Exodus 32: A God of Revenge?

I’m leading a Bible study at church called Unlocking the Mystery of the Bible. unlockingbible_75This 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, the-ten-commandmentshe 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. golden-calfTheir 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.

 

 

5 thoughts on “Exodus 32: A God of Revenge?”

  1. GOD IS LOVE: THE GOLDEN CALF

    The heart of the Old Testament story is not the story of creation (Genesis 1 and 2), not the giving of the law (Exodus 32), but rather God’s revelation to Moses in the context of the golden calf (Exodus 34:5-7) for it is the revelation that the heart of God is love (cf. 1 John 4:8), and the content of that revelation, in one form or another: some longer, some shorter, will reoccur literally thousands of times in the Old Testament.

    It is very interesting to note that this revelation is occasioned by Moses’ sacrificial love for the people, his willingness to die for them (Exodus 32:32). It is as if sacrificial love opens the door to further and deeper revelation.

    In his dialogue with God and his sacrificial plea for the people, Moses asks God four questions: (a) what are your ways? (Exodus 33:13); (b) what is it to know you? (Exodus 33:13); (c) what is it to be a separate (literally, “qodosh” or holy) people? (Exodus 33:16); (d) what is your glory? (Exodus 33:18). And to those four questions, God adds a further two questions Moses left unspoken: (e) what is your goodness? (Exodus 33:19); (f) what is the meaning of your name Yahweh? (Exodus 33:19).

    Interestingly enough, God’s answer to all those six questions is the same answer.

    “Exodus 34:5 Yahweh descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of Yahweh. 34:6 Yahweh passed by before him, and proclaimed, “Yahweh! Yahweh, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness and truth, 34:7 keeping loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and disobedience and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the children’s children, on the third and on the fourth generation.” (WEB)

    What does this single answer mean in the context of those six questions? Clearly, it means at least six things.

    First, to walk in the ways of the God (Exodus 33:13) is to “be” merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abundant in loving kindness and truth, keeping loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity, disobedience and sin. (Exodus 34:6-7)
    Second, to know God (Exodus 33:13) is to “have personally experienced God, to have been born again through that encounter” to be merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abundant in loving kindness and truth, keeping loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity, disobedience and sin. (Exodus 34:6-7)

    Third, to be separate or holy (Exodus 33:16) is to “be” merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abundant in loving kindness and truth, keeping loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity, disobedience and sin. (Exodus 34:6-7)

    Fourth, the glory of God (Exodus 33:17) is that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abundant in loving kindness and truth, keeping loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity, disobedience and sin. (Exodus 34:6-7)

    Fifth, the goodness of God (Exodus 33:19) is that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abundant in loving kindness and truth, keeping loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity, disobedience and sin. (Exodus 34:6-7)

    Sixth, the very name of God (Exodus 33:19), his self-existent being and character is that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abundant in loving kindness and truth, keeping loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity, disobedience and sin. (Exodus 34:6-7)

    What does God’s ending comments mean? Those comments have troubled some but they need not.

    First, sin is, in many ways but not all, its own punishment. It builds habits, those habits form character and character shapes destiny. All three things (sin, habits and character) create examples that others might follow. God does not normally intervene in human affairs to prevent or curb sin. God is “slow to anger”. (Exodus 34:6)

    Second, God allows each and every sinner to see and understand the destructive effects of his or her sins worked out in (a) their own lives (the first generation), (b) the lives of their children (the second generation), (c) the lives of their grandchildren (the third generation) and (d) the lives of their great grandchildren (the fourth generation).

    Third, the goal is that the sinner might know experientially, see and understand, the power of sin, turn in repentance to a God who is “abundant in lovingkindness and truth”, and be forgiven, for God is “gracious and merciful” and will “forgive”. (Exodus 34:6-7)

    1. Hi Rob,
      Thanks for the comments. Excellent insight that I generally agree with. I would caution with painting with too broad of a brush however. In your first paragraph, I would suggest the small edits as follows (MY WORDS IN CAPS):

      The heart of the Old Testament story is not ONLY the story of creation (Genesis 1 and 2), not ONLY the giving of the law (Exodus 32), but rather INCLUDES God’s revelation to Moses in the context of the golden calf (Exodus 34:5-7) for it (THE OLD TESTAMENT AT ITS CORE) is the revelation that the heart of God is love (cf. 1 John 4:8), and the content of that revelation, in one form or another: some longer, some shorter, will reoccur literally thousands of times in the Old Testament.

