AARON leaped to his feet when he heard Moses and Joshua were coming. "Send out men to the base of the mountain!" he ordered. "But don't you want to meet them?" the officer queried. "No. Not yet," Aaron answered hesitantly, waving the officer off to his duty. "Let Moses see for himself what is going on first."
A little later, when Moses and Joshua came into camp, the people who recognized them stared in silence. Those who were guilty were ashamed of what they had done and were doing. Those who were having no part in the idol worship were ashamed of those who were having a pare. When he came close enough to plainly see the towering, gold — covered statue of a calf, Moses came to an abrupt halt. Although God had told him that the people had turned to using an idol in worship, he hadn't expected this sordid scene. He could hardly believe his eyes. The sight of so many of his people bowing, dancing, parading and chanting before the shining idol gave Moses a sudden sick, sinking feeling. At the same time he became very angry. He seized the two stone tablets and angrily strode up before the altar in front of the golden calf. "Here is the agreement we made with our Creator only a few weeks ago!" he shouted, holding the stone slabs aloft. "We promised to keep it forever, and yet you are already breaking it!" Because there was so much noise from the people, only those who were closest to Moses looked up to see who was speaking in such a loud voice. When they saw that it was Moses, whom they had thought of as dead, they straightened up in surprise and quickly directed the attention of others to the angry figure before the altar. The vast mob of noisy revellers became motionless and silent. Thousands of pairs of eyes stared with unbelief at Moses. "Look!" some woman screamed hysterically. "It's that man Moses! He has come back to haunt us!" A low murmur of awe rumbled up from the people. Another of the revellers, having imbibed too much to care what he was doing, staggered up to Moses and shakily pointed with pride to the golden idol. "What do you think of our new god?" he mumbled loudly. Immediately Moses was so filled with fury at what he had heard and seen that for the moment he lost control of his temper.
Tables of Stone Broken
He lifted the two stone tablets high above his head, then threw them down with all his strength at the idol altar. The slabs shattered to pieces and flew in all directions. (Exodus 32:19.) Even before he had finished this rash act, Moses realized that he had let his feelings get the better of him. He had foolishly broken something holy that had come from the very hand of God. Somehow the huge crowd was greatly affected by what Moses had said and done. People began to slink silently back to their camps. It wasn't long before most of the throng had dissolved. Those who remained gathered into sullen groups. They were mostly the ones who had tried from the very first to threaten Aaron into helping create an idol. Aaron, Hur and their officers had little more to say in their defense. It was obvious to Moses that they realized that it would have been wiser to have relied more upon God and less upon their own schemes. Even as he stood there, Moses was again filled with anger at the thought of how some of the Israelites had forced idolatry on the people. "Build a huge fire around the idol!" Moses suddenly commanded. "Burn it up! Melt down every bit of gold in the abominable thing!" Men hurried to carry out Moses' order. Before long there was a huge heap of wood and brush around the calf idol, and flames soared up to hide it in smoke and intense heat.
Most of the Israelites were relieved to see this evil image slowly melt down to the ground. But there were many who bitterly and wrathfully watched their idol go down to such a quick and inglorious end. "As soon as the fire has cooled," Moses commanded, "pick every bit of gold out of the ashes. Get workmen to grind all the pieces of gold into a very fine powder. Sprinkle that gold powder in the springs, brooks, wells and containers from which the people drink!" It took many hours to carry out Moses' orders. But they were carried out to the letter. Soon it was impossible for the Israelites to drink water without drinking some of the gold. To those who hadn't taken part in the mad festival of idolatry, drinking the gold in their water wasn't such a terrible task. But it did remind them that idolatry was a great sin. As for those who had worshipped the golden calf as their god, it was a grievous and shameful thing that they should actually consume a part of their idol. (Exodus 32:20.)
Discouraged by what had happened, and disappointed in himself, Moses turned to go to his tent. Looking up, he found Aaron, Hur and several officers and elders standing beside him. For a long moment Moses stared searchingly at Aaron and Hur, in whose hands he had left the governing of Israel when he went up Mt. Sinai with Joshua. "What happened while we were gone?" Moses demanded of Aaron. "How did the people manage to talk you into letting this terrible thing take place?" "Don't be angry with me because of what has happened, sir," Aaron replied. "You know how these people are. They always want to do the wrong thing." (Verses 21-22.) "That isn't a very good answer to my questions," Moses rapped out impatiently. Aaron hesitated a little before replying. He wasn't anxious for Moses to learn what had taken place because he was ashamed of his part. He seemed to be more fearful of Moses than he was of God. He had tried in his own way — which wasn't the best way — to handle the people simply by stalling for time and expecting help in the meanwhile. "The people became impatient when you failed to return in a few days," Aaron finally answered. "They thought that you and Joshua had probably died on the mountain. They began begging us for a new leader. It turned out that many of them actually wanted an idol. At first I refused to do anything for them. Then they became angry and threatened me. I decided to go along with their wishes, but I was hopeful that you would come back in the meantime, and that the idea of building an idol would never come into reality." "This monstrous statue of a calf — just how did that come about?" Moses queried. "They wanted a metal idol," Aaron continued. "So I made them give up their gold jewelry. I had it melted down. I had already suggested that a large calf image could be made if there were enough metal. I reasoned that it would take many weeks to create something like that, and that you surely would return before it could be finished. As it turned out, the carpenters and metal workers labored with such speed that this gold — covered image was formed and erected in only a few days. If it could have been delayed only one more day, you would have arrived before this evil worship took place." (Verses 23-24.) Moses listened to Aaron's story, but he wasn't pleased to learn what had happened. "You know that our enemies are always spying on us," Moses said. "If they had chosen this day to attack us again, when so many of our people were lost in their pleasures, the Amalekites might have conquered us." Moses wasn't yet finished with God's command to punish those who were guilty of starting the recent trouble. In fact, he had hardly begun. Moses went to the main gate of the foremost camp. From there he sent out officers to go among the people and find those men who had no part in festivities before the golden calf, and who desired to worship only the one true God. In a little while a large crowd had gathered around Moses. "These are the men who claim loyalty to God," Moses was told. "They are sons of the tribe of Levi, and they are willing and anxious to follow God's orders." (Exodus 32:26.) "God has told this nation to punish those who were responsible for breaking the covenant," Moses said to them. "You who had no part in this thing must equip yourselves with sharp swords and go into all the camps to seek out and slay the offenders!" There was a silence amid the crowd. "I know how you must feel," Moses continued. "Many of the guilty are close friends and perhaps even your brothers. But you must follow this command which God gave to punish evildoers. The blood of those who must die will not be on your heads. God gives life and He takes it. It will be God using you to punish these criminals." Realizing that God was using them as instruments of divine justice, the Levites obediently armed themselves, divided into groups with leaders and firmly went about their appointed task. By the end of that day, when they had carefully gone through every camp, about three thousand men were executed. Thus were the idolatrous Israelites cut off from God and the good things He had promised them. (Verses 27-29.) Next morning, while there was mourning for the dead, Moses called the elders together. "Go and remind the people what a great sin — what a great crime — has taken place here," Moses instructed them. "Even though the guiltiest ones have been slain, God is probably still very angry with all the people for allowing it, and perhaps He has even more punishment in mind for them. I shall go back up the mountain and plead with Him to be merciful to all of us."
