After the ratification of the covenant between the people of Israel and God through the sprinkling of blood of the sacrifice, Moses and Joshua go up the mountain to receive the written 10 commandments on stone tablets. Moses also receives specifications for the tabernacle tent where God is to dwell with His people, and the worship that is to take place there. God is forming His nation to live in union with Him in law and worship.
However, while Moses and Joshua spend 40 days and nights on the mountain in the storm cloud of God’s presence, the people of Israel show their forgetfulness and infidelity. Because Moses is delayed, they go to his brother Aaron who is in charge in his absence, and ask him to make them a god. Aaron asks for all the gold that they have and makes a Golden Calf to worship. Aaron then takes the calf and proclaims it as the god who delivered them out of the land of Egypt. Aaron then builds an altar to the calf and proclaims a feast for the new god of Israel. The Israelites arose the next day, feasted, and rose to play (which insinuates sexual cultic practices).
As this occurs, God informs Moses on the mountain top what the people have done below. God threatens to wipe all of the Israelites out in His justice, but Moses intercedes for the people. At Moses’ pleading, God relents and allows the Israelites to remain his people. Moses then goes down the mountain to express his anger to the people. He smashes the commandments and melts the Golden Calf. He then urges anyone who serves the Lord to take up arms against those who were continuing the idol worship. The Levites answer the call and exact the justice of God on three thousand Israelites. Because they answer the call, the Levites become the priests of the nation. Moses then returns up the mountain, to intercede for the people. He convinces God to stay with the people, instead of just sending His angel to lead the Israelites. God only stays with the people because of His intimate friendship with Moses. After receiving a second set of stone tablets, some more laws, and the Ark of the Covenant, the Israelites are ready to embark on their journey to the promised land.
In this story, it can be tempting to look down upon the Israelites’ behavior. How could they possibly rebel against God who had given them so many signs and wonders? Yet, if we examine our own lives, we can identify the many times that God has answered our prayers, yet we still rebel in our hearts consistently. This is the nature of a life that is still attached to physical comforts. At every turn, the Israelites reject the wilderness where they are being formed into intimate companions of God, always yearning for a life of slavery and the meager physical comforts they had in Egypt. The Golden Calf is a great example of this, as it was formed after an Egyptian god. In their hearts the Israelites had not left Egypt. We often do the same with sin.
We can see in the Golden Calf that the people have twisted in their mind who God is. Often our rejection of God is not outright denial, but we try to make God the way we want Him. When Aaron gives the people the Golden Calf (made from the gold the Egyptians gave the Israelites after the Passover of the Angel of Death), he announces it as the God who led them out of Egypt. The Israelites readily accept this as their God. Why? Because it fit into their notion of physical comforts and pleasures. This fertility god in front of whom the Isrealites ‘rose to play,’ came from the place where they knew comforts, and they desired for that to be brought back to them. We often follow the same path, rationalizing our actions and making excuses that convince us that God is okay with our sinful activity or that an all loving God would never exact justice on our actions. We attempt to change who God is in our mind to rationalize doing the things that we want.
We can also learn of the justice of God in this passage. The people had received the 10 Commandments from God, while witnessing His glory from afar. In 40 days or less, they had broken the very first commandment that they had been given. God tells Moses plainly that if He were to be with the sinful people, His wrath would flare up and consume them all. Divine justice would have given the Israelites what they deserved, death.
But in this same moment, we see God revealing His divine mercy. As Moses intercedes, God does not exact His justice. Rather, because of Moses’ friendship, God spares the people of Israel. Moses even is able to convince God to continue to travel with His people instead of just sending His angel. In Moses, we see the prefiguration of Jesus. He is the prophet that goes up the mountain and gives the Law of God to the people. This points to what Jesus does in His sermon on the mount. However, we also see the love that Moses has for God opens the door to intercession and divine mercy. Just as God grants Moses’ intercession, so also does Jesus stand as the perfect intercessor for us at God’s right hand.
Even with the mercy of God, the Israelites are going to continue to be hard of heart (all the more reason for mercy). As the Israelites march towards the promised land, they will try God’s patience yet again. But they have an intercessor who stands as mediator between them and God, which is something that Christians share with the Israelites of old. Yet our mediator is one who stands for us for eternity.