Chapter 4: The Denial and Renewal of Covenant (Exodus 32:1-34:35)

The Book of Exodus
by B. Davie Napier

Chapter 4: The Denial and Renewal of Covenant (Exodus 32:1-34:35)

For a discussion of the composite nature of this section, its general "Yahwistic" cast, and its relationships to materials before and after, which make up its total context, one should refer to the Introduction. These chapters are dominated by the figure and role of Moses. The present form of the narrative has certainly in some measure been shaped by Israel’s annual celebration of the Sinai Covenant, as each year the making of Covenant was re-enacted, and the structure of the Covenant itself renewed. The form of celebration echoes the historical form of the sojourn at Sinai; nevertheless, Israel’s interest in the original event was predominantly in its ever-present meaning. The image of Moses, then, is not only the result of historical recollection, it is also the result of long years of meditation on the total significance of his life and work through the succeeding generations of Israel’s life.

The Golden Calf (32:1-35)

Moses is on Sinai, now himself as mysterious and unapproachable as that Presence of the Lord which he alone may confront and as that Word of the Lord which he alone may hear. The impatient people, to whom the reality of Moses and of God has become only a memory, remember the widespread pagan representation of deity in the form of a calf (probably a young bull, denoting primarily the strength of reproductive power and fertility, natural and human). With Aaron’s consent and counsel, they make what they take to be a representation of "the LORD" in this form, and hold a full-fledged cultic celebration to "the LORD" (vs. 5).

God’s immediate repudiation of Israel for this breach of Covenant is directly conveyed in his Word to Moses, communicating the sense of ruptured relationship, profound and powerful:

"Go down; for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves" (vs. 7).

Then comes the warning against interference while judgment is sent:

"Now therefore let me alone, that I may consume them."

Then we hear the thematic note:

". . . of you [Moses] I will make a great nation" (vs. 10).

But Moses will not entertain this complimentary proposal even by mentioning it. Instead he makes successful (vs. 14) intercession on Israel’s behalf, as it were reminding God that Israel is his people, whose destruction would frustrate the glory of the Exodus (vss. 11-12) and constitute a breach of God’s promise to the patriarchs (vs. 13).

Moses descends the mountain, carrying the two stone tablets inscribed with the Decalogue ("the writing was the writing of God," vs. 16), and sees what has occurred (vs. 19; note the sudden reappearance of Joshua, vs. 17; compare 24:13). In fury Moses breaks the tablets, devastatingly symbolizing the fact that Israel has in the same way just shattered the Covenant.

It all happened "at the foot of the mountain" (vs. 19). It was here that Moses first came with Jethro’s flock; here he first knew the piercing of the shell of his existence by the Word of the Lord, coming out of the undiminished, unconsumed burning bush. To the same foot of the same mountain Moses had brought Israel. Here a people redeemed only yesterday out of slavery had acknowledged the Lord as the Shatterer of their own tight little prison, and had entered into a Covenant with him, accepting his commitment to them and reciting their own vows of faithfulness. Here, at the foot of the mountain, they now brazenly denied the reality of their Encounter, repudiated their Emancipator, and shamelessly broke their vows. Here, at the foot of the mountain, then, Moses cast into the moral rubble the tables of the testimony, already in effect reduced to powder and ashes.

When Moses confronts Aaron as the one on whom responsibility clearly falls, Aaron at once gives an emphatic disclaimer, blaming the people, and for himself offering an excuse which forever ranks with the best and the most ridiculous of its kind:

"I said to them," explains Aaron,

"‘Let any who have gold take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and there came out this calf"’ (vs. 24).

Behind this whole incident and the account of the slaughter which follows (vss. 27-28), we can detect the seriousness of the prohibition of images in Israel and the theological maturity and perception which it represents. At the same time and in the light of the full biblical revelation we recognize what seems to be a mingling of the human word with the divine Word in the command of indiscriminate slaughter (see also vs. 35).

Along with this narrative of judgment there is sounded, in verses 3 1-32, the note of Moses’ moving intercession, to be ranked with the greatest prayers ever preserved. Here also is the response of the Word of grace (vs. 34a); but it is given along with the firm reminder that the Lord will, when the occasion demands, make himself known as Judge (vs. 34b).

Many Old Testament students hold that the present narrative was created as a condemnation (with Mosaic-Sinaitic "authority") of the use of bull images at the two chief sanctuaries of northern Israel, Dan and Bethel, beginning late in the tenth century when the united Israelite kingdom was split (I Kings 12:28-29). But at the later time the image was not equated with the Deity; rather, it was deemed to be the Lord’s throne or footstool. It may be that tradition reinterpreted the present story in the light of this seeming heresy; but there is no reason to deny that the story was already in existence earlier in the tenth century and that, in fact, image representation began in the beginning of Israel’s life as a people, in the first, Mosaic chapter of that life. Israelite worship always ran the danger of confusing the throne or the pedestal of the footstool of the Lord (the image of the calf or bull) with the Lord himself.

