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The Hebrew people fled Egypt in chapter 13 and crossed the Red Sea in chapter 14. Yahweh led them in the wilderness, made visible as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (13:17-22). Yahweh has provisioned them with water (15:22-27; 17:1-7) and food (chapter 16). These people have had a great deal of exposure to Yahweh’s presence and providence. They have ample reason to believe that the God who has helped them in recent days will provide for them in days to come.
In chapter 19 the Israelites reached Sinai, where thunder, lightning, a thick cloud on the mountain, a trumpet blast, fire, and smoke signaled the presence of God. At Yahweh’s direction, Moses and Aaron went up the mountain to receive the law (19:16:-25).
Chapters 20-31 tell of the giving of the law on the mountain. There is a transition at chapter 24 where Yahweh told Moses to come up the mountain with Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel—but only Moses was to come into the Lord’s immediate presence (24:2). The mountain was cloaked with a cloud, out of which Yahweh spoke to Moses. “Moses entered into the midst of the cloud, and went up on the mountain; and Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights” (24:18).
Yahweh gave Moses the law regarding the Tabernacle (chapters 25-27 and chapter 30) and the priesthood (chapters 28-29). Yahweh told Moses of particular artisans whom Yahweh had chosen to make the Tabernacle tent and its furnishings (chapter 31). Yahweh also emphasized keeping the Sabbath and gave Moses the two tablets of the covenant (chapter 31).
Chapters 32-34 tell the story of the Golden Calf, Moses’ intercession in behalf of the people, and the giving of two tablets to replace the ones that Moses had broken when he discovered the people reveling around their golden calf.
Chapters 35-40 continue the instructions regarding the Tabernacle, the artisans, and the priesthood—instructions that began in chapter 25 and left off at the end of chapter 31.
EXODUS 32:1-6. “COME, MAKE US GODS!”
1When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make us gods(Hebrew: elohim), which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t know what has become of him.”
2Aaron said to them, “Take off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them to me.”
3All the people took off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4He received what they handed him, and fashioned it with an engraving tool(Hebrew: heret—an engraving tool), and made it a molten calf (Hebrew: egel—a young but nearly full grown male calf); and they said, “These are your gods, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”
5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation, and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to Yahweh.”
6They rose up early on the next day, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play(Hebrew: saheq).
“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain” (v. 1a). Moses has been on the mountain for forty days and forty nights (34:28)—a very long time. The people were given no idea when to expect his return, and are clearly distressed that he has been gone for so long.
“the people gathered themselves together to Aaron, and said to him, ‘Come, make us gods(elohim), which shall go before us'” (v. 1b). The people come to Aaron, because Moses is gone and Aaron is Moses’ second-in-command. Yahweh has also designated Aaron and his sons to serve as priests (28:1, 4, 41), and the priests are responsible for worship practices.
In Egypt, these people had been exposed to myriad Egyptian gods, many of which were represented by the image of an animal or a human with an animal-head. They had seen Egyptians worship these gods, and it could be that some Israelites worshiped them as well.
Now they gather around Aaron (some scholars translate this “gathered against Aaron,” suggesting that the people are adversarial in their approach to Aaron), telling him to make gods for them—gods who will assume the leadership role that, because of Moses’ absence, they perceive to be empty. While Aaron is Moses’ second-in-command, he has never been a strong leader.
The people want gods (elohim) “who shall go before us”—who will lead them out of the wilderness to a better place. “Elohim” is a generic word for gods that is sometimes used in Hebrew Scripture with the definite article (“the God”) to refer to Yahweh. However, in this case, the people are not asking for Aaron to make Yahweh. They are asking Aaron to make gods like the ones that they had seen in Egypt.
Scholars debate whether elohim in this instance is singular (a god) or plural (gods), but most agree that it is plural.
This request violates the second commandment—”You shall not make for yourselves an idol, nor any image of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: you shall not bow yourself down to them, nor serve them, for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and on the fourth generation of those who hate me, and showing loving kindness to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (20:4-6).
While these people have not yet seen the commandments in written form (Moses will smash the tablets when he sees these people worshiping their Golden Calf) (32:19), Moses has given them the commandments orally, and they have promised to obey them (24:3).
