The Israelites continue to face challenges, this time with their patience and their faith. Moses was called up Mt. Sinai to meet with the Lord. And...he was gone 40 days. The Israelites still do not have the confidence or the faith to wait on the Lord, or Moses for that matter. Both God's presence and Moses were not in the camp but up on the mountain. Who would lead them and what would they do? They should go back to Egypt. That was familiar and easier than trying to wait upon the Lord. At least three times during the Israelites months at Sinai they had promised to obey whatever God commanded them to do. They said the right things, but their actions did not match their words. What we see here is Israel's great sin and God's even greater mercy. Their sin was great not because it was amazing but because of what they had already experienced in terms of God's power, might and glory. There had been the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the manna and quail. Not to mention the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire that went before them. The Israelites wanted a god to worship that they could see, just like everybody else.
The ancients saw in an idol an earthly representation of the god, not the god itself. And many cultures believed calves and bulls served as pedestals for the gods. No doubt the Israelites looked at the calf as the place above which God was enthroned, ensuring His presence with them. Israel was now combining their faith in the one true God with pagan traditions, a practice called syncretism. The Israelites, God's chosen people, exchanged God's glory for the image of a bull. The bull was a false representation of God's presence. They had fallen prey to cultural influences from Egypt. Both calves and bulls were worshiped in Egypt, and the bull was also the embodiment of the Canaanite god Baal. Already the first command was broken...I AM the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods. Followed by you shall not make for yourself any graven images. As Moses came down from Sinai and witnessed the chaos in the Israelites camp, he threw the stone tablets down on the ground. This was a symbolic act. Israel had broken the covenant and would have to face discipline.
This wasn't just a failure on the part of the Israelites. Their leadership failed as well. Aaron and the elders were only too eager to collect the gold earrings that had come from Egypt to make the golden calf. At the first sign of trouble and grumbling Aaron should have turned to the Lord. He had been with Moses enough times to know that was what was needed. Instead of restraining the people Aaron and the elders went right along with them. When Moses arrived back in camp and he spoke to Aaron it was like listening to Adam and Eve all over again. No one took responsibility, everyone else was to blame, and Aaron lied to Moses. God in His mercy gave them another chance but there were consequences. The Israelites had blatantly disobeyed God, but He showed His great mercy. He didn't completely destroy His people. He spared them. And He disciplined them so they would learn from their sin. He gave them a second chance. This is one of the major themes in scripture. Despite the repeated sinfulness of His people, God is merciful. He forgives those who repent.
God's anger blazed hot against His people. He called them stiff-necked, which describes their stubbornness. They refused to follow the ways of the Lord. Worse yet God threatened to destroy the entire nation and start over with Moses. Moses argued with God, reminding Him that He had already made covenant promises long before to Abraham. He reminded God that He had triumphed over Egypt and now it would look bad if He destroyed the same people He had just rescued. God relented but promised He would no longer accompany the Israelites to the promised land. Eventually God relented there too and promised to go with the Israelites as they moved on.
Moses moved his tent of meeting outside the camp. This was not the tabernacle because that had yet to be built. This was a tent Moses erected solely for the purpose of meeting with the Lord. When he went there the pillar of cloud descended and hovered at the door of the tent. No longer would the presence of the Lord come into the camp. The Israelites mourned and removed all their ornamentation. On some level they knew that had sinned. Over 3,000 people had been killed in their camp by the Levites, their own brothers. This seems harsh. But the wickedness had to be stopped before everyone in the camp perished.
We see God's great mercy in chapter 34. First of all, Moses is commanded to cut two new stone tablets. Once again God would write the commandments on the tablets. Once more God would instruct the Israelites concerning his righteous ways. Moses had asked to see God's glory and God obliged. He hid Moses in a rock crevice and passed by Moses, covering him with His hand until Moses could look only on His back. God proclaimed the meaning of His name, YAHWEH, and He revealed His gracious character. As God passed in front of Moses, He Said, ”The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished. He punished the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” We see that God is more willing to show His mercy than His wrath, but His wrath is very real. Not only do we see His mercy, but we see His justice. The last part of 34:7 echoes Exodus 20:5.
In ancient times multiple generations lived together. The younger learned from the older, both the good and the bad. The sins of those who rebel against God leave a bitter legacy for the generations that follow. God holds us responsible for our actions not just as individuals but as families. And like it or not, sometimes the previous generations sin does affect the following generations. But this is for those who hate God, not those who love Him. And the cycle can be broken through repentance and forgiveness. Again, a picture of God's mercy and grace.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W