The Golden Calf – Exodus 32

Read the Passage: Exodus 32

Israel’s Sin (Exod. 32:1–6)

The book of Exodus is unclear how many times Moses ascended and descended Mount Sinai, although it may have been as many as seven times (cf. Exod. 19:3, 7, 14, 25; 24:9; 32:31). Exodus does, however, describe two significant trips Moses made up and down Mount Sinai that lasted 40 days each, the first of which is narrated from Exod. 24:13–32:15, and the second of which is described in Exod. 34:4–29. During his first 40-day trip, Moses likely received the information recorded in Exod. 25–31. Exod. 32:1 reports that during Moses’ first 40-day trip, due in part to the length of his stay on Mount Sinai, Israel abandoned God and asked Aaron to craft new gods for them to worship. It is telling that the people attributed their exodus from Egypt to Moses, not to God (cf. Exod. 32:1). In response to the people’s request, Aaron fashioned a golden calf or bull—a pagan symbol of power—for Israel to worship.

The speed with which Israel abandoned God is alarming; however, it is likely a reflection of their spiritual condition (cf. Ps. 78:21–22, 31–32; Heb. 3:16–19). Indeed, as did Israel, so many who claim to follow Christ today fall into the sin of idolatry (cf. 1 Cor. 10:7). Note that the people did not outright reject God in this passage. Rather, incredibly, they claimed that the idol which they had fashioned was the god who led them out of Egypt (cf. Exod. 32:4). This attempted fusion of different religious ideas is called syncretism. God’s response to the people’s sin is recorded in Exod. 32:7–10. Here, in speaking to Moses, God refers to Israel as “your people” (Exod. 32:7); whereas earlier God had referred to Israel as “my people” (Exod. 3:7). Further, God declares to Moses His desire to judge Israel on account of their idolatry and to make a great nation from Moses.

Moses’ Intercession (Exod. 32:7–14)

In making a golden calf to follow and to worship, the people violated the first two commandments that they had received earlier at Exod. 20:1–6. The people also exhibited great impatience, for as they sinned, God was giving Moses His plans for dwelling in their midst via the Tabernacle. Ironically, the people’s making of an idol related to their desire to have God go before them (cf. Exod. 32:1). Moreover, Israel was eating manna that God provided every morning and, presumably, they still had the pillar of cloud and fire before them, which is described in Exod. 13:21–22. In light of God’s daily provision for the people, His promises to them, and His miraculous signs, Israel’s sin resulted in God describing His people as being stiff-necked or stubborn (cf. Exod. 32:9). Furthermore, as an act of judgment, God declared His intent to destroy and to consume the nation (cf. Exod. 32:10).

In response to God’s expressed desire to judge Israel, like Abraham before him (cf. Gen. 18:16–33), Moses intercedes for the people. Here Moses reasons with God, as he argues based upon God’s reputation (cf. Gen. 32:12) and God’s covenant with Israel (cf. Gen. 32:13). Consequently, “The Lord relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people” (Gen. 32:14). In analyzing the idea of God relenting or repenting, we must affirm that God cannot change (cf. Mal. 3:6), nor change His mind (cf. Num. 23:19). Thus, Moses didn’t change God’s mind in a human sense. So, what was God’s purpose in disclosing His desire to punish Israel? It may be that God was emphasizing both His holiness and the wages of sin, while simultaneously testing Moses, like He had earlier tested Abraham (cf. Gen. 18:17; 22:1), to see if he was willing to intercede for the people.

God’s Judgment (Exod. 32:15–35)

Exod. 32:15–35 reports Moses’ confrontation of Israel upon his descent from Mount Sinai. Interestingly, although God had already told him about the people’s sin, when Moses saw and heard Israel’s apostasy, his “anger became hot, and he cast the tablets out of his hands and broken them at the foot of the mountain” (Exod. 32:19). Moses’ actions depicted Israel’s breaking of the commandments. After Aaron’s shallow and foolish attempt to explain his role in Israel’s sin (cf. Exod. 32:21–24), Moses led the Levites in a slaughter of 3,000 Israelites (cf. Exod. 32:25–29). Given Moses’ earlier intercession for the people, these actions may seem surprising; yet, it is important to note that those who were killed were unrepentant for their sin of apostasy. After this, the Lord sent a plague among those who has sinned that killed an additional 20,000 people (cf. Exod. 32:35; 1 Cor. 10:7–8).

Application Questions:

  1. Has silence from God, perhaps in the form of unanswered prayers, ever resulted in you being tempted to doubt God’s love for you or even to abandon your faith?
  2. Why did Israel abandon God so quickly when Moses was on Mt. Sinai? What are the practical and spiritual dangers of attributing God’s works to man?
  3. Like Israel, have you ever been tempted to re-cast or to re-conceive of God in your own image? What aspects of God’s character do you find most difficult to accept?
  4. What does it mean that God relented or repented (cf. Gen. 32:14)? Does God ever change His mind? Can God ever get new information that affects His decisions?
  5. In light of Moses’ earlier intercession for Israel (cf. Exod. 32:11–14), does it seem surprising that he would lead the Levites to kill some 3,000 transgressors?