Commentary of the Old and New Testaments

Exodus 32

By Joseph Benson


Verse 1
Exodus 32:1. The people — That is, some of them, as it is explained 1 Corinthians 10:7. The defection, however, appears to have been very general, though we find several, particularly the sons of Levi, exempt from it, Exodus 32:26. Saw that Moses delayed — He had now been absent from them near forty days. For this defection appears to have happened a day or two before he came down from the mount, Deuteronomy 9:11-12. Gathered themselves together unto Aaron — Or, as the Hebrew is more properly rendered, against Aaron: and so the expression will denote that they came upon him in a tumultuous manner, insisting to have their demands complied with. Up, make us gods — No doubt other discourse had passed before this; to which Aaron making some difficulty to consent, they insisted on having their desire gratified, and said in a seditious manner, Up, without further delay, make us gods, or make us a god, as אלהיםElohim is generally rendered, and ought to be rendered here, as Le Clerc observes, and that for two plain reasons: 1st, Aaron made but one calf, one idol-god; 2d, It appears from Exodus 32:5 that this symbol was consecrated to Jehovah alone. They were weary of waiting for the promised land. They thought themselves detained too long at mount Sinai. They had a God that stayed with them, but they must have a God to go before them to the land flowing with milk and honey. They were weary of waiting for the return of Moses: As for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of Egypt, we know not what is become of him — Observe, How slightly they speak of his person, this Moses: and how suspiciously of his delay, we know not what is become of him. And they were weary of waiting for a divine institution of religious worship among them, so they would have a worship of their own invention, probably such as they had seen among the Egyptians. They say, make us gods, or, a god. But what good would a god of their own making do them? They must have such a god to go before them, such as could not go itself farther than it was carried!

Verse 2
Exodus 32:2. Break off the golden ear-rings — These were probably some of the jewels which they had of the Egyptians. From the ears of your sons — Men wore these ornaments in the eastern countries as well as the women, 8:24. Some suppose that when Aaron gave this direction he did it with a design to crush the proposal, believing, that if their covetousness did not hinder them from giving up their ear-rings, their pride, at least, would prevent their parting with them. He says, therefore, Which are in the ears of your wives and daughters — Thinking them most fond of their jewels, and most unlikely to part with them.

Verse 3
Exodus 32:3. The people brake off their ear-rings — Whereby they showed both their madness upon their idols, and their base ingratitude to God, who had transferred these jewels from the Egyptians to them.

Verse 4
Exodus 32:4. He made it a molten calf — He melted it down, and, having a mould prepared, poured the melted gold into it, and then produced it in the shape of an ox or calf giving it some finishing strokes with a graving tool. “They made a calf,” says David, “in Horeb, and worshipped the molten image: they changed their glory into the similitude of an ox that eateth grass.” It is probable that the origin of this idolatry was from Egypt. The Scriptures inform us that the Israelites in Egypt imitated the Egyptian superstitions, Joshua 24:14; Ezekiel 20:7-8. Now that the Egyptians worshipped animals as early as these days, appears from Exodus 8:26. An ox or calf in particular was their great idol. So that we may with certainty conclude, notwithstanding what some late commentators have alleged, that Aaron, in compliance with the prejudices of the people, made this calf after the model of what the Israelites had seen in Egypt, consecrating it to Jehovah as the Egyptians had consecrated similar symbols to their principal deity Osiris. Aaron’s compliance with the popular clamour was, undoubtedly, highly criminal: he ought to have opposed them with all his might, nay, he ought rather to have suffered death than to have yielded to their will in any degree. Accordingly, we find it recorded, (Deuteronomy 9:20,) that “the Lord was very angry with him to have destroyed him,” but that Moses “prayed for him.” They said, These be thy gods — Or as Nehemiah expresses, (Nehemiah 9:18,) This is thy God; that is, This is the image or symbol of thy God; who brought thee out of Egypt — For they intended to worship the true God, by this image, as afterward Jeroboam did by the same image, it being incredible that the generality of the Israelites should be so void of all sense and reason, as to think that this new-made calf brought them out of Egypt, even before its own creation, and that this was the same Jehovah that had so lately spoken to them from heaven with an audible voice, saying, “I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt.”

