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Exodus 32:15-29; Wages of Sin and the Mercy of God

07/22 Exodus 32:15-29 The Wages of Sin

We pick up the narrative of the covenant treason of God’s people in Exodus 32:15. God had spoken to the people, and they had vowed ‘all that the Lord has spoken we will do’ (19:8; 24:3, 7). The leadership of Israel ate a covenant meal in the presence of God, and then Moses was called up to receive God’s instruction.

Exodus 24:12 The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” 13 So Moses rose with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14 And he said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we return to you. And behold, Aaron and Hur are with you. Whoever has a dispute, let him go to them.”

Moses has been up on mount Sinai for 40 days, receiving God’s instructions for life in his community, and instructions for building a tent where God would dwell with his people, chapters 25-31 of Exodus.

The Greatest Treasure

Exodus 32:15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written. 16 The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.

These were two duplicate copies, permanent reminders of the terms of this covenant agreement. When a covenant was made between a conquering king and his subjects, two duplicate copies of the covenant would be made. The king would be given a copy of the agreement, and a copy would be given to his subjects. Because God is going to pitch his tent with his people, both copies would be kept in his tent. These were the most precious artifacts in existence; that the God of the universe would bind himself in covenant agreement with a people, and that he would personally etch the terms of the agreement into stone is an unspeakable treasure. These tablets of stone were the embodiment of the relationship between God and his people. This sets the stage for what is about to happen.

Joshua’s Misunderstanding

17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” 18 But he said, “It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear.”

Remember, Joshua had accompanied Moses partway up the mountain after the covenant meal in chapter 24; Joshua was the military commander in the battle with Amalek and his people from chapter 17. Joshua, familiar with battle, hears the sound of war – adrenalin filled shouts of warriors in triumph; horrified screams of women and children; desperate cries of panic and pain; clash of sword and shield. Joshua fears that the Israelites are under attack, and they are, but the enemy is not a physical foe.

Moses had been told by God what is going on in the camp.

Exodus 32:7 And the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. 8 They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’”

Moses, having been told by God what is happening, responds to Joshua; this is not the joyous singing of victory; nor is it the lamentable singing of defeat, but the sound of singing. This reminds us of the song Moses in chapter 15 after the display of God’s power at the Red Sea. There they sang the triumph of YHWH who had conquered his enemies. There is nothing inherently wrong with singing – it was an expression of worship to God, but now their singing is directed toward the wrong object; a false god, an idol that did not save them. They turned from worshiping God to worshiping the works of their own hands.

His Anger Burned Hot

19 And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it.

We are told that ‘Moses’ anger burned hot’. We think of anger as sin, and it often is that. We might read this episode as a temper tantrum where Moses lost control and acted irrationally. But anger is not always sin.

Ephesians 4:26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil.

This verse tells us that it can be right to be angry. But we must be on guard that our anger not lead to sinful attitudes or actions. Jesus was angry. Passionate zeal for the house of the Lord consumed Jesus (Jn.2:14-17) and he drove people out of the temple courts with a whip. That was not a sinful act that Jesus did. This exact phrase ‘anger burned hot’ is found over 50 times in the Old Testament, and in the majority of them, God is the one who is angry. This is not a lost temper but the righteous response to sin. Moses is reflecting God’s own character here. His action was not a spontaneous outburst of misdirected emotion, but a passionate acting out of what had already happened. God had entered into a covenant relationship with his people, given the gift of himself to his people. This – a relationship with the living God – is the greatest treasure a person could possess. This greatest treasure had been trampled and treated as worthless. It had been shattered, and now the formal documentation of the relationship was destroyed as a demonstration that the relationship had been destroyed. We are at the conclusion of the wedding ceremony, the vows have been taken, the groom has turned with the minister to sign the wedding certificate, and behind them they hear the sounds of the bride giving herself to one of the guests. No wonder the minister turns and rips the wedding certificate to shreds.

Now that the covenant document is destroyed, a graphic illustration of what the people have done by their actions, Moses as God’s representative begins to clean up the mess. He deals with the idol, he deals with the leader he left in charge, and he deals with the people who have brought dishonor on God’s reputation.

Desecrating the Idol

What Moses does with their idol is to permanently and completely desecrate it so that it can never again become an object of worship. He is demonstrating in an unforgettable way that this so-called god is no god at all. The people directed their worship toward this image saying ‘these are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt’ (32:8). Moses is showing that this so-called god cannot even save itself. He burns it with fire, he pulverizes it to powder, and he scatters it in the water supply of the camp of Israel, so that anything that is left of this false god is ingested, digested and passed out in a pile of excrement. There will be no recovery of this idol. The people had worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and in this way Moses demonstrates just how unworthy this inanimate idol was of their worship.

A Leader Rebuked

Moses now addresses his older brother Aaron. Back in chapter 24, before Moses and Joshua ascended the mountain to receive the tablets of stone with the law and the commandment, Moses charged the leaders of Israel to wait for his return and he appointed Aaron and Hur to settle any disputes while he was away. Now he is calling Aaron to give an account of himself.

