I was reading along in my Exodus commentaries on the last part of chapter 32 (the incident of the golden calf). The Levites are ordered to bring God’s judgment on the rest of the Israelites, and they kill 3,000 people that day, which is half of one percent of just the males. I have wondered why it is that so few died. Surely just about the entire nation had gone astray. Now, there was a plague that took more people, as the end of the chapter tells us. However, we are not told how many people died in that plague. The stress of the passage seems to be the smallness of the number of people who died. A lot of people have the wrong idea about the 3,000, thinking that it is such a huge number of people. However, we should be thinking of that number as incredibly small, given the offense to God that the idolatry represented, not to mention the derision of the nations to which Israel’s sin made them subject (verse 25). The entire people deserved to perish.
Enter in this startling comment by a Jew (Umberto Cassuto), on page 421 of his commentary: “It is better that a few Israelites lose their lives rather than that the entire people should perish.” Anyone who knows the New Testament at all will recognize the startling similarity this comment has with Caiaphas’ remarks about Jesus’ death. There is no way to tell in the context whether this similarity was intentional on Cassuto’s part or not. This brings us to Moses’ request, which is basically that he be a substitute for the people, a request that the Lord denies. Another Jewish commentator (Nahmanides) notes the similarity of this passage with the ideas present in Isaiah 53, particularly verse 5: “But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.” They seem very close to the truth, don’t they? The difference between Moses and Jesus (and the reason why God refuses Moses’ request, according to Ryken’s commentary) is that Moses was sinful, whereas Jesus was not.