The elders of Israel, who had been waiting about halfway down Mt. Sinai, had long since returned to the valley. They had waited for hours for Moses and Joshua to return from the rocky heights of Mt. Sinai. But, not wishing to spend the night on the mountain side, they had hurried back before darkness could overtake them.
In the camps of the Israelites they excitedly told of the marvelous experience of being so close to the Eternal that they could almost see Him. The people were thrilled by the reports, but they were also interested in learning what had become of Moses and Joshua.
“We saw them go up into the cloud that came down over the mountain,” they were told. “We don’t know what happened to them, but probably they’ll show up soon.”
The Israelites had watched Mt. Sinai from the time the elders and Moses had started to climb it. They had seen the cloud come down and envelop the summit. They had stared in awe at the long, multi-colored flames shooting up from the mountain and through the cloud as though from a belching volcano. They were still watching when a week passed and the giant tongues of fire shot up even higher on the Sabbath.
By that time many of them were becoming more and more concerned about Moses and Joshua. Were the two men really safe up there on that blazing summit? Or had they wandered off on a side trail and become lost? Or could it be that they had fallen to their death in some deep ravine?
“God will protect them and provide for them” Aaron told the people. “We shouldn’t be worried as they are in God’s hands.”
The days passed into weeks. Still the cloud and the fire continued to crown the mountain. Even Aaron, who at first was certain that nothing was wrong, began to worry. Several times he and Hur considered leading a group to go up and search for Moses and Joshua, but each time they decided against it. They knew that it would be almost impossible to move around safely inside the heavy cloud. Furthermore, they feared that if they went up too high they might be struck dead for trespassing on holy ground.
Probably the one most concerned about Moses was Joshua. He didn’t dare go up in search of Moses. Neither did he feel that he should desert the man who had chosen him to share that week-long wait before God called Moses further up the mountain. There was nothing to do but wait as the hours and the days dragged slowly by.
Constantly shrouded in the brilliant vapor, Joshua felt at times almost like a prisoner. But there was something about being so close to God that imparted to him a feeling of warm satisfaction. As for his physical needs, he and Moses had already discovered a small brook, and there was fresh supply of manna six days a week.
Regardless of the signs, wonders and miracles God had displayed to Israel in the months just past, there were some of the people who secretly wanted to cling to the habits of idol worship they had picked up in Egypt. In spite of the awesome blaze atop Mt. Sinai, these people began to complain that Moses’ absence showed that his God had forgotten them.
“We need a leader we can trust to take us out of these mountains and deserts!” these rebellious people declared.
This outbreak of ill feeling was quickly seized upon by others – the foolish, violent type of people who all down through time have sought their pleasure in forming loud mobs and creating disorder and destruction.
Within only a few days there was growing confusion and uproar in the camps of the Israelites. Made bolder by the increasing numbers of those who wanted to cause trouble, the complainers changed their demands a little.
“We need gods who can lead us to freedom!” they chanted over and over.
When Aaron and Hur first heard about these things taking place in various camps, they became very concerned. They sent officers to seek out the offenders and have them punished. But it was too late for that kind of action. The offenders far outnumbered the officers, who suddenly found themselves faced by a howling frenzied mob in front of the tents of Aaron and Hur.
“Why are these people here?” Aaron asked an officer. “I can’t tell what they mean by all this yelling.”
“They’re like people possessed of demons!” was the answer. “They’ve come to demand that you create a god or gods that they can actually see and to which they can pray to guide them quickly and safely to a land of plenty” (Ex. 32:1)!
Aaron and Hur could scarcely believe these shocking words. But a careful study of the faces of the men before them made it plain that the mob was seriously intent upon what it had come for. It was evident that these men were the scum of the Israelites. Many of them weren’t even Israelites, and they didn’t truly represent all Israel. But their cause, however foolish, was gaining swiftly in favor with the Israelites. Furthermore, they were well armed. Something had to be done at once to keep them from violence.
“We must think of a plan to hold them off till Moses returns,” Aaron said to Hur. “Then perhaps it would be best to appear to agree with them for now,” Hur suggested.
Silently praying that he could find a way to calm the mob down, Aaron strode out and raised his arms for silence. The yelling gradually died down. The crowd surged in, anxious to surround Aaron, Hur and other officers and elders who were present.
“I have just learned what you want!” Aaron exclaimed. “You desire a new god or gods you can see! But how do you expect us to give you a new god?”
