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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible
Exodus 32

 

 

Introduction

The episode of The Golden Calf Apostasy of Israel is recorded in this chapter, some six paragraphs being devoted to the narrative:

  1. the making of the calf (Exodus 32:1-6);

  2. Moses' intercession on behalf of Israel (Exodus 32:7-14);

  3. the wrath of Moses (Exodus 32:15-20);

  4. Aaron's excuses (Exodus 32:21-24);

  5. the faithfulness of the Levites (Exodus 32:25-29); and

  6. Moses' renewed intercession (Exodus 32:30-35).

The critical strategy of trying to understand this episode as a polemic developed in the times of Jeroboam II (800-750 B.C.), more than half a millennium after Moses wrote Exodus, is completely frustrated by the practical impossibility of any Jew at so late a period inventing an incident that would have so effectively damaged the reputation and stained forever the name of Aaron, one of the national heroes of Israel. Men who can imagine such an absurdity can imagine anything. The truth of all that is written here stands, because only truth could ever have won for such a passage as this an honored place in the sacred writings of Moses. Furthermore, certain expressions found in this chapter are indicative of the second millennium B.C., not the first millennium B.C.


Verses 1-6

"And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods which shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what has become of him. And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden rings which are' in the ears of your wives, of your sons and of your daughters, and bring them unto me. And all the people brake off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. And he received it at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf: and they said, These are thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, Tomorrow shall be a feast to Jehovah. And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt-offerings, and brought peace-offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play."

In the same sentence with his confessing that criticism found it impossible to trace what he called the "development" of this passage, Harford still supposed that the passage reflects "prophetic criticism of Jeroboam's two calves",[1] but, as noted above, all such views are unacceptable. Critics, however, still quote one another, adopting stereotyped "explanations" which have long ago been proved inaccurate and worthless, as did Honeycutt.[2] It is true, of course, that when Jeroboam introduced the golden calves at Dan and at Bethel, that he quoted the exact words used by Aaron in this paragraph; but to distort that truth and make Exodus a quotation of Jeroboam II is ridiculous. It should be remembered that Jeroboam was trying to justify what he did.

"Up, make us gods ..." In this clause, we are confronted with the problem of how to translate [~'Elohiym], which is plural in form but frequently translated in the O.T. as the name of the One God. Even the use of plural verbs here is not decisive, because they might have been plurals of majesty. Johnson noted that the commentators are divided, "because we do not know just what was in the minds of the people."[3] To us, the problem is solved by the fact that Aaron made only one god; and that the people had in mind a plurality is not indicated in the text. Therefore, we believe that the passage should be read "Make us a god." That this is certainly an allowable understanding of the place appears in the ASV marginal note substituting "a god" for "gods." "It here denotes `a god' and should be so rendered."[4]

"Gathered themselves together unto Aaron ..." "Unto Aaron," here, would be better rendered "against Aaron."[5] The New English Bible reads "confronted Aaron." In any case, it is clear that no ordinary gathering occurred. It was a belligerent and demanding mob that descended upon Aaron.

"Break off the golden rings in the ears of wives ... sons ... daughters ... and all the people brake off, etc ..." From this, it appears that "all the people," men and women wore gold rings in their ears. As Esses noted, "As part of the idolatrous practices they had picked up in Egypt, even the sons were wearing ear-rings. Sounds like the 20th century, doesn't it?"[6] The amount of the gold accumulated by this action was fantastic, no matter how it might be calculated. There were at least two million people in the exodus - that's gold rings in 4 million ears, had they weighed only a 1/4 ounce each, would have been 1,000,000 ounces, or 83,333 pounds of gold, Troy - enough gold to have gold-plated Mount Sinai! This sheds light on how that gold calf was made. The usual supposition that it was merely a wooden carving plated with gold appears, therefore, to be an error. The use of the words "molten calf" and "graving tool" in Exodus 32:4 appear to indicate that it was an idol made of SOLID gold. The size of it was nowhere hinted at; God's calling it a "calf' might have been deprecatory, even if the image had been that of a full-size bull.

"These are thy gods, O Israel ..." The Jerusalem Bible should be followed here. It reads, "Here is your god."

"Built an altar before it ... made proclamation ... a feast to Jehovah ..." It is supposed that Aaron thought by such maneuvers to combine the worship of the true God Jehovah with the worship of his golden idol, no doubt adopting the fallacious reasoning by which all idolatry has been "justified" in all ages. If so, the device was futile. No matter how they might have looked at it, their actions constituted the most sinful disobedience and idolatry.

