Week 11 / Exodus 32-34
There is something deeply disturbing about the situation that unfolds in these chapters. The tragedy of the scene as the LORD in his glory is revealed on Sinai (Ex.19:16-20), whilst in the shadow of that glory, the people give their worship to a cast idol of their own making. You could almost think it impossible for this to happen… until we reflect on our own spiritual experience. Idolatry is part of the fallen sinful condition (Rom.1:18-23), and evokes God’s wrath today every bit as much as it did under Sinai. And insofar as we continue to be shaped by our sin even after we are redeemed, our tendency to revert to that idolatry is an ever present danger (32:22, I Kings 12:25ff).
Redeemed people are very spiritually complex. More often than not, the dynamics of our worship remain shaped by a mix of truth and error co-existing alongside each other. Our vision of God is informed in part by His revelation of Himself in Christ, and in part by our own assumptions, desires, cultural prejudices and folly. Much of our growth in discipleship and worship consists in eradicating error, and bringing our worship in line with a vision of God that corresponds as fully as possible with the reality of God as He has revealed Himself to be in Christ. This is why we need the truth of Christ held out to us constantly from the Spirit-inspired Scriptures. Then we can be checking and re-checking, clarifying and correcting our vision of the Lord, and ensuring that He is who we think He is.
Remembering that Moses is playing the part of Christ (and not us!), we are confronted with this truth in our passage. In the absence of the Mediator, our hearts naturally revert back to idolatry. Unless truth is relentlessly held before our eyes, our hearts and minds slip inexorably back towards error. Hence thecal of Hebrews to ‘fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith…’ (12:2).
But, we are ‘stiff-necked’ (Ex.32:9). This is a singularly appropriate image, referring to the unwillingness of a yoked animal, such as an ox (calf?), to turn in the direction the ploughman desires. Pulling against the plougher’s wishes, the animal stubbornly sticks to its own course, resisting the tug of the reins. This is exactly what is happening here in Ex.32. Since the (Angel of the) LORD met with Moses at the (non-)burning bush, the intention of the Exodus has been for the LORD to redeem a people for Himself who would worship Him (3:12). The incident with the Golden Calf is the complete subversion of all the LORD has desired. It undermines the whole Exodus at its most foundational level. Idolatry in the Church today (holding a vision of G/god that doesn’t fully correspond with the reality of who He is) similarly subverts the desire of God for His people at its most foundational level (John 4:23). Our vision of God – and how far that aligns to his revelation of Himself in Jesus – remains the single most important thing about us.
32:1Why do you think that the people want an idol to worship? Why do they ask for ‘gods’, and not just a ‘god’? Why is Moses’ absence such an issue for Israel? If it was going to cause such a problem, why does the LORD keep Moses on Sinai for so long? Are we vulnerable to the same concerns?
32:2-6How should Aaron have responded to the people’s request? Why do you think he responds in the way that he does? How far is Aaron a victim in this situation, and how far is he responsible for it? What can we infer about the nature of spiritual leadership from this encounter?
Do you think Aaron thought he was creating a new god, or simply making a representation of Yahweh? Why does Aaron make a calf? And why does he build an altar in front of it?
32:9-10How does the Lord’s response underline the seriousness with which He takes idolatry? Why is it such a severe problem? What do we learn about the LORD from His response? Is His anger justified? Why / why not?
32:10What is the significance of the LORD’s offer to Moses, to ‘make you a great nation’? Is Moses right to refuse the LORD?
32:11-14What do we learn about the art of Intercession from the plea of Moses? Remembering that Moses points us primarily to Christ as Mediator (rather than functioning as an example of our own individual spiritual experience), what do we learn about Christ’s intercessory ministry (Heb.7:25)?
32:14Do you think God changes His mind in response to Moses’ prayer?
32:19-20Having been instrumental in the LORD’s relenting, why does Moses now become angry himself when he returns to the camp? Why does he make Israel drink the crushed idol? (does Num.5:11-31 help?)
32:21-24 Look at Aaron’s response when he is confronted by Moses. What do we learn about the nature of sin, and our relationship with our sin, from what we see in his explanation?
32:25How does the sin of Israel affect their evangelistic outreach? Can you think of places in the Bible where pure worship is seen as having profound evangelistic impact? Why is there this link? How would you explain it?
32:26-29What do you make of the incident with the Levites? Remarkably, this is the reason they are set apart to serve as priests in the Tabernacle (v.29). What do you think is the connection? Why do only 3,000 people die? Do you think this has any relationship with the Day of Pentecost, when about 3,000 are saved (Acts 2:41)?
32:30-35Moses so deeply understands his role as Mediator (playing the part of Christ) that he knows that in order to make atonement for the people, h/He must be blotted out of the book of life. Why does the LORD now reject Moses’ intercession, having accepted it previously (in 32:11-14)?
How would you help someone in the 21st Century to identify their idols?
If you applied that process to yourself, what would you discover your own idols to be? Based on this passage, how would you respond before God?
Exodus 32-34 might be some of the deepest chapters in the entire Bible, and will by God’s grace, extravagantly reward careful study and meditation. There are fewer places in Scripture where the role of the Mediator is more carefully explored, and where we can therefore ground our hope in the person and work of Christ. It is here that we learn that Christ is one with the Father (which is why Moses is satisfied with His Presence after initially asking to see the Father’s glory). And remember - when you read Exodus, Moses plays the part of Christ (though that part will soon be taken over by Joshua – the clue is in the name, Ex.33:11). It is Christ who will be blotted out of the Book of Life to make atonement for His people; it is Christ who is the Presence of God who will dwell with His people, and distinguish them from all others, during their pilgrimage; it is Christ who speaks with and sees the Father face-to-face, and dwells in His presence; it is Christ who brings the radiance of His glory to the Church; it is Christ who reveals to us the will and character of the Father; Christ who identifies with His people and intercedes on their behalf; it is Christ with whom the Father makes His covenant. And of course, He is the cleft in the Rock in whom we hide that we might be sustained under the weight of God’s glory. Behold your Saviour (II Cor.3:12-4:6). Truly there is great wisdom in john’s closing exhortation: ‘Dear children, keep yourselves from idols’ (I Jn.5:21). Christ is your LORD, worship only Him.