A confusing chorus of voices came from the crowd. One of the mob’s leaders stepped up close to Aaron, and the people became silent again.
“When we were back in Egypt, the leader shouted, “the Egyptians and all of us had all we wanted to eat and drink. Yet the Egyptians didn’t worship this invisible God you keep talking about. We want a god like one of theirs - one made of stone or wood or metal. We want a god that won’t bother us with a lot of useless laws; a god that we can understand and see; a god that looks something like we know about - perhaps like a snake or an ox!”
Aaron did not reply at once. An idea was occurring to him. It was a risky plan to try to delay matters until Moses would return – if ever.
“Would you like a huge calf made of gold?” Aaron called out to the crowd.
A discouraging silence followed. Aaron was about to suggest something else when the thousands before him broke out in thunderous applause and shouts of agreement. This wild consent to his suggestion was small relief to Aaron, however. It was a frightening thought when he realized that the people would probably consider this a promise of his to actually build an idol for them!
“Make the idol now!” someone shouted, and thousands of voices rang out in agreement. Aaron realized that there was no backing out now. He would have to act on his words, meanwhile trusting that Moses and Joshua would return to rescue him from this horrid deed.
“I am not doing this thing willingly!” he cried out. “If we create and worship any gods but the One who gave us the commandments, then we would be breaking the first two commandments. Only a few days ago we promised to abide by those laws. If we disobey God will be angry with us because He does not want to see us make ourselves miserable!”
A volley of angry shouts swelled up from the crowd. The people moved in even closer, staring menacingly at Aaron and the officers who stood with him. Aaron held up his hands and nodded his head in consent.
“I shall arrange for your idol to be made,” he told them in a faltering voice. “But you will have to help. Every man, woman and child wearing golden earrings must take them off and bring them here. We will fashion them into one piece, and from that gold will come the metal calf you desire for your god.”
Aaron hoped that the Israelites would refuse to give up their ear jewelry, there by sparing him from his promise to create a golden calf. But his hope faded when he later witnessed the long lines of people filing up to give their earrings.
By the end of the next day there was an astonishingly large heap of ear jewelry not far from Aaron’s tent. Hundreds of pounds of gold were in that gleaming pile. It was up to Aaron to carry on from there. He sent for carpenters, metal workers, designers and sculptors to come from the multitude. Hoping to stall for time, he instructed these men to do their work well even if it required weeks. However, it took the workers only a few days, laboring in the privacy of a large enclosure, to completely build the large mold in which to pour the hot, melted gold to make a molten gold calf (Ex. 321:1-4).
Aaron then ordered a large altar built in front of the tent in which the calf image stood. When it was finished, he sent out messengers to all the people to proclaim that the next day would be a feast day to God. He hoped that the people would change their minds and make their offerings to God instead of the golden calf. But it was a rather futile wish, what with an altar built so close to the idol.
That evening, when the tent was stripped away, the people gazed at the shiny, gold thing resembling a calf. From some there were grins and cheers of approval. Others merely stared and shook their heads.
Early next morning people started thronging toward the calf idol, bringing animals for burnt offerings and peace offerings. The creatures were slaughtered not far from the altar that had just been built, and before long the idol was loaded with their carcasses.
Ever since dawn Aaron and Hur and some of the elders had kept anxious eyes on the slopes of Mt. Sinai, hoping that Moses and Joshua would return in time to pit their authority and influence against the rebellious Israelites. But there was no sign of Moses and Joshua, and with almost seven weeks having passed since they left for the mountain, there seemed to be very little chance that they would ever return.
When Aaron saw men about to set fire to the altar wood under the intended offerings, he hurried out before the altar and raised his hands in protest.
“This is a feast to the God of Israel!” he shouted to the crowd. “These carcasses belong on the other altar – the one over there by the twelve stone pillars!”
“If you don’t want us to sacrifice here, then why did you make this golden idol and the altar before it?” some of the rebellious leaders demanded in loud voices.
“Because I knew that so many of you wanted it so badly that you would get it one way or another,” Aaron replied. “I had hoped that Moses would return before the idol could be finished, or that you would realize how wrong it was and would give up the mad idea of serving and worshipping an idol!”
“We know what we want!” the men shouted back, pointing to the idol. “This represents the god who brought us out of Egypt” (Ex. 32:4)!
