Chapter 25 was the beginning of instructions for the construction of the various furnishings for the tabernacle. Chapter 27 gave the plans for the making of the priests garments. We looked last time at chapter 29 which was mostly about the ordination of priests. Then we come to chapter thirty and we have instructions for another item to be placed in the tabernacle. Had you or I been writing this we would probably have included this item with the previous ones in chapters 25 through 27.
The first ten verses of chapter thirty are God’s instructions for building the altar of incense. This was a small altar with the top surface being just one cubit or eighteen inches square. It was only one and a half foot tall. It was constructed of the same materials as the other furnishings of the tabernacle; that is it was made of achacia wood overlaid with gold. This altar had four small horns located at the top four corners, and two poles placed through four rings on the altar were used to carry it.
The altar of incense was to be placed outside the veil that was the entrance to the Holy of Holies. Remember that inside the veil was the ark of the covenant on which was the mercy seat where God was represented to meet with His people. However, the High Priest was the only one allowed within the veil and then only once a year to make atonement for the sins of the people.
The altar of incense was to be used only for the purpose of burning incense before the Lord. It was a fragrant incense that is somehow associated with the prayers of God’s people. The priest was to offer up incense every morning when he came to trim the lamps and every evening while outside the people stood praying. Also, the High Priest would make atonement on its horns once each year when he offered up the annual sacrifice of atonement. He would take a little of the blood of the sacrifice and place it on the horns of the altar of incense.
Remember that the tabernacle and its furnishings were patterned after something in heaven which evidently is the throne room of God. We get a glimpse of it in Revelation. Chapter eight verses three and four is a particularly good reference where the altar of incense is concerned. It reads, “And another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel’s hand.” Did you catch the association of the incense with the prayers of the saints?
In verses eleven through sixteen God commands Moses to collect a ransom from the Israelites when he takes a census of their numbers. It doesn’t say here exactly why or when Moses was to take this census; but when he did then he was also to collect a ransom. Every individual from twenty years of age and up who was numbered was required to give a half-shekel contribution to the Lord. This contribution was used for the upkeep of the sanctuary. If anyone failed to make this contribution, the Israelites were subject to a plague of some sort. Verse sixteen says that this contribution would in some way also make atonement for those who paid the ransom.
Next God instructs Moses to make a laver of bronze with a base or a stand also made of bronze. This laver or basin would hold water in which the priests would wash their hands and feet before entering the tabernacle and before approaching the altar of sacrifice. The laver was centrally located between the altar of sacrifice and the tabernacle. The sentence of death was upon a priest if he did not wash himself in this laver when he was suppose to do so.
God commands Moses to mix up some holy anointing oil. The ingredients are listed in verses 22 through 24. No one was to use this same recipe for any other purpose or they would be cut off from their people. The anointing oil was to be used to anoint just about everything that was consecrated to the Lord. The tabernacle and everything in it, the altar of burnt offering, Aaron and his sons. However, it was not to be used on a layman. Such use again resulted in the offender being cut off from his people.
Finally, God tells Moses to mix up a particular mixture of incense. It was to be placed before the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies. It was exclusively for the Lord and was not to be mixed for any other purpose. Again anyone who mixed any incense of those exact proportions would be cut off from his people.
God gave Moses the names of a couple of men whom He had gifted to be the artisans in the construction of the tabernacle and its furnishings plus the priestly garments. The first individual was Bezalel who was the son of Uri, and the grandson of Hur which made him of the tribe of Judah. God said to Moses in verse three, “And I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship.”
The second man God choose and gifted was Oholiah who was the son of Ahisamach making him of the tribe of Dan. Apparently these two men would lead all others in the design and construction process because God goes on to say in verse six, “and in the hearts of all who are skillful I have put skill, that they may make all that I have commanded you.”
In verses twelve and following, God tells Moses that the keeping of the sabbaths would be a sign of God’s covenant with His people throughout their generations. You will recall that there is more than one sabbath that was required of Israel. There was the weekly Sabbath that occurred every seventh day. The Day of Atonement fell on the tenth day of the seventh month and it was a sabbath to Israel. When Israel inhabited the promised land, they were to allow the land itself to observe a sabbath every seventh year. There may be others that I haven’t listed. The point is that God’s people were to observe the sabbaths as a sign of God’s covenant with them.
Verse fourteen states the punishment that would result if anyone failed to keep the Lord’s Sabbath. It says, “Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death...” Capital punishment speaks to the severity of the offense. Listen to God in verse seventeen, “It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.”
