Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
The long stay that Moses made upon the mountain rendered the people so impatient, that they desired another leader, and asked Aaron, to whom Moses had directed the people to go in all their difficulties during his absence (Exo 24:14), to make them a god to go before them. The protecting and helping presence of God had vanished with Moses, of whom they said, "We know not what has become of him," and whom they probably supposed to have perished on the mountain in the fire that was burning there. They came to Aaron, therefore, and asked him, not for a leader, but for a god to go before them; no doubt with the intention of trusting the man as their leader who was able to make them a god. They were unwilling to continue longer without a God to go before them; but the faith upon which their desire was founded was a very perverted one, not only as clinging to what was apparent to the eye, but as corrupted by the impatience and unbelief of a natural heart, which has not been pervaded by the power of the living God, and imagines itself forsaken by Him, whenever His help is not visibly and outwardly at hand. The delay (בּשׁשׁ, from בּושׁ to act bashfully, or with reserve, then to hesitate, or delay) of Moses' return was a test for Israel, in which it was to prove its faith and confidence in Jehovah and His servant Moses (Exo 19:9), but in which it gave way to the temptation of flesh and blood.
Aaron also succumbed to the temptation along with the people. Instead of courageously and decidedly opposing their proposal, and raising the despondency of the people into the strength of living faith, by pointing them to the great deeds through which Jehovah had proved Himself to be the faithful covenant God, he hoped to be able to divert them from their design by means of human craftiness. "Tear off the golden ornaments in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me:" this he said in the hope that, by a demand which pressed so heavily upon the vanity of the female sex and its love of display, he might arouse such opposition as would lead the people to desist from their desire. But his cleverness was put to shame. "All the people" tore off their golden ornaments and brought them to him (Exo 32:3); for their object was not merely "to accomplish an act of pure self-will, in which case there is no sacrifice that the human heart is not ready to make," but to secure a pledge of the protection of God through a visible image of the Deity. The weak-minded Aaron had no other course left than to make (i.e., to cause to be made) an image of God for the people.
He took (the golden ear-rings) from their hands, and formed it (the gold) with the graving-tool, or chisel, and made it a molten calf." Out of the many attempts that have been made at interpreting the words בּחרט אתו ויּצר, there are only two that deserve any notice, viz., the one adopted by Bochart and Schroeder, "he bound it up in a bag," and the one given by the earlier translators, "he fashioned (יצר, as in Kg1 7:15) the gold with the chisel." No doubt ויּצר (from צוּר = צרר) does occur in the sense of binding in Kg2 5:23, and חרט may certainly be used for חריט a bag; but why should Aaron first tie up the golden ear-rings in a bag? And if he did so, why this superfluous and incongruous allusion to the fact? We give in our adhesion to the second, which is adopted by the lxx, Onkelos, the Syriac, and even Jonathan, though the other rendering is also interpolated into the text. Such objections, as that the calf is expressly spoken of as molten work, or that files are used, and not chisels, for giving a finer finish to casts, have no force whatever. The latter is not even correct. A graving-knife is quite as necessary as a file for chiselling, and giving a finer finish to things cast in a mould; and cheret does not necessarily mean a chisel, but may signify any tool employed for carving, engraving, and shaping hard metals. The other objection rests upon the supposition that massecah means an image made entirely of metal (e.g., gold). But this cannot be sustained. Apart from the fact, that most of the larger idols worshipped by the ancients had a wooden centre, and were merely covered with gold plate, such passages as Isa 40:19 and Isa 30:22 prove, not only that the casting of gold for idols consisted merely in casting the metal into a flat sheet, which the goldsmith hammered out and spread into a coating of gold plate, but also that a wooden image, when covered in this way with a coating of gold, was actually called massecah. And Aaron's molten calf was also made in this way: it was first of all formed of wood, and then covered with gold plate. This is evident from the way in which it was destroyed: the image was first of all burnt, and then beaten or crushed to pieces, and pounded or ground to powder (Deu 9:21); i.e., the wooden centre was first burnt into charcoal, and then the golden covering beaten or rubbed to pieces (Exo 32:20 compared with Deu 9:21).
