Lesson Focus: This lesson examines Moses’ intercession for the Israelites when they committed idolatry and his passion for the Lord’s holiness.
Intercede on Behalf of Others: Exodus 32:7-14.
 And the LORD said to Moses, "Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves.  They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’"  And the LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people.  Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you."  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 with great power and with a mighty hand?  Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people.  Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’"  And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people. [ESV]
[7-14] Moses’ Intercession. Having been on the mountain top for forty days and forty nights, on the morning of the forty-first day Moses sets out to return to the people. He was no doubt elated after the audience he had enjoyed on the mountain, and he is carrying back to the people the God-given copy of the covenant stipulations to which they had already committed themselves. Then the whole mood is shattered as the Lord tells him about what is going on in the camp. When he hears about it, Moses pleads with the Lord on behalf of the people. In this we see the other aspect of Moses’ role as mediator. Not only is he the Lord’s instrument for saving the people and presenting them with the demands of the covenant; Moses also intercedes on their behalf with the Lord. This shows the extent to which he as their leader was concerned for the good of the people. However, it is done in such a way that Moses’ undeviating commitment to the Lord and His glory is not compromised. There is a measure of abruptness in the speech with which the Lord addresses Moses. A crisis has developed below and immediate action is called for. Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt  echoes the language of the people in 32:1 when they decided on their course of conduct without taking the Lord into consideration. They had dismissed the Lord from their thinking and this had been translated into such abandonment of the standards of conduct He had set before them that He now disowns them. They had corrupted themselves. When applied to inanimate objects this term implies that they have been so marred and ruined as to be useless [8:24]; when applied to people, it indicates depraved moral conduct which renders them offensive in the sight of God [Ps. 14:1]. Their actions had rendered them unfit to be recognized as the Lord’s people. They are being disowned as apostates. Their sin involved an element of omission: They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them . It was no time at all since they had entered into covenant with the Lord [24:3-8]. It was the command of their King they had ignored, not merely advice given them by a guide (such as Moses) as to the route they should travel in their lives. There was also the sin of commission: They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it. The Lord clearly repudiates the notion that their worship was in some way addressed to Him. Israel was worshipping, and sacrificing to, an idol. Whatever Aaron had hoped to achieve by declaring it a feast to the Lord  had quite clearly failed. The conduct of the people has given clear evidence regarding their character and where their loyalty truly lay. This had been noted by the Lord, and His verdict on them reached: it is a stiff-necked people . Stiff-necked is a farming metaphor for an animal unwilling to bow its neck to receive the yoke and so be usefully employed on the land. The people were stubborn and unprepared to accept the Lord’s direction. They were intent on going their own way. The Lord therefore announces the appropriate sentence on their conduct, and sets out an alternative proposal for the fulfillment of the covenant promises. What had taken place was sufficient to justify God’s wrath against the people for their lack of faithfulness. Consume  is a word that indicates ‘bring to completion, bring to an end’, and is often used negatively, ‘to annihilate, terminate’. The people’s conduct merited the ultimate penalty and the revocation of the covenant blessing on them. The promises made of old that there would be a great nation descended from Abraham might be fulfilled in another way, through Moses himself. The divine speech in verse 10 is prefaced by Now therefore let me alone. Moses had not yet spoken. He probably was utterly overwhelmed with amazement and sorrow at the news he has been given. However, although let me alone is virtually a command not to disturb God by trying to intercede on behalf of the people, the Lord’s words indicate that what He has presented to Moses is not yet irrevocable. For God to announce to a prophet His intention to do something as a way of inviting intercession has many parallels, the most famous perhaps being those of Amos 7:1-6, where God showed Amos things He was planning to do by way of judgment upon Israel and then, in response to Amos’ intercession, relented. In that context He was clearly inviting Amos to intercede so that He might relent. A similarly prominent example is found in Jonah’s required announcement that Nineveh would be destroyed in forty days [Jonah 3:4], a message Jonah reluctantly gave because he knew that it represented an invitation to repent and not an irreversible condemnation. The fate of the nation is being put in the hands of Moses as its mediator. If he is unworthy of his calling, then he may seize the opportunity that is presented for the outworking of selfish ambition and this sentence would be carried into effect. It is a measure of the special relationship that existed between the Lord and Moses that the proposal is put in this way, and that scope is given to Moses to say or do something that will influence the outcome. Like another, greater Mediator, Moses does not succumb to the temptation. He makes no mention of the possible role sketched out for himself, but, gathering his thoughts after taking in at least something of the sad news revealed to him, he seeks rather to win the Lord over to looking