Wasn’t it just a few chapters ago that the Israelites were telling Moses that they would do everything God commanded? Now the first sign of ambiguity, Moses is up on the mountain for 40 days, and they rebel. What’s interesting about the story is the role Aaron plays. It says they “gathered around Aaron” and told him to make them gods because, and I love the way it puts this, “As for this fellow Moses . . . we don’t know what has happened to him.” Not a patient lot. Aaron proves to be a coward, and is clearly scared by what he thinks the people might do to him if he doesn’t oblige.
So he gets the people to give him all their gold earrings, puts it in a fire and casts an idol out of it with the important fact that he fashioned it “with a tool.” But when Moses confronts Aaron about what happened he says this:
22 “Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ 24 So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”
This is almost funny. He just threw the gold in and out popped this calf! He doesn’t even have the guts to tell Moses the truth, that he was so cowed by the people he did exactly what they wanted him to do.
When God tells Moses what is happening he threatens to destroy them, and that he would transfer the covenant promise to Moses and make him into a great nation, but Moses will have nothing of it. He’s probably the right guy to have this happen because he was a reluctant leader, and was certainly not looking for glory or power. In fact, Moses “reminds” God about his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Israel, and God relents. Moses, like Jesus, is an intercessor for his people, and God’s wrath is averted.
As Moses is coming down the text says something interesting about the tablets:
15 Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. 16 The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.
You can’t get much more authority than God himself engraving his law upon the tablets. Then when Moses gets into the camp and sees what’s going on his anger burned, and he promptly throws the tablets down breaking them to pieces. Really Moses? You had to bust them all up, tablets that God himself had written? We know Moses had a little problem with anger, and we see it here.
But something very serious is on the line here, and Moses recruits men who are willing to stand with the Lord, and God commands something very harsh for the idolaters: death. And God makes sure it’s done without discrimination, whether brother, friend or neighbor. It’s Levites, the priests, who do this, and three thousand people died that day; sin is serious business. That seems like a lot of people, and it is, but there were over a million people at this point, so it’s a small percentage.
The wages of sin is and always will be death. When we look around is, in this fallen world we see something that is ubiquitous, of which we are reminded every day, something that we try to but know we cannot escape, and that is death. I read just this morning of a young kid, 20 years old, who recently got accepted to USC, who a final summer weekend before he buckles down to his new life, is struck by lightening at a southern California beach and killed! He just went into the water to wash some sand off his body, and boom! He’s dead! And summer thunderstorms at SoCal beaches just don’t happen. But there it is, death, we are reminded can happen any time. When we were in Tampa to get Gabrielle settled in for her new life we went to visit Sarah’s mother and husband; he’s 93 and dying of cancer. You can see the ravages of death playing out on both of them, time taking its toll. It plays out on us all. I’m 54 today, and one year, one day closer to death, time taking it’s toll on my body, the wages of sin.
Moses tells the people that maybe he can atone for their sin and asks God that their sin be forgiven, even if his own name needs to be blotted out of God’s book, and God does, though he punishes them with a plague. No wonder Moses is revered; he became a great, if flawed man. God then says to get on their way to the promised land. More adventures to come!