The "golden calf" (עגל a young bull) was copied from the Egyptian Apis (vid., Hengstenberg, Dissertations); but for all that, it was not the image of an Egyptian deity-it was no symbol of the generative or bearing power of nature, but an image of Jehovah. For when it was finished, those who had made the image, and handed it over to the people, said, "This is thy God (pluralis majest.), O Israel, who brought thee out of Egypt." This is the explanation adopted in Psa 106:19-20.
When Aaron saw it, he built an altar in front of the image, and called aloud to the people, "To-morrow is a feast of Jehovah;" and the people celebrated this feast with burnt-offerings and thank-offerings, with eating and drinking, i.e., with sacrificial meals and sports (צחק), or with loud rejoicing, shouting, antiphonal songs, and dances (cf. Exo 32:17-19), in the same manner in which the Egyptians celebrated their feast of Apis (Herod. 2, 60, and 3, 27). But this intimation of an Egyptian custom is no proof that the feast was not intended for Jehovah; for joyous sacrificial meals, and even sports and dances, are met with in connection with the legitimate worship of Jehovah (cf. Exo 15:20-21). Nevertheless the making of the calf, and the sacrificial meals and other ceremonies performed before it, were a shameful apostasy from Jehovah, a practical denial of the inimitable glory of the true God, and a culpable breach of the second commandment of the covenant words (Exo 20:4), whereby Israel had broken the covenant with the Lord, and fallen back to the heathen customs of Egypt. Aaron also shared the guilt of this transgression, although it was merely out of sinful weakness that he had assented to the proposals of the people and gratified their wishes (cf. Deu 9:20). He also fell with the people, and denied the God who had chosen him, though he himself was unconscious of it, to be His priest, to bear the sins of the people, and to expiate them before Jehovah. The apostasy of the nation became a temptation to him, in which the unfitness of his nature for the office was to be made manifest, in order that he might ever remember this, and not excuse himself from the office, to which the Lord had not called him because of his own worthiness, but purely as an act of unmerited grace.
Before Moses left the mountain, God told him of the apostasy of the people (Exo 32:7, Exo 32:8). "Thy people, which thou hast brought out of Egypt:" God says this not in the sense of an "obliqua exprobratio," or "Mosen quodammodo vocare in partem criminis quo examinetur ejus tolerantia et plus etiam maeroris ex rei indignitate concipiat" (Calvin), or even because the Israelites, who had broken the covenant, were no longer the people of Jehovah; but the transgression of the people concerned Moses as the mediator of the covenant.
"They have turned aside quickly (lit., hurriedly):" this had increased their guilt, and made their ingratitude to Jehovah, their Redeemer, all the more glaring.
"Behold, it is a stiff-necked people (a people with a hard neck, that will not bend to the commandment of God; cf. Exo 33:3, Exo 33:5; Exo 34:9; Deu 9:6, etc.): now therefore suffer Me, that My wrath may burn against them, and I may consume them, and I will make of thee a great nation." Jehovah, as the unchangeably true and faithful God, would not, and could not, retract the promises which He had given to the patriarchs, or leave them unfulfilled; and therefore if in His wrath He should destroy the nation, which had shown the obduracy of its nature in its speedy apostasy, He would still fulfil His promise in the person of Moses, and make of him a great nation, as He had promised Abraham in Gen 12:2. When God says to Moses, "Leave Me, allow Me, that My wrath may burn," this is only done, as Gregory the Great expresses it, deprecandi ansam praebere. God puts the fate of the nation into the hand of Moses, that he may remember his mediatorial office, and show himself worthy of his calling. This condescension on the part of God, which placed the preservation or destruction of Israel in the hands of Moses, coupled with a promise, which left the fullest freedom to his decision, viz., that after the destruction of the people he should himself be made a great nation, constituted a great test for Moses, whether he would be willing to give up his own people, laden as they were with guilt, as the price of his own exaltation. And Moses stood the test. The preservation of Israel was dearer to him than the honour of becoming the head and founder of a new kingdom of God. True to his calling as mediator, he entered the breach before God, to turn away His wrath, that He might not destroy the sinful nation (Psa 106:23). - But what if Moses had not stood the test, had not offered his soul for the preservation of his people, as he is said to have done in Exo 32:32? Would God in that case have thought him fit to make into a great nation? Unquestionably, if this had occurred, he would not have proved himself fit or worthy of such a call; but as God does not call those who are fit and worthy in themselves, for the accomplishment of His purposes of salvation, but chooses rather the unworthy, and makes them fit for His purposes (Co2 3:5-6), He might have made even Moses into a great nation. The possibility of such a thing, however, is altogether an abstract thought: the case supposed could not possibly have occurred, since God knows the hearts of His servants, and foresees what they will do, though, notwithstanding His omniscience, He gives to human freedom room enough for self-determination, that He may test the fidelity of His servants. No human speculation, however, can fully explain the conflict between divine providence and human freedom. This promise is referred to by Moses in Deu 9:14, when he adds the words which God made use of on a subsequent occasion of a similar kind (Num 14:12), "I will make of thee a nation stronger and more numerous than this."
