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.” (Exodus 32:26–28, ESV)

Who is on the Lord’s side? The question slips quickly and almost unnoticed as we read the text, but in the question and its response the people of Israel are confronted with a huge decision: Will they side with God, with his glory, or will they side with their own brothers, companions, and neighbors?

Make no mistake because this was an existential conflict.  Would the people cling only to God, or would they become a nation of syncretists, worshiping anything and everything that happened to suit their fancy?  The sons of Levi understood that to become syncretists meant the destruction of their relationship with God and were willing to bear any burden to see that the breaking of the second commandment against idolatry was punished, including the literal killing of brothers, companions, and neighbors.

The sons of Levi went through the camp and killed those who persisted in idolatry.  Those whom they did not kill were presumably killed by the plague that God sent into the camp (vs. 35).  In doing this they were displaying a zeal for God’s glory and a belief that what he had commanded ought to be followed by his people.  This was good and God blessed them for it.

Thankfully, we do not live in a day in which God calls us to enforce the commandments like this.  Grace allows us to keep calling our loved ones who are enemies of God to repentance and faith.