Where did Israel get the idea for making a bull idol? This is a very large question, and space here does not allow a full discussion of it; but to this writer it seems certain that Egypt was the background of this apostasy, and not the Baal-cults of Canaan. Fields has a very instructive dissertation on this, proposing that the idolatry here was a reversion to the pagan idolatry of Abraham's ancestors in Chaldea.[7] And as for the allegation that the Israelites were here worshipping Jehovah "under the symbol" of a golden calf, such a view is impossible of acceptance. Psalms 106:21 says that "they forgot God" upon the occasion of their making that idol, and this means that they were NOT worshipping Him in any sense whatever in the events recorded here.

"They offered burnt-offerings, and brought peace-offerings ..." Both types of offerings here were exactly those that might have been offered by any pagan who had never heard of Jehovah. As a matter of fact, "Both types (with the same Semitic root as the Hebrew) figure in the second millennium texts from Ugarit."[8] Of course, this absolutely forbids the nonsense of dating the passage from the days of Jeroboam.

"The people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play ..." The expression, "to play" appears innocent enough here, but such was not the case at all. Paul's inspired analysis of this situation (1 Corinthians 10:7-8) is worth a thousand comments from other sources, and he stated that "three and twenty thousand of them committed adultery." It is true that Paul was speaking of a somewhat later incident at Baal-Peor, but the clear intent was that of equating "to play" with a pagan sex orgy, visible both at Baal-Peor and here.

Thus, within the very shadow of the sacred mountain where the Law had been given, the covenant ratified, and at the very moment when Moses was still communing with God upon Sinai, Israel broke the covenant, forgot God, made a molten image, worshipped it, and committed wholesale adultery and fornication. Thus, at one stroke, they violated Commandments I, II, III, and VII. Their breaking of the second commandment was inherent in their calling their idolatrous feast, "a feast unto Jehovah."


Verses 7-14

MOSES' INTERCESSION

"And Jehovah spake unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, that thou broughtest up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves; they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed unto it, and said, These are thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And Jehovah said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people: now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation. And Moses besought Jehovah his God, and said, Jehovah, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, that thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, saying, For evil did he bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidest unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it forever. And Jehovah repented of the evil which he said he would do unto his people."

Note that God Himself interpreted the actions of Israel as having "worshipped" the calf, despite their proclaiming the feast "unto Jehovah." The promise of God to Moses to make a great nation of him and thus to replace that whole generation of the Israelites did not for a moment tempt Moses who truly loved God's people and would in fact die for them if necessary. In such an act of unselfish love of Israel, Moses indeed shines as a type of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Moses' intercessory prayer presented three arguments against what God contemplated doing:

  1. He appealed for God to remember all that he had already done for Israel.

  2. He pointed out that the Egyptians would accuse God of leading the people out in order to destroy them.

  3. He pleaded with God to remember the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel regarding their posterity being multiplied and regarding their entry into and possession of the land of Canaan.

"Jehovah repented ..." God never repents of anything in the usual meaning of the word, but when the actions of men justify a change in God's purpose, he does not hesitate to change it. And that phenomenon is called "repentance" of God in the Scriptures. Concerning God's purpose of overthrowing Nineveh, "When God saw that they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil which he said he would do unto them, and he did it not" (Jonah 3:10). In the repentance on God's part which is mentioned here, it was not any change in Israel, but the pleading intercession of Moses that precipitated it.

"A molten calf ..." "That the figure made by Aaron is always called a molten calf, literally, a calf of fusion, disposes of the theory of Keil, that it was of carved wood covered with gold."[9]


Verses 15-20

THE WRATH OF MOSES

"And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand; tables that were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables. And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said unto Moses, There is a noise of war in the camp. And the said, It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry from being overcome; but the noise of them that sing do I hear. And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf and he dancing: and Moses' anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount. And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it with fire, and ground it to powder, and strewed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it."