"And Moses besought the Lord his God." יי את־פּני חלּה, lit., to stroke the face of Jehovah, for the purpose of appeasing His anger, i.e., to entreat His mercy, either by means of sacrifices (Sa1 13:12) or by intercession. He pleaded His acts towards Israel (Exo 32:11), His honour in the sight of the Egyptians (Exo 32:12), and the promises He had made to the patriarchs (Exo 32:13), and prayed that for His own sake, and the sake of His honour among the heathen, He would show mercy instead of justice. בּרעה (Exo 32:12) does not mean μετὰ πονεερίας, or callide (Vulg.), but "for their hurt," - the preposition denoting the manner in which, or according to which, anything took place.
"And Jehovah repented of the evil, etc." - On the repentance of God, see at Gen 6:6. Augustine is substantially correct in saying that "an unexpected change in the things which God has put in His own power is called repentance" (contra adv. leg. 1, 20), but he has failed to grasp the deep spiritual idea of the repentance of God, as an anthropopathic description of the pain which is caused to the love of God by the destruction of His creatures. - Exo 32:14 contains a remark which anticipates the development of the history, and in which the historian mentions the result of the intercession of Moses, even before Moses had received the assurance of forgiveness, for the purpose of bringing the account of his first negotiations with Jehovah to a close. God let Moses depart without any such assurance, that He might display before the people the full severity of the divine wrath.
When Moses departed from God with the two tables of the law in his hand (see at Exo 31:18), and came to Joshua on the mountain (see at ch. Jos 24:13), the latter heard the shouting of the people (lit., the voice of the people in its noise, רעה for רעו, from רע noise, tumult), and took it to be the noise of war; but Moses said (Exo 32:18), "It is not the sound of the answering of power, nor the sound of the answering of weakness," i.e., they are not such sounds as you hear in the heat of battle from the strong (the conquerors) and the weak (the conquered); "the sound of antiphonal songs I hear." (ענּת is to be understood, both here and in Psa 88:1, in the same sense as in Exo 15:21.)
But when he came nearer to the camp, and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned, and he threw down the tables of the covenant and broke them at the foot of the mountain, as a sign that Israel had broken the covenant.
He then proceeded to the destruction of the idol. "He burned it in (with) fire," by which process the wooden centre was calcined, and the golden coating either entirely or partially melted; and what was left by the fire he ground till it was fine, or, as it is expressed in Deu 9:21, he beat it to pieces, grinding it well (i.e., crushing it with and between stones), till it was as fine as dust.
(Note: There is no necessity to refer to the process of calcining gold, either here or in connection with the destruction of the Asherah by Josiah (Kg2 23:4, Kg2 23:12; Ch2 34:4, Ch2 34:7), apart altogether from the question, whether this chemical mode of reducing the precious metals was known at all to Moses and the Israelites.)
The dust, which consisted of particles of charcoal and gold, he then strewed upon the water," or, according to Deuteronomy, "threw it into the brook which flowed down from the mountain, and made the children of Israel drink," i.e., compelled them to drink the dust that had been thrown in along with the water of the brook. The object of this was certainly not to make them ashamed, by showing them the worthlessness of their god, and humiliating them by such treatment as compelling them to swallow their own god (as Knobel supposes). It was intended rather to set forth in a visible manner both the sin and its consequences. The sin was poured as it were into their bowels along with the water, as a symbolical sign that they would have to bear it and atone for it, just as a woman who was suspected of adultery was obliged to drink the curse-water (Num 5:24).
