Commentary on Exodus 32-34

Last updated: March 28, 2011

Biblical translations are from the ESV

32:1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, 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.”

There is a certain note of threat in the choice of the verb to describe the people’s initial approach to Aaron: ‘they gathered against’ (cf. Num. 16.3). The abusive reference to Moses with flippant unconcern sets the tone for the coming activity, and reflects the absolute disapproval of the author who, in contrast to Aaron, sees the disaster from the outset. The people’s request is for a substitute to take Moses’ place in leading them. Clearly, Aaron’s response is to this demand. He has no idea of rejecting Yahweh (cf. v. 5). However, the request is now formulated by the writer from the perspective of the later outcome. Indeed, one can say that the whole subsequent history of Israel’s unfaithfulness (note especially Jeroboam I) has been reflected in the request. Accordingly, the people demand a substitute for Yahweh himself: ‘Make us gods who will go before us.’ The people are portrayed by the narrator as apostate and polytheistic from the outset. They want ‘gods’ which can be fabricated. In the words of Ps. 106.20, ‘They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass’ (cf. Neh. 9.18).

Of course, this formulation raises a whole battery of possible questions, both in respect to literary and history of religions problems. How could this have happened if the people had heard the Decalogue? Again, did they really believe that gods themselves could be ‘made’, or was the issue that of a symbol for God? Although obviously such questions have a validity in themselves, they do not aid greatly in understanding the present form of the narrative, but reflect problems which are somewhat oblique to it. From the writer’s perspective the request was clearly idolatrous. However, when he allows Aaron to speak, there does emerge a certain ambiguity in the incident which was undoubtedly closer to the historical reality. In other words, the writer is reporting and interpreting at the same time. He is reporting events of the great apostasy, but in a manner which makes it representative of all subsequent idolatry. The theological aims of the author, far from being a disturbing secondary element, form the warp and woof of the entire narrative.1

32:2 So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

Exactly how Aaron built the golden calf is uncertain. Commentators have long noted the disparity between the single golden calf in the narrative and the use of the plural by the people, “These are your gods. . . .” There is an obvious connection with 1 Kings 12 where Jeroboam builds two cultic sites (Dan and Bethel) each with a golden calf. In verse 28 Jeroboam says, “Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” The golden calves at these cultic sites caused the Israelites to sin and be exiled from the land (2 Kings 17:7-23).2 The plural calves in Exodus 32:4 may draw attention to the fact that the golden calf in the wilderness foreshadowed later idolatry in Israel. The Israelites did not believe the recently manufactured calf was itself a deity responsible for the Exodus. “Rather, they felt that the object was a potent symbol that acquired a numinous quality, and that they could invoke the Deity through it.”3

32:5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.”

The construction of the golden calf in Exodus 32 is a story that is critical of Aaron. Moses charged him, along with Hur, with the governance of the people in 24:13-14. The opening scene illustrates how, upon the first indication of a dispute, Aaron gives in to the complaint of the people. He does not uphold Mosaic authority by forcing the people to wait for the return of Moses. Instead he builds the calf, which, at the very least, is intended to replace Moses. Yet v. 5 separates Aaron from the people by presenting his perception of the golden calf, as compared to the people in v. 1. The orientation of Aaron is signaled once again by the verb “to see” (raa), “and Aaron saw.” What Aaron perceives in the golden calf is a “feast to Yahweh,” requiring that he builds an altar before it. In proclaiming a new festival for Yahweh, Aaron reflects Jeroboam in 1 Kgs 12:26-32, who also institutes a new cultic festival to accompany the golden calves at Bethel and Dan. In the story of Jeroboam, the new festival is never associated explicitly with Yahweh. In fact, the festivals of Jeroboam at Bethel and Dan contrast to the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem. Aaron provides a contrast to Jeroboam in that he identified the new festival with Yahweh. Aaron is certainly not a heroic character. . . . But v. 5 indicates that he is also not a villain.4

32:6 And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.

