Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, “Who is on the LORD’s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. And he said to them, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.’” And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell.
We shouldn’t just accept the encouraging parts of Scripture and avert our eyes from the devastating parts. That isn’t how we grow in our understanding of God’s heart, nor how we progress in our imitation of His character. Ultimately, that’s why I’ve felt compelled to include difficult passages in these devotionals, like the laws in Exodus 21 related to slave ownership, because if we effectively spend all our time dancing around the base of Sinai, never feeling the strain in our legs from the uphill climb nor the cold, sharp winds that thrust us deeper into the fog, we’ll miss the wonders God means to reveal through the travail.
What do we make of this grueling scene in Exodus 32? No question death is a righteous judgment for these blasphemers (God already laid out the death penalty for idolatry earlier in Exodus); but why doesn’t God send an angel through the camp as He did in Egypt? Why does He require their blood be on the hands of godly men? I think the answer lies in the fact that these pilgrims are untrained for the diverse foes they’ll soon encounter, and God wants to make them valiant warriors, the kind who stand for truth and justice without compromise, who willingly add their own blood to Canaan’s rivers of milk and honey if God’s glory is mocked by a Goliath or a Jezebel or a petty Egyptian Pharoah.
Remember, friend: God revealed Himself as a Mighty Warrior in these early days, so it’s no wonder that many of the champions of the Old Testament, the holy men like David and Nehemiah and Elijah, fight the good fight with real swords and shields as much as metaphorical ones.