After giving Moses the Ten Commandments, along with many other rules and instructions for walking in covenant with him, we see the Lord call Moses back up the mountain with his brother Aaron, Aaron’s oldest two sons, and the seventy elders (perhaps we’re seeing the same event from a different angle). We then see that the Lord is making preparations to formally establish the covenant with the people of Israel. An altar is built, animals are sacrificed, and the blood of the sacrifices is poured out on the altar as well as sprinkled on the people to formally establish the covenant (seems pretty gross to us, but this was probably normal to everyone involved). Like before, the people emphatically proclaim that they will do all that the Lord commands and be obedient with him (Exodus 24:1–8). We will quickly see them turn away from this promise, though.
Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the elders go part of the way up the mountain, and they “saw the God of Israel” in this glorious scene involving pavement of sapphire, and by his grace, they did not die. Rather, we see that “they beheld God, and ate and drank” (vv. 9–11). What a great reminder to us today about how we too should behold God and worship him!
Moses leaves the others behind to care for the people of Israel, and he goes up further on the mountain (along with Joshua, his assistant). Up there, the Lord gives him stone tablets containing the commandments of the Covenant (vv. 12–14). Moses encounters the Lord through great clouds of smoke and fire, and ends up staying on top of the mountain for forty days in the presence of the Lord (vv. 15–18).
For the sake of time, we skipped over several chapters laying out more laws and instructions for the people of Israel, and we picked back up with the narrative progression. As Moses is on the mountain for forty days, the people get impatient, and seem to even wonder if Moses has died on the fiery mountain. Rather than going to Aaron to find out what’s going on, we see that they instead somehow convince him to make them “gods who shall go before” them. Rather than shooting down this TERRIBLE idea, Aaron goes along with it, and takes up a collection of gold jewelry from all of the people. He melts it down, and then carves it into a golden calf. It seems possible that Aaron made this intending it to be a representation of the Lord, but the people don’t seem to have any care about the Lord that had just entered a covenant with and promised to obey (including the first two commands not to have other gods or make idols). They begin worshipping this calf with great immorality (Ex 32:1–6).
Meanwhile, on the Mountain, the Lord tells Moses what’s going on, and then tells Moses to stand aside while he wipes the whole nation out in his fury. Perhaps he is testing Moses with this statement, because Moses pleads with him to spare them for the sake of the covenant he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses also reminds him that it would look bad to the Egyptians if God brought Israel out of their bondage just to kill them all in the wilderness. The Lord hears Moses’ plea, and relents from the judgment he declared (vv. 7–14).
Moses goes down to the people, and he is so furious that he throws down the tablets written by God and breaks them (vv. 15–19). He then confronts Aaron, asking how he let this happen. Aaron tries to play it off as peer pressure, and honestly, as a miracle. He tells Moses that the people made him do it, so he threw the jewelry into the fire, and *poof,* out pops a golden calf (vv. 20–24). None of this is acceptable, though (obviously). Moses calls out for anyone on his (and God’s) side to come stand with him, and the tribe of Levi comes forth. Moses commands them to go and kill those who were responsible for this and who participated in this, and we see that over three thousand die at the hands of the Levites (vv. 25–30). This obedience and loyalty to the Lord earned the tribe of Levi a blessing, and ordination to the service of the Lord (which will be seen in their being made the priestly tribe of Israel). This is an interesting connection, though. In Genesis 34, we see Levi himself, along with Simeon, wipe out an entire city in their anger about their sister being assaulted. This rash anger brought a curse upon Levi from his father (Genesis 49). But here, his descendants harnessed that anger and zeal in a way that was in obedience to the Lord in carrying out his justice, and they receive a great blessing.
Again, Moses goes to the Lord and pleads with him to spare Israel, even asking if the Lord would put the blame on him in their place. The Lord tells him that each must pay for his own sin. This too is an interesting tie forward into Scripture. Moses is not able to pay for the sins of Israel. Only Jesus, the perfect Son of God, will be able to do this. If we fail to trust in the Lord, we each will have to pay for our own sins. It is only by faith in Jesus that we can be forgiven, and that we can walk rightly before the Lord as his children. May we always cling to this hope, and walk faithfully before him!