According to my husband’s family history, one character was collecting the money for his works outing, but spent it all on beer. His poor wife had to sell her inherited shares to pay it back, to keep him out of prison. His colleagues never knew how close their trip came to being cancelled!
Moses must have felt physically sick when he viewed the scene of the Israelites dancing, probably half naked, celebrating that golden calf (Exodus 32:25-35). This was the depth they had sunk to, and no doubt that enemy spies would be watching and reporting. They had rendered themselves thoroughly vulnerable.
Did Moses sense there needed to be a blood covering for their sin, for which animals were just not enough? Perhaps that is why he gave orders for a mass slaughter. Perhaps that too, is why he offered himself to God, to stand in the gap as an atonement. Or perhaps he preferred to die than to be around to see the punishment he knew they deserved. Perhaps, too, he felt in some way responsible, as their leader.
In any case, God would not accept the sacrifice of Moses to redeem them. Only One would be good enough to pay the price for others’ sins, many centuries later. On this occasion, God himself would judge and punish the individuals according to their sin. For this purpose, God sent a plague, where he could hand-pick those most in rebellion.
And Moses lived on, and continued to lead the people. For God is kinder than we ever imagine him to be. Weak and sinful as they were, God still had a purpose to fulfil in them. Like my husbands predecessor, their sins were covered over, and life went on.
One person in this story I would have expected to have come under a harsh judgement was Aaron. Surely he should have been brought to account for his part in the miserable proceedings. Yet scripture mentions him specifically as there to welcome Moses back down the mountain with the new set of tablets (Exodus 34:30). I find it incredibly encouraging that God punishes wickedness and hard-heartedness, but not weakness. He understands our weaknesses, and “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” (Isaiah 42:3)
Life can get to us, and we make mistakes. But God understands. Through Jesus, he covers them over, and life goes on. We still have a purpose that God wants us to fulfil.