The Second Commandment is the focus of the ark, tabernacle, golden calf, tabernacle ark narrative in Exodus. Note the chiasm puts the text on the golden calf (Exo 32-34) at the center, which is why we are addressing it separately for emphasis. That the building of the tabernacle and ark begins after this false worship is a demonstration of God’s grace and mercy. These central chapters tell us of Israel’s rebellion against the authority of God, the mediation of Moses for the people, and the restoration of the people.
The Heidelberg Catechism says regarding the second commandment: “That we should not represent him or worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his word” (96). All of our confessions that address the second commandment agree (cf. the Scots Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Second Helvetic Confession, and the Westminster Standards). Making such images and worshiping using those images are the two things addressed by the commandment. This reflects the wording of the second commandment (as numbered by Reformed theologians): “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not worship [bow down to] them or serve them” (Exo 20:4-5, NASB).
Keep in mind that this is a summary of a whole category of sins. The underlying issue is whether Israel will worship God the way that He has revealed. And ultimately this points us to Jesus, whom we worship, as the revealed image of God. This is only possible because humanity was made in the image of God — this is why Jesus could be fully human and fully divine. Nevertheless, the first has more to do with whom we worship and the second with the way we worship. And Jesus is the way.
The people of Israel represented God with a golden calf and worshiped God using that calf. While this distinction may not apply to the masses, the more sophisticated among them might argue (keeping with the culture of the Ancient Near East (ANE)) that the golden calf was not meant to be God but a footstool or throne for God. In other words, God rides the golden calf. Even so, making the golden calf was a sinful act breaking the second commandment. And this was compounded when they used the golden calf in worship. This is a recurring sin in Israel. For example, see the Gideon narrative (Judges 8:22-27). In both situations the people were not attempting to worship a false god. They were attempting to worship the true God in a way he had not revealed.
Translations communicate the serious failure in their effort to worship the true God by calling what they worship “gods” (Exo 32:1, 4, 8, 23, and 31). The word “gods” and the word “God” in the Hebrew are the exact same form. We translate this gods, even though there is only one calf, because of the plural form of other words in the Hebrew clause. However, it is safe to say that the people think they are worshiping YHWH just using this calf instead of waiting for the ark that has not yet been built. Aaron even says, “Tomorrow will be a feast to YHWH” (Exo 32:5). The God who brought them up out of the land of Egypt (Exo 32:4) is now being represented with this calf. In fact, this allusion to the prologue of the Ten Commandments (Exo 20:2) shows us that they are starting their own religion.
It is helpful to compare and contrast true and false religion in Exodus. Instead of the ark, in Exo 32 we have the golden calf. Both were made of gold and both were designed to be the footstool or throne of YHWH God. The difference is that God revealed the pattern for the construction of the ark, whereas the golden calf was man’s religion. Instead of the festival to YHWH (Exo 10:9, 12:14, 13:6) the people would be doing after the Exodus event (that is, Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread and also in contrast to the meal with the elders on Mount Sinai), there is a new festival to YHWH initiated by Aaron. Both true and false worship in Exodus shared the same high priest. But when it is true worship Aaron would do what God has revealed, when it is false worship Aaron would act on his own. Instead of the Song of Moses and Miriam there is new singing. In many respects the festival is a parody of the victory celebration after the Exodus event. But the most fundamental difference is the law. Both have the prologue to the Ten Commandments (Exo 20:2, 32:4) but the false religion does not have the commandments. Thus Moses breaks the tablets of the Ten Commandments as a prophetic statement that they are not worthy to have them.
Note that when talking with Moses, God calls the people of Israel “your people” (cf. Exo 32:7). This is similar to Ezekiel 33 (see the sermon blog). And God proposes to make Moses a new Abraham by starting over with Moses (Exo 32:10). But Moses, as a prophet, intercedes for the people by reminding God of His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (an interesting choice since usually Scripture says, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) (Exo 32:13) and by reminding God that they are not only Moses’ people but they are “your people” (Exo 32:11ff). The reminder refers also to the reputation/name of YHWH (Exo 32:12). And God relented — He changed His mind. Prayer changes things. Moses is finally excelling as a mediator, but still shows us our need for Jesus who is the perfect mediator.
And Moses comes down and gets Joshua, who is unaware of what is going on in the camp, and they went into the camp and destroyed the idol and made the people of Israel drink the powder left over from it. Moses confronted Aaron about it. Aaron had been confronted by an angry mob to begin the chapter (Exo 32:1) and now he appeals to that (Exo 32:21ff). His answer about throwing the gold into the fire and out came the golden calf directly contradicts what the text earlier said Aaron did (Exo 32: 4, 24). But nonetheless the Levites were the only ones who sided with Moses and YHWH (Exo 32:26) and slaughtered three thousand of the men of Israel.
And Moses went back up on the mountain and continued his intercession even wishing to be blotted out of the book of life in their place (Exo 32:32ff). And YHWH sent a plague on the people (Exo 32:35). Exodus 33 continues the intercession. The issue is whether Israel would be heaven on earth — whether God be in their midst (see the previous post). The problem is that God is holy and would consume His people for their sins. But Moses insists that God must go with His people.
The restoration of Israel as the kingdom of priests and a holy nation then begins. Moses gets to see the glory of God (Exo 33:22). Moses gets another two tablets of the Ten Commandments. The covenant is renewed. A couple observations: note Exo 34:17 on the Second Commandment (only mentioning that they “shall not make” and not the other half “shall not worship”) and the next verse mentions the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exo 34:18) and another mentions the Feast of Weeks (Exo 34:22). He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten words (Exo 34:28). Here again we see the forty days and nights. The point in all of this is to say that things are back on track in contrast with the golden calf worship episode. And Moses’ face shined (Exo 34:29ff). This is part of the image-glory of God. He is being renewed in the image of God (the theme of the image of God therefore covers the entire section of Exo 32-34). Paul would refer to this in 2 Cor 3:7-18.
Thus together with the section we looked at last time we come to the end of Exodus, but structurally we have not yet come to an end to the book. The laws of Leviticus will continue the narrative from here. We have not yet seen the poetry and epilogue.