Readers of the book of Exodus are not prepared for what they find in the episode of the golden calf. Everything seems to move along wonderfully from the miraculous liberation of slaves to the awesome revelation at Mt. Sinai. Then suddenly and incredibly the nation of Israel abandons the God who saved them and make their own god in the form of a golden calf. It's incomprehensible. Sin is always this way. I feel the same shock when I see a husband dump the mother of his children to take up with a younger partner.
But more disturbing to many readers is God's word to Moses in response, “Now therefore, let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them...” (Ex 32:10) Many perceive this as an adolescent fit unworthy of the Creator of the universe. But things are not always what they seem. The key to understanding God is his request to Moses, “let me alone.” Why did God even ask that? Can Moses or anyone hold God back? Could a mere human tie God's hands? This is a Creator who just spoke and the world came to be—why would the Creator need to ask Moses to set him free? God doesn't need to, but God chooses to. This is not a request but an invitation from God for Moses to intercede. God is inviting Moses to a ministry of intercessory prayer and over the next 3 chapters, readers are treated to a dramatic demonstration of prayer in 4 intercessions made by Moses. So it is clear from the get-go that God wants to save his sinful people. But how?
In his intercessions that follow in chapters 32-34, Moses prays on the basis of God's character alone. He makes no promises or bargains with God. Moses doesn't say, “God, please give us a second chance and this will never happen again” or “If you forgive us, I promise we'll do better.” Moses knows human nature and he knows the character of Israel. Israel is weak, sinful and perpetually prone to giving in to temptation. Any promises he might offer would be worth no more than a three dollar bill. Lesson number 1: our prayers for forgiveness have their basis in God's character, not our own.
Moses at one point even offers his own life as a substitutionary atonement for the sin of the nation. God refuses the offer for he has already decided to offer himself as the atonement for the nation. The just penalty that is due to Israel, God chooses to absorb into himself. This will be made abundantly clear much later when Jesus Christ dies on the cross. Lesson number 2: our sin requires an atonement for the sake of justice.
In his final intercession, Moses baldly asks for mercy. He knows the people have no claim on God. Here in Exodus as everywhere else in scripture, anyone who asks God for mercy gets it. As 1 John 1:9 put it, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Lesson number 3: Only God's mercy overcomes God's wrath.
By chapter 34 when the covenant is renewed, readers have journeyed through a remarkable display of God's grace in the face of unimaginable sin. Human life can only have meaning because of the redemption wrought by God. God deliberately chose to work with Moses to reveal this stunning and amazing grace. All these lessons will crystallize and come to their highest expression in the gospel of Jesus Christ--for Jesus is the incarnation of the God of Sinai.