If a ploughman’s ox refuses to turn the way he wants, he calls the obstinate beast “stiffnecked.” Nine times in the Bible, that’s what the LORD calls His people. The first occasion is in Exodus 32:
“I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people: Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation.” (Exodus 32:9-10)
God’s anger is provoked by the people worshipping their new golden god. As far as He is concerned, this idolatry is a matter of stubbornness – a refusal to be led. In wilful disobedience a stiffnecked people go their own way and they court total annihilation from the LORD. In His wrath He threatens their destruction.
But Moses intercedes for Israel, and stunningly, the LORD Almighty listens. Moses reminds the LORD of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. “And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.” (Exodus 32:14)
Apparently wrath can be averted for stiffnecked sinners. This is good news. And the rest of the chapter shows how.
First of all Moses calls the priests to execute a judgement on the people. The Levites pick up swords and kill the guilty (v28). Levites have always been blood-thirsty men. As Jacob prophesied about their tribe, “their swords are weapons of violence” (Genesis 49:5). And this violent act is their “consecration” to priestly duty (v29). You might even say it’s their ordination.
These Levites became priests that day. What a fearful thing it would be for the Israelites to come to these men when they sinned. But that’s the drill. At the tabernacle, the sinner would have to confess their stiffnecked ways to these violent men bearing swords. And as their priest plunged that sword into the animal substitute, they’d recognise that this blood-shed was precisely what they deserved.
But secondly, even after this blood-shed, Moses realises there’s still a work of atonement to be performed:
Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto the LORD; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin. (v30)
Here’s what Moses offers to the Father:
Blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written. (v32)
Moses offers to die in the place of the people. He doesn’t offer the blood of goats or bulls. He doesn’t offer the blood of the guilty. He offers his own blood – the blood of the innocent, the blood of the people’s ruler.
Would Moses himself be the promised Lamb to be provided on the mountain to make atonement? Genesis 22:1-14 has been promising just this atonement for centuries – the Lamb on the mountain as a burnt offering. Would Moses be the One to make atonement?
No. God Most High declines Moses’ offer. Instead He reminds him of His Angel – the true Leader of the people (v34). The true Warrior and Commander at their head was indeed going before them. They must continue to wait for Him and to trust in Him.
One day He would descend from the heavenlies, the Divine Angel and Saviour; the True Priest for the people, the Atoning Lamb and the Ruler of rulers; the true Innocent. It’s Christ who would be handed over to death by Levites, killed by piercings and blotted out of the Father’s book.
In this way would the true atonement be made. In this way, ‘One greater than Moses’ would make intercession for stiffnecked rebels, like us.
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