Verse 5
Exodus 32:5. Aaron built an altar — Being borne down with the stream; and proclaimed a feast — Namely, of dedication; yet he calls it a feast to Jehovah — By which it is still more evident that the people did not intend to terminate their adoration in the image, but designed to worship the true God in and by this calf, which they meant to consider as only a visible token of God’s presence with them, and a medium by which to convey their worship to him. And yet this did not excuse them from the sin of gross idolatry any more than it will excuse the Papists, whose plea it is that they do not worship the images which they use, but God, or Christ, by the images, so making themselves just such idolaters as the worshippers of the golden calf, whose feast was a feast to Jehovah, and proclaimed to be so, that the most ignorant and unthinking might not mistake it.

Verse 6
Exodus 32:6. They rose up early — To show their zeal they began betimes in the morning, and seem not to have stayed for Aaron; and offered burnt- offerings, &c. — To this new-made image of Deity. And the people sat down to eat and drink — Of the remainder of what was sacrificed; and then rose up to play — To play the fool, to play the wanton. It was strange that any of the people, especially so great a number of them, should do such a thing. Had they not, but the other day, in this very place, heard the voice of the Lord God speaking to them out of the midst of the fire, “Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image?” Yet they made a calf in Horeb, the very place where the law was given! It was especially strange that Aaron should be so deeply concerned, should make the calf, and proclaim the feast! Is this “Aaron the saint of the Lord?” Is this he that had not only seen, but had been employed in summoning the plagues of Egypt, and the judgments executed upon the gods of the Egyptians? What! and yet himself copying out the abandoned idolatries of Egypt? How true is it, that “the law made them priests which had infirmity, and needed first to offer for their own sins!”

Verse 8
Exodus 32:8. They have turned aside quickly — Quickly after the law was given them, and they had promised to obey it; quickly after God had done such great things for them, and declared his kind intentions to do greater.

Verse 9
Exodus 32:9. A stiff-necked people — Untractable, wilful, and stubborn; unapt to come under the yoke of the divine law, averse from all good, and prone to all evil, incorrigible by judgments, and obstinate to all the methods of cure.

Verse 10
Exodus 32:10. Let me alone — What did Moses, or what could he do, to hinder God from consuming them? When God resolves to abandon a people, and the decree is gone forth, no intercession can prevent it. But God would thus express the greatness of his displeasure, after the manner of men, who would have none to intercede for those they resolve to be severe with.

Thus also he would put an honour upon prayer, intimating, that nothing but the intercession of Moses could save them from ruin.

Verse 11
Exodus 32:11. And Moses besought the Lord his God — If God would not be called the God of Israel, yet he hoped he might address him as his own God. Now Moses is standing in the gap to turn away the wrath of God, Psalms 106:23. He took the hint which God gave him when he said, Let me alone, which, though it seemed to forbid his interceding, did really encourage it, by showing what power the prayer of faith hath with God.

Verse 12-13
Exodus 32:12-13. Turn from thy fierce wrath — Not as if he thought God were not justly angry, but he begs that he would not be so greatly angry as to consume them. Let mercy rejoice against judgment; repent of this evil — Change the sentence of destruction into that of correction; against thy people — Which thou broughtest up out of Egypt, for whom thou hast done so great things. Wherefore should the Egyptians say, For mischief did he bring them out — Israel is dear to Moses, as his kindred, as his charge; but it is the glory of God that he is most concerned for. If Israel could perish without any reproach to God’s name, Moses could persuade himself to sit down contented; but he cannot bear to hear God reflected on; and therefore this he insists upon, Lord, what will the Egyptians say? They will say, God was either weak, and could not, or fickle, and would not complete the salvation he begun. Remember Abraham — Lord, if Israel be cut off, what will become of the promise?

Verse 14
Exodus 32:14. The Lord repented of the evil — Changed his sentence at the entreaty of Moses, who in this represented the Lord Christ, the great Mediator and Intercessor for all the sinful race. He was pleased not to inflict upon them that punishment which he threatened, (Exodus 32:10,) and so acted as men do when they repent and change their minds. Though he designed to punish them, yet he would not ruin them. See here the power of prayer! God suffers himself to be prevailed with by humble, believing importunity. And see the compassion of God toward poor sinners, and how ready he is to forgive! It must, however, be well observed that such expressions as this, of the Lord’s repenting, must be understood as spoken after the manner of men. For that no proper change or repentance can take place in the Divine Mind, plainly follows from the perfection of the divine knowledge, which comprehends at one view all things, past, present, and to come, and can never be surprised at their happening as they do, or change his mind on that account. See this further explained on Genesis 6:6.

