I heard this mother yelling at her children, “If you don’t get in here this instant I will spank you!” The children kept playing. She yelled, “I mean it!” The children kept playing. And low and behold those children never did get a spanking.Whatever your views are on spanking, you can probably see that threatening any consequence without follow through is futile. It trains the exact opposite of what you are attempting. And imposed consequences are necessary for training. We may quibble about what appropriate consequences are, but without any consequences there is zero training. This is probably true in every realm of life. And if we can except this, and believe me I know some do not, we should probably except it from God as well, shouldn’t we?
In Exodus 32:19-29 we encounter Moses’ response to the people’s rebellion. Moses already knows what the Israelites have been up to. So why do we find him all full of burning anger when he reaches the camp? Hearing is different than seeing. He is now a witness to their reveling and it stokes the fire that may have already been smoldering inside of him. There is truth here, isn’t there? Hearing is not the same as seeing. Seeing on TV is not even the same as witnessing first hand. I saw the reports of the devastating mud slide that had wiped out Oslo, Washington. But when I drove by and saw if first hand, well, that was different; more real.
The first thing he does is to throw the tablets down and break them. This is both an anger response and a symbolic response. They have broken covenant with God. They have rendered his communication to them useless. Then he takes the golden idol and burns it, grinds it into powder, and scatters it on the water which he forces them to drink. This has caused much discussion. The burning may have been a melting the idol and forming it into smaller chunks which can be more easily ground up. There is this Ugaritic text that tells how the goddess Anat destroys the god Mot by burning, grinding, and scattering. This may have become a formulaic statement about the destruction of gods or idols. And that may be part of what is going on here, but this is also a symbolic act. The God they made, even if it is meant to represent Yahweh, is an object that can be burned, ground up and scattered into powder which they can drink or consume. This golden calf could not do anything for them.
Then Moses confronts Aaron. You can almost hear Moses pleading with Aaron to give him a viable reason why this had been allowed to happen. “What did the people do to you?” Aaron begins much in the same way Moses began pleading with Yahweh. But there the similarity ends. Aaron then said, “You know how evil these people are Moses.” As if someone else’s evil is an excuse for one’s own evil. Aaron recounts almost word for word the people’s speech to him. The problem is, there is nothing in those words that can excuse Aaron’s actions. He ends with an extremely lame, “I put the gold in the fire, and wouldn’t you know it, out came a calf.” I don’t think Moses fell for it. “Well, if that calf formed itself, you surely cannot be blamed Aaron. Good man!” The people had “let go” because Aaron had let them “let go”. Nope, Moses didn’t fall for it. And what is worse the people had set themselves up as a derisive whisper among the nations. Blame for this is also ascribed to Aaron.
Then Moses gives the people a chance. He calls out, “Whoever is for Yahweh (on Yahweh’s terms people!) gather to me.” The Levites gather to Moses. Most likely others did as well, but the Levites maybe showed more sorrow or regret for their actions. Some have even suggested that they had refrained from the whole calf incident. Moses commands the Levites to slay those who still stood in rebellion. Three thousand people were killed by the sword that day. Then Moses cried out, “Fill your hand for the Lord.” Be prepared to serve God! Was this directed toward the Levites only or to the whole camp? We don’t know, though most believe it is uttered to the Levites alone and that they are the ones being blessed here. I see no reason why it cannot have been directed toward all who had repented.
There are consequences for not obeying God. We may not like it, but consequences are necessary. If Yahweh did nothing here, the people would have been trained to believe that worshiping a golden calf was okey dokey. The people had been given a chance to give up their rebellion; their revelry. Three thousand arrogantly declined. Humble yourself before the Lord and allow him to exalt you. Peace.