favorably towards His people once more . Moses knows that he cannot plead that there is anything meritorious on the part of the people to induce the Lord to view them with favor. From the start Moses is approaching the situation from the divine perspective. There are four aspects to his entreaty as he begs the Lord to turn from in effect wiping the people out of existence. (1) He pleads what the Lord has already done for His people. Your people focuses on the relationship that already linked them. God had already saved them with great power and with a mighty hand. Was what the Lord had already done to be written off; treated as a waste of effort; work of no significance; done in vain? Surely what the Lord was doing had a purpose behind it, and that purpose should not be forgotten. (2) Moses then argues that destroying the people will be misinterpreted by the nations, particularly the Egyptians, so that they will forget any right ideas they may have begun to form about the Lord. (3) Moses then pleads that the Lord should show pity towards His people. There is no suggestion that this anger is improper or unwarranted. It reflects the legitimate reaction of any human overlord when his vassal spurns his recently bestowed favor and engages in conduct directly contrary to his requirements. But the Lord is not on a par with a human suzerain. His mercy and grace are known, and therefore the plea may be uttered, relent from this disaster against your people . Again the covenant relationship is urged as a reason for showing compassion. Relent urges the Lord to desist from the course of action He has announced. What Moses is saying is not altering God’s purpose, as if there was some plan of the Lord about which He is now filled with remorse. This conversation was divinely initiated, and the opportunity is being given to present appropriate pleas. What the Lord had said concerning His wrath truly represented His attitude with respect to the situation that then existed. The Lord is teaching Moses and the people that rebellion is no light thing, but, as it were, is hurtful to God, causing Him pain. So too forgiveness is not something easily come by, but there are real grounds, based in what God is in Himself, upon which it may be legitimately extended. The reality of Moses’ mediatorial entreaty has introduced a new element into the situation. (4) The grand element in Moses’ plea is the Lord’s own prior covenant commitment . Moses here presents the covenant promise as twofold: numerous descendants, and the land of promise. The Lord had entered into a commitment with His servants, His covenant vassals. Was He now going to be false to what He had said to them? Indeed, He had sworn by His own name: By myself I have sworn [Gen. 22:16]. Going back on that will undermine the consistency of the divine nature. So Moses pleads that God remember, that is, act on the basis of what He has already set out. We are not told of anything further that God said to Moses at this juncture, but it must in some way have been evident that Moses’ attitude and arguments found favor with Him . Relented is an anthropomorphism (found later in Jeremiah 26:19 and Jonah 3:9). If we are to speak of God at all, we must use human terms regarding Him. These undoubtedly are colored by our limitations, but since God has made us in His image, meaningful communication can exist and can convey adequately to us what God intends us to know. It is not that God is being forced to adopt a new course of conduct because of some flawed decision of the past or because of some unforeseen circumstance having arisen. It was the Lord Himself who opened up the way for the threat against His people to be removed by the appropriate action of the covenant mediator. It was because Moses was so close to God as to share in His purpose that He expressed appropriate arguments and was able to intercede effectively on behalf of Israel.
Confront the Sin: Exodus 32:15-20.
 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written.  The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.  When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, "There is a noise of war in the camp."  But he said, "It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear."  And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain.  He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it. [ESV]
[15-20] Moses’ Anger. The Lord had been pleased to respond to Moses’ intercession and had turned from pouring out His wrath on the disobedient people. Moses now moves down the mountain to face the situation in the camp below. It was a time where Moses had to act energetically and decisively to reassert his leadership over the people and remove from their midst the idolatrous blemish on their national life. Moses goes down the mountain with the two tablets which had been given to him in 31:18, and he is carrying them back to the people so that they could be placed in the Ark, at the center of their worship and at the center of their faith. The description that is here given of the tablets conveys a new piece of information, that they were written on both sides. Evidently the tablets were sufficiently small for Moses to carry easily. The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets . This does not merely mean that the statements on the tablets had been made by God; it is an assertion that the tablets had been totally prepared by God and handed, already written on, to Moses. This fairly lengthy description of the tablets brings out how valuable they were, and this emphasizes the extent of the loss when they are smashed. When Moses had ascended Sinai, he had taken Joshua part of the way with him. Presumably Joshua had stayed near the top of the mountain while Moses was in the presence of the Lord, and they have now met up again, and are descending the mountain together, approaching the camp . It does not seem that Moses had told Joshua anything about what was going on. Shouting and war cries played a significant role in ancient battles as part of a process of psychological warfare to intimidate one’s enemy. Joshua, the warrior, interprets the sounds as indicating that fighting was rampant in the camp. Moses had more information than Joshua, and ruled out his interpretation . The sound was not the triumphant cry of those who have gained the victory in battle, nor was it an expression of the misery and shock of those who have been defeated. Rather it was the sounds of revelry and festivity. Moses already knew what was going on, but it was one thing to have been told about it by the Lord and another to confront the reality of the calf and of the celebrations that were taking place. The people were enjoying the banquet after they had sacrificed to the calf by participating in various sorts of dancing. We are told that Moses was angry. Was this a fit of temper and rage? Two features suggest that Moses’ anger is righteous indignation at the sinful rebellion of the people. Moses’ anger burned hot is the same phrase as my wrath may burn hot  describing how God would respond to the situation. Moses, the covenant mediator, responds with judicial wrath at the way in which the dominion of the Lord has been spurned. He cannot take the tablets into the camp where the people have rejected the Lord’s demands on them. In his zeal for the cause of the Lord, he solemnly breaks the tablets of the Testimony because the covenant relationship with the Lord has been shattered by the people’s infidelity. That Moses’ response was not sinful is further supported by the absence of any divine rebuke for his behavior. Elsewhere Moses is himself punished for acting in a fit of anger [Num. 20:11-12]. Moses’ judicial actions against the people went further than breaking the tablets; the people were also punished for their actions. Verse 20 is probably a summary statement of what Moses did, while verses 21-24 and verses 25-29 relate two specific incidents connected with the overall task of reintroducing order into the camp. The twofold action in verse 20 of burning and grinding to powder reflects the construction of the idol with gold sheeting over a wooden frame. The wood was burned and the metal that was left was then made into dust. The fragments were thrown into water which the Israelites were forced to drink. In this way the curse of idolatry was removed from the camp. In all this Moses showed his mettle as a leader. What was required was immediate and drastic action, and Moses did not hesitate to take it. Presumably he did not do all this single-handed. No doubt Joshua was able to find some who were prepared to help with the destruction of the idol or possibly the Levites helped in this . But the initiative and the authority were those of Moses. He does not seem to have met with any resistance. Did his return undermine the people’s confidence so that they were unable to take a stand against him? Or were they so intent on their revelry that at first they just ignored what he was doing?
Call for a Return to God: Exodus 32:25-26.
 And when Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to the derision of their enemies),  then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, "Who is on the LORD’s side? Come to me." And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. [ESV]
[25-26] As well as confronting his brother Aaron, Moses acted to quell the disorder in the camp. Rebellion had degenerated into anarchy. Having successfully defied the commands of God and overthrown His worship, the people had not stopped there. Broken loose indicates braking loose from restraint and the absence of disciplined behavior. They were in a frenzied confusion of licentiousness. So much for Aaron’s temporizing approach to their sinful proposals: he was the one who had permitted this to happen. As a result their enemies had opportunity to mock and disparage them. By their rebellion the people who were to be an example to the nations of the world had undermined their mission. Moses saw that drastic action was required to turn the situation around. Moses’ cry, Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me, consists of three words in Hebrew, and is much more intense and graphic than English translations would suggest. The question is that of fundamental loyalties. Moses does not call for those who had never deviated from loyalty to the Lord by worshipping the golden calf. Rather he calls for those who, no matter what they had done, were now prepared to acknowledge the authority of their King. It is an act of amnesty, but one calling for immediate decision. If, as we may reasonably assume, Moses’ position at the entrance to the camp meant that he was between the camp and Sinai, then moving to Moses’ side involved a visible renunciation of all that was going on in the camp, and also moving closer to the mountain which was ablaze with the fire of the Lord’s presence [Deut. 9:15]. Moses was the Lord’s appointed mediator, and moving to him was a recognition of the sovereign rights of Yahweh. The men of his own tribe, the Levites, gathered round Moses in support. It is not clear to what extent they had participated in the people’s apostasy. However, given Aaron’s involvement, there is no good reason to assume that they were immune from rebellion. Even if they had not actually worshipped the calf, they were still guilty because they had not spoken out against the rebellion. But now they are ready to renounce the error of their actions, and commit themselves to the Lord.
Questions for Discussion:
1. Describe the various sins committed by the people of Israel while Moses was on the mountain with God?
2. How does Moses function as a mediator for the people? What are the four aspects to his entreaty to God?
3. What role does the covenant relationship between God and His people play in Moses’ plea for God’s forgiveness? How can we find comfort and assurance in God’s faithfulness to His covenant promises even when His people sin against Him?
4. How did Moses respond to the situation in the camp? Why was his anger and the breaking of the tablets acceptable to God? How did Moses’ cry, Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me, serve as the means for him to regain control over the out-of-control camp?
Exodus, Philip Graham Ryken, Crossway.
Exodus, Douglas Stuart, NAC, Broadman.
Exodus, John Mackay, Mentor.