First a bit of context. The Israelites have escaped Egypt by virtue of the Red Sea and are now wandering through the desert of the Sinai Peninsula. At this point, they have paused near Mt. Sinai where Moses receives the law including famously the ten commandments as well as other instructions. The first map shows the possible route of the Exodus. The second map is a zoomed out version of the area with modern day geography.
Preceding Exodus 24, Moses received the law from God, but the people had not yet heard it, neither is God done with instruction. Still to come is information about the tabernacle, its purpose, instructions on how to build it and ultimately how to administer it. The tabernacle is the means through which the people of Israel will gain access to God through regular ritual, ordinance and a reminder of their ever-present covenants. However, none of that has happened at this point. It’s not obvious Moses even anticipates or understands what’s still left to learn. In chapter 24, he appears anxious to connect with his people. Also it’s important to recall the nature of the covenant that God is so desperately trying to make alive in this people He has chosen, repeated beautifully in Exodus 19:4-6
Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on aeagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will aobey my voice indeed, and keep my bcovenant, then ye shall be a cpeculiar dtreasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a akingdom of bpriests, and an choly dnation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.Exodus 19:4-6
In verses Exodus 24:1-3, God calls Moses and those who will become the priestly leaders back up to the mountain for more instruction. Verse 1 “Come up unto the Lord, though, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel.” Moses alone will ascent to where God will instruct, but Aaron and others so designated will ascend partway.
But Moses does not immediately head this call. Instead, perhaps realizing he might be up on the mountain for awhile, attempts to nurture, succor and ultimately bind the people to the laws through covenant. He builds an altar, representing God and twelve pillars, representing the people. He gives them the law, sacrifices oxen, sprinkles blood on both the altar and the people, although people here likely means the twelve pillars.
This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord now makes with you concerning all these commands.Exodus 24:8
Once this ordinance completes, he heads up with Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel as instructed to meet with the Lord. On their way up, in verse 10, they “saw the God of Israel” and in verse 11 “they saw God, and did eat and drink”.
Finally, Moses leaves his companions behind and ascends further into the clouds that cover the mountain (verse 15). Here God is hidden from Moses in the clouds for six days until on the seventh, Moses is called in. Perhaps the delay was needed to give Moses some time to prepare. Nevertheless, the Israelites witness a “consuming fire on the top of the mountain (verse 17) remaining there with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights (verse 18).
Exodus 25-31 contains the record of the instruction, consisting mostly of creating a sacred space, the tabernacle that will travel with the Israelites through the wilderness, a place God may dwell with His people. Chapter 31, however, describes sacred time. But first, in the early verses, Bazelel and Aholiab are identified as men with special skill, ability and knowledge to make the designs for the tabernacle. Next, though the Lord establishes a sign of the covenant through Sabbath observance. Sacred time, a time to rest, rejuvenate and to look upward. Coming to a group of people who endured 400 years of slavery, working taskmasters, building monuments to the Pharoah, having one day in seven as rest must have come as a relief.
Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily my asabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the Lord that doth sanctify you.
Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual acovenant.
Exodus 31 concludes with a pronouncement that God wrote “tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God”. Is there anywhere else in the text that describes words written directly by God? Interesting that before Moses embarked on this journey to God, he wrote down his knowledge of the law, on his second trip up into the mountains, he comes down with God’s written law.
The last thing the Israelites see is what appears to be a consuming fire on the mountaintop in the very place Moses was heading, then they do not hear him for 40 days. It’s good to remember, again, these are former slaves to the Pharaoh, who were rescued by God without asking for it or really fully understanding it. God does all the work, orchestrated through increasing negotiations between Moses and Aaron and the Pharaoh. They were called into the Exodus by Moses, who was also learning how to lead this people. It’s within that context, we get the iconic story of the golden calf with some amount of sympathy.
In verse 1, the people entreat Aaron to “make us gods”. They had so little experience with God and that experience was mediated through Moses who was now absent. They were homeless, wandering in the desert, hungering for direction.
