Exodus 32-34 is God’s report on a disaster of literally biblical proportions. Like many stories that end in tragedy, this story begins with great excitement and expectation. Like many tragedies, it ended with horror at the loss of life and with wonder at how such a disaster could have happened in the first place. It was not the failure of an individual, but that of a covenant which the passage describes. And while the covenant had its weaknesses, it was ultimately human failure that was to blame.
God’s words reflect the consequences of sin – a separation from God and the ominous threat of judgment. God spoke no longer of Israel as “His” people, but rather as the people of Moses: “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves” (Exod. 32:7). Both in what God says and in the way He says it, Israel’s sin has put the nation in great danger. God then threatened to annihilate the entire nation and to start over, making a new nation of Moses. It looks as though Israel will be wiped out, and, we must say, God would have been wholly just in doing so, at least from the standpoint of the seriousness of Israel’s sin.