Yesterday, we saw how Abraham wrestled with God’s word in order to believe his promise (Gen 15:6) and to sacrifice his son (Gen 22:1ff). We called such thinking that gave precedence to God’s revelation over our reasonable (or unreasonable) feelings “Gospel Logic.” Today, we turn to Exodus 32 to see how Moses engaged in the same kind of thinking.
A Sinful People in Need of Something…
1 Corinthians 10 points to Exodus 32 as a universal example of what not to do. Poised to receive God’s order of service for true worship, Israel gets impatient (Exod 32). They hire Aaron to make new gods, and on one of the forty days that Moses in on the Mount of Sinai, the people of Israel sin against God and break the covenant that had just been ratified in Exodus 24.
On the mountain, Moses receives word from the Lord, “And the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'” (Exod 32:7-8).
What is Moses to do?
On the way down the mountainside, he hears the drunken sound of pagan worship in the camp (32:18-20). He gets to the base camp, and he smashes the tablets. The covenant is broken. In the scenes that follow, Moses inquires of Aaron (32:22-24) and commissions the sons of Levi to slaughter their own family members in order to avert the wrath of God (32:25-29). The day is done. The people are undone. Night falls.
Exodus 32:30 records a new day. The day of judgment has passed, but the threat of the plague remains (v. 35). What will Moses do? Surely he was thinking the same thing. The covenant people of Israel have broken their wedding vows, and something must be done. Not a passive man, Moses sets off to inquire of God telling the people, “You have sinned a great sin. And I will go up to the Lord, . . . ” (32:30).
What would he do? What would he say? The rest of verse tells us, “perhaps I can make atonement for your sins.”
Atonement. This is what the people needed. But how would he accomplish this. The plans for the tabernacle were destroyed. The sin was so great, and God’s holiness was so much greater what would he do? How would he plead his case? Such questions lead us to see how Moses reckoned the matter, and in his offer, we will see how gospel logic at work.
Moses Gospel Logic: From Sinai to Eden and Back Again
To understand fully how Moses might have arrived at his self-sacrificing offer, we need to consider the antecedent theology that Moses would have had, and that he would have drawn upon to plead his case and make his offer.
Atonement, and the need for blood sacrifice, was common throughout the ancient near east. Accordingly, Israel as they worshiped around the golden altar made sacrifices. While they needed divine instruction for true sacrifices, they did not need information on how to sacrifice. While they did not have the book of Exodus, they had ample knowledge of the sacrifices offered In Egypt.
But where did these come from? From God, where else? Pagan sacrifices are echoes of the first sacrifice, the one God made in the Garden. Indeed, sacrifice in general terms was imprinted on human civilization from the Garden of Eden forward. Remember: When Adam and Eve sinned they needed a covering, and so God killed an animal an clothed them. The seed of substitution was sown in this act, and it was passed from God to Adam to Abel.
(For a biblical exposition of these patriarchal and pagan sacrifices, see William Symington, On the Atonement and Intercession of Jesus Christ , pp. 66-92; likewise, for a helpful explanation of the way pagan worship corresponds to the original pattern passed down from Adam and Noah, see Jeffrey Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology)
As the biblical testimony goes, not all offerings were of equal value. In Genesis 4, Abel’s offering was based on his faith (Heb 11), but what was his faith in? Surely, it based on the revelation conveyed to Cain and Abel’s parents, modeled in Genesis 3, that said bloodshed was needed. By contrast, Cain’s offering was faithless, because he refused to believe the need for shed blood. Instead of substitutionary offering, he brought fruit from the field. His offering was not according to God’s word, it did not substitute life for life, and thus it was not acceptable to the Lord.
If Moses was indeed retracing the history of God’s atonement and means of provision, he would have next thought of Abraham and Isaac. In what would become Genesis 22, YHWH commands Abraham to offer his son. This is far more than an animal sacrifice, something Abraham (and Moses) had done plenty of times. Now, God was upping the ante. He was testing Abraham (22:1), and he was setting in redemptive history a portrait of a substitution—a divinely provided lamb in place of Abraham’s seed (people of faith).
Like Abel, Abraham had to make this offering in faith–faith in God’s word. As we saw yesterday, this is exactly what God’s friend did. Thus, he believed that God could raise his son from the dead. If indeed Moses was pondering all that God had revealed to him in the law on Sinai, and all that God had done in Israel’s history, it is little wonder that Moses concluded that perhaps his own substitution might become the means by which Israel would be saved.
Putting this gospel logic in dramatic prose, James M. Boyce imagines what the night might have been like,
The night passed, and the morning came when Moses was to reascend the mountain. He had been thinking. Sometime during the night a way that might possibly divert the wrath of God against the people had come to him. He remembered the sacrifices of the Hebrew patriarchs and the newly instituted sacrifice of the Passover. Certainly God had shown by such sacrifices that he was prepared to accept an innocent substitute in place of the just death of the sinner. His wrath could sometimes fall on the substitute. Perhaps God would accept… When morning came, Moses ascended the mountain with great determination. Reaching the top, he began to speak to God (Quoted in Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus, 1013).
Like Abraham, Moses practiced Gospel Logic. He reflected on the character of God, God’s revealed word, the sin of the people, and like Abraham who reckoned that God could raise the dead, Moses conjectured, maybe, just maybe God might take me in place of my people. So Moses, with boldness and selfless love for God’s sinful people laid himself on the altar: “No if you would on forgive their sin. But if not”–and here is where the offer comes–“please me from the book You have written” (Exod 32:32).
In the end, his offer is not accepted (32:33-34), but not because the idea is wrong, but because the substitute is blemished. Even though Moses was not complicit in the crime, he was a son of Adam and by nature incapable of atoning for the sins of the people. Relatively speaking, he was innocent, but time would reveal that in his own heart lay a dark distrust for God and a willingness to strike the rock when God said speak (Num 20:10-13).
Moses was not the perfect substitute. Yet, his intercession foreshadows the one whose self-sacrifice would be accepted. Moses receives God’s word to continue to lead the people which implies that the story will continue, the hope of the true Messiah remains. This is good news for Moses, Israel, and us. And Moses example of wrestling with the Lord like Abraham and Jacob should remind us to press into the truths of God’s word and to find solace in the darkest nights.
When God’s wrath was ready to consume Israel, Moses Gospel Logic reckoned that “perhaps” he could intercede. We must reckon in the same fashion, not that we can intercede for others (although see Paul in Romans 9). No, we must reckon with greater confidence that because in Jesus Christ there is no “perhaps,” all that we ask in his name will be accomplished. This is God’s promise to us in John 14:13-14, and it is based on the inexhaustible merits of Christ. In his priestly service, Jesus was gladly received by the Father, and as the Father’s beloved Son, all that he does and asks, is answered. This is our good news.
May such knowledge of our great high priest comfort us today, and beckon us not to lose heart for tomorrow.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss