This is really part 4 of my series “Understanding the Old Testament/Throwing Moses Under the Bus”, but the entire title was too long to fit and I think the Greatest Sins in Human History deserve a post of their own.
Now right off the bat, I have tipped my hand that I believe two of the greatest sins in human history were committed by Moses. People may think that I am trying to be cute or funny, but that is not at all my intent. I am deadly serious and I honestly believe that the sins committed by Moses in Exodus 32 are the two most serious sins ever committed by any human being in the history of mankind. The fact that Christians two thousand years after Christ do not realize this fact demonstrates the tremendous impact that these sins have had on humanity throughout history. These sins have distorted our view of God and retarded our spiritual growth for thousands of years.
In Exodus 32, the following sequence of events occurs:
- The people commit a sin against God by asking Aaron to make an idol for them.
- God challenges Moses by commanding him to “leave Him alone” that God might destroy the nation of Israel.
- Moses passes the test by interceding for the people of Israel just as Abraham interceded in Genesis 18.
- God relents of the evil that He was going to do to the nation of Israel granting them forgiveness out of the goodness of His nature.
- Moses returns to the people of Israel.
- Moses becomes angry and murders thousands of people nullifying the forgiveness granted by God thereby committing one of the greatest sins in human history.
- Moses offers himself up as atonement for the nation of Israel as though he were sinless like Jesus Christ thereby committing another one of the greatest sins in human history.
- God sends a plague upon the people of Israel.
- God tells Moses and the people of Israel to “get out of my sight” when he says that he will no longer walk among his people.
- Moses repents of his evil ways and asks God to show him His glory.
- God forgives Moses and the people and promises that He will continue to walk among them.
In order to see this sequence, let us go through the Scripture verse by verse. (Below is a modified version of the section that appears in A Rational Faith.)
A Rational Faith Section 7.6 God’s Servant Moses
Here we come to one of the most significant characters in the Bible and one of the most righteous human beings in human history. Moses was God’s premiere human servant and led God’s chosen people out of their captivity in Egypt. Moses was the giver of the law who beheld the glory of God and his face shone with God’s glory. Moses accomplished some of the greatest works of mankind and deserves his place as one of the most significant human beings in all of human history. Moses was a great man of faith and a true servant of God.
In order to understand the Bible correctly, however, it is important to understand another side of Moses. In addition to his great acts of faith, Moses was a sinner who began his exile from Egypt when he murdered an Egyptian and ended his life being denied entry into the Promised Land because God was angry at his sin. As we will see, Moses also committed the greatest sins in human history and led his nation down a path of destruction and judgment. Only when you understand that Moses was a sinner who deserves to die by the very law that he gave to the nation of Israel can you really appreciate what Jesus Christ did for humanity on the cross.
7.6.1 The Great Sins of Moses in Exodus 32
The beating heart of a rational faith is recognizing the enormous flaws of the nation of Israel and the prophets that God sent to lead them. Moses was the first prophet sent to lead the nation of Israel and is rightly revered as a great man of faith. Moses also, however, committed the two greatest sins in all of human history in chapter 32 of the book of Exodus. In order to see these sins clearly, we will proceed through the book of Exodus line by line.
And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him. (Exodus 32:1)
These verses tell of a great sin in Israel. Moses has left with God and the people have become anxious. Despite the fact that they have seen all the miracles performed by God in their deliverance from Egypt, they approach Aaron and ask him to make gods for them.
And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.
And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. (Exodus 32: 2-3)
Aaron obliges and “all the people” give their golden earrings to make this new god. It is important to note here that “all the people” means all of the people. Later on in this chapter a group of people called the sons of Levi are going to claim that they were “on the Lord’s side” and had nothing to do with creating the golden calf. The Bible, however, does not support their claim. The Bible says that all the people are guilty of this great sin against God and it is important for us to note this here.
And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.
So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord.” Then they rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. (Exodus 32: 4-6)
Now some people claim here that Aaron is having second thoughts and that he proclaims a “feast to the Lord” because he feels guilty that he has made the golden calf. This is not what I see here. I see a continuation where Aaron “built an altar before it. AND Aaron made a proclamation”.
And the LORD said unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And the LORD said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation. (Exodus 32:7-10)
God sees the sin of the people of Israel and he becomes intensely angry. After all that he had done for them, they want to start worshiping a statue five minutes after he takes Moses up the mountain. God commands Moses to leave that he may become angry and destroy the people of Israel. After the nation is destroyed, God will then take and make Moses into a great nation.
And Moses besought the LORD his God, and said, LORD, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand? Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever. And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people. (Exodus 32: 11-14)
In these verses, God is testing Moses as he tested Abraham (see Genesis 18) before him. If Moses will agree to God’s command and “let me alone”, then Moses will be made into a great nation. Moses, however, passes the test and demonstrates why he is God’s chosen instrument. In a passage reminiscent of Abraham’s intercession for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses intercedes for the nation of Israel. This request for mercy is very pleasing to God and God relents of the judgment that he had thought to do to his people Israel.