Verse 15-16
Exodus 32:15-16. On both their sides — Thus it was effectually provided against a possibility of any one either taking from or adding to this law, to do either of which God expressly forbade his people, Deuteronomy 4:2. The tables were the work of God — Herein they differed from the second tables, which were the work of Moses, Exodus 34:1.

Verse 17
Exodus 32:17. Joshua said, There is a noise of war in the camp — Joshua had waited upon the middle of the hill for Moses, and so neither knew what the people had done, nor heard what God had said to Moses.

Verse 19
Exodus 32:19. He saw the calf and the dancing, and his anger waxed hot — It is no breach of the law of meekness to show our displeasure at wickedness. Those are angry and sin not, that are angry at sin only. Moses showed himself angry, both by breaking the tables, and burning the calf, that he might, by these expressions of a strong passion, awaken the people to a sense of the greatness of their sin. He broke the tables before their eyes, (as it is Deuteronomy 9:17,) that the sight of it might fill them with confusion when they saw what blessings they had lost. The greatest sign of God’s displeasure against any people is his taking his law from them.

Verse 20
Exodus 32:20. He took the calf which they had made — The people were evidently overawed by the presence of Moses, and therefore attempted no resistance while he took away their idol to destroy it. Here we see how much Moses excelled Aaron in courage and zeal for the glory of God, as also in authority among the people. He burned the calf — Melted it down, and then filed it to dust. This speedy reduction of the calf to powder, as well as the materials whereof it was made, inclines one to believe that it was not of any considerable size. He strewed it upon the water — Upon the brook which flowed for them from the rock in Horeb; and he made the children of Israel drink of it — Not that he constrained them to it; but, having no other water to drink, they could not avoid, when thirsty, to drink of that with this mixture. Thus it would be taken notice of throughout the camp, and would appear to all who had the least discernment that an idol is nothing, this being reduced to atoms, and made as mere a nothing as could be.

Verse 21
Exodus 32:21. What did this people unto thee? — He takes it for granted that it must needs be something more than ordinary that prevailed with Aaron to do such a thing. Did they overcome thee by importunity, and hadst thou so little resolution as to yield to popular clamour? Did they threaten to stone thee, and couldest not thou have opposed God’s threatenings to theirs?

Verse 23
Exodus 32:23. They said, Make us gods — It is natural to us to endeavour thus to transfer our guilt. He likewise extenuates his own share in the sin, as if he had only bid them break off their gold, intending but to make a hasty essay for the present, and childishly insinuates that when he cast the gold into the fire, it came out either by accident, or by the magic art of some of the mixed multitude, (as the Jewish writers dream,) in this shape. This was all Aaron had to say for himself, and he had better have said nothing, for his defence did but aggravate his offence; and yet, as sin did abound, grace did much more abound.

Verse 25
Exodus 32:25. Moses saw that the people were naked — This is the most common and obvious meaning of the word פרע, paruang, here used, as many examples in the Old Testament show, and it is the sense which seems best to suit this place. They were stripped of their ornament and armour, not only of their jewels, but of the innocence of their minds and lives, and of their defence, the favour and protection of God, by which alone they were secured from the Egyptians, and by which they were to be defended against those many and mighty enemies toward whom they were about to march, and to whom, being thus disarmed and helpless, they would become an easy prey.

Verse 26
Exodus 32:26. Moses stood in the gate of the camp — The place of judgment; and said, Who is on the Lord’s side? — Who abhors this idolatry, and adheres to the true worship of God? The Chaldee interprets it, Who feareth the Lord; let him come to me — Let him take God’s part, and plead his cause against idolatry and idolaters. They had set up the golden calf for their standard, and Moses sets up his in opposition to them. The sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him — This shows that the defection of the people to this idolatrous worship was general, since none but the sons of Levi joined Moses on this occasion: and it is probable, that even they were not all free from the sin.

