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Exodus 32:1-14

Exodus 32:1-14

Background to the Book of Exodus:
Historical Situation: (History within the text)
The Book of Exodus tells how God took pity on the Israelites, the means chosen to liberate them from the Egyptians, and their consequent journeys in the wilderness. The story begins after the Israelites have been in Egypt for several generations and a new Pharaoh comes to the throne who is threatened by the number of foreigners (Israelites) in the land and takes hard measures to subdue them and stop them multiplying. We read of the call of Moses by God, the confrontations with the Pharaoh and his wise men, the subsequent release and flight of the Israelites. The pivotal event was revelation of God to Moses and God giving the Law to the people via Moses. (Put picture in here with link). The covenant set up here is conditional on the people keeping their promises (Exodus 19:5-8) - note the word "if" they do ... "then" you shall be my people.

After the initial laws in Exodus 20-23 we read the story of the wooden ark in which the tablets of stone (which have the Law written on them) are to be housed and carried. Great detail is given about this Ark in Exodus 25-27 before going into further detail about the priests who will serve and the manner of the sacrifices. We read of the people's rebellion and Aaron's role in building a golden calf to worship. Moses returns once more from one of his mountain trips and castigates the people for their unfaithfulness. The Book of Exodus finishes with a further account of the building of the ark which sounds rather repetitious of the first one. Within the Book we are given the origins of such Festivals as Passover and Unleavened Bread.

Some people have tried to find evidence within the Egyptian chronicles that the Israelites were present in Egypt in this period but the lack of written material from that era limits any discoveries. What has been found in general terms is that foreigners did serve in Egyptian households, there were building programmes using 'apiru' and foreigners did attain high service in important households (Johnstone:17-27). Rather than trying to prove historical fact as in the old Western idea of 'facts', it is better to understand the Book of Exodus as 'historiography', that is, the remembered history of the Israelite people which is crucial to their identity as the people of God.
Literary Comments
The Book of Exodus is a mixture of very early oral material which has come from different traditions and been joined together in the one book. The events are pivotal to their faith and as we have four gospels telling us about Jesus Christ so the Jews have different memories of the same events. We have four different gospels, but in Exodus the traditions are all mixed in the same book which makes it difficult reading sometimes. For example, in Exodus 19 Moses goes up and down the mountain several times and one isn't sure if he is up or down.

Some people have tried to identify some of the traditions within the Book: a tradition that uses the name of Yahweh called 'J', another called 'E', the tradition written by the Priests called 'P' and the very easily identified "D' tradition mainly found in the Book of Deuteronomy. It makes sense that different communities as in the NT had different memories and emphases which had become important to them and so when the Scriptures are committed to writing there is a desire to incorporate the diverse memories of people and their experience of God within their lives.
PURPOSE of the Book of Exodus:
To tell the story of how God raised up a leader, Moses, to release the Israelites from Egypt who lead them through the wilderness where they received the Law from God via Moses. This Law showed them how to stay in relationship with God and with each other. It gives detailed instructions for building the Ark in which the Tablets will be housed. In the Book of Exodus we have demonstrated the unfaithful behaviours of the people and God's willingness to renew the covenant. The actions of the people's apostasy and God's willingness to renew the covenant is repeated many times in the history of the people.

Context of Exodus 32:1-14
Moses has once more gone up the mountain to be in communion with God for forty days and forty nights (Exod 24:15-18). Exod 25-31 gives a detailed description of the tabernacle which God requires the people to build. Our lectionary reading tells us the story of the people's impatience and both their and Aaron's betrayal. After Moses intercedes for the people (Exod 32:14), he comes down the mountain with the two tablets of stone, however, when he saw the people were still worshipping the golden calf he smashed the tablets in anger. Moses confronts Aaron who who basically says it was the people's fault and the calf came out of the fire. Moses calls all those who are loyal to God to stand with him and those who respond are the sons of Levi (Moses' own tribe). Moses instructed them to slay all the men in the camp, after which Moses went back up the mountain to atone with God over their sin of apostasy (worshipping the image of the golden calf). God forgives them, but also forecasts that when a divine visitation occurs, they will suffer their sin upon them (Exod 32:34). Exod 32:35 then reports a plague that the Lord sent on them. This seems to contradict the message of forgiveness in v.33.