The Lord and Moses (33:1-34:9)

Chapter 33 opens with the Lord’s Word still sounding in reaction to the broken Covenant: "You [Moses] and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt" are to get out of here and move on to the land. But it is still the promised land; and God declares, "I will drive out" those who impede your settlement in the land. An inconsistent and negative note is, however, sounded in verse 3.

This note of ambivalence plays a role in the plot. God’s Word has been given. That Word cannot be broken. But Israel has behaved in flagrant defiance and abuse of all that was implicit in the Covenant Word; from any human point of view God is justified in having no more to do with Israel, indeed in withdrawing himself for Israel’s own protection, since to stay among them in wrath would be to destroy them (vs. 5). This tension and duality serve in the delineation of the character of Moses, since it is the person of Moses and the intercession and faith of Moses which are responsible for the resolution of the ambivalence.

In hope of appeasing the divine anger, the Israelites "stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb [Sinai] onward" (vs. 6).

In this narrative, more clearly than in any previous reference, the tent of meeting is the place where the Lord may be found (vs. 7). The use of the two terms "tent of meeting" and "tabernacle" leaves the reader in doubt as to whether they are the same structure or represent different arrangements. Chapters 29 (vss. 4, 10, 11, 30, 32, 42, 44) and 30 (vss. 16, 18, 20, 36), for example, employ only the first term (see also 27:21 and 28:43) and clearly identify the tent with the Tabernacle. In chapter 33 it may be that the tent of meeting is envisaged as a provisional arrangement, a substitute tabernacle for the duration of God’s withholding his own direct Presence from Israel: God meets directly only with Moses in the tent of meeting — and that "face to face" (vs. 11; but note also the contrast in verse 20, apparently stemming from another of the sources employed by tradition in the shaping of the present account). In subsequent references the identity or virtual identity of the "tent of meeting" and the "tabernacle" must be assumed (35:21; 38:8, 30; see especially 39:40 and ch. 40).

In chapter 33 the uniqueness of Moses is defined in terms of the uniqueness of his relationship to the Lord. Israel owes her existence to the Lord, to be sure, but also to Moses, without whose intercession and intervention the Covenant enterprise would, to all intents and purposes, have been dissolved. This is testimony and tribute to the absolutely incomparable Moses. He goes alone to the tent of meeting for a Meeting — the Meeting — while all Israel stands in awe and reverence (vs. 8). The Lord follows, and all Israel worships, "every man at his tent door" (vss. 9-10). It is face-to-face Meeting. Moses is represented as speaking with such power as to persuade the Lord of the wisdom of his words and to gain a reversal of the divine decision to withhold the immediate Presence of the Lord from Israel (vss. 12-17). And the Lord bestows on Moses words of rare (and in the light of the New Testament, strikingly significant) occurrence: "I know you by name" (vss. 12, 17; compare Matt. 1:21-23; 16:13-20); "you have . . . found favor in my sight" (vss. 12, 17; compare Mark 1:10-11; Luke 2:40); "I will give you rest" (vs. 14; compare Matt. 11:28); and "This very thing that you have spoken I will do" (vs. 17; compare Matt. 10:32; Luke 12:8; John 16:23).

Finally, in marked contrast to the tent-of-meeting Meeting ("face to face," vs. 11; see Num. 12:8; Deut. 34:10), a request by Moses to behold the Lord’s "glory" is granted (vss. 18-23; compare and contrast Elijah’s great hour on the holy mountain in I Kings 19). The quality and meaning of the Glory is suggested in the coupling of the proclamation of the divine name, "The LORD" (vs. 19; 34:6), with the passing by of the Glory. The words "goodness," "gracious," and "mercy" (vs. 19; see 34:6-7) also emphasize the nature of the Glory. Implicit, of course, in this concept is the fact of God’s forgiveness of Israel, won through the intercession and devotion of Moses, and assured now in the passing Glory of goodness, grace, and mercy. The description of the passing by of the Glory rounds out the intimate scene between God and Moses (34:6-9). It expands the theme of the graciousness of the Lord (see Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2) and affirms the appropriate humility of Moses before this revelation of the nature of the Lord. The prayer of Moses constitutes a fine summary of all that has gone before in chapters 32 and 33. "If now I [Moses] have [in very fact] found favor in thy sight," then

". . .let the Lord. . . go in the midst of us, although it is a stiff-necked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for thy inheritance" (34:9).

It is important that in 34:1-8 the narrative returns to the stone tables of the Law which had been destroyed in Moses’ wrath at the sight of the golden calf. Since Moses’ marvelous vision of the Glory of the Lord serves also to symbolize the renewal of Covenant with Israel, the broken tablets must be replaced. These verses supply the logical and necessary prelude to the remaking of the Covenant, and repeat the basis of the relationship between God and man in the nature of God himself.

