The Shattered Covenant

Last time, we studied the first half of Exodus 32: the Israelites’ disobedience against God and the making of the golden calf. So far, we’ve read everything from the perspective of the people. Starting in verse 7, however, the focus of the story’s action suddenly shifts back to God and Moses. As the reader, we are confronted with the full, unbridled, raw emotion of a betrayed God:

The Lord told Moses, “Quick! Go down the mountain! Your people whom you brought from the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. How quickly they have turned away from the way I commanded them to live! …I have seen how stubborn and rebellious these people are. Now leave me alone so my fierce anger can blaze against them, and I will destroy them. Then I will make you, Moses, into a great nation.” (Exodus 32:7-10, NLT)

In response to God’s anger, Moses immediately throws himself into the position of intercession for the people he loves – the people he knows God loves! Notice, how Moses in his prayer first turns God’s words around and gives the people back to God: “But Moses implored the LORD his God and said, ‘O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt…?” (vs. 11, ESV) Moses then appeals to God on the basis of His reputation: “Why let the Egyptians say…?” (vs. 12) In other words, “Your glory and reputation is at stake among the nations here, God! Don’t turn Your back on Your people!” Finally, in his desperate prayer, Moses ultimately appeals to God on the basis of His covenant promise: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self” (vs. 13, ESV). Moses knows that above all, God is a promise keeper. He knows that when all else seems to fail, he can count on God’s eternal covenantal faithfulness.

The astounding surprise of the story comes in verse 14: “So the LORD changed his mind about the terrible disaster he had threatened to bring on his people” (NLT). This verse has left many confused and frustrated. How can we reconcile the idea of God changing His mind with what we read about God’s unchanging and eternal nature? “God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through?” (Numbers 23:19, NLT) What we must recognize here is that God is using “anthropomorphic” (human-like) qualities to express himself in a way that we can understand and relate to. Even more importantly, God is using this interaction to thrust Moses into a Christ-like position of intercession for his people. I like how commentator David Guzik puts it:

God did not destroy Israel, and He knew that He would not destroy Israel. Yet He deliberately put Moses into this crucial place of intercession, so that Moses would display and develop God’s heart for the people, a heart of love and compassion. Moses prayed just as God wanted him to – as if heaven and earth, salvation or destruction, depended on his prayer. This is how God waits for us to pray. (David Guzik, Commentary on Exodus)

Moses prayed the exact prayer that God wanted to hear. “That’s right, Moses! That’s exactly what I hoped you would say. You have proven to me that you have the same heart of love that I have for our people.” As I reflect on this amazing reality, I find theologian R. Alan Cole’s words particularly meaningful: “We are not to think of Moses as altering God’s purpose towards Israel by this prayer, but as carrying it out: Moses was never more like God than in such moments, for he shared God’s mind and loving purpose”(Exodus, p. 227).

But the drama of our story is not over yet. We then read how Moses goes down the mountain to fully realize the extent of the people’s rebellion. It was worse than Moses could have ever imagined. Moses immediately gets down to business and carries out a swift sentence of justice on the leading offenders. But after that, Moses again returns to the mountain to speak with God. This time, Moses isn’t pleading for the people’s lives (that request was granted earlier). The question that now hangs in the balance is: Will God choose to continue His covenantal relationship with Israel? As the reader, we are left wondering, “Can the shattered relationship between God and Israel ever be restored? Will God ever claim the Hebrews as His people again?” The end of chapter 32 leaves us astonished and dismayed with what seems to be a clear and irrevocable “NO!”

And the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book… in the day when I visit for punishment, I will visit punishment upon them for their sin.”

So the Lord plagued the people because of what they did with the calf which Aaron made. (Exodus 32:33-35, NKJV)

In closing for this segment of the study, I would like to leave you with the thoughts of Professor Steve Rodeheaver:

That’s where our text ends for now. Plague. Israel must feel the pain of Yahweh… There was no forgiveness. It was still too soon. Imagine discovering that your spouse only married you as a means to an end. You have been reduced from a covenant partner to a manageable resource. The wound is deep. The rage is strong. Quick, automatic forgiveness? No such thing. Can the counselor coax you into forgiveness? Not a chance, not if it is going to be genuine. No, that forgiveness will have to come, if it comes, from deep within your own heart. And thus we wait to discover what lies deep within the heart of Yahweh.

