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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Exodus 32

 

 

Verse 1

XXXII.

THE IDOLATRY OF THE GOLDEN CALF.

(1) When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down.—After seven chapters of directions, which belong to the Mosaic or Levitical Law, the writer here resumes his historical narrative. Leaving Moses still in the mount, he returns to the plain at its base in order to relate the events which had there occurred during Moses’ absence. It has been suggested that Exodus 31 was originally followed by Exodus 35, and that Exodus 32-34 form a “distinct composition,” which was subsequently inserted at this point (Cook). But this supposition is improbable. Exodus 35 does not cohere with Exodus 31. Passing from one to other, we should be sensible of a gap which required filling up. Neither does Exodus 32 commence like an independent narrative. It rests on the fact of the long delay of Moses in Sinai, which requires Exodus 25-31 to explain it; and its mention of “the people,” and “the mount,” without further designation, implies reference to something that has gone before. Exodus 32-34 occur really in their natural, their proper, and, no doubt, in their original place.

The people gathered themselves together unto Aaron.—Moses, before his departure, had left directions that the people should in any difficulty take the advice of Aaron and Hur (Exodus 24:14). It is not surprising, however, that, when the difficulty arose, Aaron alone was consulted. Aaron had been jointleader with Moses from the first (see Exodus 4:29-30; Exodus 5:1; Exodus 5:4; Exodus 5:20, &c.); Hur had only very recently been advanced into a position of authority (Exodus 17:10; Exodus 24:14). He was, at the most, the Lepidus of the Triumvirate.

Up, make us gods.—Rather, make us a god. The religious condition of the Israelites during the sojourn in Egypt has been so entirely passed over in the previous narrative, that this request comes upon us as a surprise and a shock. True, there have been warnings against idolatry, reiterated warnings (Exodus 20:4-5; Exodus 20:23; Exodus 23:32-33), but no tendency towards it has manifested itself, no hint has been given that it was an immediate and pressing danger. When, however, we carefully scrutinise the rest of Scripture, we find reason to believe that a leaning towards idolatry had, in point of fact, shown itself among the people while they were in Egypt, and had even attained some considerable development. (See Leviticus 17:7; Joshua 24:14; Ezekiel 20:8; Ezekiel 23:3.) This tendency had been checked by the series of extraordinary manifestations which had accompanied the exodus. Now, however, in the absence of Moses, in the uncertainty which prevailed as to whether he still lived or not, and in the withdrawal from the camp of that Divine Presence which had hitherto gone before them, the idolatrous instinct once more came to the front. The cry was raised, “make us a god”—make us something to take the place of the pillar of the cloud, something visible, tangible, on which we can believe the Divine Presence to rest, and which may “go before us” and conduct us.

This Moses, the man that brought us up . . . —Contemptuous words, showing how short-lived is human gratitude, and even human respect. An absence of less than six weeks, and a belief that he was no more, had sufficed to change the great deliverer into “this Moses, the man who brought us up.”


Verse 2

(2) And Aaron said . . . Break off the golden earrings.—It is a reasonable conjecture that Aaron thought to prevent the projected idolatry by this requirement. Not having the courage to meet the demand of the people with a direct negative, he may have aimed at diverting them from their purpose by requiring a sacrifice which they would be unwilling to make, viz., the personal ornaments of their wives and children. The women might reasonably have been expected to resist, and the men to yield before such resistance; but the event proved otherwise.

Your sons.—Earrings are worn in the East almost as much by men as by women. Most Assyrian and some Egyptian monarchs are represented with them.


Verse 3

(3) All the people brake off the golden earrings.—Aaron had miscalculated the strength of the people’s fanaticism. Not the slightest resistance was offered to his requirement, not the slightest objection made. “All the people,” with one accord, surrendered their earrings. Some measure is hereby afforded of the intensity of the feeling which was moving the people and urging them to substitute an idolatrous worship for the abstract and purely spiritual religion which had reigned supreme since their departure from Egypt.


Verse 4

(4) And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool.—Rather, and he received it (i.e., the gold) at their hand, and bound it in a bag. So Gesenius, Rosenmüller, Fürst, Knobel, Kurtz, Maurer, Seröder, Cook, &c. “Fashioned it with a graving tool” is a possible rendering of the Hebrew words, but will not suit here, since the next clause tells us that the image was a molten one, and if it had been intended to say that the image was first molten and then finished with a graving too!, the order of the two clauses would have been inverted. A similar phrase to that here used has the sense of “bound in a bag” in 2 Kings 5:23.

