Exodus 32 is the account of the Golden Calf and the fallout that ensued. The magnitude of what goes on in the span of just a few chapters is staggering. Exodus 31 closes like this, “When [God] had finished speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God.” God had literally just handed the 10 Commandments, the workmanship of His own hands, to Moses…
Meanwhile (Genesis 32), the people reckon that Moses sure has been up on that thar mountain over yonder a good long while (a little Arkansawyer for you), and they begin to wonder whether he would ever be returning. They quickly decide to give up on the God who has just delivered them from bondage in Egypt with a mighty hand, decimated the Egyptians with the 10 plagues, plundered the Egyptians for them, led them across the Red Sea as the most powerful army on earth drowned behind them, stood before them as pillars of fire and cloud, and provided both food and drink for them along the way. Instead, “Come make us a god who will go before us.” This sounds like wisdom to the ear of Aaron, apparently. “He took [the gold] from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, ‘This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.'” After hearing this, Aaron realizes that it would also be a really good idea to build an altar in front of the calf, where the people can sacrifice for a feast unto YHWH the next day. Yes, this is what happens when the cat is away (in the span of 6 verses).
God is prepared to wipe out all of Israel and effectively re-work the covenant that He has made with them as His covenant people and start over again with Moses. Remember, God would have spared Sodom on account of just a few righteous people (Genesis 18). This brings Noah to my mind. Israel has quickly reached the level of wickedness that caused God to destroy the entire world by flood. But this time, Moses stands before God as intercessor and pleads on behalf of the people for the sake of God’s own Name, and He relents. After issuing some bloody justice on the people with the help of the Levites, Moses goes before God and attempts to make atonement for the people. God has relented from destroying them; now Moses begs Him to forgive the sins of the people outright. Here, we learn an important truth: Moses is not the substitutionary sacrifice of atonement. He offers himself as collateral and requests that if God will not forgive His people that He would just blot his name out of the Book of Life. God refuses to do either but maintains that every man’s guilt before God over his sin will remain. Obviously, this passage points us forward to Someone who could come and take away the sins of the world–Someone greater than Moses (Hebrews 3:3).
^That stuff in itself would make a really great post, but let’s finish the story…
Moses successfully stood as intercessor for the people before God; he proved insufficient in the sight of God as atonement maker. So, God will not destroy the people now, but they will give account for their sins one day. But now in Exodus 33 something happens that I would not expect in reading through this. God announces that He will be faithful to do what He promised (because that is what He does), and an angel will go before Israel and wipe out the inhabitants of Canaan. However, God Himself will not go with them. He has become so grieved over the sinfulness of the people (think Genesis 6:3-7) that He can no longer stand to be around them or to be affiliated with them; should He go with them, He would likely destroy them along the way on account of their sin (Exodus 33:3). Moses has another intercessory work to perform. But before we get there, let us deal with a major application question that each of us must face in dealing with this story:
If God gave you everything on earth you had ever dreamed of, hoped for, and imagined, but He would retract His own presence from you, would you be satisfied?
That is ultimately where Moses finds himself. The people are free from the bondage of their cruel Egyptian masters. God promises to get them to the land flowing with milk and honey safely and securely. They will live the dream of being an autonomous nation in a land of abundance. But God will not be with them. This leads us to a second, and related, application question:
Is it the glorious face of the LORD or His blessing hand that you ultimately seek?
Quickly, let’s see Moses’ response. First he says, “…If I have found favor in Your sight, let me know Your ways that I may know You, so that I may find favor in Your sight (Exodus 33:13).” After God promises to come along, Moses continues, “If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here (Exodus 33:15).” In concert with David, he might say, “You are my Lord, I have no good besides You (Psalm 15:2).” With Asaph, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth (Psalm 73:25).” Or with Paul, “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord… (Philippians 3:8).”
For Moses, to know God and to be with Him were the only rewards of life he sought. This extended story is followed by the account of God’s revelation of His glory to Moses. He was unable to see the face of God; he never could have handled. Merely seeing the backside glory of God overwhelmingly floored him. Moses never was able to see God’s face, just as none of us will ever see the face of God…until we see it together. But the pursuit of the God’s glorious face should fuel our lives. We are promised in Jeremiah 29:13, “You will seek me and find me when you search for me with all your heart.”
1 Chronicles 16:11, “Seek the LORD and His strength; seek His face continually.” To this we rightly respond with Psalm 27:4, “When You said, ‘Seek my face,’ my heart said to You, ‘Your face, O LORD, I shall seek.'”