      In this context I completely agree with you. The OT tells of story of God and his children. These children were created in/from love, were disobedient, and the OT includes the story of how God plans to bring his family back together. This family story requires rules, includes failures, merciful discipline, retrials and eventually divine forgiveness and grace. This entire OT story points to the final act of the play – Jesus Christ.

      Yes again, your highlighting the idea of sin and its consequences is right on.

      I absolutely, love your first point:
      “First, sin is, in many ways but not all, its own punishment. It builds habits, those habits form character and character shapes destiny. … God does not normally intervene in human affairs to prevent or curb sin. …”
      Yes, God is not interested in directly addressing the act of sin, rather, God is ultimately interested in our character, and it this is character that directs our destiny. BRILLIANT!! Thanks for sharing this wisdom.

      Take care Rob,
      Tom

  2. That six-fold question and answer puts the OT God in a new light for me. I used to think that OT God was very harsh, while NT Jesus was rather wimpy in comparison. OT God gave the “Law” that not one of us could fulfill, and NT Jesus came to fulfill the Law in our stead. This perfect Son of God lived, died, and rose again from the dead. Somehow (I just don’t understand it), this “sacrifice” can be conveyed or bestowed to each one of us who “accepts” it and we therefore have our sins forgiven (washed away in the blood of the lamb). This mechanism of redemption is mysterious; I have no idea how or why this would “work.” OT God is so satisfied with NT Jesus’ sacrifice that it makes our restoration possible. So OT God turns out to be loving after all. And it was right there in Exodus 34 all along! Now, if only…

    1. Charlie, You bring up a few really good points:

      First, I’m glad that the post has shed at least a little light on your view of God. It is true reading the OT, people often characterize God as hateful, revengeful and violent – ONLY. In contrast, people often see the NT God as loving and merciful and passive – ONLY. This apparent contradiction has been the source of much confusion about God and even rejection of the Christian message by some.
      The truth is that both the OT and NT are properly representing the particular actions of God in a manner that is consistent with his fundamental nature being of love (1 Jn 4:8).
      In the OT, the emphasis is often that the disobedient children of God deserved to be punished for their free-will choices. We all know that fathers often punish children in a compassionate and loving way for the purpose that the children learn right from wrong and the consequences of each.
      In the NT, the emphasis is often that the love of God the Father is always there even when the children are disobedient.

      But here is the point: In all cases, OT and NT, God’s actions are always driven by his fundamental nature of love for His children. Tenderness is easy to see as love but the contrary, punishment, is more difficult to see as loving. However, if we think about it just a little, both are true and both are essential.

      Similarly, punishment may hurt, but can also provide protection from more grave dangers by shaping our attitudes and decision making. I’m glad my dad punished me when I played with matches because as it turns out this heightened my awareness of the potential utility of, and danger of, flames.

      [Finally, I think if you look you can easily find evidence in both the OT and NT of God acting sometimes in stern and forceful ways, and then at other times acting in tender and compassionate ways. There really isn’t a OT-mean God, NT-nice God theme in Scripture.]

      Second, We can also see this duality in other things in life, and we have no problem accepting both as true.
      Fire can burn and be dangerous, but fire can also keep you warm and alive.
      Our hand hurts when a flame touches (that’s bad), but without that pain, then there would be no motivation to withdraw the hand and thus protect the hand from permanent damage (that’s good). So you see that pain has both drawbacks and benefits. Extending the idea further, you could even say that pain has a very real and necessary role in keeping us alive. Ironic but true.

      Third, regarding the ‘Law’. At in my childhood times I was given rules because rules protected me even if I didn’t understand the why and how. I didn’t understand then, so rules were critically important. But now, I do understand (more) so rules are not so critical. I believe the OT to NT difference is much the same. In the OT the children needed rules, but in the NT, with sacrifice of Christ comes the spiritual maturing of the children. With this ‘maturity’ the children don’t need the follow the rule paradigm, because the bigger picture has been revealed. The children are not adults and can decide for themselves.

      Fourth, the ‘how’ of Christ’s redemptive work on the Cross is indeed a mystery in part. Much can be said but even now, there is much to learn. I think we’ll have to table that discussion for another post.

      In summary, and back to the point of the original blog, I think you said it so well: “So OT God turns out to be loving after all. And it was right there in Exodus 34 all along!”

      Couldn’t agree more.

      Blessings
      Tom

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