After he had made it a molten calf.—This is a quite impossible rendering. The original gives “and,” not “after.” The action of this clause must either be simultaneous with that of the last or subsequent. Translate, and made it into a molten calf.

A molten calf.—It has been usual to regard the selection of the “calf” form for the image as due to Egyptian influences. But the Egyptian calf-worship, or, rather, bull-worship, was not a worship of images, but of living animals. A sacred bull, called Apis, was worshipped at Memphis, and another, called Mnevis, at Heliopolis, both being regarded as actual incarnate deities. Had Egyptian ideas been in the ascendant, it would have been natural to select a living bull, which might have “gone before” the people literally. The “molten calf,” which had no very exact counterpart in Egypt, perhaps points back to an older idolatry, such as is glanced at in Joshua 24:14, where the Israelites are warned to “put away the gods which their fathers served on the other side of the flood,” i.e., of the Euphrates. Certainly the bull form was more distinctive of the Babylonian and Assyrian than of the Egyptian worship, and it may he suspected that the emigrants from Chaldæa had clung through all their wanderings to the mystic symbolism which had been elaborated in that primæval land, and which they would contrast favourably with the coarse animal worship of Egypt. In Chaldæa, the bull, generally winged and human-headed, represented the combination of wisdom, strength, and omnipresence, which characterises divinity; and this combination might well have seemed to carnal minds no unapt symbol of Jehovah.

These be thy gods.—Rather, This is thy god.


Verse 5

(5) Aaron . . . built an altar before it.—Having once yielded to the popular cry. Aaron was carried on from one compliance to another. He caused the mould to be made for the idol, and the gold to be melted and run into it; and now he constructed, perhaps with his own hands, an altar of rough stones or turf (Exodus 20:24-25), and placed it directly in front of the Image, thus encouraging the offering of sacrifice to it. Perhaps he flattered himself that by heading the movement he could control it, and hinder it from becoming downright apostacy from Jehovah. In his view no doubt the calf was an emblem of Jehovah, and the worship paid it was the worship of Jehovah. Hence the festival which he proclaimed was to be “a feast to Jehovah.” But how little able he was to guide events, or to hinder the worst evils of idolatry from speedily manifesting themselves, appears from Exodus 32:6; Exodus 32:25.


Verse 6

(6) They rose up early.—Impatient to begin the new worship, the people rose with the dawn, and brought offerings, and offered sacrifice. Whether Aaron took part in these acts—which constituted the actual worship of the idol—is left doubtful.

Burnt offerings, and . . . peace offerings.—Sacrifices of both kinds were pre-Mosaical, not first originated by the Law, though deriving confirmation from it. Offerings of both kinds are noticed in Genesis 4:3-4; Exodus 18:12.

The people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.—A feast always followed a sacrifice (see Exodus 18:12; Exodus 24:5; Exodus 24:11). In feasting therefore upon what they had offered, the Israelites did no wrong; but probably they indulged themselves in a license of feasting unsuited to a religious act, though common enough in the idol-festivals of the heathen. They “fed without fear” (Jude 1:12), transgressed the bounds of moderation, and turned what should have been a religious rite into an orgy. Then, having gratified their appetites and stimulated their passions, they ceased to eat and drink, and “rose up to play.” The “play” included dancing of an indecent kind (Exodus 32:19; Exodus 32:25), and would probably have terminated, as the heathen orgies too often did, in the grossest sensualism, had not the descent of Moses from Sinai, and his appearance on the scene, put a stop to the unhallowed doings.


Verse 7

GOD’S OFFER TO MOSES.

(7) The Lord said unto Moses, Go, get thee down.—Moses was, of course, wholly ignorant of all that had occurred in the camp. The thick cloud which covered the top of Sinai had prevented his seeing what occurred in the plain below (Exodus 24:18). The phrase, “Go, get thee down,” is emphatic, and implies urgency.

Thy people.—“Thine,” not any longer “mine,” since they have broken the covenant that united us; yet still “thine,” however much they sin. The tie of blood-relationship cannot be broken.

Have corrupted themselves.—The form of the verb used (shikhêth) is active. We must supply “their way,” or some similar phrase, after it. (Comp. Genesis 6:12 : “All flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth.”)


