The Golden Calf Reveals the Goal of the Exodus

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While the Passover and the Red Sea crossing are the main events of Exodus, the goal of the exodus is even more profound. The tabernacle shows us that God’s goal in the exodus to dwell with his people.

This week I have more evidence.

Not the First Sin

The golden calf incident is found in Exodus 32. But this was not the first Israelite sin Moses recorded.

  • Before crossing the Red Sea, God’s people questioned his faithfulness (Ex 14:10–14). The Egyptians were closing in, and the Israelites were afraid. They thought death was near and wished Moses hadn’t bothered with their plight at all. Moses told the people not to fear, to stand firm, and to wait for the Lord to fight for them.
  • Shortly after Moses’s song of praise, the people complained about a lack of drinkable water (Ex 15:22–24). Moses cried to God, and the Lord provided a log to throw into the water which turned the water sweet.
  • The Israelites grumbled with hunger (Ex 16:1–8). They wished to die as slaves in Egypt with full bellies than as free men in the desert without food. In response, God provided quail and manna.
  • After explicit instructions regarding the collection of the manna, some went out to gather on the seventh day (Ex 16:27–30). The Lord emphasized the purpose of the Sabbath (v.29), but, instead of punishing the law breakers, he provided rest for the people (v.30).
  • The people complained again about lacking water (Ex 17:1–7). Moses knew the people were testing the Lord. He feared they would stone him, and he cried out to God. The Lord provided water for the people from the rock.

God’s Response to Sin

Taking all of these accounts of sin together, we don’t see any strong response from God. Both Moses and God call out sin when it happens, but there are no deaths, sicknesses, or visible consequences from these sins.

The golden calf is a different matter. In reaction to this sin (Ex 32:1–6), God planned to wipe out the people and start over with Moses (Ex 32:7–10). Moses broke the tablets of the law (Ex 32:19), destroyed the idol and made the people consume it (Ex 32:20), and commanded the Levites to kill about a thousand of the Israelites (Ex 32:28). God also sent a plague on the people (Ex 32:35) and planned not to go with them into the promised land (Ex 33:3).

This sin deserves and receives a swift and stiff response from God. How does this tell us about God’s purpose in the exodus?

Other Accounts

The narrative in Exodus 32 is not the only biblical commentary on the golden calf.

  • Psalm 106:19–23 — The psalmist writes that the people exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox. They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things, wondrous works, and awesome deeds for them.
  • Nehemiah 9:16–22 — The people committed “great blasphemies” by looking to a golden calf as God. Nehemiah emphasizes God’s mercy in staying with the people, providing them with the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night (his presence!).
  • Deuteronomy 9:6–21 — We are reminded that the mountain was burning with fire (v.15) and we are told that God was ready to destroy Aaron for his role in the incident. Moses had to plead with God specifically for Aaron’s life (v.20).

As God was instructing Moses how to build the tabernacle, the place where God would dwell with his people, at that very same time the people abandoned Moses and forgot about God. They attributed the saving work of YHWH to a metal cow.

God reacted so fiercely to this sin because his people were acting like they didn’t know him at all. The golden calf—this is who brought you out of the land of Egypt? This is who brought the plagues on Pharoah? Who made a dry path through the Red Sea? Who closed up the waters and drowned the pursuing enemies? Who provided victory over the Amalekites? Who provided quail and manna? Who provided water from the rock? Who thundered from the mountain and caused it to smoke?

God’s reaction was proportional. He brought them out of Egypt so that he might dwell with them. They rejected him—forgetting him and trading in his glory. So God was prepared to reject them too.

Application

God’s people deserved his wrath. They forgot him, and he could have forgotten them. But that’s not how YHWH works.

As a result of Moses’s intercession, God stayed his hand. He didn’t start over with Moses. He didn’t turn his back.

On this side of the cross, we understand God’s faithfulness and presence more deeply. Because God poured out wrath on Jesus, we are spared. Because Jesus was forsaken by all—even his Father—we are not abandoned. For the children of God, this promise is sure: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb 13:5).

The implications are profound. God goes with us—he remains with us—even when we sin. A morning of sin does not mean an afternoon without God. He loves, he persists, he remains faithful despite our unfaithfulness.