“for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t know what has become of him” (v. 1c). Seeing the pyrotechnics on the mountain (thunder, lightning, etc.), the Israelites must wonder if Moses is dead. If he is alive, why hasn’t he returned? If he is dead, what will happen to them?
They are an unsophisticated people who only a short time ago were slaves in Egypt. While Moses is not their only leader, Aaron is clearly Moses’ junior partner—and the seventy elders (24:1, 9) have not yet demonstrated any leadership. If Moses is dead, who will pick up the mantle of leadership?
Of course, these people have had a great deal of evidence that Yahweh is their real leader and that Yahweh will protect them. Yahweh initiated the plagues that made it possible for them to leave Egypt. Yahweh enabled them to cross the Red Sea to escape the Egyptian army. Yahweh led them by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Yahweh provided food and water in the wilderness.
However, these people have not seen Yahweh’s face—and they want a leader whom they can see with their eyes and feel with their hands.
“Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them to me'” (v. 2). This portrays Aaron as a weak leader—weak in the extreme. Moses has modeled strong leadership, but Aaron doesn’t follow that model. He fails to rebuke the people for their idolatrous inclinations, and moves immediately to comply with their request.
The Israelites have jewelry in abundance, because Yahweh commanded them to ask their neighbors for gold and silver jewelry before leaving Egypt (3:22; 11:2). In 3:22, Yahweh commanded the Israelites to put the jewelry on their sons and daughters, but 11:2 has men asking their neighbors (presumably other men) for their jewelry and women asking their neighbors (presumably other women) for their jewelry—so it sounds as if both men and women wear jewelry.
Yahweh’s intent in having Israelites plunder Egyptian jewelry was to give them precious metals for the construction of the Tabernacle. They would not need and silver to barter with wandering tribes for food. Yahweh provides for them by miraculous means.
Aaron tells the people to take off the gold earrings from their wives, sons, and daughters—but not from the men. He apparently assumes that he can obtain an adequate supply of gold without asking the men to donate their earrings.
“All the people took off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron” (v. 3). This phrase, “all the people,” does not necessarily mean that every Israelite complies with this request. Later, after Moses comes down from the mountain and discovers the Golden Calf, he will say, “Whoever is on Yahweh’s side, come to me!” and “All the sons of Levi (will gather) themselves together to him” (32:26). Were they were complicit in this idolatry in the beginning, only to repent in the face of Moses’ anger? Or had they refused to be a party to this idolatry from the beginning? We have no way of knowing.
Once this debacle has come to its conclusion, Yahweh will command the people to take off their ornaments, so they “stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb (Sinai) onward” (33:4-6).
“He received what they handed him, and fashioned it with an engraving tool” (heret) (v. 4a). The word heret suggests a graven image rather than a molten image. Aaron may have poured molten gold into a rough casting and then used an engraving tool to finish the work. Alternatively, he could have used tools to pound the gold into gold leaf which could be used to cover a wooden figure in the shape of a bullock.
However, the Hebrew word masseka in verse 8 suggests a molten image.
But the method of construction is of little consequence. The problem here is idolatry.
“and made it a molten calf” (egel—a young male calf—a bullock) (v. 4b). The word “calf” is technically correct, but projects the wrong image. It brings to our minds a very young calf of either gender suckling its mother—a weak and dependent creature.
But the word egel suggests something altogether—a young bull calf—not yet as strong as a mature bull, but strong nevertheless—and moving toward becoming stronger still. Perhaps Aaron has seen Egyptian gods portrayed as bullocks, and is following that model. In any event, he intends to portray strength rather than weakness.
“These are your gods, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (v. 4c). Note the similarity of this verse with “I am the Lord (Hebrew: YHWH—Yahweh) your God, who brought you out of the house of slavery” (20:2). The people are ascribing to the Golden Calf that which is true only of Yahweh.
It is the people—not Aaron—who make this pronouncement. They give this graven image credit for Yahweh’s work—freeing Israel from Egyptian slavery.
“It is ironic that this happens at the very time when God is giving Moses God’s own instructions regarding the symbolism of the tabernacle that is to represent God’s presence in Israel” (Waldemar Janzen).