After the calf had been destroyed, Moses called Aaron to account. "What has this people done to thee ("done" in a bad sense, as in Gen 27:45; Exo 13:11), that thou hast brought a great sin upon it?" Even if Aaron had merely acted from weakness in carrying out the will of the people, he was the most to blame, for not having resisted the urgent entreaty of the people firmly and with strong faith, and even at the cost of his life. Consequently he could think of nothing better than the pitiful subterfuge, "Be not angry, my lord (he addresses Moses in this way on account of his office, and because of his anger, cf. Num 12:11): thou knowest the people, that it is in wickedness" (cf. Jo1 5:19), and the admission that he had been overcome by the urgency of the people, and had thrown the gold they handed him into the fire, and that this calf had come out (Exo 32:22-24), as if the image had come out of its own accord, without his intention or will. This excuse was so contemptible that Moses did not think it worthy of a reply, at the same time, as he told the people afterwards (Deu 9:20), he averted the great wrath of the Lord from him through his intercession.
Moses then turned to the unbridled nation, whom Aaron had set free from all restraint, "for a reproach among their foes," inasmuch as they would necessarily become an object of scorn and derision among the heathen on account of the punishment which their conduct would bring down upon them from God (compare Exo 32:12 and Deu 28:37), and sought to restrain their licentiousness and ward off the threatened destruction of the nation through the infliction of a terrible punishment. If the effect of this punishment should show that there were still some remains of obedience and faithfulness towards God left in the nation, Moses might then hope, that in accordance with the pleading of Abraham in Gen 18:23., he should obtain mercy from God for the whole nation for the sake of those who were righteous. He therefore went into the gate of the camp (the entrance to the camp) and cried out: "Whoever (belongs) to the Lord, (come) to me?" and his hope was not disappointed. "All the Levites gathered together to him." Why the Levites? Certainly not merely, nor chiefly, "because the Levites for the most part had not assented to the people's sin and the worship of the calf, but had been displeased on account of it" (C. a Lapide); but partly because the Levites were more prompt in their determination to confess their crime, and return with penitence, and partly out of regard to Moses, who belonged to their tribe, in connection with which it must be borne in mind that the resolution and example of a few distinguished men was sure to be followed by all the rest of their tribe. The reason why no one came over to the side of Moses from any of the other tribes, must also be attributed, to some extent, to the bond that existed among members of the same tribe, and is not sufficiently explained by Calvin's hypothesis, that "they were held back, not by contempt or obstinacy, so much as by shame, and that they were all so paralyzed by their alarm, that they waited to see what Moses was about to do and to what length he would proceed."
The Levites had to allow their obedience to God to be subjected to a severe test. Moses issued this command to them in the name of Jehovah the God of Israel: "Let every one gird on his sword, and go to and fro through the camp from one gate (end) to the other, and put to death brothers, friends, and neighbours," i.e., all whom they met, without regard to relationship, friendship, or acquaintance. And they stood the test. About 3000 men fell by their sword on that day. There are several difficulties connected with this account, which have furnished occasion for doubts as to its historical credibility. The one of least importance is that which arises from the supposed severity and recklessness of Moses' proceedings. The severity of the punishment corresponded to the magnitude of the crime. The worship of an image, being a manifest transgression of one of the fundamental laws of the covenant, was a breach of the covenant, and as such a capital crime, bringing the punishment of death or extermination in its train. Now, although the whole nation had been guilty of this crime, yet in this, as in every other rebellion, the guilt of all would not be the same, but many would simply follow the example of others; so that, instead of punishing all alike, it was necessary that a separation should be made, if not between the innocent and guilty, yet between the penitent and the stiff-necked transgressors. To effect this separation, Moses called out into the camp: "Over to me, whoever is for the Lord!" All the Levites responded to his call, but not the other tribes; and it was necessary that the refractory should be punished. Even these, however, had not all sinned to the same extent, but might be divided into tempters and tempted; and as they were all mixed up together, nothing remained but to adopt that kind of punishment, which has been resorted to in all ages in such circumstances as these. "If at any time," as Calvin says, "mutiny has broken out in an army, and has led to violence, and even to bloodshed, by universal law a commander proceeds to decimate the guilty." He then adds, "How much milder, however, was the punishment here, when out of six hundred thousand only three thousand were put to death!" This decimation Moses committed to the Levites; and just as in every other decimation the selection must be determined by lot or accidental choice, so here Moses left it to be determined by chance, upon whom the sword of the Levites would fall, knowing very well that even the so-called chance would be under the direction of God.
