At the end of yesterday’s reading, Moses, Aaron, and the 70 elders of Israel went partway up Mt. Sinai and saw God. Exodus 24:11 reads, “they saw God, and they ate and drank.”
It seems that they only saw His feet, but still! That in itself is a very intriguing thing to imagine. What would it have been like to be a part of that group?
Seven days later, God invites Moses alone to come all the way up the mountain to meet with Him and be given the law. Read verses 17-18 again:
17 To the Israelites the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. 18 Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
So for forty days there is no communication between Moses and the Israelites. Moses couldn’t send them twitter updates or text messages to let them know how things were going.
Do you wonder if the Israelites began to wonder if Moses was ever coming back? Do you think that some of them began to get tired of waiting? Let’s see what they ended up doing while their leader was away…
When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”
2 Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.
7 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’
9 “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
11 But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “O Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’ ” 14 Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
15 Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. 16 The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.
“It is not the sound of victory,
it is not the sound of defeat;
it is the sound of singing that I hear.”
19 When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. 20 And he took the calf they had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.
22 “Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ 24 So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”
25 Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. 26 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.
27 Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’ ” 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. 29 Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”
31 So Moses went back to the Lord and said, “Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.”
33 The Lord replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.”
To Think About…
This is a sad story. One of the saddest lines is in verse 4 when some of the people say, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.”
How could they forget God so quickly? How could they turn their backs on Him so easily? Surely this is something we would never have done if we’d been in their shoes sandals…
But before we judge them too hastily, let’s take a closer look to better understand exactly what’s going on. Remember, the people are terrified of God. In Exodus 19, they were very close to God as He descended on Mt. Sinai. For them it was a terrifying experience.
Then in Exodus 20, they heard God give them the 10 commandments, and after this they say to Moses, “You tell us what God says. If God speaks to us, we will die.”
So clearly they are overwhelmed by their fear of God. This fear grows and combines with uncertainty as the days pass and Moses does not come down. They look to the top of Mt. Sinai and they see what looks like a consuming fire. And their fear and uncertainty grows…
What if they made the golden calf to represent God… to take away their fear and uncertainty?
What if in their minds they were not intentionally turning their backs on God, but because they couldn’t handle God they made their own version of Him that did not overwhelm them?
This is quite possibly the case. They wanted an idol that would go before them, just as the pillar of cloud and fire had gone before them leading them to Mt. Sinai.
They made the idol out of the best material they had… gold.
The people still give God the credit for the exodus as they bow down to the idol, so maybe they had made it to represent God.
Even Aaron, in verse 5, states that the next day they will hold a festival to the LORD. The word he uses is not the generic term for ‘god’ but is rather the name that God declared to Moses was His alone: YHWH.
So the Israelites are definitely sinning against God, breaking one of the ten commands they’d promised to keep just a month before. But their sin is something we’re all guilty of.
We’ve all remade God in our image. We’ve all put Him in a box.
We’ve all tried to make God sanitary and safe, because God in His true realness is more than we can handle.
We’re no better than the Israelites; in fact, we’re just like them.
What is especially sad is that while the Israelites were trying to redefine God so they would feel more comfortable approaching Him, God was giving Moses instructions on the tabernacle and the priests. God was providing a place and a system that would make it easier for them to relate to Him.
If the Israelites would have waited for Moses’ return, they would have found out how God had addressed their concerns in an appropriate way. If they would have trusted and been patient, this sad story never would have happened.
How have we remade God into what we want Him to be?