Later, after the division of the kingdom into north (Israel) and south (Judah), King Jeroboam of Israel will make two calves of gold, placing one in Dan and the other in Bethel (the far northern and southern reaches of his kingdom), saying, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Look and see your gods, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (1 Kings 12:28-29). Some scholars think that the use of the plural “gods” in 32:4c is derived from the Jeroboam story, but that is only conjecture.
“When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it” (v. 5a). Aaron continues his willing complicity in this idolatry. He builds an altar, which will serve two purposes. First, it will give the Israelites a focus for their worship. Second, it will give the “gods” a place where they can receive the offerings.
“and Aaron made a proclamation, and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to Yahweh” (YHWH) (v. 5b). Aaron apparently feels uncomfortable with the idolatry in which he is participating. He declares a festival dedicated, not to the calf, but to Yahweh. Aaron is trying to turn the people from the idolatry of the Golden Calf to the worship of Yahweh.
But trying to reconcile idol worship and the worship of Yahweh is a futile enterprise. It is not possible to worship Yahweh alongside graven images, because Yahweh has specifically forbidden graven images (20:4).
We might wonder how anyone could worship a graven image after experiencing the presence and providence of God, but sophisticated, modern people still do that. “Gold bugs” track gold prices as if gold were a deity. Others covet the images of Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton, and Jackson on our currency. Others kneel at the altar of prestige products: Rolex watches, Lexus cars, etc. People today worship (not too strong a word, I think) celebrities, whether sports figures or movie stars or authors—even scientists—even megachurch pastors.
Later, when Moses confronts Aaron, Aaron will use the lame excuse that the Israelites “are set on evil” (32:22)—and that he had simply thrown the gold into the fire, “and out came this calf” (32:24). That attempt at ducking responsibility confirms that Aaron knows that he has been involved in a prohibited activity—that he is guilty.
“They rose up early the next day, and offered burnt offerings” (ola) (v. 6a). Chapter 27 specified the construction of the altar for the Tabernacle and the burnt offerings to be made to Yahweh (27:1-8). The Israelites are making the right sacrifices to the wrong god—they should be giving their burnt offerings to Yahweh instead of this Golden Calf.
In verse 5, Aaron proclaimed that this would be a day to honor Yahweh, but that isn’t how it is turning out (see v. 8).
“and brought peace offerings”(selamim) (v. 6b). Leviticus specifies three kinds of selamim offerings: (1) The thanksgiving offering (2) the votive offering (neder) and (3) the freewill offering (nedaba) (Leviticus 7:11-18).
The selamim offerings are intended to be consumed by the people. Therefore, burnt offerings (ola) (v. 6a) and peace offerings (selamim) (v. 6b) “are routinely paired in biblical ritual (because) the ola was the sacrifice that constituted the basic nourishment for the deity, while the selamim in turn nourished the people (Anderson, “Sacrifices and Offerings,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible).
“and the people sat down to eat and drink” (v. 6c). Eating and drinking is perfectly appropriate following a selamim offering, because those offerings are intended to be consumed by the people. The only problem here is that the people have made their selamim offerings to the Golden Calf rather than to Yahweh.
“and rose up to play” (saheq) (v. 6d). This word saheq can be translated “play,” and can suggest sexual play. Verse 25 says that the people have been running wild, which suggests that the reveling of verse 6d has become an orgy.
The Psalmist will later characterize this scene as follows:
“They made a calf in Horeb,
and worshiped a molten image.
Thus they exchanged their glory
for an image of a bull that eats grass.
They forgot God, their Savior,
who had done great things in Egypt,
Wondrous works in the land of Ham,
and awesome things by the Red Sea.
Therefore he said that he would destroy them,
had Moses, his chosen, not stood before him in the breach,
to turn away his wrath, so that he wouldn’t destroy them.”
EXODUS 32:7-10. YOUR PEOPLE HAVE CORRUPTED THEMSELVES
7Yahweh spoke to Moses, “Go, get down; for your people, who you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves! 8They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molten calf (Hebrew: masseka), and have worshiped it, and have sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.'”
