Moses interceded on behalf of the Israelites, and his prayer turned the heart of God. However, that didn’t mean that the Israelites didn’t have to face consequences for their sin. On the contrary, their sin brought death and other severe results. So as we look at the closing story of the Golden Calf, we are going to focus on three different people and their responses to God’s judgment: Aaron and his pitiful excuses, the sons of Levi and their willingness to serve the Lord at great personal cost, and Moses and his heart of sincere love and compassion for the Israelites.
Aaron’s Pitiful Excuses
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and saw the debauchery the Israelites were participating in, he was rightfully angry. So angry, in fact, that he broke the stone tablets God had made and given him. However, after experiencing the glory of God’s presence, the sin of the people must have been especially disgusting in his sight. Once Moses was able to compose himself a bit, he approached his brother Aaron whom he had put in charge during his absence and asked what happened. Aaron’s response is rather interesting considering that the golden calf was his idea.
“And Moses said to Aaron, ‘What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?” And Aaron said, “Let not the anger of my lord burn hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, “Make us gods who shall go before us. 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.” So I said to them, “Let any who have gold take it off.” So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.’”
First and foremost, this is a pitiful answer for a leader. As the responsible authority for the Israelites, Aaron should have manned up and taken responsibility for his actions. But instead, he played the blame game. The game that points fingers at others and blames them for the issue rather than taking responsibility for one’s own shortcomings. So instead of confessing the error of his way, he blames the people. Not a very good move for a leader. Obviously, Aaron knew he was guilty and didn’t want to feel the wrath of his brother.
However, the part of Aaron’s excuse I find most interesting is his account of the creation of the golden calf. He says, “so they gave it [gold] to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.” Does that sound believable? No! Idols don’t create themselves, and gold thrown into a fire just melts—it doesn’t automatically recast itself into the image of a calf. The golden calf would have required crafting, molding, and creating. Aaron would have needed to spend a lot of time making that idol; it didn’t just pop out of nowhere. And I don’t think Moses was fooled by his response. He knew what would have needed to happen.
So what can we learn from this? Don’t make pitiful excuses! Own up to your sin and confess it. God cannot be deceived and sees right through our feeble lies and attempts to blame others. So when confronted with sin, take ownership, confess, and repent. For God delights in giving forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love. But He can only do so if we take responsibility for the things we have done.
The Sons of Levi Called to Service
The next sequence of events is probably the most tragic in the book of Exodus. Sin demands judgment, and for the Israelites, that meant death at the hands of their own brothers. Death may seem like a strict punishment, especially since Moses had just interceded for God not to wipe out the people. But sin is a serious offense and is punishable by death. The grace and mercy here is that not all the people were annihilated.
Now if we look beyond the immediate judgment of Israel, we find a beautiful thing. In the midst of a generational rejection of God, some of the Israelites chose to follow God. When Moses asked for anyone who was on the Lord’s side, the sons of Levi responded. They chose to serve God rather than partake in the wickedness around them. That choice led to sacrifice and great loss as they were called to bring judgment on their fellow brothers by killing them with the sword. However, their obedience led to a multi-generational blessing.
“And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell. And Moses said, ‘Today you have been ordained for the service of the LORD, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon you this day.’”
Because of their valiant decision to follow God and their obedience in the face of extreme difficulty, the sons of Levi and their descendants were set apart as the priestly family. Their choice to follow God in the tough moments led to being called to service as part of the spiritual leadership of Israel for generations. Therefore, let’s learn from these courageous men and not be afraid to follow God when our peers have blatantly rejected Him. For at the end of the day, God will bless our decision that may have come at a great sacrifice.
Moses’ Second Plea
Finally, after the destruction of the golden calf, the judgment of the people, and the obedience of the Levites, Moses returns to Mount Sinai to seek God’s favor and intercede on behalf of the people. In this second conversation with God, Moses reveals even more of his heart of love and willingness to sacrifice on behalf of the people. While we didn’t see this side of his heart during the destruction of the golden calf, Moses truly cared for the people God had put under his leadership and was willing to die on their behalf.
“So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.’ But the LORD said to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.’ Then the LORD sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf, the one that Aaron made.”
God does not tolerate sin. It must be dealt with, and justice must be served. The Israelites’ desire for fleeting pleasure had deadly consequences. However, in God’s great mercy, He also forgave and extended grace. He told Moses to lead the people into the land He had promised. A grievous sin had been committed, justice was served, and now it was time to move on—move on from the place of failure and move forward toward the promises of God.
This is an important lesson for us. Like the Israelites, we sin and break God’s heart, but afterward we need to repent of our wrongdoing and accept God’s love and forgiveness. We must thank Jesus for taking the judgment we deserved and confess our sins. If we do so, God is “faithful and just to forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) But then we must move on. We must not stay in the place of defeat. That is not where new life can grow or where hope can reside. We must pick ourselves up and start moving towards the promises of God. Like the Israelites, we must continue our journey to all that God has in store for us. We cannot let the shortcomings and mistakes we make along the way keep us from finishing the journey. We must move on and follow God to our promised inheritance.
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