Exodus 32:1-14 – The Golden Calf

This text tells a key story in the life of Moses and marks a key event in the journey of Israel to Canaan.  It is a story told from two perspectives – the bottom of Mount Sinai and the top; with two main human characters – Aaron and Moses; who have two responses to a crisis – complete failure and amazing obedience.

It is an illustration of how effectively God can work through His servants when they are wholly submitted to His will, but also how sinful and short-sighted man can be when he goes his own way and forgets God.  The passage shows Moses as a man of God acting in the power of God with no thought for himself or his own well-being.  God has made an unwilling and tentative man into one of the greatest leaders and prophets in world history.  But it also shows the people of God – including Aaron – forgetting all He has done for them and acting completely of their own accord with no thought for Him or His glory.  It is a story of contrast – man in his own strength and man in God’s power.

Perhaps most importantly, this story also allows us to see how a Sovereign Creator responds to prayer.  Moses’ interaction with God gives us a better understanding of how prayer works and why a timeless God commands us to pray.  It is a great story to return to when prayer is hard or seems ineffective.


  • Israel is about five months out of Egypt and has been at Sinai for roughly 6-8 weeks.
  • About 40 or so days ago the people listened as Yahweh Himself spoke the Ten Commandments to them at the bottom of the mountain (20:1-17). They were so frightened by the experience they told Moses to talk to Yahweh and relay His commands to them, but never make them face God directly again.  They heard God Himself tell them that the one who worships other gods or makes an idol will be cursed to the third and fourth generation of his descendants.
  • Moses has been at the top of the mountain for the last 40 days. The top of the mountain is covered in smoke and flame – almost like a volcano.  The people have no idea if he is still alive or when or if they will see him again.  Based on what they witnessed when Yahweh spoke the commandments to them (19:16-19), the thought that Moses has survived this long on the mountain in God’s presence is becoming less and less realistic.
  • On top of the mountain Moses has been basking in the glory of God for 40 days. God has instructed him in the building of the Tabernacle and the consecration of Aaron (his brother) and the priests.  He is most likely on an incredible spiritual high.  He has listened as God has given him detailed instructions for building an ornate worship facility worthy of God’s glory.  He also has received very explicit instructions on the role of the priests and the seriousness with which God deals with the sins of His people.
  • The last time Moses saw Aaron his brother, they ate a covenant meal literally in the presence of God (24:9-11). They were invited on to the mountain and ate a meal sealing the covenant Yahweh just made with them through the Ten Commandments.  God allowed them to see His throne as they ate the meal.  It was an incredible experience that the brothers shared together with the elders of the people.  It was right after this that Moses ascended the mountain.

Bottom of the Mountain – Aaron (1-6)
The people appear to panic because they think Moses is dead and their panic turns to anger against Moses for leaving them – “this Moses.”  Their panic and irrational anger mean the crowd gathering around Aaron is likely NOT friendly.  They’re very familiar with idolatry from their lives in Egypt and they’ve apparently lost their mediator with God; thus it’s not completely out of the blue that they ask for something that signifies the god (or God – see note on verse 5) that leads them.  They know they are lost without Moses and idols are comfortable to them.  That said, six weeks ago they were scared to death of God when He said to make no idols and now they menacingly demand one from Aaron (the human heart is a wonderful and amazing thing, isn’t it?).

Aaron just saw God 40 days ago – actually ate a meal in His presence.  It is sad irony that what he tells the people to do – make a collection – is the same thing God has told Moses to do when he builds the tabernacle.

The gold they bring to Aaron could have been used for the tabernacle.  [Aside – this is an example of the incredible wealth the people left Egypt with after they plundered the Egyptians – even after this they will have much more than enough to build the tabernacle and its furnishings].

Aaron will later say the calf formed itself when he threw the gold in the fire.  The words the people use to present the calf are the SAME words God used to describe Himself when He spoke the Commandments to the people (20:2).

Note that Aaron says there will be a feast to Yahweh.  In making the calf it seems they break the second commandment more than the first.  The calf may represent Yahweh (although since the references to god in verses 1 and 4 could also be translated gods, it might be that they see this as another god to go along with Yahweh).  Perhaps it is like the Ark of the Covenant in that God is enthroned above it or possibly rides on it.

Since Aaron uses the name of Yahweh to invoke worship of the golden calf, it means he essentially breaks the first three commandments during the events of this story.

