NLT - 27 Moses told them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Each of you, take your swords and go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other. Kill everyone - even your brothers, friends, and neighbors.”
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As related in Exodus 32, God gave this command through Moses in response to the idolatry into which the Israelites (at the actual guidance of Aaron, Moses' own brother, who was supposed to be the high priest of Israel) had quickly fallen during the period after the giving of the Ten Commandments, when Moses remained on Mount Sinai in the presence of God, receiving other commands and ordinances from God for Israel.. Because Moses did not come down from the mountain immediately, the people thought that he was not coming back at all. Despite the fact that God had just unmistakably manifested His presence at Mount Sinai to Israel (as described in Exodus 19:16-20), the people nevertheless quickly forsook God, and requested that Aaron make gods for them who would lead them in Moses' absence. Aaron gathered all the people's gold rings and other gold jewelry and ornaments, melted the gold down, and fashioned an idol in the shape of a golden calf, which the people then proclaimed as their god. Aaron built an altar to the calf, and announced that the next day would be a feast to this new god. When the next day came, the people made sacrificial offerings to the golden calf, and then (as Exodus 32:6 records) "sat down to eat and drink, and then rose up to play." God informed Moses of the people's idolatry, and told Moses that He was going to eradicate the entire nation of Israel because of its sin, and make of Moses and Moses' descendants a nation mightier than Israel. Moses pleaded with God to spare the people, reminding Him of His promises (in the book of Genesis) to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whereupon God relented. When Moses came down from the mountain, and saw for himself the Israelites' brazen revelry and sin (that had also caused the neighboring nations -- which were enemies of Israel -- to ridicule Israel and to blaspheme God), Moses (in the verse cited in the question) commanded the members of the priestly tribe of Levi (Moses' own tribe), at God's direction (as indicated by Moses prefacing his command with the words, "This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says"), to strap on their swords, and to go from one end of the Israelite camp to the other, killing the revelers (even if it would mean slaying their own relatives) as punishment for the people's sin. As a result, three thousand Israelites were killed (Exodus 32:28). And, even after that, God also sent a plague upon the Israelites, resulting in additional deaths (Exodus 32:35). The fact that the Levites were told to not even spare their own brothers and other relatives reflected the seriousness of the people's willful sin in God's view, to the point where Israel had come perilously close to total eradication by God as punishment for its idolatry (had it not been for the pleading of Moses).
I believe this was a partial punishment for worshiping the golden calf, thus breaking the first commandment. According to Deut 30:17-18 "but if thine heart turn away, so that thou will not hear, but shall be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; I denounce unto you this day, that ye shall surely perish, and that ye shall not prolong your days upon the land, whither thou passed over Jordan to go possess it." This was actually not the end of the matter, since if everyone had been immediately killed, only a very few Israelites would have been left to possess the land. Worshiping the golden calf had long term consequences which presumably affected the Israelites down to the 3rd and 4th generations. So, regarding the golden calf, Exodus 32:33, "Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book." and verses 34-5"...in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them. And the LORD plagued the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron made."
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