And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, and the two tables of the testimony were in his hand: the tables were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables.
And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said unto Moses, There is a noise of war in the camp.
And he said, It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome: but the noise of them that sing do I hear.
And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount. And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.
And Moses said unto Aaron, What did this people unto thee, that thou hast brought so great a sin upon them? (Exodus 32: 15-26)
Moses returns from his meeting with God and he is absolutely furious to see the consequences of his own lack of faith (see Exodus 4:13).
So Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord become hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, ‘Make us gods that shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ And I said to them, ‘Whoever has any gold, let them break it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I cast it into the fire, and this calf came out.” (Exodus 32: 22-24)
Moses confronts his brother about this great sin and Aaron denies that he is responsible, blaming his sin upon the people of Israel and claiming that the golden calf miraculously walked out of the fire.
Now when Moses saw that the people were unrestrained (for Aaron had not restrained them, to their shame among their enemies), then Moses stood in the entrance of the camp, and said, “Whoever is on the Lord’s side—come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him. And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘Let every man put his sword on his side, and go in and out from entrance to entrance throughout the camp, and let every man kill his brother, every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.’” So the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And about three thousand men of the people fell that day. Then Moses said, “Consecrate yourselves today to the Lord, that He may bestow on you a blessing this day, for every man has opposed his son and his brother.” (Exodus 32: 25-29)
In these verses, Moses commits the second greatest sin in human history. As we saw earlier, God had heeded the intercession of Moses on behalf of the people of Israel and forgiven them for the sin of the golden calf. In his fury, however, Moses uses the authority delegated to him by God and pronounces judgment on the people. The Levites “did as Moses commanded” and kill three thousand of the people and Moses pronounces a blessing upon them. As we will see in Exodus 33 later on, this is not the way that God wanted to handle this transgression. “For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” (James 1:20)
And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses said unto the people, Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto the LORD; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin. And Moses returned unto the LORD, and said, Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold. Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin–; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written. (Exodus 32:30-32)
In these verses, Moses undoubtedly commits the greatest sin of human history. After ordering the Levites to slaughter three thousand people, Moses comes into the presence of the Lord and offers himself as an atonement for the sins of the entire nation of Israel. Completely forgotten is his earlier plea that God should spare the people because the Egyptians might blaspheme. Completely forgotten is his earlier plea that God remember his own promise to Abraham. Instead, Moses asks God to spare the people for his own sake as if he was as righteous as Christ!
To truly understand the magnitude of this sin, you must put yourself in Moses’ place. Imagine going into the presence of the Lord without the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Imagine offering yourself up as that atoning sacrifice. In these verses, it is as if Moses came into the presence of the Lord and said, “Lord who needs your Son Jesus Christ? I offer the life of the greatest and most holy prophet in human history to you as an atonement for the people of Israel.” Moses is speaking as if he himself did not need anyone to atone for his sins! Moses is contradicting the words of God!
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)
As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one. (Romans 3:10)
Let God be true, but every man a liar. (Romans 3:4)
Now, of course, Moses is entirely ignorant of the perfect atonement that God requires. Moses has no way of knowing anything about the perfect and holy one who is the Son of God himself. Moses cannot know any of this because it has not been revealed to him.
And the LORD said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book. Therefore now go, lead the people unto the place of which I have spoken unto thee: behold, mine Angel shall go before thee: nevertheless in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them.
And the LORD plagued the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron made. (Exodus 32:33-35)
In these verses, we see the consequences of rejecting God’s grace. Moses, Aaron and the sons of Levi do not ask for grace or forgiveness for themselves. Instead they plead that they are in fact righteous and blameless in the sight of God. Moses shows this by offering himself as a perfect atoning sacrifice before the Lord. The Levites show this by saying that they were “for the Lord” and denying their need of grace and forgiveness. Aaron shows this by blaming the people of Israel for making the golden calf. By not acknowledging their need for God’s forgiveness, they reject the grace that God wanted to show them for the sin of the golden calf. They make matters even worse by slaughtering those whom they blame for their sin. These verses bear a striking resemblance to a passage in the New Testament.
Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world. (1 Corinthians 11: 27-32)
In this passage, some of the Corinthians are not examining their lives to see their own guilt. When they do not judge themselves, God is forced to judge them and the consequences are sickness and death. The entire purpose of this life is for human beings to see our need for the forgiveness and grace of Jesus Christ. When we deny our need of God’s forgiveness, we bring stern judgment upon ourselves. In the New Testament, God allows people to be weak and sick and “fall asleep” because they are living unexamined lives. In Exodus, God responds to the protests of Moses, Aaron and the Levites that they are righteous with a plague.