The last verse of chapter thirty-one is a defining moment in time. It reads, “And when He had finished speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God.”
Chapter thirty-two is such a sad commentary on the condition of the human heart in its natural bent toward sin and rebellion against God. Moses had been on the mountain for only a few weeks when the Israelites began to think they might never see him again. God had revealed Himself to them in a extraordinary way the day that Moses had ascended the mountain. They had stood in awe and fear of the mighty power of the great God of Abraham. In such a short time, they are ready to forget the God who delivered them from Egypt and in His place fashion their own god.
The people coerced (I hope they coerced) Aaron into fashioning them a god to go before them. They are ready to give up on Moses. They may have thought that Moses and God had gone off to rescue some other people. You can’t really sense from the text that Aaron was under much compulsion. When they asked him to fashion them a god, Aaron told them to bring him their rings of gold. Verse four makes it sound as though Aaron, himself, took the gold from their hands and using sculptor’s tools he fashioned a golden calf. Such idols were popular in both Canaanite and Egyptian culture. They would have been familiar with such an image.
When Aaron had finished the golden calf, the people said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” How foolish we humans are capable of becoming. Perhaps even worse yet Aaron builds an altar before this idol of a golden calf. Then Aaron says something to the people that confuses me a bit. He says in verse five, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” It would appear that Aaron and the Israelites are very confused themselves about God. It looks as though they are leaning toward becoming poly-theistic like the Egyptians among whom they lived and served for so many years. Poly-theism is a belief that there is more than one god.
Keep in mind that Moses had spoken the word of the Lord God in their hearing including the Ten Commandments, and the people had sworn to do all that the Lord commanded. Remember what the first couple of commandments said? First God said, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Who brought them out of Egypt? Certainly not a golden calf.
Then God commanded them saying, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” And, “you shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.” How could they possibly be so foolish? We would never be guilty of anything so blatantly disobedient — would we?
Remember Aaron’s proclamation of a feast to the Lord. Sure enough the very next day the people rose early in the day as though eager to engage in their sacrilege. They offered up burnt offerings and peace offerings. I assume they offered them on the altar Aaron had built before the golden calf.
Verse six concludes by saying, “and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.” To eat and drink anything that had been sacrificed to an idol was to give oneself to the idol as though it were god. To rise up and play probably meant that they mimicked the kind of behavior they had witnessed their Egyptian neighbors engaging in during their pagan rituals. This could have involved everything from singing and dancing to drunkenness and sexual immorality. It was not a pretty sight as they say.
Moses is still on the mountain with God when all of this is going on. Of course God sees what’s happening, and He says to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, who you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves.” As a parent, have you ever said to your spouse, “your son or your daughter did thus and such?” That kind of sounds like what God is saying to Moses. These are your people. You brought them up from Egypt. I want nothing more to do with them. That’s pretty much what God says in verse ten. There He says to Moses, “Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them, and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.”
In the verses in between, God tells Moses what the people have done while he has been on the mountain top with God. Notice in verse eight He says, “They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them.” Then in verse nine He says, “I have seen this people, an behold, they are an obstinate people.” Do you suppose that any people including people today are any better than those people?
I suppose Moses could have responded a number of ways to the Lord’s declaration that He wanted to destroy the people. And then there was God’s suggestion that He make of Moses a “great nation.” That had been God’s covenant promise to Abraham. Was God seriously considering making Moses the new Abraham? Or was God testing Moses to see how he would respond?
It could have been quite a temptation for another man, but Moses is not just another man. He is God’s man. He has been through the fire so-to-speak. He has the Spirit of Christ. He has the mind of Christ. And he responds as Christ would have responded. Moses intercedes for his people as a mediator. Moses prayer of intercession in verses eleven through thirteen is surpassed only by that of Jesus Himself in John’s gospel chapter seventeen. I think we should read verses eleven through fourteen together:
Then Moses entreated the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why doth Thine anger burn against Thy people whom Thou hast brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? “Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Thy burning anger and change Thy mind about doing harm to Thy people. “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Thy servants to whom Thou didst swear by Thyself, and didst say to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and call this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.”
Here is a question that men have struggled with for centuries. Does God really change His mind? Does God not know exactly what He is going to do from the beginning? Perhaps someone would like to study that subject and bring us back a report sometime.
Now Moses descends the mountain with the tablets of stone on which God has written what we call, “The Ten Commandments.” The way verse fifteen reads it sounds to me as though each tablet was inscribed on both front and back. We usually see facsimiles of what we think these tablets of stone may have looked like with writing on only one side. Had these tablets of stone survived the ages I wonder where they would be today.