We all need this truth, especially when facing persistent sins. So, Christian, digest this good news. And encourage a brother or sister in Christ with the reminder of God’s faithful presence. It is not some happy side effect of his saving love; his abiding presence is the very goal of his salvation.


Photo Credit: Gary Stevens (2008), Creative Commons

 

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The Tabernacle Reveals the Goal of the Exodus

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What’s the main point of Exodus?

Before we dive in, consider this outline. It’s taken from this commentary by Peter Enns.

  1. Departure from Egypt (chs 1–15)
    1. Prelude (chs 1–6)
    2. Plagues (chs 7–12)
    3. Departure (chs 13–15)
  2. Mt. Sinai: Law (chs 16–24)
    1. Journey to Sinai (chs 16–18)
    2. Ten Commandments (chs 19–20)
    3. The Book of the Covenant (chs 21–24)
  3. Mt. Sinai: Tabernacle (chs 25–40)
    1. Instructions for the Tabernacle (chs 25–31)
    2. Rebellion and Forgiveness (chs 32–34)
    3. Building the Tabernacle (chs 35–40)

The Reason for God’s Deliverance

We need to make one distinction before discussing the main point of this book. The Passover and the Red Sea deliverance were the central events of the book. Many passages in the Bible reference these episodes.

But why did God deliver his people?

Part of the answer is that God is compassionate! God saw his people suffering, heard their cry, and saved them with his strong arm (Ex 2:23–25; Ex 6:6). But God himself gives another reason.

God delivered his people because he wanted to be with them. Let’s take a look at the evidence.

  • God tells the Israelites, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (Ex 6:7). The larger context (Ex 6:1–7) connects God’s saving work in Egypt to his covenant with Abraham. The exodus is a result of God’s covenant love for his people.
  • When Moses sings after coming through the Red Sea, he praises God for guiding the people “by your strength to your holy abode” (Ex 15:13). He also says God will “bring them in and plant them on your own mountain, the place, O Lord, which you have made for your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established” (Ex 15:17). Moses knows God has a dwelling with Israel in mind.
  • From Mount Sinai, God tells the people: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:4–6). God didn’t just bring the people out of Egypt, he brought them to himself to be his treasured possession out of all the earth.
  • Finally, consider the tabernacle. When God first gives Moses instructions about taking contributions for and building the tabernacle, he states the purpose of this massive undertaking: “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Ex 25:8). At great expense of materials, labor, and time, God wants a place where he can dwell with his people.

Here’s my attempt at the main point of Exodus: God delivered his people, at great cost, that he might dwell with them.

Here’s another way to say this: the tabernacle shows us the goal of God’s saving work. This explains why so much of the book of Exodus (16 chapters!) is about the tabernacle. While the destination is the promised land, the goal is fellowship with God.

So Much Repetition

Before studying Exodus over the past year with my church, I hadn’t realized how central the tabernacle is to the book. Think about it—all the way back at the burning bush (Ex 3:21–22), God promised that the Egyptians would give their gold to Israel. And this same gold was used to build the tabernacle!

It’s significant enough to notice that, from the outline above, more chapters in Exodus are devoted to the tabernacle than anything else. But the repetition involved trumpets this emphasis through a megaphone.

The instructions for the tabernacle given in chapters 25–31 are repeated almost verbatim in chapters 35–40. A side-by-side comparison reveals very few differences. It would have been so easy for Moses to write, “And the people built the tabernacle according to all of the instructions that the Lord commanded.” Why do we have so much repetition?

Moses wanted to emphasize the people’s obedience. Especially in light of the golden calf incident (more on that next week), it was important to say that the Israelites made the tabernacle exactly the way God commanded it, in every last detail.

But, as happens so frequently in the Bible, this repetition points to importance. Moses is taking us through all the embroidery and curtains and utensils and furniture again so we’ll see just how important the tabernacle is. This is the place where God will dwell! Even before the people have a place of their own, they have a God of their own who loves them and will be with them.

God’s Everlasting Presence

Perhaps the implications for us are easy to see. If God delivered his people, at great cost, that he might dwell with them in the exodus, how much more has he done this for us!

The cost of our redemption was the life and agony of the very Son of God, Jesus. Our destination is heaven—the new heavens and the new earth where we will dwell with God (Rev 21:3) forever. The goal of our redemption is restored fellowship with God. Christ died “that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18).

