The idolatry of the golden calf at the base of Mount Sinai stands as one of the worst moments in the history of God’s people. One of the most inflammatory portions of the speech of Stephen to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7 references the event. In stating the religious leaders’ reverence for the temple building in Jerusalem recalled the idolatry of the golden calf, Stephen whipped up a frenzy among them he would not survive (see the connection between the two man-made things in Acts 7:41 and 48). One might say the incident remained a sore spot.
In the text following the failure of God’s people to worship him alone, we see a passage thick with doctrinal matters: atonement, sin, salvation, and revelation. Doctrines serve as tenets, beliefs, or sometimes guiding principles, depending on the usage of the word. In Exodus 32 and 33, these doctrines thicken the narrative.
The narrative relates the conflict between God and his people over their sin. The story is about them; it concerns us. Recall a supreme guiding principle, yea verily, a doctrine (if you will) of Scripture: it all points to Jesus (Luke 24:27). The text does not present us an allegory or a metaphor, but we do find a point of identification with God’s people—we see our sinful selves in them.
Their sin begets a separation. Rather than the proposed intimacy between the people and God, he now sends his angel before them (32:34; 33:2-3). Yet, the separation does not become a termination. Moses intercedes for the people, and God does not blot them out. He remains true to the promise to send them into the Promised Land.
Our narrative works in this way:
The idolatry of the golden calf constituted sin.
Sin brought separation between God and the people.
Atonement covers over sin, and Moses sought it out.
Without atonement, sin leads to eternal separation from God.
God confirmed the promise to his people through his continued revelation to Moses.
Rather than a people blotted out from God’s promise and presence, a people suffering the earthly consequence of sin continued to receive God’s favor. God continued to speak with them through Moses, relating as he would to a friend, and entertaining Moses’s request to see more of God’s glory.
As always, we must ask how exactly the text points to Jesus. I think several things stick out.
We might point at the people of Israel at the base of Mount Sinai and ridicule them for their stupidity. However, do we prove ourselves any better? When we make an idol of our own, we do not offer heinous worship to a false god in the shadow of Sinai. We act as pagans in view of the empty tomb of Christ Jesus. Which serves as the greater condemnation, Sinai or the vacant grave?
Great as it is, our sin receives the blotter, not our souls. Christ’s blood covers over our transgression in atonement for all wrongs we commit in the face of our great God. We pray God reveal us the glory of Christ, but we do not look for an experience. Rather, we hope and pray he helps us to understand the complete revelation we possess in
the canon of Scripture. We know more than the people of Israel could have ever dreamed. We have the Gospel narratives of the Son of God, the story of the earliest church in Acts, and we have the many, many letters written by the men God tasked with leading that church in the epistles. Finally, we see the end of the story in Revelation.
The God of Exodus 32 and 33 became a man, Jesus Christ. The same God would not hand-wave away his people’s sins and become as much an affront to his justice as idolatry is to his holiness. Rather, he himself would satisfy both justice and mercy in the cross.
John B. Polhill, Acts, vol. 23 of The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, eds. David S. Dockery, et. al. (Nashville: Broadman Press: 2001), 203.
Paul makes a similar statement in expressing his own desire to sacrifice himself that his people would be saved in Romans 9:3.