Adoration of the Golden Calf, oil on canvas by Nicolas Poussin, c. 1634. From Fine Art Images/Heritage Image/age fotostock

In Chapter 31, God is still talking to Moses on top of Mount Sinai and He says that He has chosen two men – Bezalel and Oholiab – for special artistic work. They are to oversee the metalcraft, stonework, woodwork, cloth weaving and oil and incense mixing for the Tabernacle and its furnishings. These are some wholly holy appointments. Their resumes are MADE.

Then God tells Moses how the Israelites are to observe their Sabbath days. For six days per week they are to work as usual, but on the seventh day they should rest – those who do work on the Sabbath should be put to death. It sounds quite severe, but God intends the day of rest to be a sign of his covenant with the Israelites and by keeping the Sabbath holy by resting from work, they would show that they are devoted to God. They shouldn’t have any trouble doing that one day every week, right? The Israelites should surely understand that if God tells them something, they should do it, right? Right?

Anyhow, God then gives Moses two stone tablets with all the covenant laws inscribed on them.

Fun Fact! According to the Jewish Talmud, the ‘stone tablets’ God gave Moses didn’t look like rock slabs like we tend to picture in our minds today. They were blue gemstone, either made of sapphire or lapis lazuli. They were blue to resemble the sky, to serve as a symbolic reminder of the heavens (Staples, W. E., “Lapis Lazuli”, in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol.3, p. 72).

Hooray! With Chapter 32 we finally return to the narrative story of Exodus, but it’s not a part of the story to get very excited about. Moses has been up on Mount Sinai a really long time, and the Israelites have gotten bored. They gather around Aaron and tell him that they need a physical form of God to worship, because – and I quote Verse 1: “As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”  So let’s get this straight: ‘this fellow Moses’ up to this point has liberated them from Egyptian bondage and God has escorted them across the desert, providing food and water out of the air and rocks, with a literal cloud or fiery pillar leading them where they are to go, which Moses says will be their future homeland ‘flowing with milk and honey.’ I feel like if I had actually followed a cloud for months, and the guy who freed me from slavery says that the God who instructed him and put the cloud out there to lead me, and from on top of a mountain that God tells me He’s the only God and no one should worship any images or idols of any kind – I mean, with actual constant physical proof of Godly miracles, I’d support that guy and that God. But here, the Israelites need more than actual miracles. They’re not asking for new Gods, but they do want an image of God to worship – even though God has already told them not to attempt this. Yet another reminder to we more modern folk that we encounter miracles every day yet we also question God and go astray, but still. Those Israelites are a bunch of ingrates.

Nonetheless – and this is where it gets even more aggravating – Aaron goes along with it. MOSES’ OWN BROTHER who performed God’s miracles himself in front of Pharaoh, basically says, ‘A’ight.’ All the Israelites bring Aaron their spare gold and he smelts it and casts it into the form of a calf. Aaron then announces in Verse 4: “…These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt…” and that there will be a festival to the Lord through this golden calf tomorrow. Need I remind you that God very, very recently decided that Aaron should be His first high priest because of his devotion? The people have their festival and there’s much celebrating and burning of offerings and general revelry.

Well, God notices all this right away because He’s God. He tells Moses what’s happened and also that He’s ticked off because they so quickly denied his commandment. He vows to destroy them in His anger, and who can blame Him? Moses tries to assuage him against smiting them all in His wrath, with his argument being that if Egyptians hear that all the Israelites have been killed by their God, they’ll just think that God took them out as a way to get rid of them, which would suit the Egyptians just fine. Moses also reminds God of His covenants with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel, and that if God wipes out the Israelites, those covenants are meaningless. So God is persuaded not to kill His people outright.

Moses takes the tablets and goes down from Mount Sinai. He meets with Joshua – all this time he’s been waiting patiently at the foot of the mountain – and tells him there’s a big problem ahead. Moses encounters the partying Israelites and in his own anger, he smashes the stone tablets, takes the gold calf and burns it in a fire, then grinds the gold into powder, mixes the powder in water and makes everyone drink it. He then yells at Aaron, who essentially says, ‘Well, they told me to do it, so I did,’ which is never a good answer, kids.

