Exodus 32 tells the story of the golden calf. So many lessons in this passage! Moses and Joshua have been with the Lord on Mount Sinai for almost 40 days. Just before this, God also invited Aaron, his two sons Nadab and Abihu, and 70 of the elders of Israel up on the mountain, where they “saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared a pavement of sapphire as clear as the sky itself,” and “they saw God and they ate and drank.” What an amazing experience; they sat at the feet of God and had dinner! After this, Moses and Joshua go up higher on the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments and at some point, Aaron and the others make their way back down to the people.
With each day passing, the people grow more nervous that Moses has not returned. They ask Aaron to make them a god. This boggles my mind honestly. They have seen God’s power in so miraculous ways as He rescued them from Egypt and have surely heard the stories from Aaron and the others who were on the mountain with God. Why were they so quick to abandon their faith?
Aaron proves to be a weak leader in Moses’ absence. He capitulates to the will of the people and makes a golden calf, presenting it as “your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” This…from the man God chose to be the first high priest, the one who would enter the Tabernacle and serve in the presence of God Himself! The people bow down and worship the calf; they bring offerings to it; they “sat down to eat and to drink and rose up to play.”
The outcome isn’t pretty. Moses and Joshua come into the camp in the middle of their idol worship frenzy. He is so filled with righteous anger…so disappointed in the people and his brother, Aaron…he throws the two stones with God’s own handwriting to the ground and breaks them. He melts down the idol, grinds it into a powder, and makes them drink it. Aaron is obviously too terrified to admit his part in the sin and blames it on the people, even going so far as to lie about how the idol just “appeared” out of the fire. In the end, however, the Levites (which we have to believe included Aaron), repented and came over to the Lord’s side when Moses gave the charge to choose allegiance. Three thousand people were killed to atone for this great sin, after which Moses went back up to the mountain to beg God’s forgiveness and mediate mercy for the rest of his people.
God did forgive them. He relented from His desire to destroy the people and start over with Moses, because Moses interceded on their behalf, even offering to take the penalty himself. Later, in Exodus 34, God reminds us why He chose to forgive when He declares His name to Moses:
Then the LORD passed by in front of [Moses] and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 34:6-7).
God forgave Aaron for his part in this debacle, but he still suffered the consequences of his sin. We will later read that two of his sons, Nadab and Abihu, will also dishonor God by offering strange incense in the Tabernacle, and be killed immediately. Aaron’s disregard for God’s holiness in making the golden calf obviously affected his children’s spiritual growth and respect for God. They will choose to sin, but not repent.
Aren’t we glad God is gracious and slow to anger?
Aren’t we thankful that He is compassionate and abounds in mercy?
Aren’t we grateful to live on this side of the cross?
Sin was judged at the cross, providing a refuge for sinners, a shelter of grace and mercy. What Jesus did protects us from suffering the rightful, immediate judgment for when we do foolish things like Aaron did, and gives us time to repent. While Moses was a type of Christ when he ascended to the mountain to mediate mercy for the people, Christ is our actual Mediator who ascended to Mount Calvary and took the consequences of our sin on Himself. May we never take grace for granted, and may we stand in the gap like Moses, interceding for those who have not found shelter in the cross.