Exodus 32:15-35 Calf Wars, Episode III: Vengeance of the Levi

Questions: What is the price of leadership? Of purity? Is killing ever necessary? What will God forgive? What won’t He? “Read More” to pursue answers.

Lord, speak to me through your Spirit and your Word, your Body and your Blood;
that I might know you as you are, and manifest the image of Christ in this world,
and the world to come. Amen.

Exodus 32:15-35

When Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said to Moses, “There is the sound of war in the camp.”

Joshua spoke truer than he knew, though it was nominally the ‘sound of singing.’ In a very real sense, this was a war — which the people had lost:

And when Moses saw that the people [were] naked ; (for Aaron had made them naked unto [their] shame among their enemies 🙂

Harsh! Even allowing for some ambiguity in the language, the ultimate meaning is clear: by failing to provide moral leadership, Aaron had exposed the people’s shame, making them vulnerable to their enemies. That is why Moses calls Aaron to the carpet:

And Moses said unto Aaron, What did this people unto thee, that thou hast brought so great a sin upon them?

Aaron, sadly, just makes excuses, and blames the people:

And Aaron said, Let not the anger of my lord wax hot: thou knowest the people, that they [are set] on mischief.

and even denies his own complicity in constructing the idol:

And I said unto them, Whosoever hath any gold, let them break [it] off. So they gave [it] me: then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.

The implicit subtext behind all this is that Aaron was too caught up in his shame to admit his responsibility (as a leader) to cover over the people’s shame. With such a failure of leadership, Moses resorts to extreme measures to restore authority:

Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who [is] on the LORD’S side? [let him come] unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him.

What follows is almost too bloody to contemplate:

And he said unto them, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, [and] go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.

It easy to dismiss (or be horrified) by this as the barbarism of a primitive people. Yet, there is certain ruthless logic to it. The people were in the midst of a wilderness; in the absence of strong leadership, they would be easy prey to enemies, disease, or starvation. After Aaron abdicated civil authority, nothing short of martial law would restore order — albeit at a huge price:

And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.

For that matter, I’ve seen the same thing in my own life: when I’ve failed in exercising appropriate authority over my emotions, things start running wild, and I effectively have to put part of myself to death in order to regain control — that is, submission to God.

Interestingly, though Moses is quite severe:

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].

He is not, as far as I can tell, vengeful:

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.

He doesn’t underplay the seriousness of their sin, but he still seeks forgiveness for them — even at the risk of his own relationship with God!

Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin–; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.

God’s response is basically “spare me the drama”:

And the LORD said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.

God hasn’t forgotten his earlier promise, nor was He surprised at how bad things actually were, though I can understand Moses’ trepidation. God no longer seems to have any intention of destroying all the people (I don’t think He even had such intentions before, actually; just emotions). He’s willing to move on:

Therefore now go, lead the people unto [the place] of which I have spoken unto thee: behold, mine Angel shall go before thee:

Still, that doesn’t mean He’s going to just forget the whole thing:

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.

I have to admit, I don’t particularly like the side of God revealed here. On the other hand, I certainly respect it!

More importantly (if paradoxically), I think I trust the God behind all this. It is a little hard to explain in the context of modern American culture, but at a certain level knowing that God will punish sin — even my own! — is deeply reassuring. I ultimately am glad that God loves me enough to get angry at me for screwing up — and my leaders for failing me!

I don’t like it, but I need it.


God, forgive me for the many times I fail to exercise legitimate authority over my unruly emotions, and those you’ve placed under my care. Help me to follow the Levites in serving You and Your purpose, even at the cost of killing that which is closest to me; not because I hate them, but because I love them, and want them to find their true happiness and fulfillment in You. Teach me to accept your discipline, and grant me the grace to enjoy your forgiveness — which may be the same thing! By Jesus blood I pray, Amen.

About the Title:

Today’s title is from Star Wars Episodes III: Revenge of the Sith and VI: Return of the Jedi, as the final part of my trilogy on Exodus 32 .