Yahweh: Just and Merciful

Introduction and Background

Exodus 32:1-29 is one of the most challenging passages within the book.  It speaks of the effects idol worship has on Israel’s relationship with God; in turn, God has every right to punish Israel for it,  yet is  both gracious in his response and just.   The passage illustrates the effect that the sin of idolatry has on the covenant between God, his people and Aaron yet above all else shows us that God is Merciful and Just demonstrates and forever patient  and elevates God’s mercy and justice. Exodus can be divided into 3 sections:

  1. Gods Saves Israel from Egyptian Bondage(1:1-18:27)
  2. God Gives His Law (19-24:18)
  3. God Commands Israel to Build the Tabernacle (25:1-40:38)[1]

The passage we are looking at  is located within the third section of the book. It’s placing is a direct literary break in instructions relating to the worship of Yahweh, even before we have considered its content showing us the negative effects idols have on our worship of Yahweh.  Chapters 32-34 are a wider break which could be titled ‘Israel’s first rebellion and the renewal of the covenant’ showing us both the negative effect of rebellion and the merciful nature of Yahweh in the renewal of the covenant.


The Golden Calf: Israel’s Sin

Moses has been away for 40 days (Ex. 24:18), the Hebrew people, approach Aaron and command him ‘make us some gods who can lead us’[2]  This is not a gentle request but a demand[3] and aggressive in tone[4]; seen in the terseness and bluntness of the two imperatives ‘Come, Make us gods’ (Ex 32:1). Durham comments that the people are in a frenzy when they come to Aaron, mainly because of Moses’ absence[5]. Aaron requests the people to bring him all the gold they have and makes it into an idol which they appear to equate to Yahweh and their wondrous rescue from Egypt[6]. The idol seems not to replace Yahweh but rather represents a descent into a form of polytheistic idolatry still connected to Yahweh. Two things from the passage suggest the calf becomes this literal representation of Yahweh in Moses’ absence: firstly, the role of Aaron in the creation of the calf is almost priest-like; his taking the sacrifice from the people (the gold); passing it through the fire (purification) and the building of the altar to the idol: secondly, Aaron appears to centre the idol and the false worship of it within the context of Yahwehism (v.5) when he announces ‘Tomorrow there will be a feast to the LORD’ Aaron’s decision to create a calf appears to be influenced by the surrounding culture. Within the wider historical context, we learn several things that add weight and value to this narrative. The people would have likely been strongly influenced by Canaanite culture which made no distinction between Deity and Humanity where both were considered part of creation[7]. Creating an image of a god would serve to bring the worshipper nearer to his god; to begin to care for it ultimately meant that gods were dependent on humankind. It was in this local context that Yahweh refuted that any images be made of him so that he was distinct and could never be subjugated by the Hebrew people and that an image of a calf was also chosen[8]. There is also suggestion that the image of the bull could be connected to the lunar cult of the god Sin, even reflected in the name Sinai[9]. In the perceived absence of God they wanted the very opposite of God, which was ‘a god with a face, like everyone else’ around them[10]. The narrative moves on with Aaron leading the Hebrews further into sin (vv. 4&5) when he creates the idol with some sort of tool and finishes it the fire (v24). The effect the idol has on Israel’s ability to worship God is that it breaks the very covenant which symbolizes their worship. In Exodus 20 God gives the 10 commandments, yet here the Hebrews make an image of God, so in seeking to be like other peoples they destroy their own ability to worship Yahweh.  Contrast the picture between the people at the foot of Sinai moving out of covenant with God, to that of Moses dwelling and basking in God’s presence; the very image of what the covenant should be.


Restoration and Moses  

 In verse 7 Moses re-enters the narrative, when Yahweh informs him of the actions and dissent of his people.  Cole would indicate here a change in the possessive used by God, referring to the Hebrews as ‘your’ people[11].  This is a direct literary ploy to show a disowning of the people by God. From this point, Moses is highlighted as strong and decisive as seen in his handling of the golden calf (v20) and how he acts out God’s judgment (v26); an example to be followed. In verse 9 God refers to the Hebrew people as ‘stiff-necked’, a Biblical image to paint a picture of stubbornness, refusing to turn to the Lord (2 Chron. 36:13, Acts 7:51). It is here that the literary contrast between Moses and Aaron begins; Aaron who so easily submits to the wrong will of the people in contrast to Moses who seems to refuse even to submit to the right will of God.  By verse 14, God has relented, his wrath has been stayed and the process of restoration of his covenant with his people begins.

In the next section of the narrative, we see another contrast between Moses and Aaron. As Moses descends there is a clear building up of suspense by the narrator.  Moses has the two tablets of the covenant which the narrator goes into precise detail about, telling us they are the word of God and written by his very hand (v16). Then Joshua appears for just a moment suggesting ‘there is the sound of war in the camp’[12] to which Moses responds, poetically dismissing what it is not and confirming what they have heard[13]. The suspense reaches its climax (v19) when Moses meets with the dancing and the idol, which under the lens of verse 25, should be considered licentious and pagan in behaviour. Moses’ anger burns hot, and his reaction should be taken within the context of him seeing the reality of the sins the people and Aaron have entered in to. His reaction now should be contrasted to his previous reaction upon hearing of their sin (v7) with his anger now parallel to that of Yahweh (v10) so that ‘the seriousness of Israel’s lapse is thus doubly and very effectively emphasized’[14]. Within this same frame, we see the symbolic and powerful breaking of the covenant between Yahweh and his people when Moses throws the tablets of the covenant to the ground, smashing them.  Seemingly direct from the breaking of the tablets of the law, Moses then takes the bull, melts it in the fire, grinds it to powder and scatters it on the water making the people drink it (v20). Some scholars note the similarity of Numbers chapter 5 (‘Water of bitterness to be drunk by the wife suspected of unfaithfulness). Cole points toward this imagery[15], although I must agree with Childs; that the drinking of the water should be seen in the context of the absolute destruction of the idol and shaming of the people; ‘the issue at stake is not to determine the guilt, but to eradicate it’ [16]

The dialogue that takes place between Moses and Aaron from verse 21 -24 is the pinnacle of the literary contrast between the folly of Aaron and the strong and decisive leadership of Moses.  Moses, having destroyed the idol and begun the process of redeeming the people, turns to Aaron and enquires of him ‘What did these people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?’  Aaron’s response is similar to that of Moses to Yahweh as he appeals for mercy (v11) ‘but it is there the parallel ends’[17]. Whereas Moses’ response appeals to the character and goodness of God to relent from punishing the people; Aaron’s response of, ‘I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf’ seeks to absolve himself of any guilt. Childs picks up on various perspectives, with some noting this is simply childish naivety, others some deranged form of humor, even that some Jewish commentators take it at face value, that the calf was indeed self-produced.  Childs comments that overall, Aaron’s response is negligent; the issue is ‘Aaron’s whole behavior, both in his original weakness and subsequent defense’.  Childs then goes on to contrast the actions between Aaron and Moses, closing with the statement ”Aaron exonerated himself from all active involvement; Moses put his own life on the line for Israel’s sake.  Aaron was too weak to restrain the people; Moses was strong enough to restrain even God’[18] which supports Aaron as Moses’ foil. The purpose: highlight the strong, merciful and just actions of Yahweh through Moses compared with Aaron’s sin.



This passage speaks of God’s merciful and just nature, seen in the anthropopathic dialogue that occurs from verses 7-14. In response to the false worship occurring at the foot of the mountain, God’s wrath seems set to be unleashed upon a disobedient people. Cole reminds us the narrator is seeking to explain God’s role in human terms, so we should not consider God changing his mind as indicative of any sense of regret, remorse or confusion over the course of action he was going to take[19]; and Childs writes in reference to verse 14 ‘if this sentence is to be read by itself it makes the God of Israel as arbitrary as Zeus. If it is read in its full context, it epitomizes the essential paradox of the Hebrew faith: God is ‘merciful and gracious… but will not clear the guilty’ (34.7)’[20].  We must see God’s mercy in the simple fact that God allowed Moses to intercede on behalf of his people. The reality is that Moses does not alter God’s will; he becomes the very instrument which carries it out, through the destruction of the calf and the rebuking of Aaron. As Childs suggests, ‘Moses was never more like God than in such a moment, for he shared God’s mind and loving purpose’. Moreover the grace, majesty and mercy of God must be seen in the fact He left room for intercession at all’[21]

Even with such display of mercy, God’s judgment is not stayed completely: there must be some payment for sin[22]. And so we now consider one of the most difficult passages in the Old Testament, a passage that still points us to a God who is loving and merciful. The introduction of the Levites is simply a report of how order was restored from chaos[23], how justice was acted out[24].  I believe this passage must be seen within the context of God’s mercy; contrasted with complete and utter destruction, the Hebrew people where blessed by the staying of God’s wrath.

Application & Conclusion

The ensuing chapters see God withdrawing himself from the midst of the people, yet not completely, symbolized in the Tent of Meeting[25]; Moses receiving new tablets and the realigning of the covenant, before God concludes the instructions for the tabernacle.  This should point us towards the effect that idol worship can have on our covenant relationship with God, who out of mercy and love will work to restore it on our behalf.  The golden calf symbolizes the danger of idolatry in all forms, whether we are pagans worshipping pillars in the desert, or humankind soaked in the illusion of modernity; pursuing our own selfish desire at the sake of others; creating idols of money, power and sex. Even things we try to attach to God can become idols.  We must be aware of them and fight to be free from them, unlike the people of Galatia who were ‘caught again in the shackles of slavery’[26]. The idol’s destruction paints for us the reality that all idols are temporary in comparison to the majesty of God.When we observe Aaron and Moses, we see two examples to learn from.  We must surely discern the need not to bow to the pressure of our peers as Aaron did (v1) but to kneel before God as Moses did (v11), interceding for ourselves and those around us. We must learn to completely destroy our idols before God and not seek to nurture them within our own faith context, justifying them as an expression of our faith.

Finally I believe we must hold our faith leaders to the examples of both Aaron and Moses, being willing only to follow those who are of the same mind of God as Moses was, not perfect but when mistakes are made, willing to admit their folly, that when led astray, they would be willing to stand against the tide and lead the collective back into repentance and communion with God.I believe this passage communicates a picture of a God who is just, who requires that sins are atoned for; but also a God who is both loving and merciful in that he allows Moses to intercede before him (like Christ).  How thankful we should be that we have the ultimate sacrifice who, unlike Moses, is worthy to bear the full wrath of God’s justice.


[1]  Tremper Longman III & Raymond B Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament 2nd Edition (Zondervan, 2006) 69

[2] Exodus chapter 32 verse 1, New Living Translation

[3] John L Durham, World Biblical Commentary Exodus (Word Incorporated, 1986), 418

[4] Brevard S.Childs, Exodus – Old Testament Library (W&J McKay Limited 1974), 564

[5] Durham, 419

[6] Exodus  Chapter 32 verse 4

[7] Desmond T Alexander and David Baker, Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch (IVP, 2003),  368

[8] Alexander & Baker,  368

[9] Alexander & Baker,  368

[10] Alan Cole, Exodus an Introduction and Commentary (Billings and Sons, 1973), 212

[11] Cole, 216

[12] Exodus 32:17 (NIV)

[13] Durham, 430

[14] Durham, 430

[15] Cole, 219

[16] Childs, 569

[17] Durham, 431

[18] Childs, 569-570

[19] Cole, 216

[20] Childs, 568

[21] Childs, 567

[22] Durham, 429

[23] Durham, 431-432

[24] Childs, 571

[25] Cole, 223

[26] Galatians 5:1 (JB Philips Translation), https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Galatians+5&version=PHILLIPS, accessed 15th October 2015


Alexander, Desmond, and David Baker. Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch, IVP, 2003

Childs, Brevard. Exodus – Old Testament Library, W&J McKay Limited , 1974

 Cole, Exodus an Introduction and Commentary, Billings and Sons, 1973

Durham, John. World Biblical Commentary Exodus, Word Incorporated, 1986

Longman, Tremper, and Raymond B Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament 2nd Edition Zondervan, 2006

Philips, JB. The New Testament in Modern English, Galatians 5:1 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Galatians+5&version=PHILLIPS,



  1. Love the background and research that adds so much to the context. You put in a lot of homework and it shows. Well done good and faithful servant.


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