Further copying the worship styles of idolatry after eating and drinking the idol-worship meal prepared from the fellowship offerings, the people began to engage in “having fun” (NIV “revelry,” HCSB “to revel”). If any overtone of sexual debauchery is intended here, it is not followed through in the rest of the narrative: Moses later described shouting (v. 17), singing (v. 18), and dancing (v. 19), but not the sort of cultic prostitution the Israelites later indulged in at another location (Num 25), and identified the people’s sin as idolatry per se (vv. 31-32; 34-35). The revelry of the occasion was apparently singing and dancing with abandon, bad enough as a means of celebration of the people’s newfound relationship with an idol.5

32:7 And the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves.

The Israelites declared that they had a new god in the golden calf, thus breaking the covenant. For this reason, Yahweh calls the Israelites “your people” instead of “my people.”

32:8 They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” 9 And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. 10 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.”

Since Moses cannot hinder God from doing as He pleases, it may seem strange for God to tell Moses to leave Him alone. But, as William H. C. Propp notes, God is inviting Moses to intercede on behalf of the Israelites.6

32:11 But Moses implored the LORD his God and said, “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? 12 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. 13 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.’” 14 And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.

Note that Israel is once again “his [God’s] people” (cf. v. 7).

32:15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written. 16 The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets. 17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” 18 But he said, “It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear.”

The meaning of the final line of Moses’ poem (“the sound of singing that I hear”) is uncertain.

32:19 And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain.

Was this action simply a hasty, angry, impulsive move on Moses’ part – one that he might have regretted at a later time of greater personal calm? We suggest that such an explanation is unlikely. Instead, Moses’ breaking of the tablets was an important symbolic act done carefully, deliberately, and openly for the benefit of the Israelites because of the way violation of a covenant is routinely described in the ancient Semitic world as a “breaking” of that “covenant.” In a striking parallel, Zechariah broke a staff he had identified as representing God’s covenant with the nations as a means of demonstrating the breaking of that divinely granted covenant (Zech 11:10).

We should remember that the “foot of the mountain” mentioned in this verse is not simply an incidental description of where Moses happened to be at the time he smashed the tablets. “The foot of the mountain” holds a special place in the narrative as the people’s official gathering place and worship arena (19:12), thus their place of meeting with God (19:17) as well as the location of the only proper worship altar (not the one Aaron built) as described already in 24:4. In Deut 4:11 Moses reminded the people: “You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness.” Moses broke the tablets at the proper place, where the Israelites could see him do it, as a public act, signifying the breach of the covenant and the impending imposition of the consequences thereof, that is, punishment for the violators. Was Moses capable of impulsive acts? Certainly. But nowhere in the Exodus narrative or anywhere else in the Scripture is his breaking of the tablets described as impulsive. It was a reasoned, overt act demonstrating a fact (the covenant had been broken) and warning of a consequence (divine wrath – far worse than the anger of Moses). The expression used to describe Moses’ anger is a common one (harah + ap) and does not indicate that he lost control of himself or was “blind with rage” or the like.7

32:20 He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it.

The same series of destructive acts is found in Ugaritic literature. It conveys a picture of the total annihilation of the obnoxious object. This parallel suggests that our narrative has been crafted in conformity with conventional literary patterns. For this reason, it is hypercritical to question the burning and pulverizing of the golden calf on the grounds that the metal is neither combustible nor friable.8

Unidentified here, the water is characterized in the duplicate account of Deuteronomy 9:21 as “the brook that comes down from the mountain.” This implies a single source of water for the entire camp, the idea being, apparently, that no individual could escape drinking the mixture.9

32:21 And Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?” 22 And Aaron said, “Let not the anger of my lord burn hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. 23 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.’ 24 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.”