[At this point], it would be easy, too easy, to jump to the New Testament and Jesus as the atonement for our sins. To make that move would be true enough, but to make it so quickly would distort the nature of forgiveness and shrink both Israel’s sin and Yahweh’s heart. The sin of reduction is huge. Only a huge forgiveness can cover it. Does Yahweh have a huge enough heart to re-covenant with Israel? So far, there is only a whisper of hope. Possibly, just maybe, plague is not the last word.

But we don’t know, not yet. We have to wait amid hushed tones of hope to see what’s in the heart of Yahweh. As a New Testament people it is an awkward place for us to be. But if we are to know Yahweh’s heart, if we are to know the heart that Christ reveals, that’s where we must be for now: the not-yet-forgiven side of forgiveness. (Steve Rodeheaver, Exodus Talks: Pastoral Devotionals from Exodus, CRI/Voice, Institute)

Be sure to watch for our next study over Exodus 33!

Idolatry

“When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain…” (Exodus 32:1)

Before we get into the crux of Exodus 32, I want us to pause for a second on these first few words: “When the people saw how long it was taking…” Isn’t it sad that we so often fall into traps of temptation when we think God is “delayed” in doing something? How we so easily become discouraged and disheartened when we see “how long” things are taking? Even though we have been given an absolute guarantee on the final outcome of God’s good plans for us! Undeniably, these seasons of waiting can be excruciatingly difficult. But unlike the frustrated boredom of the Israelites, Jesus advises us to “actively wait” for His timing – with lamps burning bright and a heart ready for service: “Be dressed for service and keep your lamps burning, as though you were waiting for your master to return from the wedding feast… He may come in the middle of the night or just before dawn. But whenever he comes, he will reward the servants who are ready.” (Luke 12:35-38, NLT).

Coming back to our story, we now watch as the people clamor around Aaron, fiercely demanding: “Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (NKJV). Sadly, it doesn’t take Aaron long to capitulate. Perhaps he thought that by complying with the people’s demands, he could at least remain in control of the situation? Else, maybe he feared he would be killed? “And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf. Then they said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!'” Tragically, it seems the Israelites have completely turned their back on God in full-out rebellion…

But then we get to verse 5, and here’s where I think things get really interesting: “So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord'” (verse 5). Literally translated, Aaron is saying: “Tomorrow is a feast to Yahweh.” He’s talking about the actual Creator God here! I used to think that the people had made an idol to a pagan god, that they had completely rejected their Creator and turned to a false religion. But in reality, they were still “worshipping” the true God – Yahweh. You see, the people didn’t actually want to totally get rid the one true Creator God who led them out of Egypt. They liked His power and miracles, but the whole business with the “I AM THAT I AM” invisible kind of God who only seemed to be making more and more demands was getting a little old… If only the people could have some sort of tangible manifestation of God’s presence among them. Something that they could see, feel, hold… Something that they could control. Something that they could carry around to “lead them” to the places they wanted to go (verse 1). Something that they could even put back in the box if they wanted to! “Well,” they reasoned, “then that would be a much nicer, much more manageable arrangement with the divine, wouldn’t it?” The scary thing is, though, how often do we do the exact same thing with God today? Don’t we find ourselves trying to control and manipulate Him in our prayers and decisions? Don’t we try to squeeze God in the tiny boxes of our own desires and plans? Don’t we so often limit God to nothing more than a puny idol when we doubt His ability to work in our own lives and the lives of others? It’s a sobering reality check to recognize that we are perhaps not so very different than the idolatrous Hebrews after all…

“The people got up early the next morning to sacrifice burnt offerings and peace offerings. After this, they celebrated with feasting and drinking, and they indulged in pagan revelry” (verse 6, NLT). What began as an attempt to “worship” God (a limited, reduced, cheap version of God, that is) in their own way and with their own rules quickly spiraled out of control into a drunken pagan orgy! What it ultimately comes down to is that Israel was trying to redefine the contract with God. “We know you said that, God–that whole thing about not making idols, etc. But, given the special circumstances, we think we’ll do this instead…” In fact, the Israelites have more or less been trying to renegotiate the terms of the covenant with God this since Day 1. (See our study over Exodus 19, “The Covenant“) The scary part about it all is that we so often do the exact same thing! When we start trying to “rearrange” things with God–when we start trying to redefine who God is in accordance with who we want Him to be–then what we’re ultimately doing is duping ourselves for a puny, vacillating idol of ourselves! Nothing limits God’s power more in our lives than our attempts to mold Him into our own image. Perhaps this is why God responds so intensely (violently, even) to the Israelite’s rebellion at Mount Sinai?

