Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
In all probability these three chapters originally formed a distinct composition. The main incidents recorded in them follow in the order of time, and are therefore in their proper place as regards historical sequence.
The golden calf - The people had, to a great extent, lost the patriarchal faith, and were but imperfectly instructed in the reality of a personal unseen God. Being disappointed at the long absence of Moses, they seem to have imagined that he had deluded them, and had probably been destroyed amidst the thunders of the mountain Exo 24:15-18. Accordingly, they gave way to their superstitious fears and fell back upon that form of idolatry which was most familiar to them (see Exo 32:4 note). The narrative of the circumstances is more briefly given by Moses at a later period in one of his addresses to the people Deu 9:8-21, Deu 9:25-29; Deu 10:1-5, Deu 10:8-11. It is worthy of remark, that Josephus, in his very characteristic chapter on the giving of the law, says nothing whatever of this act of apostacy, though he relates that Moses twice ascended the mountain.
Unto Aaron - The chief authority during the absence of Moses was committed to Aaron and Hur Exo 24:14.
Make us gods - The substantive אלהים 'elôhı̂ym is plural in form and may denote gods. But according to the Hebrew idiom, the meaning need not be plural, and hence, the word is used as the common designation of the true God (Gen 1:1, etc. See Exo 21:6 note). It here denotes a god, and should be so rendered.
Break off the golden earrings - It has been very generally held from early times, that Aaron did not willingly lend himself to the mad design of the multitude; but that, overcome by their importunity, he asked them to give up such possessions as he knew they would not willingly part with, in the hope of putting a check on them. Assuming this to have been his purpose, he took a wrong measure of their fanaticism, for all the people made the sacrifice at once Exo 32:3. His weakness, in any case, was unpardonable and called for the intercession of Moses Deu 9:20.
The sense approved by most modern critics is: and he received the gold at their hand and collected it in a bag and made it a molten calf. The Israelites must have been familiar with the ox-worship of the Egyptians; perhaps many of them had witnessed the rites of Mnevis at Heliopolis, almost; on the borders of the land of Goshen, and they could not have been unacquainted with the more famous rites of Apis at Memphis. It is expressly said that they yielded to the idolatry of Egypt while they were in bondage Jos 24:14; Eze 20:8; Eze 23:3, Eze 23:8; and this is in keeping with the earliest Jewish tradition (Philo). In the next verse, Aaron appears to speak of the calf as if it was a representative of Yahweh - "Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord." The Israelites did not, it should be noted, worship a living Mnevis, or Apis, having a proper name, but only the golden type of the animal. The mystical notions connected with the ox by the Egyptian priests may have possessed their minds, and, when expressed in this modified and less gross manner, may have been applied to the Lord, who had really delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians. Their sin then lay, not in their adopting another god, but in their pretending to worship a visible symbol of Him whom no symbol could represent. The close connection between the calves of Jeroboam and this calf is shown by the repetition of the formula, "which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt" Kg1 12:28.
These be thy gods - This is thy god. See Exo 32:1 note.
The faithfulness of Moses in the office that had been entrusted to him was now to be put to the test. It was to be made manifest whether he loved his own glory better than he loved the brethren who were under his charge; whether he would prefer that he should himself become the founder of a "great nation," or that the Lord's promise should be fulfilled in the whole people of Israel. This may have been especially needful for Moses, in consequence of his natural disposition. See Num 12:3; and compare Exo 3:11. With this trial of Moses repeated in a very similar manner Num 14:11-23, may be compared the trial of Abraham Gen. 22 and of our Saviour Mat 4:8-10.
These be thy gods ... have brought - This is thy god, O Israel, who has brought ...
Let me alone - But Moses did not let the Lord alone; he wrestled, as Jacob had done, until, like Jacob, he obtained the blessing Gen 32:24-29.
This states a fact which was not revealed to Moses until after his second intercession when he had come down from the mountain and witnessed the sin of the people Exo 32:30-34. He was then assured that the Lord's love to His ancient people would prevail God is said, in the language of Scripture, to "repent," when His forgiving love is seen by man to blot out the letter of His judgments against sin (Sa2 24:16; Joe 2:13; Jon 3:10, etc.); or when the sin of man seems to human sight to have disappointed the purposes of grace (Gen 6:6; Sa1 15:35, etc.). The awakened conscience is said to "repent," when, having felt its sin, it feels also the divine forgiveness: it is at this crisis that God, according to the language of Scripture, repents toward the sinner. Thus, the repentance of God made known in and through the One true Mediator reciprocates the repentance of the returning sinner, and reveals to him atonement.
Moses does not tell Joshua of the divine communication that had been made to him respecting the apostasy of the people, but only corrects his impression by calling his attention to the kind of noise which they are making.
Though Moses had been prepared by the revelation on the Mount, his righteous indignation was stirred up beyond control when the abomination was before his eyes.
See Deu 9:21. What is related in this verse must have occupied some time and may have followed the rebuke of Aaron. The act was symbolic, of course. The idol was brought to nothing and the people were made to swallow their own sin (compare Mic 7:13-14).
Aaron's reference to the character of the people, and his manner of stating what he had done Exo. 5:24, are very characteristic of the deprecating language of a weak mind.
Make us gods - Make us a god.
Naked - Rather unruly, or "licentious".
Shame among their enemies - Compare Psa 44:13; Psa 79:4; Deu 28:37.
The tribe of Levi, Moses' own tribe, now distinguished itself by immediately returning to its allegiance and obeying the call to fight on the side of Yahweh. We need not doubt that the 3,000 who were slain were those who persisted in resisting Moses. The spirit of the narrative forbids us to conceive that the act of the Levites was anything like an indiscriminate massacre. An amnesty had first been offered to all by the words: "Who is on the Lord's side?" Those who were forward to draw the sword were directed not to spare their closest relations or friends; but this must plainly have been with an understood qualification as regards the conduct of those who were to be slain. Had it not been so, they who were on the Lord's side would have had to destroy each other. We need not stumble at the bold, simple way in which the statement is made.
Consecrate yourselves to day to the Lord ... - The margin contains the literal rendering. Our version gives the most probable meaning of the Hebrew, and is supported by the best authority. The Levites were to prove themselves in a special way the servants of Yahweh, in anticipation of their formal consecration as ministers of the sanctuary (compare Deu 10:8), by manifesting a self-sacrificing zeal in carrying out the divine command, even upon their nearest relatives.
Returned unto the Lord - i. e. again he ascended the mountain.
Gods of gold - a god of gold.
For a similar form of expression, in which the conclusion is left to be supplied by the mind of the reader, see Dan 3:15; Luk 13:9; Luk 19:42; Joh 6:62; Rom 9:22. For the same thought, see Rom 9:3. It is for such as Moses and Paul to realize, and to dare to utter, their readiness to be wholly sacrificed for the sake of those whom God has entrusted to their love. This expresses the perfected idea of the whole burnt-offering.
Thy book - The figure is taken from the enrolment of the names of citizens. This is its first occurrence in the Scriptures. See the marginal references. and Isa 4:3; Dan 12:1; Luk 10:20; Phi 4:3; Rev 3:5, etc.
Exo 32:33, Exo 32:34
Each offender was to suffer for his own sin. Compare Exo 20:5; Eze 18:4, Eze 18:20. Moses was not to be taken at his word. He was to fulfill his appointed mission of leading on the people toward the land of promise.
Mine Angel shall go before thee - See the marginal references and Gen 12:7.
In the day when I visit ... - Compare Num 14:22-24. But though the Lord chastized the individuals, He did not take His blessing from the nation.