But this fellowship with God begins at regeneration, not glorification! We enjoy God’s presence right now, as God the Holy Spirit dwells with us. If your mind reels at the thought of so great a truth, join the club. It’s staggering.


Disclosure: the link to Amazon.com in this blog post is an affiliate link, meaning that I get a small percentage of any purchase you make on Amazon if you make that purchase after clicking through this link.

Photo Credit: Tim Marshall (2017), public domain

Pray According to God’s Character

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Prayer is often born of need. We hunger, we are lost, we are confused, and we cry out to God. He has the power and authority we lack.

As we grow in Christ, we get to know God better. And as we read the Bible, we see mature saints praying in mature ways.

Moses Pleads With God

As the nation of Israel was making and worshipping a golden calf, Moses was on Mount Sinai. God was furious, and he let Moses in on his thinking.

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.” (Exodus 32:9–10)

Israel’s idolatry was so offensive that God was ready to start over. Ponder that for a moment; it is staggering.

But Moses wasn’t ready for God to destroy his people. In Exodus 32:11–13 Moses pleads with God to relent. This is a powerful prayer, and it’s instructive to examine Moses’s logic.

As Moses prays, he draws on God’s words, actions, and revealed character. Moses knows God and speaks with him as a friend (Ex 33:11).

Petition 1

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? (Exodus 32:11)

Moses reminds God he has rescued his people from Egypt. The key argument, however, is just beneath the surface. What’s the reason God has brought them out of Egypt? Yes, he saw their suffering and felt compassion—he wanted to deliver them from a bad situation. But there’s more.

God redeemed his people because he wanted to be with them! By his rescue God was taking Israel to be his people and pledging himself to be their God (Ex 6:7). Moses sang about God’s loving redemption bringing the people to his house (Ex 15:13,17). God himself said how he bore Israel “on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Ex 19:4). Most notably, we see God’s purpose for the tabernacle.

And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. (Exodus 25:8)

God can’t dwell with his people if he exterminates them.

Petition 2

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. (Exodus 32:12)

Now Moses is concerned with God’s reputation. He doesn’t want the Egyptians to have any ammunition for accusing God of “evil intent.”

Don’t brush this aside, because God is quite concerned with his reputation! He wanted the exodus to confirm his identity (YHWH) to the Egyptians (Ex 7:5; 14:4). His actions will bring him glory and proclaim his name in all the earth (Ex 9:16). God is particularly concerned that Pharoah and his army recognize his glory (Ex 14:17–18).

For any lesser being, a devotion to one’s own glory would be idolatry. But for God, there is no one greater! To avoid idolatry, God must promote his own name above all others. Moses knows this, so he appeals to God’s holy desire to glorify himself. His glory is at stake if he kills the Israelites.

Petition 3

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.’ (Exodus 32:13)

Moses knows that God is a promise keeper. And Moses knows that this promise to the patriarchs must be fulfilled.

We’ve read this promise earlier in Exodus (Ex 2:24). Moses tells us that God “remembered his covenant” with the fathers, and this moved him to act when Israel cried out from their slavery.

God has also told Moses to remind Israel of this promise. Moses tells the people that God will take them out of Egypt to the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ex 6:8).

To Moses, the idea of God starting over is outlandish. Despite the horrific sin the people have committed, God has promised. And because God cannot break his promise, he must relent.

God Responds

And he does relent. We read this immediately after Moses’s prayer.

And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people. (Exodus 32:14)

Moses served as the mediator, crying out to God for mercy on his people. Moses appealed to God’s character and his promises, and God responded. What a loving God!

In Moses, we have both a picture of Jesus and a model for ourselves. God’s righteous wrath “burned hot” against Jesus instead of us. We should have been wiped out, but Jesus stepped in.

Jesus is still our mediator (Heb 7:25, Rom 8:34). Based on God’s character, his promises, and what Jesus has accomplished, Jesus prays for God’s ongoing favor toward his people.

We pray as well. As we pray for ourselves, our friends, our enemies, and those on the other side of the planet, Moses’s prayer provides instruction.

Let’s get to know God better through his word. Let’s rejoice in his purposes and his character. And let’s pray to him based on who we know him to be.


Photo Credit: Ron Manke (2015), public domain

One Surefire Way to Harden Your Heart

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When the Exodus narrative hits chapter 8, a curious thing happens. Moses takes a back seat. So does Aaron. Instead, the narrator zooms in on two characters: Pharaoh and God.

