forgiven, they were to be cut off from the people (Num. 15:27-31).(top)
“So Moses returned to Yahweh.” This is Moses’ sixth trip up Mount Sinai, and he went to ask God to forgive the sin of the children of Israel.
[For more information on Moses’ seven trips up Mount Sinai, see commentary on Exod. 19:3.](top)
Yet now, if you would only forgive their sin…! Moses cannot finish his sentence. This is the figure of speech anacoluthon, where a person speaking does not finish their sentence for any of a number of reasons. Moses knows that Israel has sinned purposely and egregiously, and he cannot quite bring himself to end his sentence by saying something like, “I know they will do better” or “things will be fine, you’ll see,” because he knows the Israelites may simply continue to complain and sin, which they did. Rather, by not finishing his sentence he simply relies on the mercy of God, which God graciously gave.
[For more on anacoluthon, see commentary on 1 Cor. 9:15.]
But if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” This is a very powerful statement.
For one thing, it lets us know that it was common knowledge in the culture that God had a “Book of Life,” and the names written in it were the names of those who on Judgement Day would be granted everlasting life (in the next verse, Exod. 32:33, God admits to having that book). The Bible never says how God’s people knew there was such a book, it just lets us know that the people knew there was such a book. Of course, it makes sense that God’s people knew that some people would obey God and be granted everlasting life while other people would ignore or defy God and not be granted that life. God created people so He could have a family who loved Him and who He could love in return, and so it is perfectly logical that in the more than 2,500 years since Adam that God had revealed to people who obeyed Him that they would have everlasting life.
Exodus 32:32 also reveals Moses’ great love for Israel, even though they exhausted and exasperated him at times. He may have been exaggerating, but his heart was that if the Israelites were not going to live forever because of their sin, then he did not want to live forever without them. It was that kind of love that kept Moses going for 40 years in the wilderness with the Israelites, who seemed to complain or fall short in almost everything they did.(top)
“him will I blot out of my book.” God’s answer is direct and important. The person who sins (the “him” is singular) will not be granted everlasting life. God will not let love or sentimentality keep righteous people from living forever. God knows that people who are resurrected to life will at that time have a clear understanding of who has been granted everlasting life and on what basis that life was granted. In this life, a person may feel that he or she does not want to live forever without people they love being there too, but in the resurrection, people will have a clear understanding of personal choice and responsibility, and also, the Bible promises that saved people will have joy, not sorrow, in the life to come.(top)
“Now go, lead the people.” This points to Moses’ sixth trip down Mount Sinai, which is not expressly stated in the Bible but which we know happened because Moses shows up with the people who are down at the base of Mount Sinai.
[For more information on Moses’ seven trips up Mount Sinai, see commentary on Exod. 19:3.]
“my angel will go before you.” God, in His mercy, apparently to some extent restores the situation that existed before Israel sinned: God’s angel will go ahead of Israel and will lead them into the Promised Land (Exod. 23:20-23). However, God Himself would not go with them because their sin might cause Him to destroy them (Exod. 33:3).
“in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.” God forgave the sin of the Israelites, but it still had consequences. In the war between Good and Evil, between God and the Devil, when God’s people sin it opens up the door for the Devil to afflict them, and he did. The text uses the common idiom of permission and words the text as if God did the punishing.
When God “visited” someone, He intervened in their life, and He could intervene for the better or for the worse. God is a righteous God, and He holds people accountable for their actions. Although the word “visit” could be translated “punish” here, and many versions do that, the word “visit” shows that God does not just “punish,” He visits and evaluates the situation and then acts accordingly. In this case, however, “I will visit their sin upon them” means that God will punish people for their sin.
[For more on “visit,” see commentary on Exodus 3:16 and 20:5. For more on the idiom of permission, see commentary on Exod. 4:21.](top)
“And Yahweh struck the people.” This is the idiom of permission. Yahweh did not personally strike the people, instead, their sin opened the door for the Devil to afflict the people. However, because God put the laws in place that the people broke, in the Hebrew idiom He is held responsible.
The Hebrew word translated as “struck” is also used for a plague, which is why some Bible versions say that Yahweh “plagued” the people, and the REV and some other translations say that Israel was struck with a plague. Since Israel was not attacked by an enemy army at this time, that Israel was struck with a plague is the most logical explanation of what happened, especially since “struck” can mean “struck with a plague.”
[For more on the idiom of permission, see commentary on Exod. 4:21.]
“they made the calf, the one that Aaron made.” This sounds a little strange to us in English, but it expresses a powerful truth, especially when we understand the history of the golden calf. Moses had been gone for some time, and so the people came to Aaron, who was in charge, and told him to make them gods, ostensibly to “go before us,” and thus lead us into the Promised Land (Exod. 32:1). However, given the thousands of gods of Egypt, it was no accident that a calf god, a fertility god, was chosen, because the worship of it then involved the people in sex, which they almost certainly wanted anyway (see commentary on Exod. 32:6, “play”).
From God’s perspective, it was the people who pressured Aaron into making the calf, and they are responsible for that. Thus, they “made the calf.” However, Aaron actually was the one who took the gold from the people and fashioned a metal calf from it. The Hebrew text is written in such a way that both parties are guilty of the sin of making an idol.(top)