Play likely implies immorality.  Do not miss that this goes on as Moses receives commands on how to build the tabernacle and how to worship.  As he gets his instructions the people fashion their own religion and violate EVERY precept he receives.  Even more, Aaron – whom God has set apart as the first high priest – acts as high priest for the idol.

Ultimately Aaron fails because he has no faith and because he fears the people more than he fears God.  He should know there’s no way God would take Moses to the top of the mountain just to kill him.  He should also know – based on what he heard when God gave the Ten Commandments and what he saw on the mountain when he ate the covenant meal in the presence of God – that God won’t forsake His people and won’t abide a blasphemous image.  Even so, Aaron loses faith in what he knows (or should know) to be true about God and Gods’ commands.  He was the mouthpiece of God and the agent of miracles before Pharaoh, so he’s seen firsthand what God can do and how faithful He is to His people.  Yet when the people panic, he panics right along with them.  He ultimately walks by sight, not faith.  He acts based on what he sees instead of what he knows.  And his actions show what always happens when anyone fears man more than God.

Top of the Mountain – Moses (7-14)
7  To this point God has always referred to the Israelites as “My people” (Ex 6:7).  Now He tells Moses, “Your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt…”  God wants nothing to do with them (it’s like one parent saying to the other, “Your son is acting up.”).

8  Moses must be staggered by God’s words.  He is in the midst of incredible communion with God and is likely excited to tell the people all that he has heard.  Now it is all crushed with a short statement from God.  The people have completely betrayed God and him and now there is no way he can bring the Law and the written covenant to them.  His time on the mountain has been rendered largely meaningless.

This people” – just like the way the people referred to Moses in verse 1.  God does not have to convince Moses they are obstinate.  Moses has been dealing with their ungratefulness and obstinacy for the last five months.

10 These are the people God brought out of Egypt in great glory to Himself.  These are the people He covenanted with and promised to be their God and that they would be HIS people (6:6-8).  There is no reason to think God bluffs here (although he obviously plans for Moses to intercede).  We should never discount God’s reaction to sin.  For Moses, this is in one sense an amazing opportunity.  Technically it’s possible for God to do this and not violate His covenant with Abraham.  Moses is a descendant of Abraham and could be used to begin a new nation that fulfills all God’s words about the Messiah and the multitudes of Abraham’s descendants.

11 Moses’ reply in verses 11-13 is an amazing example of him fulfilling the role God raised him up for.  He is truly the divinely appointed mediator for the people.  He has no thought for himself.  He appeals to God on the people’s behalf and for God’s reputation – nothing more.  He acts out of love for the people and for God.  A people, by the way, who have given him nothing but trouble since they left Egypt.

14 No way to completely understand what happens here.  The best explanation might be that God allows Himself to be bound by a servant He has prepared for just such a situation.  Do not automatically assume the text means something other than what it says.  The divinely-inspired Word of God reads, “The LORD changed His mind…” (similar to Gen 22 and the sacrifice of Isaac).

Unlike Aaron, Moses acts in faith.  He responds as the selfless leader God chose him and developed him to be; a man who gives himself to God rather than keeps his life for himself.  He is no longer the Moses who argued with God at the burning bush (4:1-17) or complained to God after Pharaoh cut off the straw (5:22-23).  He is now a man who walks by faith born of experience with God.  The old Moses walked by sight and in fear (just like Aaron).  The new Moses acts with his eyes on God and on his ordained purpose.  His response shows what happens when a man allows God to make him into everything God wants him to be.  In this way he is an Old Testament illustration of Paul’s words to the Galatians (2:20) – “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.”

Lessons about Prayer from Exodus 32
Perhaps the best way to understand what happens in Exodus 32 is to look at it as a lesson on prayer.  From a certain perspective prayer is completely incomprehensible.  How do our prayers change anything when we pray to a timeless, sovereign God who IS yesterday and IS today and IS tomorrow?  If He is already in tomorrow, what is the point of praying about it?  How can I change the course of events that are predetermined by an eternal God?

The cynic says there is no reason to pray because what we are praying about is either going to happen or NOT going to happen – the fact that we prayed for a certain outcome is meaningless.  We may feel better for having prayed, but our prayer ultimately fills an emotional need without affecting God’s actions at all.  Logic tells us we cannot claim God is sovereign and timeless and then believe prayer changes things.