"And the tables were the work of God ..." Some question whether this meant merely that God made the tables and wrote upon them. "through Moses," or if the tables and the writing were done miraculously by God Himself. As far as the record here is concerned, it surely seems to say that the tables with their sacred writings were produced without any use whatever of the "finger of Moses," but by "the finger of God." Other than this, nothing is actually known about "how" it was done. Jamieson declared that, "It is not within the compass of language to declare more explicitly that the engraving was miraculously accomplished."[10]

"And Moses' anger waxed hot ..." We do not really know whether or not Moses' conduct here was sinful. Adam Clarke and many of the old commentators considered it so. "But we must not excuse this act; it was rash and irreverent: God's writing should not have been treated in this way."[11] Most current writers excuse it on one basis or another. Esses called Moses' anger in this place, "righteous indignation".[12] Honeycutt viewed the action of breaking the tables as harmonious with God's will, a "sign of the annulment of the covenant."[13] We have discovered no basis for resolving the question either way. It seems significant, however, that God is nowhere said to have rebuked Moses for breaking the tables. Unger's comment on the passage is tailored to support some of the irresponsible findings of the solifidians:

"The whole episode shows the inability of the Law to make men good. Depraved man is never saved by Law-keeping, but by faith. Faith alone is the way to justification and salvation in every age, as well as the way to sanctification of life."[14]

Although true enough that people are not saved by Law-keeping, their damnation can most certainly result from their presumptuous and arrogant failure to keep the Law of God. The very episode in this chapter proves this to have been true with them, no less than with ourselves. Also, faith alone is dead (James 2:17); and no one in the whole history of redemption was ever saved by faith alone.

"Burnt it with fire, ground it to powder, and strewed it upon the water ..." With regard to the remark that, "gold will not burn," it should be remembered that it will melt, however, and that this procedure preceded the grinding of it to powder. It is not necessary to suppose a wooden center or form of the calf, although of course, that is possible. One could not possibly suppose a more complete destruction of an idol than that recorded here.

The object of this was certainly not to make them ashamed by compelling them to swallow their own god, but to set forth in a visible manner both their sin and its consequences. The sin, as it were, was poured into their own bowels along with the water, a symbolical sign that they would have to bear it and live with it, just as a woman suspected of adultery was obliged to drink the curse-water (Numbers 5:24).[15]

Jones added this comment: "So it is with God's judgment of false religion in every age, when people must drink water fouled by their own religious leaders!"[16]


Verses 21-24

AARON'S EXCUSES

"And Moses said unto Aaron, What did this people unto thee, that thou hast brought a great sin upon them? And Aaron said, Let not the anger of my lord wax hot: thou knowest the people, that they are set on evil. For they said unto me, Make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what has become of him. And I said unto them, Whosoever hath any gold, let them break it off: so they gave it me; and I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf"

Aaron's excuses recorded here did him no honor. He would have blamed the people instead of himself, even implying that he did not actually intend to make an idol, suggesting that he was merely playing in the fire, and out walked that calf! Nevertheless, Moses squarely charged him with having brought a great sin upon the people. Furthermore, "We learn from Deuteronomy 9:20 that Aaron's abetting of the people's sin evoked the severe displeasure of God, and that his life was only spared on the intercession of Moses."[17] As noted above, in the exceedingly unfavorable light in which Aaron appears here, we have the proof of the impossibility of such an effective downgrading of one of Israel's national heroes having been accomplished at a much later date. Only the full and unequivocal truth of this historical event can account for its having been recorded here by Moses, his own brother!


Verses 25-29

FAITHFULNESS OF THE LEVITES

"And when Moses saw that the people were broken loose (for Aaron had let them loose for a derision among their enemies), then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Whoso is on Jehovah's side, let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves unto him. And he said unto them, Thus saith Jehovah, the God of Israel, Put ye every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor. And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. And Moses said, Consecrate yourselves today to Jehovah, yea, every man against his son, and against his brother; that he may bestow upon you a blessing this day."

There is very much about this incident that we cannot know. How is it that the sons of Levi encountered no resistance? Since only 3,000 men were slain out of all the host of Israel, how was the selection made? Did they cast lots to find the guilty? Were those slain actually slain in the sinful act of violating the Law? None of this are we able to answer. Yet the hand of God was clearly in this episode, else it could never have been resolved at all. Even if those slain were selected at random and by chance, we must agree with Keil that, "Even the so-called chance would have been under the direction of God."[18]

"For a derision among their enemies ..." As Dummelow said, "The lapse of professedly religious people is not only sinful, but brings religion itself into disrepute."[19]

"Aaron had let them loose ..." The KJV has "Aaron had made them naked" in this place, and there can be no question of that's being a preferable rendition to the toned down statement here. The people were not tied, and so Aaron could not have "let them loose." What is said here is that the people were still naked, stripped of their garments, still carrying on the customary orgy that characterized pagan worship. Here is probably the recognition of how the sons of Levi knew whom to slay, those being very likely the ones still engaged in the orgy. Rawlinson's words here appear to us as absolutely correct:

