When we see sin through God’s eyes we see why the wages of sin is death. Pray for a God-sized view of how bad sin is, and prepare your heart for a God-sized payment for your sin.
25 Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. 26 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, "Whoever is for the LORD, come to me." And all the Levites rallied to him.
27 Then he said to them, "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.' " 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. 29 Then Moses said, "You have been set apart to the LORD today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day."
30 The next day Moses said to the people, "You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin."
31 So Moses went back to the LORD and said, "Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written."
33 The LORD replied to Moses, "Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin."
35 And the LORD struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.
1 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt, and go up to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, 'I will give it to your descendants.' 2 I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 3 Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way."
4 When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments. 5 For the LORD had said to Moses, "Tell the Israelites, 'You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you. Now take off your ornaments and I will decide what to do with you.' " 6 So the Israelites stripped off their ornaments at Mount Horeb.
The wages of the sin of the people had to be death. We see this vividly in 32:25–29,35. That day three thousand were killed by the sword and by the plague. Another consequence was humiliation for the people, as well as distance between them and God (33:1–6).
Focus your heart on 32:30–34. Here Moses expressed his desire to make atonement for their sin. He was willing to pay the penalty of death and separation from God for the people. Surely God would be satisfied with such a selfless and sacrificial gesture?
Jesus is needed
Actually, no. Sinners cannot pay for the sins of other sinners. Moses was himself a sinner (see Numbers 20:1–13). For this kind of sacrifice to make atonement for sinful people it would take a spotless sacrifice, a perfect one who would not be dying for his own sin.
‘We all, like sheep, have gone astray’ (Isaiah 53:6). We deserve humiliation, death, and separation from God. But this whole section points us forward to that coming selfless one who would be humiliated, die our death, be separated from his Father, all so that our sin could be fully atoned for.
‘My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!’ (Horatio G Spafford)
‘We do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses … Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence.’ (Hebrews 4:15,16)
The Exodus and the covenant-making at Sinai defined the identity of God’s people, recalled often in praise and prayer and in prophetic messages. Central in the Sinai account are chapters 32–34, setting the pattern for the future. What kind of God is the Lord? What happens to his purposes for his people when they are ‘stiff-necked’ (33:3)? What does the continuing covenant relationship involve?
God has promised he will continue with his people (32:14), but how? He first acts (vs 25–29) to bring ‘out-of-control Israelites under control again’1, ‘to stop public disgrace Israel was bringing upon the Lord’2 (v 25; compare v 12). As Moses speaks boldly to God (vs 31,32) he is more concerned for Israel than his own life, an example seen above all in Christ. God denies Moses’ requests (forgiveness will be included in 34:7). Instead, he tells Moses to lead the people forward: the promise of the land still remains (32:34; 33:1–3a). There is qualification, however: it will be too dangerous if God and ‘stiff-necked people’ are together (33:3b,5). Instead, an angel is provided (32:34; 33:2). We end today’s reading here, but more is to come: God’s presence will be the central issue of chapter 33.
The narrative remains relevant. We are reassured of the continuity of God’s purposes for his people. The writer to the Hebrews warns in the light of Christ’s priestly ministry, ‘It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’, along with affirming fatherly discipline (Hebrews 10:31; 12:4–11). When God’s people turn to other gods and his name is dishonoured, there are consequences. Paul wrote, ‘not all who are descended from Israel are Israel’ (Romans 9:6),but for those who are ‘for the Lord’ (32:26) the journey ahead continues.
1 John I Durham, Exodus; Word Biblical Commentary, Nelson, 2010, p431
2 W Ross Blackburn, The God who makes himself known, IVP, 2012, p182
Sensitive people understandably struggle with incidents such as the punishing of the Israelites after the worship of the golden calf (Exodus 32:25 – 33:6), orders to wipe out the inhabitants of the land (Deuteronomy 7:1–6), and the punishment of Achan after his disobedience at Ai (Joshua 7:22–26).
What do we make of all of this?
We can take God’s holiness too lightly. In our liberal, relativist world, absolute standards are derided and disregarded. It is a free for all in which each does what he or she chooses.
The danger is that what suits me will probably disadvantage someone else. Relativist ethics are problematic. Absolute standards may be unpopular but are central to Christian belief and practice and offer significant benefits to wider society.
But even so, why such harshness?
These were tough times, and God is laying down some basic principles. Against the background of the times these actions would have seemed more normal and would have made a clear point. When people choose to go their own way there are consequences.
Surely there must have been another way?
Maybe, but we cannot know. What we do know is that God shows us another way in the New Testament. Love is the key. The price is paid not by the one who commits the crime but by God himself.
But even here care is needed – God’s love and his determination to establish justice means that evil must be removed from creation and that is a costly business.
In the Old Testament God is working against the background of the times and we need to balance what we find there by what we find in the New Testament. But we cannot ignore the message that God’s holiness is to be taken seriously.