There is apparently a greater difficulty in the fact, that not only did the Levites execute the command of Moses without reserve, but the people let them pass through the camp, and kill every one who came within reach of their sword, without offering the slightest resistance. To remove this difficulty, there is no necessity that we should either assume that the Levites knew who were the originators and ringleaders of the worship of the calf, and only used their swords against them, as Calvin does, or that we should follow Kurtz, and introduce into the text a "formal conflict between the two parties, in which some of Moses' party were also slain," since the history says nothing about "the men who sided with Moses gaining a complete victory," and merely states that in obedience to the word of Jehovah the God of Israel, as declared by Moses, they put 3000 men of the people to death with the sword. The obedience of the Levites was an act of faith, which knows neither the fear of man nor regard to person. The unresisting attitude of the people generally may be explained, partly from their reverence for Moses, whom God had so mightily and marvellously accredited as His servant in the sight of all the nation, and partly from the despondency and fear so natural to a guilty conscience, which took away all capacity for opposing the bold and determined course that was adopted by the divinely appointed rulers and their servants in obedience to the command of God. It must also be borne in mind, that in the present instance the sin of the people was not connected with any rebellion against Moses.
Very different explanations have been given of the words which were spoken by Moses to the Levites (Exo 32:29): "Fill your hand to-day for Jehovah; for every one against his son and against his brother, and to bring a blessing upon you to-day." "To fill the hand for Jehovah" does not mean to offer a sacrifice to the Lord, but to provide something to offer to God (Ch1 29:5; Ch2 29:31). Thus Jonathan's explanation, which Kurtz has revived in a modified form, viz., that Moses commanded the Levites to offer sacrifices as an expiation for the blood that they had shed, or for the rent made in the congregation by their reckless slaughter of their blood-relations, falls to the ground; though we cannot understand how the fulfilment of a divine command, or an act of obedience to the declared will of God, could be regarded as blood-guiltiness, or as a crime that needed expiation. As far as the clause which follows is concerned, so much is clear, viz., that the words can neither be rendered, "for every one is in his son," etc., nor "for every one was against his son," etc. To the former it is impossible to attach any sense; and the latter cannot be correct, because the preterite חיח could not be omitted after an imperative, if the explanatory clause referred to what was past. If כּי were a causal particle in this case, the meaning could only be, "for every one shall be against his son," etc. But it is much better to understand it as indicating the object, "that every one may be against his son and against his brother;" i.e., that in the cause of the Lord every one may not spare eve his nearest relative, but deny either son or brother for the Lord's sake (Deu 33:9). "And to give" (or bring), i.e., so that ye may bring, a blessing upon yourselves to-day." The following, then, is the thought contained in the verse: Provide yourselves to-day with a gift for the Lord, consecrate yourselves to-day for the service of the Lord, by preserving the obedience you have just shown towards Him, by not knowing either son or brother in His service, and thus gain for yourselves a blessing. In the fulfilment of the command of God, with the denial of their own flesh and blood, Moses discerns such a disposition and act as would fit them for the service of the Lord. He therefore points to the blessing which it would bring them, and exhorts them by their election as the peculiar possession of Jehovah (Num 3-4), which would be secured to them from this time forward, to persevere in this fidelity to the Lord. "The zeal of the tribe-father burned still in the Levites; but this time it was for the glory of God, and not for their own. Their ancestor had violated both truth and justice by his vengeance upon the Shechemites, from a false regard to blood-relationship, but now his descendants had saved truth, justice, and the covenant by avenging Jehovah upon their own relations" (Kurtz, and Oehler in Herzog's Cycl.), so that the curse which rested upon them (Gen 49:7) could now be turned into a blessing (cf. Deu 33:9).