When Aaron relates the role of the people, he repeats verbatim the entire dialogue as recorded in v. 1 along with its demand for other gods and the abusive reference to Moses. When he comes then to his own role in gathering the gold, the account is considerably abbreviated and minimizes Aaron’s own role. The people bring the gold of their own accord, as if it had not been requested by him. When he reaches the crucial point on the actual construction of the calf, Aaron’s story diverges completely from the original account. He pictures himself uninvolved. The calf came out all by itself. Moreover, the fact that Aaron commences his defense with a broad condemnation of the people as evil by nature and ends up disavowing any responsibility for himself, hardly speaks well for Aaron. Perhaps the failure of the biblical writer to press the issue further or offer any comment on this defense would indicate that his concern did not lie with Aaron himself. Rather Aaron’s whole behavior, both in his original weakness and subsequent defense, serves merely to highlight by contrast the role of the true mediator. Aaron saw the people ‘bent on evil’; Moses defended them before God’s hot anger (v. 11). Aaron exonerated himself from all active involvement; Moses put his own life on the line for Israel’s sake. Aaron was too weak to restrain the people; Moses was strong enough to restrain even God.10

32:25 And when Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to the derision of their enemies),

This verse may be translated otherwise than in the NIV. For example, the JPSV renders it: “Moses saw that the people were out of control – since Aaron had let them get out of control – so that they were a menace to any who might oppose them.” The word translated by the JPSV as “menace” as by the NIV as “laughingstock” (simsah) occurs only here; and because it is a hapax legomenon, its meaning cannot be definitively established. More often than not, some sort of root definition of “whisper” or “derisive whisper” or “insignificance” (in the sense of “pushover [to their enemies]”) is proposed for it. So we are faced with two possible concepts for what it was that Moses saw as a problem: the idea that the Israelites’ being out of control would make them easy prey for potential enemies” (who would regard them as a joke/a fighting force so embarrassing that out of concern for politeness they should only be whispered about), or the idea that the Israelites’ being out of control would mean that anyone who tried to oppose them (i.e., to get them under control) would have a difficult time of it. Either of these concepts could be correct; our knowledge of the meaning of the Hebrew term in question does not allow us to choose between the two with confidence.11

32:26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, “Who is on the LORD’s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27 And he said to them, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.’”

This solemn formula [thus says the LORD] is employed here to signify that the assignment to the Levites is extraordinary, that is, beyond the purview of any human authority to impose. It cannot be taken as a precedent for the disposition of future cases.12

32:28 And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell. 29 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.”

The Levites came to be in charge of the Tabernacle.

32:30 The next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” 31 So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” 33 But the LORD said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book.

In the ancient Near East, records of the living were kept in a book by the government authorities. The “book” in verses 32-33 is probably a record of the living Israelites. Thus, Moses is asking to be killed if Israel’s sins are not forgiven. However, God will only kill those who had sinned against him. Douglas K. Stuart notes that elsewhere in the Bible a book of life often contains those who will enjoy eternal life and links the book in these verses to that book.13 I am not convinced that the book in Exodus 32:32-33 concerns how one will be judged at the final judgment.

32:34 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.”

The connection between vv. 34 and 35 can easily be misunderstood. It can seem that the final sentence of v. 34 (“However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin”) is a prediction of what follows immediately in v. 35 (“And the LORD struck the people with a plague”). But this is not at all the point of the text. Verse 34 represents God’s command to Moses to continue on in the exodus plan. Thus he told him to “lead the people to the place I spoke of,” that is, take them to the promised land (referring back to the original command to do so in 3:8, 17) and of his promise to lead the way with the angel of the Lord (a reiteration of 23:20-23). In other words, it is now completely clear that the idolatry of the people at Sinai had not resulted in their destruction, but God had been faithful to his original intent, just as Moses prayed he would be (32:11-14) and had spared the nation for its original purpose, to conquer and occupy the promised land. The second sentence of v. 34 therefore is just as the NIV translates it, a contrasting thought referring to a future time (which in hindsight can easily be identified as the Babylonian exile) “when the time comes” for Yahweh “to punish” his people, a time when he then indeed “will punish” them for their sin. That punishment brought Israel’s tenure on the land as an independent nation to a conclusion.14

32:35 Then the LORD sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf, the one that Aaron made.