Striding past Aaron and up to the altar, they motioned for the people to move closer and watch the ceremony that followed. Aaron walked slowly back to his tent, where he turned to watch a plume of smoke billow upward from the crackling fire. Looking out over the crowd, he shuddered to witness thousands bowing before the calf image, which now appeared to him as something very ugly and evil.
After the first offerings had been consumed in the leaping blazes, other offerings were tossed on the altar. Intense heat from the glowing coals quickly roasted the meat, which was passed out in smoking chunks to be eaten by the closest ones in the crowd. When others more at a distance complained to having no meat, more carcasses were flung on the altar. By then, although it was only mid-morning, a holiday spirit of revelry was swiftly developing. It was obvious that the altar would be in use all day and perhaps far into the night to supply broiled meat for the people.
The careless mood caught on with the people who had been standing far from the idol. Musicians banded together to play. Huge groups of Israelites began to dance and sing to idolatrous tunes they had learned in Egypt. Many of them imbibed too freely of their wines and liquors.
Little by little the festive spirit developed into careless abandon. Riotous laugher and profane shouts gradually built up in the noise from the crowd. Encouraged by the basest beings in the mob, many of the Israelites allowed themselves to carry out some of their most shameful desires. Their disgraceful and ribald acts shocked the thousands of Israelites who stayed back and had no part in the sordid affair (Ex. 32:6).
Meanwhile, in the sight of all, the glory of God’s presence glowed brightly from within the cloud resting over Mt. Sinai. Perhaps we would consider it very strange that the revelers would so quickly forget God when He was so near.
Yet if we stop to think about it, probably most of us completely forget about our Creator for hours or even days at a time, even though He is watching everything we do. When this happens, we’re much more likely to forget what He wants us to do, and we incline to do the wrong things.
Let us go back a few weeks to the time when Moses was called up toward the top of Mt. Sinai. You will remember that he left Joshua at a point high on the mountain, and that the thick cloud miraculously parted so that he could see to proceed without risking a fall from the dangerous trail (Ex. 24:12-17).
The moving lights from above became brighter as Moses came closer to the mountain’s summit. By the time he had climbed almost to the top, the lights were so intense that the cloud vapor was burned away. The higher he climbed, the less tired and more exhilarated Moses became. He realized that it was because he was approaching so close to the terribly powerful presence of the Almighty Creator of the whole universe.
“Stay where you are!” a strong voice suddenly called out.
Moses stopped and quickly looked around. He was on a flat, rocky ledge dotted by boulders that had fallen from the heights above. Although the shining aura that came from overhead nearly wiped out every shadow, he could see only a few yards in every direction.
“You will remain in this spot for many days,” the voice continued. “During that time I shall tell you what you must speak to the Israelites when you return, and what things you must perform.”
Moses fell to his knees and fearfully bowed his head to the ground. During the next forty days he spent many hours listening closely to God’s instructions uttered at various intervals. Every word and vision was burned into his mind, made unusually alert and keen by God’s inspiring presence (v. 18).
Meanwhile, although trembling with awe, Moses was otherwise comfortable in that presence. Without it, he could have been miserably cold or could have perished from thirst or hunger, since he did not eat nor drink during those forty days. But he needed no physical protection from the elements, and no food or water. The spiritual energizing power surrounding him gave him all the shielding and strength he needed (Deut. 9:9).
All that God told Moses was to be carefully repeated to the people. He was to ask them to contribute materials with which they were to build and decorate a temporary tabernacle. It was to be a huge portable tent which God could grace with His presence while being worshipped or contacted during the Israelites’ journey to Canaan.
Moses received every detail on how this tabernacle and its surroundings were to be built and furnished. So that he would know how everything should look, Moses experienced many interesting visions. These stayed in his memory so clearly that he later remembered exactly what God required.
“When this tabernacle is finished, Aaron and his sons are to be the chief priests in charge of all things having to do with it,” God told Moses.
He even showed Moses how the priests’ clothing was to be made and what ceremonies were to be performed. So many measurements, descriptions and directions were given that they required seven chapters in the book of Exodus (Chapters 25-31).
Toward the end of the meeting on Mt. Sinai, God again commanded Moses to remind the Israelites to carefully observe His Sabbaths. He spoke of more than one Sabbath, and by that God meant the several annual Sabbaths as well as the weekly Sabbath. These annual Sabbaths are mentioned in Ex. 23:14-16.