And except for the prayers of one faithful man, Israel would have irrevocably set its course for complete destruction that day… Keep an eye out for the second half of this study on Exodus 32!

Final Instructions

By Exodus 31, God has been giving instructions to Moses for the last ten chapters – instructions for social laws, ceremonial feast days, the construction of the tabernacle, the garments of the priests, and nearly everything in between. Finally, God wraps up the conversation by telling Moses who has been chosen to build the holy tabernacle:

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And I have filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold, in silver, in bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of workmanship.

And I, indeed I, have appointed with him Aholiab the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have put wisdom in the hearts of all the gifted artisans, that they may make all that I have commanded you…” (Exodus 31:1-6, NKJV)

I find these words to be of special importance. We so often think of God pouring out His anointing Spirit on pastors, ministers, evangelists, and missionaries. We think of the work of the LORD as encompassing preaching, teaching, and witnessing – but not much else. Yet here we have a beautiful illustration of God’s Spirit being poured out on an ordinary workman. “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri,” the text reads. “That’s my guy!” God says. “This is the one I have specifically called and chosen to build My holy tabernacle.” What an overwhelming privilege! I would think that this passage offers encouragement and affirmation to those of us who may not have been called to a specific vocation of church ministry. We may not be pastors or foreign missionaries, but, guess what, we’ve still been chosen and anointed to do a very special work of the LORD. You have received a unique calling that only you can fulfill! When you look at it that way, you realize that every single activity of your daily labor—no matter how menial it might seem—can be turned into an act of worship! The New Testament admonishes us to live out this “true worship” which comes by surrendering every facet of lives—whether at work or home or church—to God’s will. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1, NIV; see also 1 Corinthians 10:31.) It is both an encouraging realization as well as a sobering mandate of responsibility.

The final set of directions that God gives Moses is in relation to the Sabbath day: “Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you.’” (Exodus 31:12-13, NKJV). At first I found this repetition of the Sabbath commandment a little strange. Hasn’t God already given clear directions for the Sabbath in Exodus 20? Why the need to repeat? It then occurred to me, however, that the placement of the Sabbath reminder here is indeed very significant. God and Moses have just been talking about all the things that the people will need to do to prepare a dwelling place for the LORD: they will need to build the tabernacle, they will need to craft the sacred furnishings, they will need to prepare the priest’s garments, they will need to perform the dedication ceremony – and the list goes on… Perhaps God wanted to use this last repetition of the Sabbath promise as a way to remind the people that it is not their works, but God’s work, that will make them holy. God wanted His children to take a break every single week on the Sabbath day, to stop and remember – “that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (verse 13).

It’s almost as if God has intentionally book-ended this entire mountain-top discourse with the Sabbath. We first read about it in Exodus 20, at the heart of God’s proclamation of the Ten Commandments (the “Ten Promises”). And here we are reading about the beautiful Sabbath promise once again at the end of Exodus 31. I think God wants us to learn something today as well. As we discussed in our previous lesson “The Law, Part 2 – Sabbath,” Sabbath is so much, much more than a mere day of the week. It’s an attitude. We can either live our lives striving to get something that we already have, or we can begin abiding in the promises that God has bestowed upon us. (See John 15:1-8.) The Sabbath signifies a salvational rest. It’s a day we observe every week, where we remember that we can stop working to earn anything with God. We can’t impress Him. We can’t earn our way to heaven. Instead, we simply rest in His self-sacrificing and eternally-lasting love for us.

And with that last reminder, God delivers to Moses His holy law and covenant – the transcript of His very own character of love:

“When the Lord finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant, written by the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18, NLT).

Written with God’s very own finger! The question we are now left with is, “What will Moses and Israel do with this overwhelmingly-beautiful token of God’s covenant relationship?” We wait until the next chapter to find out.