Moses goes to the camp entrance and says, “If you are for the LORD, come to me,” and all the Levites go to him. Moses tells all the Levites to get swords and kill everyone else. Literally. Verse 27 and 28: “Then he said to them, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’ The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died.” It’s a bloodbath, but they didn’t kill all the guilty folk – modern scholars estimate that the number of Israelites who left Egypt would have been in the millions, but the text only mentions 3,000 as being killed. This act further sets apart the Levites from the other Tribes, as not only are they to be the Tribe of the Jewish priesthood, but they’re now to be known as a sort of warrior-priesthood ( As an aside, I would ❤ to see a TV show about a group of warrior priests, dispensing both street justice and heavenly teachings.

The next day, Moses says to the remaining Israelites that even though they sinned really, really badly, he’ll go back up Mount Sinai to ask God to forgive them. Apparently the mass murder wasn’t enough atonement. Moses does ask God for their forgiveness, saying in Verse 32: “‘But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.’ The LORD replied to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book.'” Heed the warning, Moses! God further says that when the time comes, He’ll punish the Israelites further and to cap off the whole incident, He strikes them all with a plague. Oh snap.

Things They Don’t Talk About in Sunday School: Here, God mentions for the first time His Book of Life. In the Talmud, the Book of Life is a listing of all people who are currently destined for heaven or the World to Come. The apocryphal Book of Jubilees describes the Book of Life in more detail, as well as its accompanying Book of Death, a listing of those who are currently doomed to damnation. Prior to the writing of Exodus, there were other cultures with similar listings, like Mesopotamia’s Tablets of Destinies, so this wasn’t a new idea for the early Jews. Part of Rosh Hashanah rituals – even today – involve the idea that on this holy day God opens the Book of Life as a sort of annual review of mankind. Rosh Hoshanah is followed by ten days of contemplation and repentance that are themselves followed by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. So, it would seem it is possible to have one’s name added back to the Book of Life after having it ‘blotted out,’ within Jewish ideology. For Christians, our ideology is that one can never really atone, which is why Jesus’s sacrifice was necessary.

As Chapter 33 starts, God tells Moses to have everyone pack up to head on toward the Promised Land, but also that He will give it to the Israelites’ descendants. He’s still bitter about recent events and says He’s going to send an angel to lead them through the desert and help them fight against the Canaanite clans, but He won’t go with them because, in Verse 3: “…you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.” All the Israelites are chastened at this news and they take off all their jewelry in their shame. As they should.

Fun Facts! God often describes the Israelites as a ‘stiff-necked people.’ Where does that phrase come from? Way back in those ancient, agrarian times, sometimes Middle Eastern farmers would have an ox who was stubborn and would refuse to work with other oxen or do what the farmer wanted when yoked. So, God is using a metaphor the Israelites would have understood, and He’s saying they’re like ‘unleadable’ oxen who don’t follow His direction and work together with each other, like they should (

We then learn that Moses would sometimes pitch a tent and call it the ‘tent of meeting,’ where he could meet with God personally. A pillar of cloud would guard the entrance, and it sounds nice that Moses would have a place away from all the millions of Israelites where he could have a chat with God one-on-one.

At one of these chats, Moses complains to God that He wants Moses to be a leader for the Israelites, but he really is at a loss for how to do it. Just like that, we have returned to the days in Egypt when Moses really tried hard not to be the one to urge Pharaoh to let His people go. Even with Moses, it seems Israelites just can’t learn from their real-life, seen-it-with-their-own-eyes experiences with God, that they’ll be fine as long as they Trust Him and Do What He Says. God tells him not to worry, that He’ll send His Presence with them as they travel to Canaan. Then Moses asks a big favor: he wants to see God’s glory. God says it kinda can’t be done, because no human can look upon His face and live, but He’ll do the next best thing. If Moses stands on a nearby rock, he can get into a cleft and God will cover him with His hand while He passes by. When He removes His hand, Moses will be able to see His back. And you know, if I had a chance to see the Back of God, I’d want to do that, too.

One thought on “Exodus 31 – 33: The Israelites Screw Up, Big Time, Part 1

  1. “As an aside, I would ❤ to see a TV show about a group of warrior priests, dispensing both street justice and heavenly teachings.”

    Instead of The O.G. the show cold be called The O.T.?? Funny but to me that you described is the nutshell version of the O.T. And interesting that what we believe God’s anger/wrath/punishment/forgiveness to be today is starkly different.

    But I’m with you, I’d be in on wanting to see God’s back too if given the chance.

    Nice write up!


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