"The primary sense of [~pharua`] (Editor's note: "running wild") here is naked, stripped; and of the licentious orgies of the East, stripping or uncovering the person was a feature; thus there is no reason for changing the expression used in the King James Version. Moses saw that most (or many) of the people were still without their garments which they had laid aside when they began to dance."[20]

Of course, it is said here that Aaron made the people naked. How is this true? "Aaron is said to have done that to which his actions led. He made the calf and proclaimed the pagan festival. The nakedness had naturally followed."[21]

One other problem should be noted here. It was expressed thus by Clements: "It hardly needs to be said that such wholesale killing, in whatever cause, is wholly repugnant to the modern religious mind."[22] What Clements says is surely true, but the judgment of the "modern religious mind" falls far short of all merit. God, in these stern examples, was giving a glimpse of what ALWAYS happens when people disobey their Creator. True, today God does not physically destroy the disobedient, but their eternal destruction, which is a far worse thing, is the certain and irrevocable penalty of any human's rebellion against his God. Note that this entire scene is related to Pentecost and the coming of the Gospel of Christ. Here three thousand men PERISHED on the very first day that the Law of God became effective. Whereas, on the other hand, three thousand souls WERE SAVED on Pentecost (Acts 2:38ff).


Verses 30-35

MOSES' RENEWED INTERCESSION

"And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses said unto the people, Ye have sinned a great sin, and now I will go up unto Jehovah; peradventure, I shall make atonement for your sin. And Moses returned unto Jehovah, and said, Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold. Yet now, if thou wilt, forgive their sin; and, if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written. And Jehovah said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book. And now go, lead the people unto the place of which I have spoken unto thee: behold, mine angel shall go before thee; nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them. And Jehovah smote the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron made."

"Yet now, if thou wilt, forgive their sin ..." We are amazed at the scholars who make an elipsis (an incomplete sentence) out of this. All it needs is proper punctuation, just as we have taken the liberty of rendering it here. Punctuation is altogether a human thing, anyway, and we have as much right to punctuate it accurately, as others do to make an ellipsis out of it by leaving out a comma!

We also reject the frequent "explanations" of this "book" mentioned here as being a human record of the children of Israel. It was no human roll at all, but a book which God had "written" (Exodus 32:32), as revealed by the apostle Paul, who called it "the book of life" (Philippians 4:3). For extended comment on the "Book of Life." see my comments on Hebrews 12:23, and also go to my comments on Revelation 3:5. Thus, what Moses actually requested here was not, merely that he might suffer physical death for Israel, but that he might be removed even from the book of life upon their behalf. It was exactly this same sentiment that resided in the bosom of the apostle Paul in Romans 9:1-3.

Most significantly, Moses, mighty in righteousness though he was, could not provide an atonement for Israel, only the Son of God Himself, in the fullness of time, would be able to accomplish such an atonement as that. Note also, that although God spared the nation of Israel, instructing Moses to lead them "to the place." Nevertheless, their sins were not thereby forgiven, for God promised to visit their transgression upon them. Just how this was done we cannot be sure. Exodus 32:35 mentions a plague that came upon the people, and that was surely a part of God's visitation, but there came the day when that entire generation were told that they would never see the promised land. The generation that entered into Canaan would be one that had never danced around the golden calf!

Moses' exceedingly beautiful intercession, even offering himself up for eternal death before God on behalf of the people, must stand as a high mark of unselfish love in all the ages of human history, making Moses indeed a fit type of "him who tasted of death for every man (Christ)!" Scholars cannot agree when "the day" came of which God spoke here; some suppose it came with the plague mentioned in Exodus 32:35, and others make it to be the day when God informed that generation that they would never see Canaan. We have found no way to discover when the day came, but one thing is certain, "God has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by that Man whom he has appointed, whereof he hath given assurance unto all men in that he hath raised him from the dead" (Acts 17:31). The final judgment, therefore, is the day when all people must stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of the deeds done in the body. Whatever sins and excesses of people may be apparently "overlooked" by God throughout history, the final and just reckoning is certain to be executed! Rebellious and sinful people shall know at last what a terrible mistake is their failure to know, to love, and to worship God. Twice, that day is mentioned in the N.T. as a day, "when all the tribes of the earth shall mourn" (Matthew 24:30 and Revelation 1:7). That, alas, will be the occasion when these sinful Israelites, along with the sinners of all generations shall suddenly and eternally know that a just and righteous God will not compromise with evil.

 


Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Exodus 32:4". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bcc/exodus-32.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.

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