The plague described in 32:35, in other words, was a small-scale warning, a sample of God’s wrath, but by no means the actual full punishment for abandoning the covenant as indicated in the covenant sanctions of Lev 26 and Deut 28-32 and as delineated in Lamentations or any other of the other passages describing the fall of Jerusalem and the aftermath of captivity. We are not told how many people died in this warning plague, if any. The three thousand deaths described in vv. 27-29 may well have been the extent of the taking of life; this plague may have made many sick but none fatally. It was a divine punishment for what had happened at one point at Sinai on the way to the promised land. It was not the full-scale covenant imposition of curses that brought to an end the benefits of the covenant to Israel. That would come many centuries later.15

33:1 The LORD said to Moses, “Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.’ 2 I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 3 Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”

The refusal [of God to accompany the people] introduces a separation between God and the Messenger [angel] that did not exist in the previous occurrences (cf. 3:2; 14:19; 23:20-33). The reference to the Messenger is also indefinite, “a Messenger,” as compared to the definite identification in the past occurrences. . . . Past references to the Messenger underscore the close relationship to Yahweh. The present indefinite reference indicates separation from Yahweh and perhaps a closer identification with Moses. The central point of the opening speech, however, is the divine retreat from the people. God will remain faithful to the ancestral promises, but the people have become incompatible with divine holiness. Their “stiff-necked” character has repelled God, creating a crisis situation in which God is now absent.16

33:4 When the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments. 5 For the LORD had said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, that I may know what to do with you.’” 6 Therefore the people of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb onward.

The phrase “that I may know what to do with you” (v 5) implies that God’s mind is not entirely made up. There is still a chance that He will relent and travel with the Israelites. The stripping of the ornaments is a sign of mourning.

33:7 Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the LORD would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp.

The “tent of meeting” (lowercase, not capitalized in the NIV) described here is simply a kind of substitute for the tabernacle, which already was designated “Tent of Meeting” (uppercase in the NIV) in Exodus 27:21; 28:43; 29:4, 10, 30, 32, 42, 44; 30:16, 18, 20, 26, 36; 31:7. The term uses for “tent of meeting” is exactly the same in the Hebrew for both the tabernacle and this simple tent set up outside the camp, and it is obvious that Moses, desiring to preserve whatever opportunity he could for direct communication with Yahweh, kept the communication function of the tabernacle alive in the terminology he used for the tent. There is no evidence that this “tent of meeting” played any other role than that of a communication point – it never held the ark or any other sacred furniture, and it never was employed as a site for sacrifices. The tabernacle was designed for a great range of purposes, only one of which was communication with God (29:42). This latter role was the only one intended for the “tent of meeting.”

This is the first mention of the small, substitute “tent of meeting” outside the camp, as opposed to the tabernacle. We may assume that this tent would never have been invented or needed had not the idolatry of chap. 32 taken place and the close presence of God been withdrawn from Israel as a result. The wording “Moses used to take a tent” (past durative use of the imperfect verb form) does not mean that he used to take a certain tent prior to the timing of 33:7 but rather that starting with the timing of 33:7, Moses regularly thereafter employed a certain tent as a symbolic substitute for the actual Tent of Meeting, the tabernacle.

By pitching this tent for meeting God outside the camp “some distance away” (or better, “far off from the camp,” NRSV), Moses reminded all the people how relatively distant God had become at that point from his people. Presumably, to pitch the tent any closer to the camp would have been impossible, a violation of God’s warning that he would not closely accompany his people on their journey to the promised land (v. 3). Since tents were what the Israelites lived in at that time, this one symbolized God’s dwelling just as the grander Tent of Meeting (tabernacle) was designed to do; but this one always stood empty – just a tent to indicate that God still had a “place” somewhat distant from and not for the time being among his people – but still a place where he could be consulted. “Anyone inquiring of the LORD would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp” means simply that any Israelite who needed guidance from God would go there and through Moses – not independently of him – ask God for the guidance he or she needed. God certainly had been disappointed in and angry at his people after the golden calf incident, but he had not gone so far in distancing himself from them that he would refuse to guide them as a group in the wilderness (33:2) or refuse to help individuals understand his will.17

33:8 Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise up, and each would stand at his tent door, and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. 9 When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses. 10 And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door. 11 Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent.