“My Sabbaths are holy,” God told Moses. “They are a sign forever between me and every one of you who continue to observe all of them that I am your God and you are my church, a people chosen for a very special task. It shall remain a sign throughout every generation forever. It is an everlasting agreement that your people will be blessed as long as they obey me in respect to my holy days. Those who refuse to obey will die” (Ex. 31:12-17)!
Many years later we find not only Jesus, but the apostle Paul keeping these same days, according to John 7:14 and 37 and Acts 18:21.
On the 40th day of Moses’ stay near the top of Mt. Sinai, God ended the meeting by giving Moses two slabs of elegant stone. The Ten Commandments were on these stone tablets, perfectly and beautifully written on both sides by God (Ex. 31:18 and 32; 15-16).
“Leave here at once!” God commanded Moses. “Don’t waste a minute getting back to your camps in the valley!”
Moses was a little puzzled that God would keep him on the mountain for so long and then almost angrily demand that he leave at once. Firmly grasping the two heavy stone tablets, he turned and strode swiftly toward the trail leading down from the ledge.
“You should know now, Moses,” God called to him, “that many of your people have been acting wickedly while you have been up here. They have built a huge, metal calf, and right at this moment they are already breaking our covenant by worshipping this cursed idol!”
Moses froze in his tracks. If any man had uttered the words he had just heard he would have doubted them. But he knew that God never lies or wastes words. He was too shocked to say anything at the moment. His hands shook as he carefully lowered the stone tablets to the ground. He sank to his knees and bowed his head to the ground.
“Do not crouch there and try to delay me in what I should do,” God thundered. “I know how unruly and stubborn your people are. You have been a faithful servant, and from you I can still produce a great nation. As for the Israelites below in the valley, I should utterly wipe them out with a shower of fire from the sky” (Ex. 32:7-10)!
“Have mercy on them!” Moses pleaded. “You have brought them this far. I beg of you not to let it be said by the Egyptians that you used your great powers to take the Israelites out of Egypt, only to slay them as soon as they reached the mountains. Remember the promises you made to Abraham, Isaac and Israel. You told them that you would multiply their children till they were as many as the stars. You promised to give the land of Canaan to those children. How can they receive it if you destroy them in your anger” (vs. 11-13)?
There was only awful silence following Moses’ sincere appeal. But after a short while, to Moses’ great relief, God answered him in a tone that showed that His anger was somewhat lessened.
“Because you do not wish me to deal harshly with these sinful people of yours,” God said, “I shall leave the matter up to you for the time being. Go down and seek out those who are guilty of starting this idol worship. Punish them. If you fail, I’ll blast them out of my sight!”
Moses delayed only long enough to thank God for sparing millions of people in the valley. Then he picked up the two tablets and hurried down the mountain side.
In a short while he approached the spot where he and Joshua had spent seven days while they waited for God to call Moses higher up on the mountain. Having been gone so long, Moses didn’t expect Joshua to still be there, but to his pleasant surprise he found Joshua still faithfully waiting.
“I was certain that God would send you safely back,” Joshua said elatedly. “What happened to you during these past weeks? What are those stone slabs you are carrying?”
“I must tell you all that later,” Moses replied. “Right now we must hurry back to the valley. A terrible thing is taking place there!”
At that very moment the loud voices of the reveling people reached the ears of the two men on the mountain.
“War!” exclaimed Joshua. ‘The Amalekites must be attacking again! Otherwise what reason would there be for so much shouting?”
“Those are not the shouts of victors in battle,” Moses murmured, shaking his head gravely. “Neither are they the shouts of battle victims. Don’t you hear singing, too” (Ex. 32L17-18)?
Joshua was momentarily puzzled. Without further talk, Moses set off down the trail. A few hundred feet below, the two men emerged from the cloud over the mountain. From there they could look down to see a large throng of people grouped together, but they were too distant to make out what the crowd was doing.
Meanwhile, within their tent, Aaron and his family sat in glum silence as they listened to the howls, shrieks, chants and laughter of the people who were celebrating with such evil abandon. Suddenly an excited officer appeared at the door of the tent and called loudly for Aaron.
“There is a report that Moses and Joshua have been seen coming down Mt. Sinai!” he shouted.
Be watching for the next installment of The Story of the Bible. Moses deals with the rebels.