The point of the golden calf narrative is to say God’s purposes have always been to work out his plan in the world through a covenant people. Problem: that covenant people, from the moment he married them, have not wanted to be married to the real him.
Tim, Jon, and Carissa begin the second episode of our series (0:00–8:40) by recapping their discussion on Exodus 34:6-7, the most referenced verse in the Old Testament.
Yahweh, Yahweh, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loyal love and faithfulness, a keeper of loyal love for thousands, forgiver of iniquity, transgression, and sin, yet he will surely not declare innocent the guilty, visitor of the iniquity of fathers upon the sons and upon the sons of sons, to the third and the fourth [generations].
These verses present a tension between God’s generosity and his justice. He will hold each generation accountable for their failure but will abundantly pardon any who turn to him. In this episode, the group looks at the narrative context of these verses.
In part two (8:40–35:00) Tim, Jon, and Carissa look closer at the immediate literary context of Exodus 34:6-7, the famous story of the golden calf. To better understand this narrative, we need to take a look at the entire context of Exodus until that point. God saves Abraham’s family from slavery and brings them into the wilderness to make them his people.
Exodus 19 begins a new literary unit runs from Exodus 19-40. God promises to make Israel his covenant people, and he gives them the terms of the covenant, most densely summarized in the ten commandments. In chapter 24, the people agree to the covenant, and Moses returns up the mountain.
Then Moses went up to the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; and on the seventh day he called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. And to the eyes of the sons of Israel the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the mountain top. Moses entered the midst of the cloud as he went up to the mountain; and Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
This passage echoes the themes of the sabbath and temple. From here, God speaks seven times and reveals the blueprints for the tabernacle, the place where God will dwell with Israel. But at the foot of the mountain, Israel has already turned their back on God.
Carissa reads from Exodus 32:1-6. Jon realizes that Israel is claiming that the golden calf represents Yahweh. In doing so, they break the first three commandments God gives them (we dive into “taking God’s name in vain” with Dr. Carmen Imes in this episode). The golden calf story represents Israel trying to domesticate God to worship him on their own terms.
Carissa points out how the golden calf story intentionally inverts how God meant to dwell with Israel. Tim says that Israel was reacting to a God that seemed unpredictable and scary; they didn’t have a category for a God they needed to trust. This story echoes the garden of Eden and is a larger reflection on human nature. We continue reading to see how God responds.
Tim mentions Jewish scholars who view the golden calf story as Israel’s Genesis 3 moment.
"There is no punishment that comes upon the world that doesn’t have at least one-twenty fourth of part of the punishment of the golden calf."
– Babylonian Talmud 102A
"There is not a generation [of Israel] that doesn’t suffer at least a particle of punishment for the sin of the golden calf."
– Midrash Exodus Rabbah 43:2
Ultimately, all of humanity is guilty of replacing the real God with a god made in our own image.
Tim picks the story up by reading from Exodus 32:7-10. God asks for rest (“leave me alone” in many translations) so he can punish Israel, but Moses brings him rest by interceding for the people five times. Exodus 34:6-7 comes before the final act of intercession after Moses asks God to show him his glory.
In part three (35:00–47:50), Tim, Jon, and Carissa talk more about Moses’ five acts of intercession. Moses appeals to God’s consistency, asking God to be faithful to his promise to Abraham and all his descendants.
Jon asks why God would go back and forth with Moses if he knew humanity would fail as covenant partners. Tim connects it to a complex portrait of God as a being with emotions, citing the prophet Hosea from Hosea 11.
Moses intercedes first on behalf of the guilty Israelites, then for all those who stood by and did nothing. He pleads with God to go with them, and when God agrees to go before Israel in his glory, Moses asks to see God’s glory. These five acts of intercession point us toward the need for a messianic savior who will give his life in intercession for the guilty, just as Moses offers.
Exodus 34:6-7 is important because it becomes a commentary on God’s behavior throughout this entire story. This story reveals the kind of deity that God is, showing the character qualities we’ve already seen at work so far in the story—God’s justice toward wrongdoing and his overflowing compassion and love.
In part four (47:50–55:20), the team talks about the implications of the final line of this passage. Jon asks about the use of “the third and the fourth” at the end of Exodus 34:7. Tim says that “three, even four” is a Hebrew turn of phrase used in Amos and Proverbs to say “however many.” God contrasts his eternal purpose to bring loyal love to Israel with his commitment to deal with rebellion in each generation.
Carissa points out that God’s favor toward Moses results in his forgiveness of Israel’s sin. This is a pattern in Scripture—God showing his love for others based on his love for one. Moses embodies this as he comes down the mountain shining with the glory of God. In that moment he truly embodies what humanity is meant to be—the true image of God—in contrast with Israel’s pitiful replacement, the golden calf.
In part five (55:20–end), the team wraps up the episode by talking about how Jesus is connected to God’s description of himself. Tim mentions that Exodus 34:6 gets referenced once in the New Testament in the opening page of the Gospel of John.
John 1:14, 16-17
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. For of his fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.
John is claiming that the one Moses met on Mount Sinai became human, and he describes this human with the words of Exodus 34:6, “full of grace and truth.” These words are one of the main ways the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) translated loyal love and faithfulness. Jesus is the incarnate God of Exodus 34:6-7.
Show produced by Dan Gummel and Camden McAfee.
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