But Exodus 32 tells me that when Moses prays for the Israelites God changes His mind.  Can God change His mind?  NO.  Does the text say He changes His mind?  YES.  Do I understand what happens?  Not entirely.  But the mystery of this text does not take away from the message that prayer apparently DOES change things and IS effective.  This passage encourages me in my prayer life and gives me black and white evidence that God listens and acts on His servants’ prayers – whether or not I can explain it.

With that in mind, what can I learn from the golden calf incident that helps me better understand prayer and pray more effectively?

Fear + Desperation = Prayer
Moses doesn’t have time to ponder after he hears what the people are doing at the bottom of the mountain and what God wants to do in response.  He instantly is in a desperate situation and his only recourse is to appeal directly to God.  What happens to Moses happens to us (minus the mountain and the stone tablets and perhaps God threatening to kill the entire nation that we lead).  We are sometimes put into situations of desperation where our only recourse is to pray.  And since times of fear and desperation cause us to pray, we shouldn’t be surprised that God sometimes puts us in exactly those times.  Those most acquainted and most practiced and most familiar with the power of prayer are typically those who have faced the most desperate and fearful times in life.

Experience/Memory/Knowledge Should Inform our Prayers
Moses prays out of his intimacy and his experiences with God.  He has just spent 40 days doing nothing (including eating or drinking) but communing with God.  And – unlike the people and Aaron – he remembers all that God did in Egypt and all He said to the people from the mountain.  His experience and knowledge cause him to act in faith.

All this informs how he prays.  He knows to appeal to God based on God’s covenant with His people.  He prays according to God’s will (I Jn 5:14 – to pray according to His will presupposes that we know what His will is).  Because of his intimacy with God (it will later be said that God speaks with him as to a friend – 33:11) he also prays boldly in a crisis.  His relationship with God allows him to approach Yahweh without hesitation.

Ultimately, knowledge and relationship come from talking and time and experience.  We get to know someone by talking with them and spending time with them and experiencing life with them.  If we meet someone one time and never see them again we don’t later describe them as a close friend, right?  Without time and communication no one grows closer in a relationship.  The same goes for our Heavenly Father.  To think we can have a thriving prayer life without spending time knowing God through His word and remembering what He’s done in our life and spending time in prayer is naïve.

Prayer gets better with practice and faith is enhanced by a good memory.

God’s Glory Should Permeate Our Prayers
Moses bases all his appeals on God’s name and reputation.  He does not say “save the people for their sake”; he instead tells God that HIS name and glory will be compromised if He destroys Israel.  He knows the people deserve nothing but punishment but he also knows that God always acts for His glory.

If all of creation was called into being for the purpose of magnifying God, doesn’t it make sense that our prayers should be motivated by the same thing?  How often are our requests framed in God’s glory?  How often do we pray consciously remembering that our external circumstances are temporary, but our relationship with God and His glory are eternal?  [This doesn’t preclude prayers for help – see Peter sinking in the water (Matt 14:30) – or provision – “Give us this day our daily bread”; it just means that we should see prayer like we should see all of life – as a means first and foremost of glorifying God.]

The ultimate purpose of prayer is not to make us happy or comfortable.  It is to conform us to the image of the Son (Rom 8:29) and enable us to live a life that glorifies our Creator.

The Golden Calf incident is both sobering and encouraging.  Sobering in that it shows – once again – how fragile our heart is and how prone to wander we are (the same things the wilderness Israelites show us repeatedly in the Pentateuch).  But it’s encouraging in what it shows us about Moses as a man God develops and uses and a man whose faith infuses his prayer and boldness in the midst of a crisis.  Moses acts in the strength of God to pray in the knowledge of God to save the people of God and preserve the glory of God.

In that way Moses should also encourage us to pray.  He prays in the midst of the smoke and fire of the presence of God on top of Mount Sinai, and as a result God changes His mind and hundreds of thousands of lives are saved.  And while that’s obviously amazing, Moses doesn’t do anything we can’t do (although probably not on a mountain with hundreds of thousands of lives at stake).  James tells us we can pray as effectively as Elijah (5:17), so it follows that we should be able to pray as effectively as Moses.  We have the same power of prayer available to us (plus the Holy Spirit to fill in what we lack – Rom 8:26).  Prayer CHANGED GOD’S MIND.  If it can do that, then we underestimate what prayer can do in our lives and how much we miss when we neglect it.  The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much (Jas 5:16b).

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