Read Exodus 31-32 at Bible Gateway.
As to why the Israelites were prone to idolatry, they had lived their whole lives in Egypt as slaves. They had not been free to follow their own traditions and customs in worshiping the LORD. They had been surrounded by the idolatry of Egypt their whole lives. Notice, when Aaron is making the golden calf, he said to Israel in connection with the worship of it, that “Tomorrow is a feast to the LORD,” Exo 32:5. In other words, they were thinking they were still going to worship YHVH, just in the same way that the Egyptians worshiped their gods as that was all they knew.
Also, we cannot forget that a mixed multitude came up with Israel out of Egypt (Exo 12:38). All that were in the camp, whom the LORD was making a covenant with, were not biological descendants of Abraham! Now this is important: we learn that the LORD does not limit His covenant to only those who are biologically descended from Abraham, but all those who will join with the biological seed in worshiping YHVH, will be included in His covenant that He is making with Israel.
The other lesson that we learn, is that someone who joins themselves to Israel and to YHVH, must leave behind whatever ungodliness and Law- lessness and idolatry they had learned from their past, and keep YHVH’s covenant, i.e. obey His voice with which He voiced in an audible voice, the Ten Commandments!
Now when the LORD tells Moses to get himself down because the people have made an idol, all of the sudden the children of Israel are Moses’ people whom Moses brought out of Egypt (Exo 32:7). God was not just being cute, like throwing a shout out to all those parents who refer to their children as “our children” when they are good but “your children” when they are bad. No – the covenant He made with them, was that on His part, they would be His people, while on their part, they would have no other gods before them. They quickly set up another god before them, so they were no longer His people.
God’s kingdom of priests and His holy nation do not worship idols! If anyone wants to be a citizen of that nation and that kingdom, well, forsaking idolatry goes with the territory. If anyone wants to worship idols, well, that is up to them, but they set themselves outside of the citizenship of that nation and that kingdom.
One other thing I want to point out is that even under the old covenant, when Israel broke the Law, God forgave their sin and remembered their iniquity no more! Law breaking is not without consequences – 3000 men died that day (I believe they were the ones whose heart was set on idolatry, who were the instigators in the calf incident – that is my opinion). The Law was given to benefit us, to preserve us from death, not to benefit God. What do we add to God by keeping a single commandment? So consequences for Law breaking exist, to teach us not to break the Law! Not because God wants us to earn approval, but because He wants the consequences for keeping the Law – blessing and good – to rest upon us.
For further study: these chapters, beginning with chapter 31, are full of chiastic structures! Keep your eyes open for repeating elements to try to find them! When you do, ask, why has God put neon flashing lights around this central axis?
Finding Messiah: Was God really intending to destroy all of Israel and make a new nation of Moses, and but for Moses’ intervention we would have the children of Moses today instead of the children of Israel? I do not believe so. When we attempt to grasp the meaning of a passage, our understanding of that passage must align with other Scripture, if we want to be sure we have the correct understanding. Scripture is truth and truth does not contradict. So the understanding of one passage, if it is a correct understanding, will not contradict the correct understanding of another passage.
So this is what I believe is going on here: we had several chiastic structures, one upon another in Genesis, where the central axis was that God fulfilled His word, even if He didn’t have any humans who believed Him! So now He is going to forget His word and forget His promise? That contradicts what we already know about YHVH, so therefore I do not believe that is what the passage is teaching.
I am sure that Israel’s idolatry did not please Him, but we have to remember, this is the same YHVH who endured hundreds of years of idolatry from Israel before allowing judgment to come upon them. And He is going to lose His patience and lose control over one incident?
No – a prophetic picture is being painted here. Moses, remember, is a type of Messiah. The events of His life are teaching who Messiah is and what He will do when He comes. The big picture of chapter 32, is:
The intervention is in the form, not only of intercession, but listen to what Moses says:
Then Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Oh, these people have committed a great sin, and have made for themselves a god of gold! Yet now, if You will forgive their sin–but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written.” Exo 32:31-32
What is he doing here? He is asking to be made a substitute, so that the wrath of God will fall upon him and not on them! Does this sound familiar? This is exactly what Jesus has done in substituting Himself to drink the cup of God’s wrath for the sins of the world, to spare the world His just wrath! This is the gospel of grace!
For further reading:
The Sabbath Day – Brad Scott (series continuation, scroll down)
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