Aaron, the entrusted leader with Moses away, concedes to their demands, asking them to bring all of the golden earrings they brought with them from Egypt and with that gold, Aaron creates a calf (verse 4). The next day, they rise up, offer burnt offerings and sit down to eat, drink and play, somewhat of an echo of the rituals Moses lead in chapter 24. Perhaps this was an attempt by Aaron to mimic Moses, merging influences from Egypt (the calf) with the rituals witnessed.
Meanwhile, Moses still on the top of the mountain in communion with God, hears from God that his people have corrupted themselves. God wants to give up and start anew with Moses.
And the Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a astiffnecked people: Now therefore let me alone, that my awrath may wax hot against them, and that I may bconsume them: and I will make of thee a great cnation.Exodus 32: 9-10
Moses, echoing Abraham’s earlier negotiations, pushes back, reminding God that He delivered them from Egypt and what would people think if that deliverance ended with their destruction in the desert. He further reminds God of the covenants he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Sometimes we all need someone to intercede on our behalf. Sometimes we need to intercede on another’s behalf. God knew what was happening, but not sure Moses in fact did. Verse 19:
And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he asaw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ banger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and cbrake them beneath the mount.Exodus 32:19
When Moses actually witnesses the scene, he loses it, breaks the very tables God created, grinds the calf to a powder and makes the people drink it. He then confronts Aaron who attempts to shifts blame to the people and softens his own role in the ordeal in verse 24:
And I said unto them, Whosoever hath any gold, let them break it off. So they gave it me: then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.Exodus 32:24
Perhaps for the first time seeing things the way God sees them, realizing desperate action is required, calls for a purge. The sons of Levi volunteer and ultimately kill 3000 men. More contrite, Moses returns to the Lord hoping to find redemption:
Moses pleads on behalf of his people for forgiveness and then offers to pay the punishment, telling God to “blot” him out fo the book. God does neither. Further reconciliation is required.
God must now deal with the reality of a people not fully consecrated to him and responds accordingly. The promises are still there. The land of milk and honey promised to them awaits, but perhaps for their offspring. God will no longer be able to be in their midst, but an angel shall “go before thee”. They still had the tabernacle, but it was moved outside of camp requiring anyone who sought the Lord to leave camp to do it.
In addition, the people mourned this loss as they realized the extent of their disconnection from God. In verse 4, “when the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned: and no man did put on him his ornaments”. They couldn’t connect to God, they eskewed all reminders of the idol that brought on that separation.
The rest of the chapter describes Moses interaction with God in the tabernacle. Here, Moses begins his own transformation, closing his own gap with God as he earnestly strives to atone for the sins of the people he leads. The Lord speaking to Moses “face to face” (verse 11). In verse 13, Moses prays to God, recognizing he has found grace, that God should “consider this nation they people.” Verse 16, Moses pleads for more intimate knowledge of God’s ways and further reconciliation for Israel. How shall the people know they have found grace if they remain separated from God. Verse 17, God concedes on Moses’ behalf. The chapter concludes when God gives Moses a view of his person.
Having dealt with the incident of idolatry, Moses returns to the mountain for forty more days. Nobody journeys with him even part of the way. This chapter describes the nature of God, “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (verse 6, 7).
Moses pleads that God “take us (the people) for thine inheritance” (verse 9). Next, God warns against intermixing with the culture and the religion of the people they encounter. Again a reiteration to “make thee no molten gods” verse 17. This chapter appears to be a reiteration of the earlier law against idolatry and a plea to sanctify the sabbath.
The tablets Moses had previously destroyed get replaced again with the ten commandments (verse 28). When he returns, his face radiates. The people of Israel reclaim their conduit to God through Moses their prophet.
This lesson centers the message round Israel’s mistaken impulse to create the golden calf. Moses had already spent time receiving the law, he comes down and attempts to bind the people through a blood ordinance to God and then leaves them for forty days to receive instruction on the tabernacle. While gone, the people fall into idolatry. Moses returns, deals with it and then returns back to God to ultimately receive forgiveness, reconciliation, and ultimately spends an additional 40 days receiving the covenant anew.
What can we learn from this episode? How are we beholden to idols? How can we dedicate and consecrate our lives to God? How can we enjoy God’s presence in our lives? What can we learn about repentance and our own efforts at true atonement? What do we learn about the nature of God from these episodes?