After Moses had thus avenged the honour of the Lord upon the sinful nation, he returned the next day to Jehovah as a mediator, who is not a mediator of one (Gal 3:20), that by the force of his intercession he might turn the divine wrath, which threatened destruction, into sparing grace and compassion, and that he might expiate the sin of the nation. He had received no assurance of mercy in reply to his first entreaty (Exo 32:11-13). He therefore announced his intention to the people in these words: "Peradventure I can make an atonement for your sin." But to the Lord he said (Exo 32:31, Exo 32:32), "The sin of this people is a great sin; they have made themselves a god of gold," in opposition to the clear commandment in Exo 20:23 : "and now, if Thou wilt forgive their sin, and if not, blot me out of the book that Thou hast written." The book which Jehovah has written is the book of life, or of the living (Psa 69:29; Dan 12:1). This expression is founded upon the custom of writing the names of the burgesses of a town or country in a burgess-list, whereby they are recognised as natives of the country, or citizens of the city, and all the privileges of citizenship are secured to them. The book of life contains the list of the righteous (Psa 69:29), and ensures to those whose names are written there, life before God, first in the earthly kingdom of God, and then eternal life also, according to the knowledge of salvation, which keeps pace with the progress of divine revelation, e.g., in the New Testament, where the heirs of eternal life are found written in the book of life (Phi 4:3; Rev 3:5; Rev 13:8, etc.), - an advance for which the way was already prepared by Isa 4:3 and Dan 12:1. To blot out of Jehovah's book, therefore, is to cut off from fellowship with the living God, or from the kingdom of those who live before God, and to deliver over to death. As a true mediator of his people, Moses was ready to stake his own life for the deliverance of the nation, and not to live before God himself, if Jehovah did not forgive the people their sin. These words of Moses were the strongest expression of devoted, self-sacrificing love. And they were just as deep and true as the wish expressed by the Apostle Paul in Rom 9:3, that he might be accursed from Christ for the sake of his brethren according to the flesh. Bengel compares this wish of the apostle to the prayer of Moses, and says with regard to this unbounded fulness of love, "It is not easy to estimate the measure of love in a Moses and a Paul; for the narrow boundary of our reasoning powers does not comprehend it, as the little child is unable to comprehend the courage of warlike heroes" (Eng. Tr.). The infinite love of God is unable to withstand the importunity of such love. God, who is holy love, cannot sacrifice the righteous and good for the unrighteous and guilty, nor can He refuse the mediatorial intercession of His faithful servant, so long as the sinful nation has not filled up the measure of its guilt, in which case even the intercession of a Moses and a Samuel would not be able to avert the judgment (Jer 15:1, cf. Eze 14:16). Hence, although Jehovah puts back the wish and prayer of Moses with the words, "Whoever (אשׁר מי, both here and in Sa2 20:11, is more emphatic than either one or the other alone) has sinned, him will I blot out of My book," He yields to the entreaty that He will ensure to Moses the continuance of the nation under His guidance, and under the protection of His angel, which shall go before it (see at Exo 33:2-3), and defer the punishment of their sin until the day of His visitation.
"Thus Jehovah smote the people because they had made the calf." With these words the historian closes the first act of Moses' negotiations with the Lord on account of this sin, from which it was apparent how God had repented of the evil with which He had threatened the nation (Exo 32:14). Moses had obtained the preservation of the people and their entrance into the promised land, under the protection of God, through his intercession, and averted from the nation the abrogation of the covenant; but the covenant relation which had existed before was not restored in its integrity. Though grace may modify and soften wrath, it cannot mar the justice of the holy God. No doubt an atonement had been made to justice, through the punishment which the Levites had inflicted upon the nation, but only a passing and imperfect one. Only a small portion of the guilty nation had been punished, and that without the others showing themselves worthy of forgiving grace through sorrow and repentance. The punishment, therefore, was not remitted, but only postponed in the long-suffering of God, "until the day of retribution" or visitation. The day of visitation came at length, when the stiff-necked people had filled up the measure of their sin through repeated rebellion against Jehovah and His servant Moses, and were sentenced at Kadesh to die out in the wilderness (Num 14:26.). The sorrow manifested by the people (Exo 33:4), when the answer of God was made known to them, was a proof that the measure was not yet full.