Question of the week: Why did God kill all those people described in the golden calf story in Exodus 32?
My answer: This is a very good question. Misunderstandings about this text have led many to conclude that the God of the Bible is a contradictory God and, therefore, cannot exist. Others conclude that he is not a loving God and, hence, want nothing to do with him.
As with any text of this nature, it is critical to interpret it in the larger context and to understand some of the translation difficulties. The story in Exodus 32 must be understood in the context of God calling Abraham to leave his country and settle in Canaan and from there to be God’s messenger to the peoples of the world. Canaan is where three continents come together. The location of Canaan at the juncture of the world’s great trading routes guaranteed that the nations of the world would be exposed to Abraham’s descendants and the message God had granted to them. The message included not only the words God had taught them to speak but also their demeanor, their godly behavior, and their moral standards. Deuteronomy 4:5–8 explains, for example, that God gave the Jewish community righteous laws and statutes. And through the Jews’ obedience to these laws and statutes and the wisdom and understanding they gained through their obedience, the nations surrounding Israel would hear and receive God’s message to them.
Another important context is that the people who left Egypt with Moses to settle in the land of Canaan were not all blood descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Exodus 12:38 indicates that many non-Jews decided to become Jews and join the blood descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the exodus from Egypt. They joined because of their great respect for the God of Moses and the morality of Moses and his followers.
Yet another important context is that the people who worshipped before the golden calf had personally and recently witnessed some of the greatest miracles God had ever performed before human beings. Yet, in spite of these awesome numerous miracles that they had recently experienced, after just forty days of Moses’s absence from them, they doubted both the existence of God and Moses. After all they had seen, experienced, and heard, their lack of faith shouts volumes about their spiritual condition.
Finally, the words “revelry,” “out of control,” and “intent on evil” that are typical of most English translations describing the behavior of the people who were worshipping the golden calf do not do justice to the original Hebrew text. The golden calf worshippers were engaging in nonstop sexual orgies that would make even the most godless peoples and nations around them blush in horror at what they were hearing. Medically, it is well known that people who have sexual encounters with dozens of male and female strangers over short time periods will have compromised immune systems. Such behavior may explain the plague mentioned in Exodus 32:35.
God’s actions in bringing death to the worst offenders of the golden calf worship were critical in restoring the mission and physical health God had bestowed upon the peoples of the exodus to take his message of redemption to all the peoples of the world. As Paul explains in Romans 1:18–32, people firmly committed to reprobate behavior are beyond the possibility of redemption from their evil. Such people in Romans 1:32 are described as malignantly evil. They not only are wholly dedicated to evil, but they are also committed to spreading their evil to as many other people as possible.
God’s actions in Exodus 32 are akin to a surgeon removing a malignant tumor. The tumor is killed in order to prevent the rest of the body from dying. Similarly, before Christians became the “salt of the earth,” and in becoming salt prevented societal reprobation, there were a few instances where God had to intervene to “surgically remove” a group of reprobates in order to prevent the reprobation from spreading throughout the entire community. Note in Exodus 32 how quickly God sent Moses and Joshua down from Mt. Sinai to put a stop to the “revelry.”