A Hard Heart

It’s impossible to read these early chapters of Exodus without pondering Pharoah’s heart. God tells Moses he will harden Pharoah’s heart (Ex 4:21, 7:3), and then we see it happen. Over and over and over.

No one wants a hard heart. A hard heart is stiff and rigid, dry and impenetrable. A hard heart is cold. Throughout Scripture, to have a hard heart is to be stubborn, persistent in one’s own way, and resistant to the things of God (Dt 15:7, 2 Chron 36:13, Mark 8:17, Acts 19:9, Heb 3:13).

Who Hardens the Heart?

In Exodus, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 9:12; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27; 11:10; 14:8) almost as often as Pharoah hardens his own (Exodus 8:15; 8:32; 9:34). It’s not one or the other—it’s both.

It’s uncomfortable, but true: God hardens some hearts (Rom 9:18). This is his prerogative, and those whom God hardens wouldn’t choose any differently. God may simply make more available and more abundant the ends they would seek for themselves.

And yet, Pharaoh hardens his own heart as well. What does this look like?

How to Harden Your Heart

As Pharaoh’s heart hardened, one of his behaviors is mentioned more than others—five times to be exact. And though Pharaoh was not regenerate, I suspect we harden our hearts in much the same way.

He did not listen.

Now, one of two things is happening in these passages. Either Pharaoh doesn’t listen as a result of hardening his heart, or Pharaoh hardens his heart as a result of not listening. I’m guessing both are true—a hard heart and a resistant ear form an obstinate, continuous loop. (Check out Exodus 7.13, 7.22, 8.15, 8.19, 9.12.)

Hebrews connects Pharaoh with a relevant warning to the church. In Hebrews 3:7–19, the author quotes the language of hard hearts (Pharaoh) as directed to the Israelites (Psalm 95) and applies it to us. The chief warning is this: If you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.

So, if we want to avoid a hard heart, we need to listen. Chiefly, we need to listen to God. We need to listen to the Bible, where God speaks. We need to listen to our pastor as he preaches and to our elders as they warn and encourage us and to our friends as they comfort and rebuke us.

The surest way to a hard heart is to stop listening to God.


Photo Credit: Ralf (2016), public domain

God May Postpone Your Relief for His Glory

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The beginning of Exodus overflows with the oppression of God’s people. The Egyptians employed slavery, torture, and murder to keep the Hebrew people under foot.

But God’s compassion is equally evident in those chapters. It’s striking to read how God identifies with his people.

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew. (Exodus 2.23–25)

Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land…” (Exodus 3.7–8a)

The details of this story are familiar. God enlists Moses and Aaron in his rescue mission, and by the end of chapter 4 they have traveled back to Egypt from Midian. They are ready to confront Pharoah.

Because God is in control and cares for his suffering people, we might expect Pharoah to fold immediately. God snaps his fingers, and the Israelites drop their bricks and follow Moses out of town.

But that’s not how the story goes. In fact, Pharoah makes his slaves’ lives worse because of Moses’ intervention (Exodus 6). God told Moses that he would harden Pharoah’s heart, and it happens before our eyes.

Why is this? Why doesn’t God give immediate relief to his people?

God is the Lord

When we investigate the Biblical text, we see God is motivated by a concern for his glory.

Before God brings the first plague against Egypt, he tells Moses he will harden Pharoah’s heart. This message isn’t new, but this time we hear God’s design in the hardening.

But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 7:3, NASB)

And what’s the purpose of these signs and wonders?

The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst. (Exodus 7:5, NASB)

God wants the Egyptians to know that he is the Lord. He says he will accomplish this for Pharoah when the Nile turns to blood. (Ex. 7:17)

Instead of an immediate release, God will bring Israel out through great judgments (Ex. 7:4). These plagues will bring glory to God by showing the Egyptians (including Pharoah) that he is the Lord.

Do you feel the tension? As the plagues stretch on, Israel is still in slavery. They still have backbreaking work and unreasonable quotas in front of them every day. I can imagine the people asking, “How long, O Lord?”

Waiting and Faith

God’s deliverance for Israel doesn’t follow our timeline. But this isn’t an issue only for his ancient people.

Consider the young woman struggling with chronic pain. Or the teenager overwhelmed by depression. Or the middle-aged man trapped in a soul-sucking job or a loveless marriage. These people of God cry out for relief. They get no answer and God seems distant and uncaring.

