In the second movement of Exodus, Moses walks straight into God’s fiery presence on Mount Sinai without fear. But by the end of the scroll, he can’t enter God’s presence. What changed? Right after confirming their covenant with Yahweh, Israel turns around and commits idolatry by making and worshiping a golden calf. It’s a choice that ruptures their relationship with Yahweh and even their connection to Moses. In this episode, join Jon and Tim as they explore the final portion of the third movement of Exodus.
This story teaches us that the only way that we can stand before God as his blameless partners is if we have an intercessor in the heavens, who will remind God’s own self to stay true to God’s own promises. That sounds like a weird thing to say, but this is the narrative’s way of trying to help us grasp two tensions within God’s purpose: God’s desire to bless and to share responsibility and authority with his human partners, as well as God’s moral obligations to respond justly to human evil and corruption through bringing consequences.
Access to God’s holy space, the place where Heaven and Earth are one, is central to the story of the Bible. This final movement of Exodus opens with Moses atop Mount Sinai with Yahweh, in the center of his fiery presence. It is here that Yahweh gives Moses the ten commandments, 42 laws, and the blueprints for the tabernacle. The tabernacle is a localized, mobile place where God gives Israel access to his presence, and it too becomes a place where Heaven and Earth unite.
However, something strange happens in Exodus 40:35 after the tabernacle is built.
Exodus 40:35 Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of Yahweh filled the tabernacle.
This is the opposite of what takes place in Exodus 24 at the close of Exodus’s second movement—Moses walks straight into God’s fiery presence. What has changed? As we’re about to find out, the events of Exodus 32-34, when the Israelites made and worshiped the golden calf, ruptured the harmony between God and his people to such a great extent even Moses can’t enter his glory.
In part two (12:00-28:45), Tim and Jon discuss significant themes within the golden calf narrative. (We also talked about this story at length in our Character of God series.)
Moses disappears into the cloud of God’s presence for 40 days, so, understandably, the Israelites assume he died. They immediately break their covenant with Yahweh and ask Aaron to “make an elohim” (Exod. 32:1). They make a golden calf using jewelry they took from the Egyptians, creating a new god with material inextricably bound to Yahweh’s defeat of Egypt and its gods.
Yahweh gets really angry and threatens to destroy Israel (Exod. 32:9-10). Exodus 32-34 raises important questions about God's nature and character. Is there a limit to his patience? Is he really loving and forgiving? Can his mind be changed?
Moses intercedes for Israel five times, appealing to Yahweh’s character and reputation among the nations. And during the fourth appeal, God describes his own character in the verses that become the most-quoted verses by other biblical authors.
Exodus 34:6-7 Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet he will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”
Moses stands firm in his identity as an image of God in this story as he intercedes for Israel. Notice that he doesn’t intercede based on his own merit or any strategic method, but solely based on God’s own character.
This story presents us with two realities we are meant to hold in tension. On the one hand, God wants to bless and partner with humans as they operate in true freedom. But he also has to respond to human sin and corruption with justice. This is where Moses, or another righteous intercessor, comes in. When someone goes before Yahweh to remind him of his promises, he’s happy to act in accordance with his promises.
In part three (28:45-51:42), the guys discuss what happens when Moses comes down from Mount Sinai. Suddenly, Yahweh isn’t the only one who’s angry—Moses is too. He grinds the golden calf into dust and makes the Israelites drink it. The tribe of Levi joins him in executing 3,000 Israelites that engaged in idolatrous worship. Israel’s worship of the golden calf gains yet another parallel with Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden, as their sin results in brother-against-brother division.
As readers, we are meant to see the speed of Israel’s about-face. In a matter of days, they move from Yahweh’s willing covenant partners to idolaters who can only be compelled to maintain their covenant with violence.
After this incident, Yahweh tells Israel to go ahead without him, and Moses intercedes for Israel yet again.
Exodus 33:15-16 If your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here. For how then can it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not by your going with us, so that we, I and your people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?
Yahweh agrees to Moses’ request to continue with the people, and then Moses makes another request. He asks Yahweh to reveal his glory (Exod. 33:18). This is an interesting request considering Moses just spent 40 days in Yahweh’s glory cloud. It’s as if Moses recognizes that because Yahweh agreed to his request, he and Yahweh have a close relationship. Moses is essentially asking, “What if we were even closer? Show me more of yourself!”
Because of Moses’ proximity to Yahweh (both physically and relationally), he begins to shine with Yahweh’s own glory. Eventually, he has to veil his face before the Israelites because they are alarmed by him, just as they are alarmed by God’s glory. It’s a disheartening way to conclude the Exodus scroll, with Israel afraid of the glory of God.
Show produced by Cooper Peltz. Edited by Dan Gummel and Frank Garza. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder.
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