“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 (NKJV)
On the heels of Aaron giving the children of Israel a false idol to bow down to, Moses assembles a fighting force to cleanse the camp! And the manner of cleansing is as severe a punishment as one can administer: death—about three thousand deaths as a matter of fact! But why would God allow such a thing to take place if He’s so loving?
As we’ve seen throughout Exodus, these historical happenings are always pointing to far greater spiritual realities, and we should see this episode through that lens. Keep in mind what has happened here. In dramatic contrast to the countless gods and lifeless idols of Egypt, the Lord has just revealed Himself as the one true and living God worthy of their worship. Their physical rescue was evidence of His spiritual supremacy.
As Moses ascended Mount Sinai and was gone for several days, the people started to murmur. They weren’t so sold on this new God that led them out of Egypt. They couldn’t really see Him the way they could see (and control to a degree) all the other gods they knew. And where was Moses, anyway? Maybe he got lost, died, or decided to do something else? They decided it was time to replace this God with something else, and they pressured Aaron to fashion an idol for them they could start worshipping.
What were they doing here? There’s just one word that fits their behavior: sin, a willful turning from the Lord who led them out of captivity and into freedom. So, to understand the punishment we need to recognize the crime . . . sin!
In this case, sin needed to be swiftly and thoroughly dealt with. Remember Israel was in its infancy as a nation. They were just a few days removed from subjugation and, as any parent knows, a child is most influenced in their early season and stage of life. A precedent had to be set; sin needed to be uprooted and eradicated. That’s why this punishment was so severe. It wasn’t just punitive, it was also preventative by establishing an example that would prevent the future spread of idolatry. This kind of conflict was necessary.
This leads us to the spiritual truth woven throughout the centuries and which applies to us today: Conflict is a necessary consequence of sin. When it comes to sin, there’s always going to be some kind of conflict involved. The two go hand in hand. Sin doesn’t promote peace or harmony; rather, it brings about strife and fighting. And while God no longer calls us to deal with sin in the same way we see in Exodus, we need to respect the fact that sin will produce conflict, so much so that we guard our hearts and minds against sin whenever and wherever possible.
Conflict is always a consequence of sin. That’s why God calls us to walk in holiness, which is also the way of peace.
Pause: What principle do we see in this episode of Israel’s history?
Practice: How have you seen this principle play out in your own life? Consider what your approach towards it should be moving forward.
Pray: Lord, I know Your way is the best way for me. By Your Spirit, lead me in paths of holiness and strengthen my resolve against sin. Amen!