Verse 8

(8) These be thy gods.—Rather, This is thy god, as in Exodus 32:4.


Verse 9

(9) It is a stiff-necked people.—This phrase, afterwards so common (Exodus 33:3; Exodus 33:5; Exodus 34:5; Deuteronomy 9:6; Deuteronomy 9:13; Deuteronomy 10:16; 2 Chronicles 30:8; 2 Chronicles 36:13; Psalms 75:5; Jeremiah 17:23; Acts 7:51), occurs here for the first time. It is generally explained as “obstinate,” but rather means “perverse,” the metaphor being taken from the horse that stiffens his neck against the pull of the rein, and will not be guided by the rider. The LXX. omit the verse, for no intelligible reason.


Verse 10

(10) Let me alone.—This was not a command to abstain from deprecation, but rather an intimation that deprecation might have power to change God’s purpose. Moses was tried by an offer which would have exalted him at the expense of the people. He was allowed to see that he might either sacrifice the people and obtain his own aggrandisement, or deny himself and save them. That he chose the better part redounds to his undying glory.

I will make of thee a great nation—i.e., I will put thee in the place of Abraham, make thee the father of the faithful, destroy all existing Israelites but thee and thine, and proceed de novo to raise up a “great nation” out of thy loins.


Verses 11-14

MOSES’ REPLY, AND GOD’S “REPENTANCE.”

(11-13) Moses has three arguments: (1) God has done so much for His people, that surely He will not now make all of none effect (Exodus 32:11); (2) their destruction will give a triumph to the Egyptians (Exodus 32:12); (3) it will nullify the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Genesis 15:5; Genesis 17:2-6; Genesis 26:1; Genesis 28:12; Genesis 35:11), causing Moses to eclipse their glory, and to be looked upon as the true patriarch and progenitor of the “peculiar people” (Exodus 32:13). To these arguments he adds entreaties that God will be merciful, and change His purpose (Exodus 32:12).

(14) The Lord repented of the evil.—Moses’ intercession was effectual. God spared the people at his desire. He is, therefore, said to have “repented”; not that He had really changed His purpose, for He had known from the beginning that Moses would intercede and that He would spare, but because He first announced a (conditional) purpose, and then announced a different one. The mode of speech is, as so frequently, anthropomorphic.


Verse 15

THE DESCENT OF MOSES FROM SINAI, AND THE SUPPRESSION OF THE IDOLATRY.

(15) And Moses turned—i.e., “returned,” or “set out on his return,” apparently without making any communication to Joshua, who was waiting for him not far off (see Exodus 32:17).

The two tables . . . were in his hand.—In Deuteronomy 9:15 we read that the two tables were in his “two hands,” which is more exact, and more as we should have expected.

The tables were written on both their sides.—Babylonian tablets and Assyrian monoliths have usually writing on both sides, Egyptian monoliths rarely. It has been calculated that the 172 words of the Decalogue could easily have been inscribed in letters of a fair size on the four surfaces indicated, if the tablets were 27 inches long by 18 inches broad, and that two tablets of this size could readily have been conveyed in a man’s two hands (Keil).


Verse 16

(16) The tables were the work of God.—Rosenmüller supposes this to mean merely that the size and shape of the stones was prescribed to Moses by God; but the natural meaning of the words is that God Himself fashioned them. This was not the case with the second tables (Exodus 34:1; Exodus 34:4).

The writing was the writing of God.—See Note 3 on Exodus 31:18.


Verse 17

(17) When Joshua heard.—Joshua’s presence with Moses in the mount has not been indicated since Exodus 24:13. But it would seem that when Moses was summoned up into the cloud (Exodus 24:16) his faithful “minister” remained where he was, waiting for his master. He may have found shelter in some “cleft of the rock;” and the manna may have fallen about him, and sufficed for his sustenance during the forty days and nights of his master’s absence.

The noise of the people as they shouted.—“Shouting” was a feature of idolatrous rites (1 Kings 18:28; Acts 19:34; Herod. ii. 60, &c.), and was in part a cause, in part a result, of the physical excitement which prevailed during such orgies. Joshua, unsuspicious of the real nature of the shouting, supposed, naturally enough, that the camp was attacked by an enemy, and that the noise was “a noise of war.” But Moses, forewarned of the actual state of affairs (Exodus 32:7-8), had probably a shrewd suspicion of the real nature of the sounds. He contented himself, however, with negativing his minister’s conjecture.


