Our passage today begins with the incident of the Golden Calf. We see that this is rooted in the impatience of the Israelites (32:1). I repeat: don’t judge. How often do we get impatient while waiting on God and turn to idols. We may not make a Golden Calf to worship, but we turn to other “gods” to help move things along in our timeline (like our own will and abilities…).
We see here the use of some of the plundered gold for the Golden Calf to be made. And notice that the Israelites did not believe that this calf was a different God than the One Who brought them out of Egypt, it is a representation of YHWH (v. 4)*. Aaron even refers to it as YHWH (v. 5). So this is a violation of the second commandment, not the first. This is the fifth (and most serious) rebellion against God since the Israelites left Egypt. Do we see a pattern forming?
Verses 7-14 highlights the mediatorial ministry of Moses. First, God calls Israel “your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Israel.” (This always makes me think of when my one of my girls does something wrong and I tell my wife “your daughter” did such and such, though that is not what God is doing). We have discussed the Biblical tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility multiple times already. Here we see the other side of that. When we use our gifting and obey our calling, we do it, but God does it. Both are absolutely true. Second, we see Moses’ prayer for his people. He asks God to relent and show mercy to His people based on only on what He has done (v. 11), and what He has promised (v. 13). This is a GREAT pattern for our own prayers.
Moses, in his anger, does two things, both symbolic. First, he breaks the tablets that contained the Ten Commandments. Why? Because that’s what Israel did – they broke the Ten Commandments. Second, he destroys the calf, grinds it to power, puts it in water, and makes Israel drink it. Why? Because they outward act was not the problem. It was what was inside them that caused them to stumble. So drinking the water literally put the physical sin inside of them.
In verse 21, we see the responsibility of the leaders of God’s people (see also v. 25). Aaron is responsible, in a sense, for their sin. And Aaron blames the people. Notice his explanation in verse 24 compared to what we read in verses 2-4. Again, the Bible records the history of God’s people and does not hide their failings. God is good, and only God is good (Mk 10:18).
In verses 26-29, we see the reason God calls the Levites to be the tribe to serve Him in the Tabernacle. We also see the heinousness of sin and what sinners deserve. It seems so harsh to our 2022 American sensibilities, but maybe it shouldn’t. In verses 30-32, we see Moses typifying Christ. He comes to God to atone for their sin, and offers his own life because of their sin. God’s promise that “in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them” foreshadows Israel’s disobedience and God’s judgment as played out in multiple historic events: the plague (v. 35), the failure to inherit the land (Numbers 14), the Assyrian/Babylonian captivities, and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. And this is the first time (not the last) that Israel represents the reprobate instead of the elect, because the final and ultimate fulfillment is in the judgment of the lost by Christ at His return.
Chapter 33 records God commanding Israel to depart for the Promised Land according to His promise (compare 33:1-2 with Gen 15:18-19). In verse 3, however, God tells Moses that while they will inherit the physical promise, they will not inherit the spiritual promise, as it were. In other words, God’s presence is the promise (fulfilled in Christ). God’s presence was the whole point, which is why this is so disastrous (v. 4). Verse 5 again reveals the absolute holiness of God, and verse 6 shows the outward sign of Israel’s repentance.
In verses 12-17, we see again the mediatorial and intercessory ministry of Moses that points us to Christ, because we see God’s acceptance of Israel, and His promise to be with them and give them rest, through the mediation of Moses. That is what God gives us through the mediation of Christ.
In verse 18, after God’s promise of salvation (His presence and His people’s rest), Moses asks to see God’s glory. In this we see exactly what God has promised us! His salvation will result – indeed, will culminate – with us seeing His glory! But here, in this earlier stage of the revelation of Himself (and up until this very moment), we, like Moses, cannot behold His glory.** All we can do is catch glimpses of it through seeing His “back”, that is, by being behind Him, as it were, by seeing what He has already done and by following Him.
Chapter 34 may be my favorite chapter in the entire Old Testament. First, God graciously makes up for what Moses/Israel did with the first tablets. I see here not just a reference to the physical breaking of the tablets, but Israel’s breaking of the law. Again, Moses is responsible for the people just as Aaron is (also, the verb “broke” is in that intensive form, and a better translation would be “smashed,” a reference to what Moses physically did and what Israel spiritually did).
In verses 6-8, we have not just a description of YHWH God, but this is how He describes Himself! He doubles down on the YHWH – “I am, I am a God merciful and gracious and low to anger.” And how merciful, and gracious, and slow to anger He has already been with His people!! He isn’t just all of these in word, but in deed!! And He is abounding in steadfast love – there’s our word hesed again – and faithfulness. In the face of Israel’s faithlessness, He is yet faithful!! And He keeps that hesed for thousands. The Hebrew actually says “the thousands” – there are particular people for which He keeps that hesed and forgives the “iniquity and transgression and sin.” And note, it is Who God is that dictates what He does. He is merciful and gracious and slow to anger and abounding in hesed – so He keeps that hesed and forgives!
Yet He is judge. He will by no means clear the guilty. In the Hebrew, it is the intensive verb “leave unpunished” repeated. It is literally impossible that He would clear the guilty! And He here says that people’s iniquities will result in the punishment of children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. But as we will see, this is a prediction of what will happen to physical Israel, not a maxim for how He deals with mankind. We will see how generation after generation is influenced by the sins of the previous, and themselves fall into sin. But the God Who is merciful and gracious and slow to anger will punish only the guilty (see Deut 24:6, 2 Kings 14:6, Jer 31:29-30 [a Messianic prediction]).
And we see, this is the God Moses wants to be with (v. 9). And God renews the covenant with Israel (v. 10), and offers grace first, and makes commands second (vv. 11-16). God then reminds Israel of their sin at Sinai (v. 17), of the salvation from slavery and death He provided (vv. 18-20), of the supremely important command to obey the Sabbath (v. 21), and of the appointed feats (vv. 22-24).
And Moses, again with YHWH “forty days and forty nights” (v. 28), comes down the mountain to find that, this time, Israel waited on God. And in the shining face of Moses, we see how the light of God is reflected in those who are obedient to Him and who spend time in His presence. Moses also brought Israel the Word of God (v. 32). The shining of his face is also the light of the Gospel – in this case, foreshadowed in the Law of God.
*There is a translational choice made in verses 4 and 8 that can make this a bit confusing. It sounds as if there were multiple “gods” made, but this is not so. The word being used in both cases is אֱלֹהִים – Elohim. It is a plural word – the plural of the word “god” – but it refers to a single God. In ancient paganism, when there were multiple gods in any given religion, the supreme god would at times be referred to in the plural, meaning something like “the god of gods.” The Bible uses this same term – the plural Elohim – to refer to God. So here, the translation could (maybe should be) “this is God” as opposed to “these are your gods.” This would be much more consistent with the “it” of verses 5 and 8.
**God covering Moses’ eyes can be understood as an analogy to the progressive revelation of the Bible. God revealed more and more over time, never giving His people more than they can take all at once (also hinted at in Ex 34:29-35 – the veil hides the full revelation of God). The “until I pass by” can be understood as an analogy of God coming in the flesh in Jesus Christ. His hand was over our collective eyes as His people until His full revelation in Christ. (Is this what Moses/the Holy Spirit intended here? I have no idea. But I like the analogy, regardless!)