Insights/Message of Exodus 32:1-14
The immediate context into which these verses fit is Exod 32-34, which can be labeled apostasy and restoration at Mt Sinai. However, we need to remember that this section is part of the ongoing journey of these people in the wilderness which began in Exod 13. As we have noted previously there is probably more than one tradition represented in these chapters, but we will not be separating them out, rather we shall deal with the text as a literary whole. Exod 32:1-6 sets the scene for the following story/narrative in which the people seek Aaron and he agrees to build a golden calf with the gold they supply. Exod 32:7-10 is the words of the Lord to Moses and Exod 32:11-14 is the response of Moses to God. Moses absence is the reason given for the people's request to Aaron (v.1) and not the continued grumbling which occurred earlier. This is set up as a new action. The people command Aaron with two imperatives - "up" and "make" us gods. The implication here is that the golden calf is a god. Aaron responds to the people's demand with two imperatives of his own - "snatch off" and "bring" any gold worn by your family members. After Aaron has made the golden calf he presents it to the people and they say, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt". This is quite blasphemous as they know who was their saviour. The grammar is quite peculiar in their response - you would have expected Aaron to make the statement, but instead 'they' (the people) are addressing Israel who are themselves. Durham thinks this statement has been appropriated to make connection to Jeroboam in 1 Kgs 12:28. When Aaron makes the announcement that there will be a feast to 'Yahweh' before this golden calf one has to ask about the use of the term - Yahweh. Does it mean that Aaron thinks it is alright to worship Yahweh through the means of a golden the calf? After Moses refuses to leave God alone (v.10), he appeals to God's reasonableness, God's reputation and God's promises (Fretheim:286).

Message: The role of Aaron as the founder of one of the priestly tribes is thoroughly condemned by his participation in the formation of the golden calf and his consequent action in building an altar before it. One would have to say the author has little sympathy and indeed, may be antagonistic towards the priestly tribe of Aaron. While the people are the focus of this passage Aaron is quite overtly implicated in the apostasy. Does he think that he can redeem himself by proclaiming a sacred feast? The people have replaced the authority Yahweh to other gods and idols which is the total denial of the first and second commandments. In response to the actions of the people Yahweh informs Moses and repeats the statement of the people from v.4 which declares their switch in allegiance. Yahweh spits out his anger and disappointment to Moses. Moses immediately intercedes on behalf of the people even when previously he was getting cross with their constant grumbling. Moses uses the past actions of God to remind God of the deep love and care that has already been expressed for this people. Moses also names the Patriarchs and the promises made to them by Yahweh. It appears that Moses is successful as Yahweh repents of the intended punishment. However, if one reads to the end of Exod 32 we find that along with the promise to lead them them there will still be punishment for the people's sin (Exod 32:35). Some of these contradictions may be due to the number of traditions which have come together in this very important story of Israel's major sin, but we still have to read the text as whole. The passage reinforces how important leadership can be and when there is a vacuum people can turn to the wrong leaders. Furthermore, it shows the need of people to have tangible objects to worship as was the case in the surrounding cultures. This need for concrete worship objects continued to be a major desire for the Israelite people. Many people find it hard to accept that God can repent (v.14) - which in the Hebrew is to turn around. It goes against the the Christian idea that God is immutable. However, if we believe intercessory prayers have validity other than reminding us that we need to do something, one has to believe that God can hear and be willing to change God's mind. Fretheim makes an excellent statement in relation to this issue of God's willingness to change. "God's treats us with integrity and our prayer is honoured as part of the ongoing conversation and relationship. In response God may adjust modes and directions of actions. However, this openness to us shows that God's will is for the salvation for all. God will always act, even make changes, in order to be true to these unchangeable ways (love and promises) and to accomplish these unchangeable goals" (Fretheim:287).

OT images/motifs used in the New Testament reading: Mth 22:1-14: there are no direct allusions or quotes in these sections from the Old Testament. However, the wedding feast may allude to the messianic banquet of Isa 25:6-9

Resources/Worship for Exodus 32:1-14


The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the Book of Exodus (Johnstone).

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.

*Brueggemann, Walter. "The Book of Exodus: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections". In The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 1. Nashville: Abingdon, 1994.
Childs, Brevard S. The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary. OTL. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, [1974].
Coats, George W. The Moses Tradition. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993.
Durham, John I. Exodus. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1987.
*Fretheim, Terrence E. Exodus. Int. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1991.
Gowan, Donald E. Theology in Exodus: Biblical Theology in the Form of a Commentary. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
*Johnstone, W. Exodus. OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990.
Moberly, R. W. L. At the Mountain of God: Story and Theology in Exodus 32-34. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1982.
Sarna, Nahum M. Exploring Exodus: The Heritage of Biblical Israel. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: 

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