Verse 18

(18) Shout . . . cry . . . sing.—The Hebrew verb is the same in all three clauses. Translate: It is not the voice of them that cry for victory, nor is it the voice of them that cry for defeat; the voice of them that cry do I hear. Moses’ sense of hearing conveys to him no positive result. We must remember that the camp was still distant, and that the sound was conveyed circuitously, since the descent from the Ras Sufsafeh is by a side valley, from which the sight of the plain is shut out (Stanley, Sinai and Palestine, p. 44).


Verse 19

(19) And the dancing.—Heb., and dances. What Moses saw was “the calf” which had already been mentioned, and “dances” which had not been mentioned, but which were now going on after the usual fashion of idolatrous festivity. Such dancing among Oriental nations was uniformly of a lascivious character. (Comp. Exodus 32:25.)

He cast the tables out of his hands.—Comp. Deuteronomy 9:17. In righteous indignation, but perhaps with some revival of the hot temper which had led him astray in his younger days (Exodus 2:12).


Verse 20

(20) He took the calf.—To suppress the idolatry, the first step was to destroy the idol. Moses, who must have rallied to his side at once a certain number of the people, laid hold of the calf, and ordered its immediate destruction. He had it submitted to the action of fire, whereby its form was destroyed, and the material, as it would seem, calcined. This calcined material he reduced to a fine powder by rubbing or pounding, and then had the powder sprinkled on the surface of the stream which supplied the camp with water, that so the people might seem, at any rate, to swallow their own sin. Compare the action of Josiah (2 Kings 23:6; 2 Kings 23:12). No doubt, the process of destruction took some time. It is not meant that it was completed, but only that it was commenced, before Moses turned to other matters.


Verse 21

(21) Moses said unto Aaron, What did this people unto thee ?—The second step was to inquire how the idolatry came about; and here Moses very reasonably addressed himself to Aaron. Aaron had been left in charge of the people (Exodus 24:14), to advise them, direct them, control them, if necessary. How had he acquitted himself of this charge? He had allowed the people to commit a great sin. What excuse could he offer for his conduct? Had the people injured him in any way? The question is asked ironically.


Verses 22-24

(22-24) Aaron’s conduct was really without excuse; but he attempts two pleas—the first insufficient, the second false and fatuous. (1) The people compelled him; they were “set on mischief;” they made the proposal—they would have it so. (2) He threw the gold into the furnace, and “it came out a calf,” as if he had not ordered the construction of the mould. In Deuteronomy, Moses informs us that Aaron’s whole conduct so angered God that God would have destroyed him but for his own intercession (Deuteronomy 9:20).


Verse 25

(25) When Moses saw that the people were naked.—Most modern commentators prefer to translate “that the people were licentious,” or “unruly.” But the rendering of the Authorised Version may be defended. In the lewd and excited dancing of idolatrous orgies, garments were frequently cast aside, and the person exposed indecently. Egyptian dancers are represented on the monuments with scarcely any clothing.

Among their enemies.—Amalekites may have held many fastnesses among the hills, from which they may have been able to see what was going on in the camp.


Verse 26

(26) Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp.—The third and crowning step was now to be taken. Though the idol had been seized and its destruction commenced, though Aaron had been rebuked and put to shame, yet the revel continued. Once launched on an evil course, the bulk of the people persisted in it. Moses felt that God was openly insulted by such conduct, against which death was denounced by the Law (Exodus 22:20), and which might at any moment provoke God to destroy the whole people (Exodus 32:10). He therefore proceeded to suppress the idolatry by a stern act of judicial severity—an execution on a large scale of those taken flagrante delicto. Standing in the gate—i.e., the principal gate—of the camp, he summoned to his aid those who were on the Lord’s side, and gave them orders to go through the camp from end to end, and put to death all whom they found still engaged in the mad revel.

All the sons of Levi.—This must not be understood literally. All the Levites would not have heard the summons of Moses, and some were evidently among those who persisted in idolatry (Exodus 32:27-29). In the language of the sacred writers, “all” constantly means “the greater part.”


Verse 27

(27) Thus saith the Lord God.—Moses felt that he was divinely commissioned to perform this act of severity. The lives of all who had committed the idolatry were justly forfeit. Trial was unnecessary where the offence was being openly committed before the eyes of all. Such dancing and such shouting could not possibly be Jehovah-worship. It was by its very character idolatrous.