But the beginning of Exodus teaches that God’s compassion isn’t bound to time. He can be full of love and “slow” in providing relief. Before Moses returned to Egypt, it had been 40 years since Israel cried out to God. But Israel had probably been under Egyptian rule for hundreds of years.

God is vitally concerned about his glory, about humanity recognizing him for who he is. This includes the people around us, observing us as we wait for deliverance. It also includes we who wait. Waiting on God is the essence of faith.

We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, Jesus didn’t get relief when he requested it. He didn’t get relief at all. The greatest display of God’s glory (the cross) involved God refusing relief to his own son. God was glorified in not showing compassion to Jesus so that his compassion could be multiplied to the nations.

As you ponder God’s delay, as you wait for his answer, remember that he is with you. He will glorify himself in your waiting.


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Photo Credit: Máté Holdosi (2013), public domain

When God Promises His Presence

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Moses’ call is one of the most striking in the Bible. A miracle, dialogue (with God!), promises—it’s all there.

The whole story—from big plot points to small details—is fascinating. At the center, we see a man questioning his call. We have a lot to learn from God’s response.

The Background

The beginning of Exodus 3 finds Moses in Midian, the country to which he ran when Egypt was no longer safe. He has a wife and family, and he works for his father-in-law as a shepherd.

While carrying out his shepherdly duties, Moses is confronted not only with the famous burning bush but also with God himself (Ex. 3:6). God announces his compassionate intention to free his people and take them to a good land, and he plans to send Moses to do this enormous work. Moses isn’t exactly ready for this.

Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt? (Exodus 3:11)

The Question

Moses might deserve some criticism for his later excuses (recorded in Exodus 4), but this seems like an honest, natural response. Who am I to do this? Consider some of the reasons behind his question.

Moses doesn’t have a great history with Pharoahs. Though he grew up in a previous king’s home, that same man tried to kill him (Ex. 2:15).

Moses has been away from Egypt for about 40 years. The Hebrew people last saw him as nosy and scared (Ex. 2:14). Will they remember him? Will they follow him?

Not being a military or political leader, Moses wasn’t an obvious choice for this job. He was just a shepherd in the wilderness. He didn’t seem prepared or qualified.

Finally, Moses tried to stand up to Egyptian oppression once before, and it did not end well. Moses killed an Egyptian he saw beating a Hebrew (Ex. 2:12). But instead of being grateful, the Hebrews resented Moses putting himself in the place of “prince and judge” (Ex. 2:14). What would they say if he tried to take charge, give orders, and lead the nation?

God’s Answer

On a first reading, it doesn’t seem like God answers Moses’ question.

He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” (Exodus 3:12)

God gives Moses a personal promise and an outward sign. The promise is simply I will be with you. Is this answer supposed to be reassuring?

Yes! If we consider how God has revealed himself to Moses, we’ll see why this promise is comforting.

God is sovereign and mighty. He began to call Moses with a miracle (the burning bush). He makes the very place where he appears holy (Ex. 3:5). He is the covenant-keeping, faithful God of Moses’ ancestors (Ex. 3:6).

But God is also tender and compassionate. He has seen the hardships of his people, he has heard their cries. He knows their sufferings and has come down to deliver them. (See Exodus 3:7–9.)

God wasn’t concerned about Moses being lonely. His presence isn’t that of a stuffed animal, a guard dog, or even a best friend.

God promises his holy, fiery, powerful, loving presence. With his own background and qualifications, Moses didn’t know where to start. But with God’s presence, he would be unstoppable.

God Qualifies Us

There’s at least one lesson for us to learn here. By God’s presence, he qualifies us for our callings.

The Bible frequently uses Moses and the Exodus to point to Jesus and the cross, and this is no exception. The calling of Moses corresponds to Jesus’ baptism. God anointed Jesus for his saving task by sending the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:9–11).

God makes the same promise to each Christian that he made to Moses. By his Spirit, he will be with us. (See John 14:15–17 and Hebrews 13:5.) God calls us to himself and then to particular roles and tasks. His ongoing, holy presence with us qualifies us for our calling.

This doesn’t make our calling easy or even something we’re supposed to face on our own. But God’s abiding presence means we can face even the scariest challenges with confidence.