33:12 Moses said to the LORD, “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13 Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14 And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

Panim [sometimes translated as “face” but as “presence” by the ESV] has the additional connotations of “presence” and “front side,” which come to bear in what follows. Yahweh had said he would not travel in Israel’s midst (33:3) but also implied that he would reconsider his decision (v 5). In addition, he promised to send a Messenger (v 2), an ambiguous and less intimate form of divine presence. It is unclear here whether, by sending his “Face,” Yahweh compromises or capitulates. The latter seems more likely – note that LXX and Syr understand panay as “myself,” a usage that Rashi and ibn Ezra find also in 2 Sam 17:11 (pane[y]ka holekim baqrab ‘your face is going into battle’) and that Ahituv detects in Deut 4:37 (wayyosiaka bepana[y]w ‘and he took you out with/as his face).

In fact, “face” is inherently ambiguous. Sometimes a part stands for the whole, so that “face” = “self,” and sometimes a part is just a part. In my understanding, the Face is not Yahweh’s full essence. It is, so to speak, an archangel, i.e., a Messenger fully empowered to represent God on Earth. Depending on the context, it can be regarded as equivalent or non-equivalent to Yahweh, just as, among idolaters, an idol both is and is not the god.

As we now realize, Yahweh’s promise of a Messenger was always Delphic. Originally, it seemed a gift, then a punishment. Urged by Moses, Yahweh clarifies his intention to send his Face, the greatest of all Messengers. In the context of 33:18, 22-23, “Face” appears to be equivalent to “Glory,” the aspect of Yahweh’s presence visible to humans.18

33:15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”

33:17 And the LORD said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”

Moses’ intercession has been rewarded and the covenant can be renewed.

33:18 Moses said, “Please show me your glory.”

Moses had already seen God’s glory so why did he want to see God’s glory again? Because he wanted to be certain that, just as God had accompanied the Israelites from Egypt to Sinai, God would accompany the Israelites from Sinai to Canaan even after the golden calf incident.19

33:19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.

Goodness is a property of God’s essence but it is not something that can be seen in the same way that I can see the monitor in front of me. Therefore, we must understand this verse to mean that Moses will be given a fuller understanding of God’s goodness (this does not mean Moses had no visual experience of God, however). That Moses will see of all of God’s goodness need not mean that Moses will fully comprehend God’s goodness. Rather it can mean that Moses will see nothing but God’s goodness.20

33:20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”

In this verse, God’s “face” probably refers to his full essence as experienced by, for example, angels in heaven. As a sinful human on earth, Moses will see a great manifestation of God’s presence but he will not see God fully.21

33:21 And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

The theophany takes place on Mount Sinai (34:4-7). God’s “hand” is a means of preventing Moses from seeing His full essence (“glory” or “face”). When we see someone from behind we get a diminished sense of who they are. By way of analogy, when Moses sees God’s “back” he is not seeing God’s full glory but only a partial manifestation of that glory.22

34:1 The LORD said to Moses, “Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. 2 Be ready by the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself there to me on the top of the mountain. 3 No one shall come up with you, and let no one be seen throughout all the mountain. Let no flocks or herds graze opposite that mountain.” 4 So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the first. And he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and took in his hand two tablets of stone. 5 The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. 6 The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” 8 And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped. 9 And he said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O LORD, please let the LORD go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”

34:10 And he said, “Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.

34:11 “Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 12 Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. 13 You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim

Hebrew asherim (sing. Asherah) are pagan cultic objects often mentioned in the Bible. They derive their name from the goddess known in Babylon as Ashrat, consort of the god Amurru. She bears the titles “bride of the king of heaven” and “mistress of sexual vigor and rejoicing.” In Ugarit she appears as Athirat, consort of Il, who was head of its pantheon, and she is termed “the progenitrix of the gods,” “mother of the gods,” and “Lady Athirat of the Sea.” She was a fertility goddess, and in 2 Kings 23:7 she is associated with sacred prostitution. That text testifies to the assimilation to Canaanite culture on the part of a segment of the Israelite population – a reality demonstrated by an inscription from Kuntillet Ajrud in northwestern Sinai that mentions “YHVH and his asherah.”

