Sometimes I wonder if we have somehow lost a sense of the seriousness of sin. Or maybe it is that our concept of grace has made sin too light a thing to be bothered with or worried over. We often view the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee praying in the temple to defend our view. On the one hand we don’t want to be like the Pharisee patting ourselves on the back for how wonderful we are. On the other hand we ought to feel the weight of sin like the tax-collector. I mean, Jesus said that the tax collector went home justified. And why? Because sin tore him up; because he beat his chest and cried out, “Redeem me! I am a sinner!” And in this cry there are two wonderful and weighty truths: We need redeemed from the horrible weight of sin, and only God can redeem us. I cannot save you. I cannot cover over your sins so that you can stand before the face of an almighty and holy God. But that is exactly what you need. Can we be justified if we don’t feel the suffocating weight of our sins? Maybe that is also the lesson of the parable.
Moses has exacted his own punishment of the Israelites, but Exodus 32:30-35 makes it exceedingly clear that Moses’ punishment would not be enough. The day after the execution of 3,000 people Moses tells the people, “You have sinned a great sin and now I need to go up to Yahweh in order to cover over your sin.” Now, it seems as if Moses is a little unsure that they are grasping the seriousness of their sins. Maybe 3,000 people executed by the sword didn’t wake them up to the weight of their transgression. Moses wants them to get it. They had destroyed the very foundation of their relationship with God. They willfully missed the image of God and indulged themselves in rebellious revelry. In a sense their action was a shout in the face of God, “We don’t care who you say you are: this is who we want you to be!” Hmm, I wonder if people do that today? Seems likely doesn’t it?
Moses returns to the mountain top and begins with an interjection, “Ah now!” Notice the difference in Moses’ tone here as opposed to earlier when he pled with God not to wipe the people off of the earth. He is painfully aware that they had sinned a great, intense sin. He asked God to forgive or cover over their sins. The Hebrew here is lacking. The author may have been trying to indicate Moses’ difficulty in finding the right words. The sense seems to be a request that if God refused to forgive them, that he would blot Moses’ name from his book. Some think that every time the book of God is mentioned it must refer to the same thing. The truth is, we are not sure what is being referred to here. Is Moses asking to be killed in place of the Israelites? Is he asking God to take away his status of being blessed before Yahweh in order to save the people? Whether this is about life or blessing or both, it seems likely that Moses is offering himself as an atonement or covering for the people’s sin. What a guy that Moses was. And I think we are intended to compare Moses with Aaron here. Aaron fabricated a golden idol out of fear of the people. Moses offers himself up for the people. The difference is enormous.
Yahweh responds with a resounding “Nope! That’s not how this works Moses.” It is the person who has sinned who shall experience punishment. Moses, who was not guilty cannot stand in place of the guilty. If blotting someone from the book means death as many assume then God is saying that the sinners must die. But if it is a book of blessed status before God, then the punishment is a loss of that blessing. That may not seem like much to some, but believe me, it is huge. The tax collector felt the weight of non-blessing crushing him. If this is about loss of blessing, it does not exclude further punishment because Yahweh also smites those who are guilty. We have no idea what this blow was. And there are guesses a plenty, but it is purposefully vague. We don’t need to know exactly how God punished them. We need to know that no human can cover over the sins of others. Redemption belongs to God. And there is redemption here. The nation will continue on in relationship with Yahweh in spite of their great sin.
You and I have been saved by grace; washed clean by the blood of our Savior Jesus Christ. Having been washed clean we should be even more aware of the seriousness of sin; the weight of rebellion. Sin is no laughing matter. It will crush and consume you. It is when you are all breathless, beating your chest and crying out to Yahweh to deal with the problem of sin, that you go home justified. In other words, when you feel the weight of sin you accept the cure. And you cannot save anyone; not yourself or your family or your friends. But Yahweh can and does through the cross. Weight lifted! Praise God. Walter