Verse 27
Exodus 32:27. Thus saith the Lord God of Israel — What Moses now did was not done merely in the heat of a pious zeal, but by a divine influence and direction; and therefore can be no warrant to others to imitate his example, who cannot pretend to the same authority, and who are placed in circumstances entirely different from those in which he and the Israelites were placed. Slay every man his brother, and every man his companion — Moses being, under God, their chief ruler, at God’s command, passed this extraordinary sentence upon the offenders, without the common process in courts of judicature, requiring the sons of Levi to go armed into the camp, and cut off the most notorious and obstinate offenders, without regard to kindred, friendship, or any other distinction whatever. And there was no fear of their killing the innocent in this case, because Moses had called to himself all that were on God’s side. These, either by resorting to him, or by retiring to their tents, were separated from the guilty, who were impudently walking about in the camp, trusting to their numbers. It may be observed further here, that, besides the authority of the command of Moses to the Levites, a peculiar impulse from God must have actuated them in this business, otherwise it is very improbable that they should have obeyed so readily, or have dared to attack so many; and a peculiar consciousness of guilt and terror must have fallen on the people, to have caused such a multitude to submit to be slain without making any resistance.

Verse 28
Exodus 32:28. And there fell of the people that day about three thousand men — Probably these were but few in comparison with the many that were guilty; but these were the men that headed the rebellion, and were therefore picked out to be made examples of, for terror to others.

Verse 31
Exodus 32:31. O, this people have sinned a great sin — God had first told him of it, (Exodus 32:7,) and now he tells God of it, by way of lamentation. He doth not call them God’s people, he knew they were unworthy to be called so, but, this people. This treacherous, ungrateful people, they have made them gods of gold.

Verse 32
Exodus 32:32. If thou wilt forgive their sin — if not — If the decree be gone forth, and there is no remedy but they must be ruined; blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written — Termed the book of the living, Psalms 69:28; and alluded to Isaiah 4:3, where the prophet speaks of being written among the living in Jerusalem. He evidently means, “Let me die rather than live to see the evils that are coming upon them, if thou shalt think fit to punish them as they deserve: if they must perish, let me perish with them.” God, it must be observed, is here represented after the manner of men, as having all the names of the living enrolled in a book, to signify his particular care and inspection of the sons of men, see Psalms 56:8. So, to blot out of the book of life, or of the living, is to cut one off from the land of the living, equivalent to Moses’s expression, (Numbers 11:15,) If thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, out of hand. And thus it is understood by the Hebrew doctors. Compare Deuteronomy 25:6; Psalms 87:6; and Ezekiel 13:9. In pursuance of the same allusion, God is represented as enrolling the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, or the members of his true church, in a book by themselves, Daniel 12:1; Philippians 4:3; and Revelation 3:5. Moses’s words may be further illustrated by those of St. Paul, (Romans 9:3,) I could wish myself to be an anathema from Christ, or rather, as the words απο του χριστου may properly be rendered, after Christ, that is, after his example to be consigned to temporal death, and made a curse for my brethren’s sake. In short, Moses here expresses his vehement zeal for God’s glory, and love to his people, signifying that the very thought of their destruction, and the dishonour that would thereby come upon God, was so intolerable to him, that he rather wished, if it were possible, that God would accept of him as a sacrifice in their stead, and by his destruction prevent so great a mischief. Those who understand Moses’s words as if he wished to be excluded from eternal life for the sake of his brethren, make him talk a language quite unnatural, and inconsistent with that desire of self-happiness which is the first law of nature. Besides, it should be remembered, that to be excluded from eternal life, implies not only the loss of heaven and final misery, but also final and desperate enmity against God; and that any man should think a willingness to be eternally wicked, and a desperate hater of God, can spring from love, and be a proper expression of zeal for his glory, is wonderful indeed!

Verse 33
Exodus 32:33. Whosoever hath sinned, him will I blot out of my book — The soul that sins shall die, and not the innocent for the guilty.

Verse 34-35
Exodus 32:34-35. My angel shall go before thee — Some created angel that was employed in the common services of his kingdom, which intimated that they were not to expect any thing for the future to be done for them out of the common road of providence. When I visit — Hereafter, when I shall see cause to punish them for other sins, I will visit for this among the rest. From hence the Jews have a saying, that from henceforward no judgment fell upon Israel, but there was in it an ounce of the powder of the golden calf. And the Lord plagued the people — Probably by the pestilence, or some other infectious disease. Thus Moses prevailed for a mitigation of the punishment, but could not wholly turn away the wrath of God.