The asherim mentioned in the Bible must have been man-made wooden objects, most likely poles of some kind, that served as the cultic symbols of the goddess. The verbs used for the destruction of these abhorrent objects are frequently those of “cutting down,” “lopping off,” and “plucking up.” It is clear that the adoption of foreign cults involved not only religious but also moral corruption.23

34:14 (for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), 15 lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice,

Worship of other gods is here called prostitution (zah), a metaphorical way of describing infidelity to God’s covenant. Since prostitutes are by definition flagrantly unfaithful to any one person but sell themselves to various people for gain, a people that seeks blessing through various gods and is not religiously pure and devoted to one God can be likened to a prostitute. Thus the Scripture often employs this metaphor for covenant infidelity through idolatry and/or the various practices associated with idolatry.24

34:16 and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods.

Intermarriage in the Bible is never discouraged on ethnic grounds, but religious intermarriage is consistently discouraged on religious grounds. In other words, there is nothing negative associated with the mixing of races, but great danger attends the mixing of religions. What eventually became a severe problem blocking progress in the Judean restoration was a risk already for the Israelites at this early stage in their history as a people because they had grown up among varied ethnic groups in Egypt, were camping at Mount Sinai with varied ethnic groups in their midst, and could easily assume that there were few hazards attendant to mixing with other national groups. Over time young men and young women would meet each other and ask their parents to arrange their marriages (as in the prominent example of Samson in Judg 14:1-10), so it would be almost inevitable that as international marriages took place, those marriages would bring idolatry into Israel. It happened that way with Solomon (1 Kgs 11:3-4) because marriages in Bible times, as today, were rarely blocked and often not even much discouraged for reasons of religious incompatibility. But Yahweh insisted otherwise here, knowing the inclinations of his people and the power of romantic attraction to overcome inadequate religious conviction.

Of particular significance was that throughout the biblical world, marriage usually involved a woman’s leaving her home and family and moving to her husband’s ancestral home to become a member of his family. If the religious convictions and habits of a non-Israelite woman were, as would be expected by the time she reached marriageable age, well established, she would import them into Israel upon getting married to an Israelite and going into Israel to live within his household. This explains the wording of the warning in this verse, “When you choose . . . daughters as wives for your sons . . . they will lead your sons . . .” It was normally the women coming into Israel through marriage that brought idolatry with them. The women leaving Israel to marry into non-Israelite nations posed little threat to the purity of Israel’s religion. Since Israelite men stayed put when they married, they were not normally the source of the threat either.25

34:17 “You shall not make for yourself any gods of cast metal.

34:18 “You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month Abib, for in the month Abib you came out from Egypt.

The topics of this section [vv 18-26] are associated with those of the preceding because the narrative about the golden calf recounts that a “festival to the LORD” was proclaimed and burnt offerings and sacrifices were brought (32:5-6). . . . Hence the need to recapitulate the list of legitimate festivals of Israel.26

34:19 All that open the womb are mine, all your male livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. 20 The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem. And none shall appear before me empty-handed.

34:21 “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest.

Plowing time and harvest time are the two busiest seasons in a farmer’s life.27

34:22 You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the year’s end. 23 Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the LORD God, the God of Israel. 24 For I will cast out nations before you and enlarge your borders; no one shall covet your land, when you go up to appear before the LORD your God three times in the year.

34:25 “You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the sacrifice of the Feast of the Passover remain until the morning. 26 The best of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the LORD your God. You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.”

34:27 And the LORD said to Moses, “Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” 28 So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.

Moses writes down the laws but God writes the Ten Commandments on the stone tablets (34:1). Moses fasted for forty days because of Israel’s rebelliousness and sin (Duet 9:18).

34:29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.

Interpreters debate the meaning of the Hebrew verb qaran, used to describe Moses’ face. A traditional translation is “the sprouting of horns,” from the Hebrew noun qeren, evident in the Vulgate, and reappearing in the history of painting, when Moses is represented with horns. R. W. L. Moberly even suggests a possible allusion to the golden calf. Propp prefers the meaning “disfigurement,” perhaps alluding to leathery skin. Childs argues from the translation “ray of light,” which is reflected in the LXX, Philo, and Paul. It is also the preferred reading in rabbinic literature. The occurrence of the verb qaran in Hab 3:4 as “rays of light,” along with comparison to the melammu, the halo surrounding gods in ancient Near Eastern iconography, favors the imagery of light, rather than horns, as the description of Moses. Thus the imagery indicates that the divine glory, represented as light, has invaded the face of Moses on the summit of the mountain, and that it continues to dwell in him when he descends the mountain.28

The changing of Moses’ skin conceals his “profane identity in order to reveal the presence of God in him during cultic mediation.”29 That Moses is initially unaware of God invading his person highlights the fact that Moses’ authority does not arise from Moses himself but rather from his function as an intermediary for God’s word.

