The previous chapters of Exodus have portrayed God’s jealousy in a positive light. But when Israel forgot His goodness, God’s jealousy took on a corrective tone. God reprimanded His people within a covenantal framework so that their behavior would reflect His call on their lives. When Aaron and Israel constructed the golden calf, they sinned against God by exhibiting a lack of patience and forgetting God’s holiness (contra Ps 119:33-56). Despite Aaron’s excuse in Exod 32:24, “When I threw it (gold) into the fire, out came this calf!” he and Israel designed the object of their worship. Further, while worshipping the golden calf, the people committed immorality.
Moses felt God’s pain and implemented a purification strategy to cleanse Israel of those who were defiled among the people (Exod 32:25-29). Moses’ intercession in Exod 32:11-14 showed that he was faithful to God’s commands, praying, “Oh, this people has committed a great sin; they have made for themselves a god of gold. Now if You would only forgive their sin. But if not, please erase me from the book You have written” (Exod 32:31-32). While God recognized Moses’ plea and did not destroy the entire population (Exod 32:10), the Lord did not immediately affirm that He would accompany the people to the land (Exod 33:3-5).
Even though these events had proven costly for Israel, the bulk of Exodus 32-33 reinforces the belief that God’s word of rebuke is never His final word to those who reform their ways. The pillar of cloud, representing God’s presence, remained over the tent of meeting—a phenomena that elicited the worship of the people (Exod 33:7-11). God affirmed that He would personally accompany His people to Canaan, a pledge He confirmed by showing Moses His glory (Exod 33:12-23). God again came upon Mount Sinai, re-issuing the stone tablets and covenant stipulations (Exod 34:1-28). Moses’ face was illuminated, confirming for the people that their leader had a special relationship with God (Exod 34:29-35)—by listening to him they would hear God’s words. Over and over, God was gracious to His people.
But in time, Israel’s idolatry reached new depths and God annulled His covenant with them (2 Kings 17; Jer 31:31-35; Heb 8:13). Israel’s idolatry and Moses’ response in Exodus 32-34 provided a framework for New Testament authors to explain Israel’s depravity and the glory of the new covenant.
(1) In Acts 7:40-41, 51, Stephen cited Israel’s worship of the golden calf to illustrate Israel’s spiritual dullness. When Stephen defended himself in the presence of the Sanhedrin in Acts 7, he provided an historical review of God’s relationship with Israel. Stephen noted that God called Abraham and demonstrated His faithfulness to the patriarchs and to Moses, leading Israel out of Egypt. Despite God’s loyalty to His people, they worshipped the golden calf and intended to follow idols (Acts 7:39-41; Exod 32:1, 23). Because Israel persisted in the pattern of idolatry established by those who worshipped the golden calf, God turned them over to worship created things (Acts 7:42-43; Amos 5:25-27). Israel’s covenant had been broken.
(2) In 1 Cor 10:7, Paul cited Israel’s revelry in worshipping the golden calf as an activity to be avoided. In 1 Corinthians 8-10, Paul urged his readers to forgo their freedom to eat at idols’ temples so that they might avoid hindering those weaker in faith among them. Paul was concerned with the corporate bonds that are formed in worship. Though Paul and the Corinthians knew that idols were nothing (1 Cor 8:4-6), Paul knew that those weak in faith could stumble by fraternizing with those who were sacrificing food to false gods. Because idolaters believed differently than followers of Christ, their behavior differed. Paul knew from Israel’s history that idolatry leads to sexual immorality. He thus cited Exod 32:6 in 1 Cor 10:7 to warn the Corinthians to avoid Israel’s example of idolatry lest some among their number walk in the immoral patterns that he exhorted them to avoid in 1 Corinthians 5-6.
(3) In 2 Cor 3:7-18, Paul described the glory of Moses’ shining face in Exod 34:29-35 to accentuate the unfading glory of the new covenant. When Moses returned from Mount Sinai the second time, God illuminated Moses’ face. The people were afraid to come near to him, so Moses had to urge them to draw near and listen as he told them the Lord’s instructions. Moses removed his veil when he entered the tabernacle to speak with the Lord. Paul drew two themes from Exod 34:29-35. First, Moses’ face was illuminated only for a time. Eventually Moses’ face returned to its normal color. Paul wrote that the fading glory of Moses’ face symbolized the fading glory of the old covenant. Paul countered that the new covenant, including the ministry of the Spirit who enabled him, endures in unfading glory (2 Cor 3:7-11). Second, Paul noted that Moses’ unveiled face before the Lord symbolized the transparent relationship God’s people enjoy with Him in the new covenant. Paul wrote that believers, with unveiled faces, reflect the glory of the Lord as they are being transformed by the work of the Spirit (2 Cor 3:12-18).