Exodus 32:27–29 (HCSB)
27 He told them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says, ‘Every man fasten his sword to his side; go back and forth through the camp from entrance to entrance, and each of you kill his brother, his friend, and his neighbor.’ ” 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and about 3,000 men fell dead that day among the people. 29 Afterward Moses said, “Today you have been dedicated to the Lord, since each man went against his son and his brother. Therefore you have brought a blessing on yourselves today.”
The golden calf, that is the subject of this pericope. While Moses is up on the mountain, receiving instruction from God, and the two tablets engraved by God’s very own finger, the Israelites are going off the rails. The results are dire. Let us walk through this rebellion.
First, since Moses is apparently taking too long on the mountain for the Israelites liking, they approach Aaron, the next in line of sorts. Their demand? To make them a new god! There is a hint of anger directed towards Moses, through “this Moses”, and there may even be some fear creeping in with what might be perceived as their connection to God being gone. But all that is over shadowed by this idea that they, men, are going to create a new god. Let us wrap our minds around that: man, a fallen, broken, sinful, creature, is going to create a god. The creator is always greater than the creation… so man has yet again placed himself in the throne.
Aaron complies. There is no mention of him resisting, of him trying to guide his flock spiritually. Perhaps the Israelites were angry and threatening, Aaron possibly hints at this in Exodus 32:22, but it seems we should still see some standing up for God by the soon to be high priest. So Aaron complies and makes a golden calf. Exodus 32:4 says, “He took the gold […], fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made it into an image of a calf.” This account ends up being a bit different than Aaron’s recollection in Exodus 32:24, where Aaron claims the calf pops out, seemingly on its own, after tossing the gold into the fire.
And look what happens next: they attribute their rescue from Egypt, from slavery, to the golden calf they just fashioned! Aaron proceeds to build an altar for it, and the Israelites worship it and fall into general debauchery. The Israelites had their issues all along, for sure, as they questioned Moses, and indirectly God, but they have fully turned from God here.
God sees what is happening and sends Moses back down the mountain, after Moses intercedes on behalf of the Israelites. But there is punishment. And sometimes the story stops with Moses throwing down the tablets and destroying the calf. But there is severe punishment. Exodus 32:28 tells us that about 3,000 men are slain due to their rebellion against God. If the tabernacle was a parallel of God’s creation, then this scene parallels the fall of man. And it is worth noting that the killing of their own people is considered a dedication, and is blessed (Exodus 32:29). God certainly did not desire the death of His people, but He does honor the response of those He calls. Also, note that a plague was also sent (Exodus 32:35). We still may reap punishment and “bad” things as a result of our rebellion, even though God has been merciful to us and withheld full punishment.
One day there will be a settling of accounts (Exodus 32:34). We will either stand on our own, or Christ will stand in our stead. Death was the atonement here, as it will be then. Christ has paid it for us, our choice is to accept His gift, and surrender, or stand on our own before the Creator and Judge and accept our penalty.
Lord, thank You for withholding what we deserve, what I deserve. Thank You for taking that full punishment on my behalf. Help me to fall to my knees before You, worship You and You alone, and be Your child. Amen.