34:30 Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.

Douglas K. Stuart speculates that the Israelites feared Moses because his face, in some way, reminded them of the frightening glory of Yahweh on Mount Sinai.30

34:31 But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. 32 Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the LORD had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. 33 And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.

34:34 Whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, 35 the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him.


Childs, Brevard S. The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary. Westminster Press, 1974.

Dozeman, Thomas B. Exodus. 1st ed. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009.

Propp, William H.C. Exodus 19-40. Yale University Press, 2006.

Sarna, Nahum M. Exodus. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1991.

Stuart, Douglas K. Exodus. Holman Reference, 2006.

1Childs, The Book of Exodus, 564-565.

2Dozeman, Exodus, 686-688.

3Sarna, Exodus, 204.

4Dozeman, Exodus, 703-704.

5Stuart, Exodus, 666-667.

6Propp, Exodus 19-40, 554.

7Ibid., 677.

8Sarna, Exodus, 207.


10Childs, The Book of Exodus, 570.

11Stuart, Exodus, 680.

12Sarna, Exodus, 209.

13Stuart, Exodus, 685-688.

14Ibid., 688.

15Ibid., 689.

16Dozeman, Exodus, 721-722.

17Stuart, Exodus, 694-697.

18Propp, Exodus 19-40, 604.

19Stuart, Exodus, 704-705.

20Ibid., 706-707.

21Ibid., 708-709.

22Ibid., 709-710.

23Sarna, Exodus, 217-218.

24Stuart, Exodus, 725.

25Ibid., 725-726.

26Sarna, Exodus, 218.

27Stuart, Exodus, 730.

28Dozeman, Exodus, 752.

29Ibid., 753.

30Stuart, Exodus, 738-739.


3 thoughts on “Commentary on Exodus 32-34

  1. It bothers me that you assume Judah is all there is of God’s people when clearly there were 12 tribes, all of which were present at this time and are God’s people. Your comments about chapter 32, verse 34, implies that the people’s punishment would be Judah’s exile. May I remind you that the other 10 tribes of the real house of Israel were deported about 130 years prior to Judah’s exile. It was the tribe of Joseph that received the birthright blessing not Judah (Genesis 48/1 Chronicles 5:1). Hosea records the house of Israel would no longer be known as God’s people, but they would be known as “sons of the living God!” Hosea also records that God would reunite with His people, the house of Israel. Jesus, John 1, “went to His own (Judah) and they received Him not, but to all who would receive Him, He gave the power to be sons of God.” Sound familiar. Jesus commanded His disciples in Mathew 10:5-6 to go to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He repeated this again in Matthew 15:24, “I am come only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Clearly, Jesus commanded His disciples to go to the house of Israel in fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy of reconciliation. Peter confirms this in 1 Peter 2, You are a holy nation…who once were “not a people” but now are Go’s people, once who did not obtain mercy but now have obtained mercy.” Please read Hosea 1…in fact the entire book…it explains exactly who the real Israel is. Judah is only 1 tribe of the whole house of Israel. By the way, it can be proven the house of Israel exists today. Modern-day Israel is Judah, whom we call the Jews. They believe they are all that is left of Israel. After all, is that not what God said in Hosea 1:10? “In the place where you will be called “not my people,” you will be known as “sons of the living God.” Their numbers would be so numerous they could not be counted. This cannot be Judah only! I look forward to your reply!

  2. Keith, it was not my intent to imply that Judah is the only tribe of Israel. Elsewhere in the post I note the link between the golden calf and Jeroboam, the first king of the Northern Kingdom. The punishment of 32:34 could be identified with both the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles (and perhaps other events).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.