21 And Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?”

The language Moses employs here is strong. The words translated ‘great sin’ can be used to describe the sin of adultery or marital unfaithfulness (Gen.20:9). The people have broken their covenant relationship with God. They have been unfaithful. They have turned from their vows and committed spiritual adultery with an idol. And Moses is holding the leader he left in charge responsible for bringing this great sin upon them.


22 And Aaron said, “Let not the anger of my lord burn hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. 23 For they said to me, ‘Make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 24 So I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”

The excuses of Aaron remind us of the garden of Eden. This is a great example of how not to confess your sin. Fingers are pointing in every direction. There is no honest taking of responsibility or open confession of wrong done. Aaron first asks Moses not to be angry. Ultimately, he is asking Moses not to be righteous. He is asking that Moses let this sin slide and not be zealous for the reputation of the LORD. This is something a true leader cannot do. Then he shifts blame to the people and appeals to Moses’ prior experience with the people. ‘You know the people, that they are set on evil.’ For a leader to know this should stir him to be all the more vigilant and stand for truth and intercede for them, not cave in and give them what they want and then shift the blame on them. Aaron then repeats to Moses what the people said to him at the beginning of chapter 32, implying that it was Moses’ own fault for not coming back sooner. But his description of how the calf came to be; ‘I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf’ is a less than truthful account of his ‘receiving the gold from their hand, fashioning it with a graving tool, and making a golden calf’ (32:4). Moses doesn’t even honor these excuses with a response.

Consequences of Sin

Moses takes decisive action to put a stop to the situation.

25 And when Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to the derision of their enemies), 26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, “Who is on the LORD’s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27 And he said to them, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.’” 28 And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell. 29 And Moses said, “Today you have been ordained for the service of the LORD, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon you this day.”

This is a grisly, bloody scene. When we read this, we tend to be more shocked at the cure than the disease. If so, we fail to see the seriousness of sin. The people had broken loose. They were out of control. The fruit of the Spirit is self-control. God is a God of order and design. This chaos in the camp of God’s people opened them up to the whispers of their enemies. ‘So this is how God’s chosen people act?!’ Israel was to be a blessing to all the nations by pointing them to the truth about God. They were to be an example to everyone of what life lived in relationship with God should look like, and they were to invite others in to that relationship. The exodus of Israel from Egypt was designed to put the glory of God on display for the world to see (14:17-18). Here, they are failing miserably at their calling, and opening God’s name to reproach and dishonor among the nations. They sinned by falling short of giving to God the glory that is his due, and the wages of sin is death.

Evidence of Mercy

This passage, seen in its proper perspective, is a loud testimony to the far reaching mercy of God. Remember, God told Moses to stand aside so that he could wipe out every last one of the Israelites and start fresh with Moses. That would have been righteous. They deserved it. But Moses interceded, and now only 3,000 died. That sounds like a lot, but let’s put it in perspective. In Numbers 1:46 we are told the able bodied males 20 years old and up were numbered at 603,550 men, and that does not include the tribe of Levi. The 3,000 who died was less than half of one percent of the able bodied males from the other 11 tribes; only one out of every 200 men, and they all deserved to die. This is astounding mercy of God. To put this in perspective for us today, in the overall U.S. population, one out of every 2 males risk developing some form of cancer in their lifetime. 1 in 4 males risk dying from cancer. Here in Exodus, one out of 200 die. We are not told how the Levites knew who deserved to die, but in a similar event in Numbers 25, it was those that were blatantly unrepentant and persistent in their idolatry and immorality. They were to show no favoritism, not to brother, son, friend or neighbor. They were to show a passion for the glory of God that ran deeper than the closest human bonds. Jesus requires this kind of allegiance from his followers too. He said

Matthew 10:37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

Jesus demands that our love for him take priority over every other relationship. We must be zealous for the glory of Jesus, not by taking up the sword to kill, but by a willingness to even lay down our own lives for the glory of God.

More Evidence of Mercy

One thing to note that the text does not say; the text does not say that the Levites were more righteous than the rest. It does not say that they had not been involved in the idolatry. We are told that all the people, including the Levites were involved to one degree or another in the sin and were guilty. But there was an opportunity to repent. Moses asked ‘who is on the LORD’s side?’ The Levites turned from their wicked ways and responded to the invitation. And they were blessed by the Lord. This is the good news, that sinners who deserve to die are spared by the mercy of God and invited to turn back to God and actually be used in his service. Aaron himself, who was left in charge, the one whose idea it was to collect earrings and make an idol, the one who actually formed the idol, the one who shifted blame and made excuses, this Aaron, in chapter 39 is clothed in the garments of the high priest, and wears on his head the inscription ‘holy to the LORD’. That is amazing grace and undeserved kindness!

Titus 3:3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Pastor Rodney Zedicher ~ Ephraim Church of the Bible ~

July 22, 2012 Posted by | Exodus, podcast | , , , , , | Leave a comment