Moses the Intercessor and Would Be Sin-Bearer: Christ in Exodus 32

israelitesIntercession and Substitutionary Atonement

In Exodus 32, the Holy Spirit presents Moses as a type of Christ, albeit from two different perspectives. Moses is first portrayed as the innocent representative intercessor of Israel before God. Immediately after, he is presented as the [would be] sin-bearing representative of God’s people. This brief article will examine these two types of Christ contained in Ex 32.

The Golden Calf Incident: Moses as Innocent Representative Intercessor of Israel

Moses was away with God, receiving the Law from him, and the people of Israel “offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings [to a newly constructed golden idol (calf)]. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.”[1] God informs Moses of the recalcitrance of the hearts of the Israelites, announcing that it is not outside of his power to destroy the Israelite people and start a new nation from Moses.[2] At this point, Moses replies in the following manner:

“O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’”[3]

Moses represents the people of God to God, and does so by referencing God’s promises and faithfulness to keep those promises. In particular, it is the Gospel promise to Abraham that Moses has in mind. God has promised to crush the head of the serpent with the foot of his Seed, his Seed through whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed. And “the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.”[4]

Moses is pictured as the innocent Israelite, for he had not committed idolatry with Aaron and the people, who intercedes on behalf of God’s sinful children and, thereby, removes the threat of God’s wrath. In doing this, Moses’ intercession prefigures the work of Jesus in interceding on behalf of God’s people. Of Christ, we are told that he “makes intercession for the transgressors,”[5] “indeed is interceding for us,”[6] and “is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”[7] And, again, in John’s first epistle we are given the promise that “if anyone [i.e. any believer] does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”[8]

There are some very important differences between Moses and Christ, however, that we must take into consideration. Firstly, Moses’ intercession concerns the historical/temporal fate of the physical descendents of Israel, whereas Christ’s concerns our eternal destiny as well as our temporal fate (e.g. sanctification, preservation in trials, etc). Secondly, God spared and preserved the physical nation of Israel in order to further his plan to bring forth the true Seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ. We are preserved spiritually, however, in order to fulfill the promise made to Abraham regarding “all nations” being blessed in Christ, the Seed of Abraham. Lastly, Moses’ representation of Israel was imperfect and tainted by sin. Christ’s intercession for his people, however, is perfect and perfectly holy.

Descent from God’s Immediate Presence: Moses as Would-Be Guilt Bearing Substitute

Moving on in Exodus 32, we see that Moses comes down from the mountain with God’s Law. And the law is literally broken by Moses, in an act that parallels the moral transgression committed by the Israelites.[9] He then melts the golden calf, grinds it into powder, scatters it onto the water, and causes the people of Israel to drink it.[10] The breaking of the law tablets by Moses is not a moral transgression, but it parallels the actual breaking of the law by Israel. Moses, in other words, is innocent, being a lawbreaker only in an analogical sense. Furthermore, by causing the Israelites to drink their idol’s remains, Moses is increasing the people’s awareness of their sin.[11] And with this awareness comes temporal effects of sin, viz. the killing of the rebels that follows the idol-drinking above.[12]

        The significance of these events is shown to us when we read, despite Moses’ actions in the foregoing verses to rid Israel of wickedness, of Moses telling the Israelites:

“You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.”[13]

The sin of the people still remained, despite the clear demonstrations of how they had broken the law of God, and were filled the fruit of their own ways, and deserved death. Moses wants to, therefore, go up to the Lord and perhaps make atonement for the sins of his people. Through ascension to God, then, Moses hopes to atone for his people’s sins.

In conjunction with the ideas of ascending and making atonement, moreover, we see that Moses, who has already symbolically broken the Law of God by breaking the stone tablets, is now willing to perish for his people. The text demonstrates this very clearly:

So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.”[14]

Moses is innocent of the sin of worshiping the golden calf, yet he is willing to take the punishment due to them upon himself. He says “this people has sinned.” He asks God to forgive “their” sin. Mose is willing to be counted as a transgressor for the sake of God’s covenant being fulfilled, and for the sake of his people.

Moses is, thus, functioning as a kind of representative, one who bears the guilt due to others in order to fulfill God’s covenant of grace which he made with Abraham in Genesis. But notice God’s response to him:

“Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book.”[15]

Moses cannot truly provide atonement for his people, and he cannot truly bear the sins of his people (i.e. experience the punishment due to them for their sins). Thus, God replies by saying that each man will be judged individually.

We see in Moses, therefore, a type of Christ who was lifted up[16] in order to make atonement for our sins. He was innocent; we are not. He did not deserve to be treated as a covenant breaker, to have the curses of God toward the lawbreaker  placed upon him, to be smitten with the wrath of God. Nevertheless, he went up to provide atonement. He ascended the hill of Calvary and was crucified, dying the humiliating and shameful death of a transgressor of God’s law. And God did not respond to him as he responded to Moses. No, God was pleased to have Christ bear our guilt. God was pleased to have Christ truly and finally fulfill the covenant and, thereby, ensure that God’s people are preserved now and eternally.

As with the first typological parallel, this parallel has some very clear differences. For one thing, Moses could not provide atonement for the sins of his people. Christ, however, could and, indeed, did just that. Moses could not bear the sins of his people; Christ, however, could and did. Moses could not fulfill the positive and punitive demands of the law; however, Christ Jesus could and did.

An Addendum: Dr. Robert Reymond on Exodus 32

In his A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Dr. Robert Reymond discusses the text of Exodus 32. Reymond’s focus is on the immutability of God primarily; nevertheless, he mentions typology, history, and soteriology, giving the same emphases as the article above. Reymond:

When Moses made his appeal on Israel’s behalf to God’s own covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel ( Exod. 32:13 ) and, in order to “make atonement” for Israel’s sin, declared that if God did not forgive Israel he wanted God to blot him out of the book which he had written ( Exod. 32:30–32 ), he by his mediation was signifying the central redemptive principle of salvation through mediation, and in so doing Moses’ mediation became by divine design an Old Testament type of Christ’s mediatorial work. So what many assert is an example of the mutability of God’s purpose is in actuality a remarkable example of God’s fixed purpose to relate himself to sinful men on the basis of the intercession of an appointed Mediator.[17]



[1] Ex 32:6

[2] Ex 32:7-10

[3] Ex 32:11-13

[4] Ex 32:14

[5] Isa 53:12b

[6] Rom 7:34b

[7] Heb 7:25

[8] 1st John 2:1b

[9] Ex 32:15-19

[10] Ex 32:20

[11] cf. Num 5:11-28

[12] Ex 32:21-29

[13] Ex 32:30

[14] Ex 32:31-32

[15] Ex 32:33

[16] See John 3:14-15; 8:28; 12:32

[17] A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, (Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1998), 222-223.


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