"Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, '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.' And Aaron said to them, 'Break off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.' So all the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 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!' 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.' Then they rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play" (Exo. 32:1-6).
The people were likely suspicious that the fire had consumed Moses (cf. 24:17). They should have kept waiting, however, and not broken the covenant they had just agreed to! And, even if they were impatient, there was no excuse to proceed as they did here into idolatry that God had just forbidden. Even if the people were forgetful, surely Aaron knew this was wrong, didn't he? Or did he rationalize his actions here as pleasing the people and as not really that bad since he only intended to fashion a representation of Jehovah (as opposed to some foreign deity)? Regardless of what he was thinking, he failed miserably here as a leader. It is clear that even though these people were far removed from Egypt itself, their experience there with idols will not be easily put behind them. The behavior of the Israelites in this chapter is especially carnal. They want a physical representation of the LORD that they can fashion themselves and look at. They want to party and get wild and crazy--and they will, though the terminology employed by the NKJV is fairly tame (e.g., they "sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play"; cf. 32:25 where their behavior is described as "unrestrained").
"And the LORD said to Moses, 'Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molded calf, and worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, 'This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!' And the LORD said to Moses, 'I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people! Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation'" (32:7-10).
This passage of text is both intriguing and scary. It is terrifying to contemplate how our sins anger the Most High God, and we may not be aware of His wrath we are kindling because of our hard hearts and self-centered focus. Strength can be a virtue, but being so stubborn and stiff that one will not yield to God's commandments is never good. Furthermore, it's fascinating to me to consider that God would have considered starting over with Moses and his family in order to fulfill the promises to Abraham--after all He had done to bring them to Sinai! The sins of Moses' people (as God refers to them) were not trivial. Some have suggested that He was not seriously considering this option of consuming them (and was merely expressing His wrath and testing Moses) since there were prophecies to be fulfilled from Genesis that required more than the tribe of Levi to survive. Still, there was nothing stopping God from destroying most of the nation (say over 99%, for example) and starting fresh with a very small remnant. He had done it before on a global scale in Noah's day, and He could have done it again in such a way as to fulfill all promises and prophecies He had made.
"Then Moses pleaded with the LORD his God, and said: '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 speak, and say, 'He brought them out to harm them, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce wrath, and relent from this harm to 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 descendants as the stars of heaven; and all this land that I have spoken of I give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever"'" (32:11-13).
Moses is anything but selfish; he pleads for God's mercy for His people (cf. Num. 14:12). If this was a test to see if Moses would intercede, he passed with flying colors! Do spiritual shepherds love their people like Moses did? Do we love those who are stubborn? Are we willing to go to God on their behalf in prayer? "So the LORD relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people" (Exo. 32:14). God relented or had compassion. I believe this relenting is merely an anthropomorphic expression for God's pain at man's sin.
"And Moses turned and went down from the mountain, and the two tablets of the Testimony were in his hand. The tables were written on both sides; on the one side and on the other they were written. Now the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God engraved on the tablets. And 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 noise of the shout of victory, nor the noise of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing I hear'" (32:15-18).
Joshua does not identify the sounds he is hearing properly, but Moses does.
"So it was, as soon as he came near the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing. So Moses' anger became hot, and he cast the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. Then he took the calf which they had made, burned it in the fire, and ground it to powder; and he scattered it on the water and made the children of Israel drink it." (32:19,20). Moses got off the mountain quickly and responded strongly to their foolishness. He understands now why God was so hot against Israel. He is angry also and makes the people literally bear in their bodies the sign of their sin. Some have joked that Moses was the only one who ever broke all ten commandments simultaneously (by breaking the stone tablets, that is). In seriousness, I wonder: Is this merely an act of Moses' anger or is this symbolic of the broken covenant between God and Israel? The people had sinned grievously and Moses wants to know what happened to Aaron and his leadership while Moses was away.
"And Moses said to Aaron, 'What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?' So Aaron said, 'Do not let the anger of my lord become hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, "Make us gods that shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." And I said to them, "Whoever has any gold, let them break it off." So they gave it to me, and I cast it into the fire, and this calf came out'" (32:21-24).
If we might take the liberty to modernize Aaron's reply, it would sound something like this: "Calm down Moses. You know how wicked these people are. We didn't know what happened to you and the people just wanted a physical representation of Jehovah. Besides, I just threw the gold into the fire and out came the calf!" Moses doesn't even acknowledge these pitiful excuses from his brother. He is focused on regaining control of the situation and stopping the people from continuing to sin. Evidently, destroying the calf was not enough. The nation of a couple million people was still partying hard.
"Now when Moses saw that the people were unrestrained (for Aaron had not restrained them, to their shame among their enemies), then Moses stood in the entrance of the camp, and said, 'Whoever is on the LORD's side--come to me!' And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him. And he said to them, 'Thus says the LORD God of Israel: "Let every man put his sword on his side, and go in and out from entrance to entrance throughout the camp, and let every man kill his brother, every man his companion, and every man his neighbor."' So the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And about three thousand men of the people fell that day. Then Moses said, 'Consecrate yourselves today to the LORD, that He may bestow on you a blessing this day, for every man has opposed his son and his brother'" (32:25-29).
Some translations affirm that the people were naked (i.e., "unrestrained"). The fact that 3000 men lose their lives here would suggest that the problem wasn't just that they got a little too noisy or rowdy. This was rebellious revelry and some refused to stop, so they forfeited their lives. God's punishment always fits the crime. Though we don't have all the details here, this was a serious problem and Moses handled it appropriately, I believe. They were so out of control that their behavior was shameful even before their enemies. As a side note, it is an interesting comparison that when the new covenant was being ushered in 3000 were saved (cf. Acts 2:41). Here, while the Mosaic covenant is still so fresh and new, 3000 perish.
"Now it came to pass on the next day that Moses said to the people, 'You have committed a great sin. So now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.' Then Moses returned to the LORD and said, 'Oh, these people have committed a great sin, and have made for themselves a god of gold! Yet now, if You will forgive their sin--but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written.' And the LORD said to Moses, 'Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book. Now therefore, go, lead the people to the place of which I have spoken to you. Behold, My Angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, 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" (32:30-35).
Moses was very close with God (and his intercession is successful), but he was mistaken if he believed there was anything he could do to potentially make atonement for their sins. Only Jesus Christ can pay the price of redemption! Still, his attitude is amazing and reminds me of Paul's in Romans 9:3. Moses is willing to sacrifice himself for the nation. He loves them and would demonstrate his devotion through forty arduous years of service to them in the wilderness. As a side note, this is the first allusion in Scripture to God's book of life.
Moses was not in a position to give himself for the people (since he was not sinless himself), but God merely affirms that the soul who sins shall die. Original sin is not taught here or anywhere else in Scripture (cf. Eze. 18:20). God desires Moses to continue leading the people by following the Angel of the Lord. Punishment was coming and was unavoidable; God would plague them. Sin always leads to suffering (either now or in the future).