9Yahweh said to Moses, “I have seen these people, and behold, they are a stiff-necked people. 10Now therefore leave me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of you a great nation.”
“Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Go, get down'” (v. 7a). There is urgency here. Yahweh breaks off law-giving and commands Moses to move quickly down the mountain.
“for your people, who you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves” (v. 7b). In the past, Yahweh spoke of these people as “my people” (3:7, 10; 5:1; 6:7; 7:4, 16, etc.)—but now he refers to them as “your people”—Moses’ people—the people whom Moses brought up. It is the kind of thing that a frustrated parent might say to his/her spouse—”YOUR son did thus and so.” It is a sign that God has decided to disown these people—that they have breached the covenant relationship, releasing Yahweh from any obligation to uphold his end of the covenant.
“They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molten (masseka) calf, and have worshiped it, and have sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt'” (v. 8). Yahweh describes exactly what we have seen in verses 1-6.
While the Hebrew word heret in verse 4a suggests a graven image, the word masseka in this verse suggests a molten or cast image.
“Yahweh said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, they are a stiff-necked people'” (v. 9). The term “stiff-necked” comes from an agricultural setting where a farmer would use draft animals, such as oxen, to pull a plow or cart. The farmer would pull a bit strap on one side of the animal’s head to signal a turn. A well-behaved animal would respond to a slight tug on the strap and start the turn. However, a stiff-necked animal would ignore the tug and go where he/she wanted to go. Stiff-necked doesn’t really describe an ailment of the neck, but rather an attitude of the mind. A stiff-necked animal (or person) is stubborn and rebellious.
“Now therefore leave me alone” (v. 10a). This is the beginning of Yahweh’s pronouncement of judgment on the Israelites. Yahweh commands Moses not to interfere with Yahweh’s plans—but it seems odd that Yahweh would instruct Moses in this way. Moses has no power to interfere with Yahweh’s plans. If Yahweh wants to destroy the Israelites, Moses has no power to stop him.
But sometimes when people say, “Don’t try to stop me!” they are really signaling their desire for the listener to give them a good reason to stop. That seems to be the case here. Yahweh is ordering Moses not to interfere, but instead seems to be inviting Moses to do just that.
“that my wrath may burn hot against them, and thatI may consume them” (v. 10b). This is Yahweh’s announced intent with regard to the Israelites at the bottom of the mountain. He is angry, and intends to give full rein to his anger—intends to consume these people—to destroy them.
“and I will make of you a great nation” (v. 10c). This must come as a great surprise to Moses. Yahweh intends to destroy the Israelites, but also intends to bless Moses by making a great nation of him. This is the same promise that Yahweh made to Abram much earlier (Genesis 12:2)—a promise that Yahweh fulfilled through the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Now Yahweh proposes to start over again, building the nation from scratch beginning with Moses—much as he did earlier with Noah.
Would Yahweh be unfaithful to Abraham if he were to destroy the Israelites and start over with Moses? Some scholars think so, but I see it differently. Moses is descended from Abraham. If Yahweh makes a great nation of Moses, he will have also made a great nation of Abraham as well—will have fulfilled his promise to Abram.
This offer must be a great temptation to Moses. If Yahweh carries through with his threat to consume the Israelites at the bottom of the mountain, that will remove the burden of leadership from Moses’ shoulders. That is no small matter, because these people have been difficult to lead.
Even more tempting, Yahweh is promising Moses a place in history. If Yahweh carries out this plan, Moses will become the great man through whose descendants Yahweh will bless the world.
EXODUS 32:11-14. MOSES BEGGED YAHWEH HIS GOD
11Moses begged Yahweh his God, and said, “Yahweh, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, that you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘He brought them forth for evil, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the surface of the earth?’ Turn from your fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your seed as the stars of the sky, and all this land that I have spoken of I will give to your seed, and they shall inherit it forever.'”
14Yahweh repented(Hebrew: yyinnahem—from naham—repented) of the evil which he said he would do to his people.
“Moses begged Yahweh his God, and said, ‘Yahweh, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, that you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?'” (v. 11). In verse 7, Yahweh called these people “your people”—Moses’ people. Now Moses reverses that by calling them “your people”—Yahweh’s people. Moses doesn’t tell Yahweh that he declines the honor that Yahweh made in verse 10c, but he implies as much as he begins this defense of the Israelites.