And the LORD said unto Moses, Depart, and go up hence, thou and the people which thou hast brought up out of the land of Egypt, unto the land which I sware unto Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, Unto thy seed will I give it: (Exodus 33:1)
Some people claim that Moses has been uniquely pleasing to God in Exodus 32, but these words in Exodus 33 demonstrate that this is not true. God is essentially telling Moses and the people of Israel, “Get out of my sight” and he explicitly includes Moses when he says “Depart and go up hence, thou and the people”.
And I will send an angel before thee; and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite: Unto a land flowing with milk and honey: for I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiffnecked people: lest I consume thee in the way. (Exodus 33:1-3)
In rejecting their need for forgiveness and grace, everyone from Moses, to Aaron, to the Sons of Levi and the rest of the nation of Israel has shown themselves to be “stiffnecked”. God is trying to show them that they are not righteous and that they need his forgiveness and grace, but they are not receptive to the message. For this reason, God announces that he will no longer go with Moses or the people because he might “destroy them on the way”. This is very similar to the anger that Jesus shows to the hardness of heart demonstrated by the Pharisees in the New Testament.
And when the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned: and no man did put on him his ornaments. For the LORD had said unto Moses, Say unto the children of Israel, Ye are a stiffnecked people: I will come up into the midst of thee in a moment, and consume thee: therefore now put off thy ornaments from thee, that I may know what to do unto thee.
And the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments by the mount Horeb.
And Moses took the tabernacle, and pitched it without the camp, afar off from the camp, and called it the Tabernacle of the congregation. And it came to pass, that every one which sought the LORD went out unto the tabernacle of the congregation, which was without the camp. And it came to pass, when Moses went out unto the tabernacle, that all the people rose up, and stood every man at his tent door, and looked after Moses, until he was gone into the tabernacle. And it came to pass, as Moses entered into the tabernacle, the cloudy pillar descended, and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and the Lord talked with Moses. And all the people saw the cloudy pillar stand at the tabernacle door: and all the people rose up and worshipped, every man in his tent door. And the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend. And he turned again into the camp: but his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, departed not out of the tabernacle. (Exodus 33: 4-11)
God declares that he will no longer go with the people of Israel and the people begin to mourn. They strip their ornaments in mourning and long for the forgiveness of God. When they look at the tent of meeting, they see God speaking to Moses as a man speaks to a friend. What are they saying to one another and why is God now so friendly?
And Moses said unto the LORD, See, thou sayest unto me, Bring up this people: and thou hast not let me know whom thou wilt send with me. Yet thou hast said, I know thee by name, and thou hast also found grace in my sight. Now therefore, I pray thee, if I have found grace in thy sight, shew me now thy way, that I may know thee, that I may find grace in thy sight: and consider that this nation is thy people. (Exodus 33: 12-13)
These verses are the closest we ever see Moses come to admitting his need for the grace and forgiveness of God during the entire span of his long life. He says to God, “I did things my way in Exodus 32 and obviously you are very angry with me. Teach me your ways that I might find favor with you.” Though this act of contrition is not as eloquent as we might like, God has been longing for this broken attitude in his servant and his response is immediate.
And he said, My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest.
And he said unto him, If thy presence go not with me, carry us not up hence.
For wherein shall it be known here that I and thy people have found grace in thy sight? is it not in that thou goest with us? so shall we be separated, I and thy people, from all the people that are upon the face of the earth.
And the LORD said unto Moses, I will do this thing also that thou hast spoken: for thou hast found grace in my sight, and I know thee by name. (Exodus 33:14- 17)
Though Moses and Aaron and the sons of Levi and the people of Israel have sinned grievously against God in the previous chapter, all it takes is their repentance for God to forgive them completely. In this verse, we see the true character and love of God when Moses and the people finally acknowledge their need of God and ask for his forgiveness. This moment of grace, however, does not last very long and soon Moses and the people of Israel are back to their sinful, stiff-necked and self-righteous ways.
It is amazing to note the striking similarities between God’s judgment in Exodus 32 and God’s judgment in the book of Jonah. In the book of Jonah, God pronounces judgment on a sinful people.
Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me. (Jonah 1:1-2).
In contrast to the actions of Moses and the sons of Levi, however, the king and nobles of Nineveh repent before God and are spared.
For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water:
But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.
Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not? (Jonah 3:6-9)
In the story of Nineveh, we see the true character of God. When God pronounces judgment upon a sinful people, he desires to grant mercy because of repentance.
Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live? (Ezekiel 18:23)
If God granted mercy to the pagans in Nineveh, how much more would God have granted his chosen people forgiveness if Moses had called upon the people to repent instead of having the sons of Levi slaughter three thousand people? And to come into the presence of the Lord offering your own life as atonement in place of our Lord and Savior? Every true believer in Jesus Christ must quake when they read of the greatest sin in all of human history.