Have you ever messed up? Of course, everyone has. Mistakes are commonplace in our life. As bad as one of your mistakes might have been, it probably never cost millions of people their lives. That is what almost happened in the golden calf incident of Exodus 32.
Mistakes are bad enough when they cost us something. An unkind word hurts a friendship. A poor business decision leads to a loss in sales. A bad habit fractures a marriage.
But sometimes mistakes are magnified. The damage is not isolated to us or a few people around us. They hurt entire groups of people like a business, a government or even a church.
That’s what was on the line because of one leader’s mess up near the foothills of Mt. Sinai. His mistake would lead to one of the greatest opportunities another leader could ever imagine. But would that leader bite on the offer and accept the invitation presented to him?
The Golden Calf
“There is a noise of war in the camp…” – Joshua
“It is not the noise of the shout of victory, nor the noise of the cry of defeat, But the sound of singing I hear.” -Moses (Exodus 32:17-18)
That is the conversation that took place between Moses and Joshua as they descended Mt. Sinai with the two stone tablets onto which God had just finger-chiseled the 10 Commandments (Ex. 31:18). They were in a hurry because God had told them there was trouble in the camp.
The people had gone astray. They had made a huge mistake. And that mistake was allowed by an unlikely person – Aaron, Moses’ brother and newly appointed high priest of the nation.
Moses was a very strong leader. The people followed him and by extension they followed God. What God told Moses to say to the people, he said and the people obeyed.
But when Moses was gone on Mt. Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights (Ex. 24:18) to receive the law of the Lord, the people began to worry. They got nervous. Had something happened to Moses? If so, who would lead them?
And, perhaps more importantly, who would they worship? What would they do with their lives? Did God not care about them anymore?
The solution seemed reasonable. Let’s create our own god to worship. So, the people came to Aaron – the next logical leader – and asked him to fashion an image for them to worship. In other words, make us a god we can call our own (Ex. 32:1).
At this point, you would think that Aaron would hit the brakes. That he would take a moment to stop and think. Surely he would remember all that God had done for them and not allow this pagan idolatry to take place.
Sadly, that is not the path he took.
It had been God who miraculously appeared to Moses at the burning bush. It was God who demonstrated his power in ten devastating signs to Pharaoh. God was responsible for leading them through the desert, parting the Red Sea and drowning the Egyptian army. And it was God who had already provided water for them in the desert.
How could Aaron ignore these past events and allow the people to turn away?
The answer is that he caved to his present situation. He didn’t have the courage to tell the people “No, this is wrong.”
Maybe he felt pressured. Perhaps he felt intimidated by the people’s demand. Whatever the reason, Aaron led them down a path with serious repercussions.
To satisfy the people’s desires, Aaron instructed the people to bring him all their gold earrings. He then melted them all down. Then when the gold cooled and reached the point that it could be shaped, he took an engraving tool and molded all the combined gold into a golden calf. When it was completed, Aaron declared to the people, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (Ex. 32:4)
He proceeded to build an altar to the golden calf and proclaim a celebration to the Lord. And party the people did. We read that the next day the people presented offerings to the golden calf and engaged in a feast. And we are told they “rose up to play” – a probable reference to lewd and indecent acts they engaged in with one another that day.
Of course, Moses is unaware of all this. He is on the mountain. But nothing escapes God.
God’s Response to the Worship of the Golden Calf
When God saw the actions of the people he was hot, as in hot to let his righteous anger burn against them. Here is what he says to Moses:
“Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way I commanded them…I have seen this people, and indeed they are stiff-necked…Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath burn hot against them and I may consume them” (Ex. 32:7-10).
Now that’s upset!
But what comes next Moses couldn’t have anticipated God saying. And it would offer him an invitation he surely couldn’t refuse.
After the above verses, the next words out of God’s mouth to Moses are these:
“And I will make of you a great nation.”
What? God is about to change the plan. Moses was now to be the person through whom God would build his nation.
It would be Moses, not Abraham who would be the origin of all the promises. Moses who would receive the blessings. Moses who would have his name revered by countless generations of people. What an invitation!
It is the opportunity of a lifetime. The chance to put yourself above all others in the history of Israel. How could he turn that down?
Moses’ Response to God: Not What You’d Expect
We get no indication that Moses thought for a moment to accept God’s plan for him to be the father of a new nation. Maybe it tempted him. Wouldn’t it tempt us today to be placed into such a role of prominence in our world?
Instead, Moses chose a different option, one that shows us his compassion for the people and his humility as a leader.
In one of the most dramatic conversations in Scripture, he begs God to forgive the people of their sin. He reminds God of all that God did to lead the people out of Egypt. He points out that, if he destroys them now, all of Egypt would mock him as a merciless God and one incapable of controlling His people (Ex. 32:11-13).
Finally, in a stroke of genius, Moses asks God to recall all the promises that He had made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob of a future home for their descendants. Those are promises that can’t be broken. “God, you must follow through on those…relent from your anger…please, don’t destroy the people here!”
It’s a passionate and well-thought out plea coming from Moses. It had to be – the people’s lives were on the line.
After hearing Moses out, the Bible tells us that God relented from the harm which he said he would do to the people (Ex. 32:14). He didn’t destroy them and start over.
In these crucial moments when large-scale, national death was a very real possibility, Moses served as the mediator between God and mankind. He was an advocate for sinful people to a holy God. By doing so, he served as a picture of the ultimate mediator between a sinful mankind and a holy God who would live and die so many years later – Jesus Christ.
Even though God spared the people, there was still fallout from the incident. Aaron’s retained his role as the priestly leader but his excuses for the incident are difficult to read (Ex. 32:22-24). You weren’t strong enough a leader to restrain the people from this sin against God? Really Aaron…the calf just randomly popped out of the fire when you melted the gold?
We also learn that some of the more egregious sinners of the day are ordered to be executed. Members of the tribe of Levi rallied to Moses side to eradicate the sin from the camp (Ex. 32:25-28). Many more people in the camp are afflicted with a plague because of their sin (Ex. 32:35).
And Moses has to ascend the mountain again to receive a new set of stone tablets from the Lord. Moses had been so angry when he descended with Joshua and saw what was happening in the camp, he threw down the original stone tablets at the foot of the mountain and they broke into pieces (Ex. 32:19).
But thanks to Moses, the people weren’t destroyed. He could have been the person from which a new nation was birthed. Instead, he chose a different path, one filled with compassion for a sinful people. He showed courage in a tense situation. And he chose to help others in need instead of looking out for himself.
In those ways, he demonstrated some important qualities that all leaders should have. And, as the mediator for the people, he points us to Jesus who advocates for us today before God the Father.
Leave a Comment or Answer a Question Below: What stands out to you about the story of the golden calf? Do you think Moses changed God’s mind or did God know all along what was going to happen and this was more of a test for Moses? How do you feel about Aaron’s role in all this?