Suddenly Joshua is with Moses as the mountain descent continues. Where did Joshua come from? If you turn back to chapter twenty four verses twelve and following where Moses ascended the mountain, you will find that Joshua went with Moses at least part of the way even beyond where Aaron and the seventy elders had gone. Evidently Joshua had been waiting for Moses during the forty days and nights that he had been with God on the mountain-top.
As they are descending the mountain-side, Joshua hears much noise from below. Joshua thinks there must be an attack against Israel and the sound he hears is the sound of battle. But Moses says, “No, it’s the sound of singing.” They must have been singing badly for Joshua to have thought there was a battle going on.
Moses and Joshua came within view of the camp and saw what the noise was about. The people were dancing around the golden calf probably in a fashion familiar to Moses who had spent the first forty years of his life in Egypt. Moses was overcome with anger and cast the stone tablets on to the rocks below thus destroying them.
What Moses does next is not easy for me to visualize seeing that Moses was a meek man. I sort of imagine his demeanor must have been something like that of Jesus when He overturned the tables of the money-changers in the temple and drove them out.
Can you see Moses entering the mass and the mess with determined stride. He takes the molten calf that Aaron had fashioned and melts it down. Then he grinds it into fine powder and scatters the powder over the source of their drinking water and somehow “makes” the Israelites drink the water. There are numerous suggestions as to the significance of this act. Perhaps the drinking of the polluted water made them sick and thus drove home the significance of their sin. Does anyone have comment or explanation?
Moses turns his attention to his brother, Aaron. I just imagine that Moses was more put out with Aaron than with anybody. Here was his own brother whom God had chosen to be the High Priest of His people. Can you hear Moses say to Aaron, “how could you do this, Aaron?” Did the people torture you or threaten you or what? Aaron’s lame and only excuse is that Moses should understand because he knows how the people are. And then Aaron tells Moses what happened only he stretches the truth way too far. It’s true that the people wanted Aaron to make them a god to go before them. But Aaron says that the golden calf came about rather miraculously. He said he took gold from the people and cast it into the fire and out came “this calf.” There is an element of truth to that, but it sounds like a preschooler telling a parent a story to avoid responsibility for something he’s done. Aaron did throw the gold into the fire and melt it down. But then he helped that gold become the shape of a calf by sculpting it with his own hands. Even a four year old couldn’t have been more lame than Aaron in his account of what happened.
I suppose the action Moses takes in verses twenty-five through twenty-nine was punishment for the sin committed by the people. Moses called for any who would stand with the Lord to meet with him. We are told in verse twenty-six that only the tribe of Levi came before Moses. The instructions that Moses then gives these men comes from the Lord Moses says. He tells the Levites to take their swords and to go throughout the camp killing, “every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor.”
Verse 28 says that three thousand men were slain that day. Three thousand may not sound like a lot when there may have been a million who sinned. Perhaps that’s all the Levites had time to kill in the portion of a day that was allotted them. Or perhaps they were slow and not so eager to do their job. Also, it’s hard to imagine men just rolling over and allowing themselves to be stabbed to death.
What Moses says next sounds a little unusual in light of the circumstances. Verse 29, “Then Moses said, ‘Dedicate yourselves today to the Lord — for every man has been against his son and against his brother — in order that He may bestow a blessing upon you today.” Of course they needed to turn to the Lord, but it seems more like a day for mourning than for blessing.
The next day Moses spoke to the people and said to them, “You yourselves have committed a great sin...” Do we realize the gravity of our sin? I don’t think we can. Perhaps God doesn’t intend that we do else we might not be able to live with ourselves.
Moses reveals the greatness of God in him by what he does next. He goes to the Lord ready to offer himself to make atonement for his people. Did Moses not realize that he could not atone for his people’s sins? If he was aware of it then how could his offer have been sincere? Paul the apostle seemed to have had a similar desire but he knew it was not possible. Paul said in Romans 9:3, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh...”
Moses said in verse 32, “But now, if Thou wilt, forgive their sin — and if not, please blot me out from Thy book which Thou hast written!” What book is Moses referring to? How did Moses know about such a book?
God answers Moses in the next verse saying, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book.” That begs the question, “who has not sinned against God?”
God tells Moses to go and continue to lead the people and in the day of punishment He will punish them for their sin. Is that judgment day God is talking about?
The last verse of the chapter says that, “the Lord smote the people, because of what they did with the calf...” It doesn’t say what God did exactly but it would not have been pleasant I’m sure.