Go in and out from gate to gate . . . —i.e., “pass through the whole camp from end to end, visit all parts of it, and wherever you see the rites continuing, smite with the sword—smite, and spare not.”

Slay every man his brother.—Comp. Exodus 32:26. The Levites who had rallied to the call of Moses might find their own brothers or their own sons among the idolaters. If they did, they were still to smite, though the offender was their near relative.


Verse 29

(29) For Moses had said, Consecrate yourselves.—Moses had explained to them that a brave behaviour under existing circumstances would be accepted as a “consecration,” and would win for the tribe a semi-priestly character. His announcement was made good when the Levites were appointed to the service of the sanctuary in lieu of the firstborn (Numbers 3:6-13).


Verses 30-35

MOSES’ INTERCESSION ON BEHALF OF THE PEOPLE.

(30-35) When Moses had, on first hearing of God’s intention to destroy the people, interceded for them (Exodus 32:11-13), his prayers had received no direct answer—he had been left in doubt whether they were granted or no. Having now put an end to the offence, and to some extent punished it, he is bent on renewing his supplications, and obtaining a favourable reply. Once more he ascends into the mount to be quite alone, and so best able to wrestle with God in prayer; and this time he not merely intercedes, but offers himself as an atonement for the people, and is willing to be “blotted out of God’s book,” if on this condition they may be spared. God refuses the offer, but makes known to Moses that He relents—that He will spare the people, and allow them to continue their journey to the promised land; only He will send an angel to lead them instead of leading them Himself, and He will punish the sinners by a different punishment from that originally threatened (Exodus 32:10).


Verse 31

(31) Moses returned unto the Lord—i.e., re-ascended Sinai, to the place where he had passed the forty days and nights.

Gods of gold.—Rather, a god of gold. (Comp. Note 3 on Exodus 32:1.) The plural is one of dignity.


Verse 32

(32) If thou wilt forgive their sin.—Supply after the word “sin,” “well and good,” “I am content,” or some such phrase. Similar instances of aposiopesis will be found in Daniel 3:15; Luke 13:9; Luke 19:42; John 6:62; Romans 9:22. The usage is common among Orientals.

Blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book.—Comp. Romans 9:1-3. Moses seems to have risen to the same height of self-abnegation as St. Paul, and to have willed to be “accursed from God for his brethren, his kinsmen according to the flesh.” As his sacrifice could not have redeemed them (Psalms 49:7), God did not accept it in the literal sense; but the offer may have availed much towards the pardon of the people, and towards lightening the chastisement which they received (Exodus 32:34-35).


Verse 33

(33) Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out.—Comp. Ezekiel 18:4 : “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” A mere man cannot take other men’s sins on him, cannot relieve them of the penalties attached to sin, the worst of which is the depravation of the soul itself. Sin persisted in blots out from God’s book by the absolute contradiction that there is between evil and good. Even Christ’s merits cannot avail the sinner who does not put away his sin, detest it, abhor, it, revolt from it. Only One who can implant a principle of life in man can save from death.


Verse 34

(34) Lead the people unto the place of which I have spoken—i.e., continue their leader until Palestine is reached. (See Exodus 3:8; Exodus 3:17; Exodus 6:4-8, &c.)

Mine Angel shall go before thee.—So far as the form of the expression goes, the promise is, as nearly as possible, a repetition of the original one, “Behold, I send an angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared” (Exodus 23:20). But the meaning of the promise is wholly changed, as we learn from the opening paragraph of the ensuing chapter (Exodus 33:1-3). The “angel” now promised as a guide is not to be God Himself (“I will not go up in the midst of thee “), but a creature, between whom and God the distance is immeasurable.

In the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them.—All sin is followed by suffering; the sequence is inevitable. God had now consented to spare His people, and to take them back into favour; but they were not to expect that matters would be with them as if their sin had not taken place. It would still be “visited upon them”—not, indeed, by instant death, but still in some way or other. The weary waiting in the wilderness for forty years may have been a part of the punishment (Numbers 14:33); but it may also have been inflicted on different persons in many different ways.


Verse 35

(35) The Lord plagued the people.—We are not to understand by this (with Kalisch) that a pestilence was sent, but only that sufferings of various kinds befell those who had worshipped the calf, and were, in fact, punishments inflicted on them for that transgression.

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Exodus 32:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/exodus-32.html. 1905.

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Tuesday, November 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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