The Redefined Covenant (34:10-28)

The Covenant between the Lord, "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (34:6) and a forgiven Israel is instituted afresh. In the present text of Exodus 34 the content of the new Covenant Law differs from the old as phrased in the Decalogue (Exod. 20). Following an introductory speech of the Lord, which declares the marvels he is about to perform, and which warns against the temptations of Canaan and its religious institutions (vss. 10-13), a decalogue is again given. This, however, concentrates exclusively on concerns of the religion, and has therefore come to be known as the "Ritual Decalogue" (as over against what is often called the "Ethical Decalogue" of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5):

I. You shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God (vs. 14; see 23:13).

II. You shall make for yourself no molten gods (vs. 17; see 20:23).

III. All that opens the womb is mine (vs. 19a; see 22:29b-30).

IV. All the first-born of your sons you shall redeem (vs. 20b; see 22:29b-30).

V. Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing time and in harvest you shall rest (vs. 21; see 23:12).

VI. Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the LORD God, the God of Israel (vs. 23; see 23:17 and comment).

VII. You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven (vs. 25a; see 23:18a).

VIII. The sacrifice of the feast of the Passover [shall not] be left until the morning (vs. 25b; see 23: 18b).

IX. The first of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the LORD your God (vs. 26a; see 23: 19a).

X. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk (vs. 26b; see 23:19b).

The parallel references from the Covenant Code (Exod. 20-23; but especially 23:13-19) indicate that this religious decalogue is unique only in arrangement; and its present form is obviously an expansion of an original "ten words." How old may have been such an original ritual decalogue? Did these prescriptions first appear in the corpus of an extensive code (the Covenant Code of Exodus 20-23), to be distilled into briefer, decalogue form? Or was the cultic decalogue the original, and did its individual prescriptions subsequently become incorporated in the longer code? And how does it happen that there should he recorded an ethical decalogue as the content of the first tables of the Law, but a ritual decalogue for the second? Questions of this kind remain still without certain answer. It may he that in combining differing independent but parallel accounts of Sinai-Horeb and its Covenant, the record, without attempt at reconciliation, has brought together an older version (the nucleus of Exod. 32-34; "J") which preserved a ritual decalogue, and a somewhat later version ("E," having its place of origin in the north) which associates the ethical decalogue with the Covenant of the sacred mountain. Or it may have been that in the long process of preserving the tradition an original "J" decalogue, very closely parallel to the "E" decalogue of Exodus 20. may have been at some point displaced in Exodus 34 by the ritual decalogue which now appears there. This latter theory has the merit of suggesting that in the earlier formulation there was no inconsistency, hut that in the record of the renewed Covenant the new decalogue on the new tablets was essentially the reproduction of the original tables.

Moses (34:29-35)

This section on the denial of and renewal of the Covenant (chs. 32-34) concentrates on the nature of God and magnifies his work. A theme for the whole block of material may be seen in 34:10, "It is a terrible thing that I will do with you." "Terrible," of course, is to be taken in the sense of "exciting" rather than "dreadful" or "horrible." It includes also the idea of awe and wonder. On the terrestrial plane and at the human level, however, the narrative concentrates on Moses, on his role vis a-vis the Lord and Israel, and on his incomparable stature as intermediary between God and People.

Appropriately, then, the section closes with this extraordinary tribute by tradition — which is of course the tribute of all Israel — to Moses. By a combination of intercession and argument, he has gained for Israel full divine forgiveness. By the strength of his own person and in the power of his own commitment to the Lord, he returns again, descending the sacred mountain with the new tables of the Covenant Law in his hands. And he does not know — it is elsewhere insisted that "the man Moses was very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth" (Num. 12:3) — he does not know that his face is literally aglow, shining with the radiance of the very Presence of God!

This is the ultimate tribute. This is Israel’s enduring estimate of Moses. The people live because the Lord gave life out of Egypt for the death that they lived in Egypt. By his Word (or his Hand, or his Presence) he brought them through the sea, sustained them in the wilderness, made Covenant with them at Sinai, forgave them their appalling denial of him, and renewed in mercy and grace the Covenant which they had broken. But by the means of what amazing human instrument was all of this the accomplishment of the Word of the Lord on behalf of Israel?

. . . for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. Moses, Moses! Put off your shoes. . . I know the affliction of my people . . . Come, I will send you . . . I will be with you. . . I will be with your mouth. . . and I will bring you into the land.

Come up to me on the mountain and I will give you the tables of stone. . . Go down; for your people have corrupted themselves . . . let me alone that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but I will make of you a great nation . . . I will give you rest . . . you have found favor in my sight. . . I know you by name. . . Behold, I make [again!] a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels . . . it is a terrible thing that I will do with you!

No comment can better convey the staggering impression of such a man upon other men — not simply in Israel but in the world of all time — than this account of the face of Moses, so brilliantly shining with the radiance of the very Presence of God that it could be unveiled only in the presence of the Presence.

This is Moses — by whose offices and through whose leadership and vision the Covenant was first made; against whose devoted commitment to Israel’s life the Covenant was shamelessly denied; and by whose strength of faith and communion with the Lord, Israel was forgiven and the Covenant renewed and reinstituted.