Moses began to plead for the people, and he had two very impressive arguments. First of all he said to God, “What will the Egyptians say if you destroy your people? What they’ll say is this, ‘It was with evil intent that you brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth.’ Therefore turn from your fierce anger, and relent and don’t bring this disaster on the people.” If God were to destroy the people, the Egyptians will win after all. No one wanted the Egyptians to win.
Moses also asked God about His covenant with Abraham. He said to the Lord, “Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever’” (v. 13). This is pretty powerful reasoning. If you think through those words and analyze them carefully, you will see that Moses is being very, very thoughtful in what he says.
First, when Moses names the patriarchs, he said, “Abraham, Isaac and Israel.” Usually, we list Jacob as the third patriarch, rather than his new name “Israel.” However, Moses does this because that’s the people for whom he is pleading. He is saying in effect that these people God is about to destroy got their name from the very man who served God faithfully, and with whom God made the covenant.
Second, he reminds God of these promises that He made to the patriarchs. There were several promises. He promised to multiply them so they’d become a great nation, which has been fulfilled. But He had also promised to lead them into a new land and give it to them, and that had not been fulfilled. So he is saying to God, “Now remember that promise that you made. You haven’t fulfilled it yet.” That’s powerful reasoning.
Third and finally, he reminded God that the covenants of God are forever. They are everlasting covenants, not temporal ones that God can break.
This intercessory prayer by Moses on behalf of Israel is similar to the great intercessory prayer of Abraham when he pleaded for Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. Here, in Exodus 32, we are told that God listened to Moses. The judgment was restrained, at least temporarily. The text says, “The LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened” (v. 14).
All this has happened on the mountain, but the sin is still going on in the valley. So Moses at this point comes down the mountain, and he begins to deal with the people as best he knew how. On the mountain, of course, he had only been hearing about their sin. But as he made his way down the mountain and began to see what was actually going on, he was so overcome with anger that he threw down the stone tables of the law and broke them. The people have been breaking the law of God, and in response Moses breaks the tables of the law.
Moses’ job was to reclaim the people. But how was he to go about it? Well, he did everything he knew to do. First of all, he destroyed the idol. We’re told that he took it and ground it up into small pieces, burned it, and then mixed the ashes with water and made the people drink it. Scholars think this means that the idol wasn’t entirely gold, because you can’t burn gold, but was instead made of wood covered with gold. I don’t think it makes any difference. The point is that he destroyed the idol, showing that the idol was impotent. The people were worshiping it as a symbol of great sexual potency and praising it as the god who powerfully had brought them out of Egypt. But this idol couldn’t even defend itself. When he mixed it with water and made them drink it, it passed into their bodies and then out of their bodies, which was a way of saying that the idol was refuse. It was as worthless as dung.
Second, he rebuked Aaron publicly. That’s the most he could do, since Aaron had been appointed by God and was the anointed of the Lord. Later in the Old Testament, David wouldn’t destroy Saul because Saul was the anointed of the Lord. David wouldn’t lay his hands on the Lord’s anointed, and neither would Moses lay his hands on Aaron. If Aaron was going to be removed, God had to remove him. But he did rebuke him publicly, and appropriately, just as Paul rebuked Peter when Peter began to waiver on the matter of the purity of the gospel.
And Aaron gave a terribly self-serving, blame-passing, lame excuse. He blamed the people. He blamed Moses indirectly because he said the real problem was that Moses stayed so long on the mountain. None of this would have happened if Moses had come down sooner. And he even blamed God when he said that all he did was throw gold into the fire, and the calf came out. It didn’t happen that way at all, of course. He was perfectly guilty, as the text indicates.
The best thing we can say about Aaron is that he was weak rather than strong; pliant, impressionable and compromising when he should have been resolute. He was more anxious to please the people than to please God. These sometimes seem like mild faults, but they’re not mild faults in a leader, especially not a Christian leader. That kind of leadership probably does more damage in the church of Jesus Christ today than outright opposition by atheists or enemies of the gospel. It’s weakness within that destroyed the Roman Empire, not the barbarians without. And this weakness within the church is more harmful even than the church’s enemies.