In this verse, Moses offers the first of three good reasons why Yahweh should show mercy to the Israelites. He reminds Yahweh that Yahweh has brought these people out of Egypt “with great power and with a mighty hand.” Yahweh has a history with these people. He has an investment in their success. He shouldn’t walk away from them so easily. In verses 12 and 13, Moses will outline two additional reasons why Yahweh should not destroy the Israelites who have sinned.
Later, Moses will intercede with Yahweh on two more occasions. In the first instance, he will ask Yahweh either to forgive the Israelites’ sins or to blot out Moses’ name from Yahweh’s book (Exodus 32:30-32). In doing so, he risks his own eternal life. In the second instance, he will acknowledge that Yahweh is dealing with a stiff-necked people, but pleads for Yahweh to pardon their iniquity and to take them for his inheritance (34:9).
“Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘He brought them forth for evil, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the surface of the earth?’ Turn from your fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against your people'” (v. 12). This is the second good reason why Yahweh should change his mind and forgive the people. Yahweh very publicly brought Israel out of Egypt. Everyone, especially the Egyptians, knows what Yahweh has done. Yahweh has made it clear that these are his people and he is their God. If Yahweh now carries out his plan to destroy the Israelites, the whole world will regard him as false and fickle.
“Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your seed as the stars of the sky, and all this land that I have spoken of I will give to your seed, and they shall inherit it forever'” (v. 13). This is the third good reason why Yahweh should not destroy the Israelites. Yahweh has sworn an oath to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob). He has promised to multiply their descendents and to give them the Promised Land. Yahweh has a duty, not only to the patriarchs, but to himself. He must maintain his integrity by fulfilling the promises made earlier to the patriarchs.
“Yahweh repented (naham—repented) of the evil which he said he would do to his people” (v. 14). In Hebrew Scripture, the word naham is used more often of God than of people (Genesis 6:6-7; Judges 2:18; 1 Samuel 15:11, 1 Chronicles 21:15; Jeremiah 18:7-10; 26:3, 19; Amos 7:3, 6; Jonah 3:10). God’s anger might wax hot, but his purpose is to save rather than to destroy. If people will repent of their sins, God will repent of his judgment.
But we should not imagine that God will never implement harsh justice. In this instance, he repents of his intent to destroy the people utterly, but nevertheless brings a plague on the Israelites (32:34-35)—a lesser but nevertheless serious judgment.
As noted above, Moses had been receiving instructions regarding the Tabernacle and its furnishings when Yahweh suddenly told him to go down the mountain to confront the wicked Israelites (see chapters 25-31). As soon as the Golden Calf incident is fully resolved and Moses makes new tablets (chapter 34) to replace the ones that he broke in anger (32:19), Yahweh will resume the giving of instruction regarding the Tabernacle (chapters 35-40).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Anderson, Gary A., “Sacrifices and Offerings,” in Allen C. Myers (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987)
Bruckner, James K. New International Biblical Commentary: Exodus (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008)
Brueggemann, Walter, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994)
Brevard S. Childs, The Old Testament Library: Exodus (Louisville: The Westminster Press, 1974)
Cole, R. Alan, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Exodus, Vol. 2 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Craghan, John F., Collegeville Bible Commentary: The Book of Exodus (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1985)
Dunham, Maxie D., The Preacher’s Commentary: Exodus (Dallas: Word, Inc., 1987)
Durham, John I., Word Biblical Commentary: Exodus, Vol. 3 (Dallas, Word Books, 1987)
Fretheim, Terence E., Interpretation Commentary: Exodus (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1973)
Janzen, J. Gerald, Westminster Bible Companion: Exodus (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
Janzen, Waldemar, Believers Church Bible Commentaries: Exodus (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1987)
Newsome, James D. in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Rawlinson, George, The Pulpit Commentary: Genesis-Exodus, Vol. 1 (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, no date given)
Spina, Frank Anthony, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Stuart, Douglas K., The New American Commentary: Exodus, Vol. 2 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan