I’m leading a Bible study at church called Unlocking the Mystery of the Bible. This video-based course is provided by Ascension Press and is the shorter, 8-week version of Jeff Gavin’s immensely popular 24 week program called The Bible Timeline: The Story of Salvation.
Things have been going very well. We proceeded through the Creation account of Genesis, the Fall of mankind and God’s Covenants with Abraham and Noah. Moses took His chosen people out of Egypt and into the desert, the Covenant with Moses was ratified in Exodus 24, and then we hit the Golden Calf incident. If you recall in Exodus 32, after Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and saw the Golden Calf, he gathered the sons of Levi together sent them out to kill 3000 throughout the camp of the Israelites.
It happens every time at this point in Bible studies that people begin to question the actions and justice of God. Specifically in this case people asked “Why did God allow the Levites to kill 3000 of their fellow Israelites?” It gets even more confusing when we get into the books of Joshua and Judges. For now I thought it would be good to comment on God’s reaction to Israel’s idolatry in Exodus 32.
Many people read this far in the Bible and, put off by the violent and bloody actions of God, simply put it down and read no further. Many conclude this “God of the Old Testament” is one of anger and wrath and is completely unrelated to the “God of Love” of the New Testament. This is a heresy called Marcionism. Facing this apparent difference, many others reject altogether the truth of the inspired word of God. We must always remember that there is one God and he is all loving, merciful and does not change. If there is a conflict perceived it must come from our lack of understanding, not from the nature of God.
The apparent brutality of the Old Testament is often hard for us 21st century folks to understand. We live in a society of laws, not an ancient culture of siege, conquest and covenants forged for the purpose of survival. In order to fully understand this story in Exodus we have view it through the lens of the seriousness of those agreements and covenants. In those days, oaths and covenants were the a fabric of a healthy society.
If all of the killing seems harsh, remember that in Exodus 24 Israel had voluntarily placed itself in covenant to do God’s will, under the curse of death, and had become accountable. If they broke their side of the covenant, they had to be punished. It is very much like our own children who are threatened with consequences only to disobey and not be punished. The agreed-to punishment was part of the learning process. Covenants were matters of life and death.
We must realize here that God was indeed acting as a loving Father by binding himself in covenant to such a wicked people and constantly giving them remedial punishment but never abandoning them. God is perfectly holy and he cannot bear wickedness. Though he lovingly bound himself to the Israelites, there were consequences if they broke the covenant.
In Exodus 24 we see that after Moses receives the ordinances from the Lord, he recites them to the Israelites and they agree to abide by them. He then makes a sacrifice and sprinkles the blood of the sacrifice on the altar and then on the people. This sacrificed animal represents what would happen to the people (and to God) if they broke the covenant oath they had just sworn. The Israelites knew full well that the penalty for breaking the covenant was death.
After Moses has been gone up the mountain for 40 days and nights they forgot their covenant. They engaged in obscene idolatry with the Golden Calf as told in Exodus 32. Their behavior was offensive to God not only because they worshiped an idol, but they also engaged in sexual acts of orgy that were akin to adultery. Remember, the three biggest sins of the Bible were murder, adultery and idolatry. Here you have the Israelites partaking in two at the same time! No wonder God felt betrayed. They engaged in terrible sin right after witnessing the holiness of God and swearing a life and death oath to abide by God’s covenantal law.
As a result, there had to be consequences for them breaking the oath (just as there would be blessings if they obeyed it). On one hand it was a tragedy that the Levites had to kill 3000 of their fellow Israelites. On the other hand, it was very merciful. If no one had risen up to the call of Moses so as to satisfy God’s justice, then all of Israel may have been wiped out. The action of the Levites saved Israel. This is one reason that the Levites were rewarded the responsibility of the priesthood for the entire nation.
So you see that the Bible can sometimes seem confusing when we try to interpret the word without a full understanding of the cultural history of the time. Exodus 32 on first glance seems to reveal a God that is vengeful and angry. On closer examination, we see a humanity that sinned by breaking the rules of a covenant with God. God then punished his children, not out of spite or revenge but out of loving mercy as a way to teach.