Moses Returns Atop Sinai
Already Moses had made several trips up Mt. Sinai. But he was anxious to go still another time to talk to God. When he reached the place just beneath the brilliant light on the summit, he kneeled with his forehead to the stony ground. "My people have sinned even more than I realized at first," Moses said to God. "I know that you are a jealous God, and that you are very angry with them because of what they have done. But I beg you to forgive them. If you don't intend to forgive them, and if your anger is so great that you still choose to deal harshly with all of them, then I pray that you will do away with me. " "I shall not cause the innocent to suffer," God replied. "But remember that the guilty shall not escape my anger. I will not allow them to live. "Now go back down to the people and tell them that because of their breaking the covenant, I no longer will be so close to them, lest I blot them out if they ever again so carelessly break my laws. I shall send an angel to lead them toward Canaan. As for now, let them show me whether or not they are sorry for their wrongdoing. Then I shall decide how to deal with them." (Exodus 33:1-3.) When Moses had returned to the people and had told them what things God had spoken, many of them were quite unhappy to learn that their Creator no longer chose to dwell close to them as their Leader. A large part of the people failed to realize just how great a loss this was to all. But most of them, to show that they regretted the golden calf affair, took off their jewelry and their best clothes and spent the next days in a spirit of mourning, as God commanded them. (Exodus 33:4-6.) God was moved when H e saw that the Israelites were willing to show that much of a spirit of repentance. For the time being He withheld any other punishment He might have had in mind. There had been times when God h ad spoken to Moses within a large meeting tent. Knowing that God would probably no longer visit him in this tent while it was in the camp (because God had said that H e didn't care to dwell too close to the sinning Israelites), and not wishing to lose contact with God, Moses had the tent taken up and moved outside the camp, and called it the Tabernacle of the congregation — or the church meeting place; and those who were faithful to God went out to this Tabernacle to worship Him. (Exodus 33:7.) When the people saw what was happening, they stood by their tents and stared in curiosity — specially when they saw Moses going out to the Tabernacle. "Can it be that he is leaving us?" many Israelites anxiously asked. "God said He was going to leave our midst," others observed. "Perhaps He is taking Moses with Him!" The farther Moses moved off in the distance, the more concerned the watchers became. Then something pulled their attention elsewhere. The cloud floated away from Mt. Sinai and began to move in the same direction Moses was taking! There was a great stir among the people, inasmuch as it appeared that both God and Moses were deserting them. People watched closely to see Moses disappear into the Tabernacle. By that time the cloud pillar had moved to a point directly over it, and as soon as Moses entered, it slowly descended until its lower tip was right over the door of the tent! Because of the height of the cloud pillar, most all the people could see that it swept down to meet Moses. Most of the Israelites who saw all of what happened were greatly moved by the sight. Thousands were comforted to learn that God and Moses were still so close. Many of them stood by their tents and uttered words of thanks and praise to God. (Exodus 33:8-10.) Later, the cloud returned to Mt. Sinai. Moses returned to his camp. For the next several weeks he went out to the tent that was removed from the crowd. Whenever the people saw him go there, and noticed the cloud going to meet him, they would again praise God. Thus Moses very often spoke with God, though the Eternal God stayed away from the Israelites. As for the meeting tent, it was never empty. Joshua was stationed there to keep things in order at all times. (Verse 11.) Moses clearly remembered what God had said about not choosing to dwell with the Israelites because of their breaking of the covenant. The more Moses thought about it, the more concerned he became. He knew that without God's presence and help he would never be able to lead the people to Canaan.
Plans for the Future
In a conversation with his Creator, Moses finally became bold enough to ask what God intended to do about getting the Israelites out of the wilderness and into the promised land. "Show me how I am to lead these people in safety and good health and keep
them from idolatry," Moses inquired. "I can't see how I can possibly do it without your help. In fact, I don't think I would even dare to try." "The things you have said and done have pleased me," God replied. "I shall go along with you to guide you toward Canaan." This statement from God made Moses happy. He was relieved and thankful, and felt so close to God that he made a most unusual request. "Please show yourself to me," Moses asked God. "1 know that I could more successfully lead the people to the land you have promised us if only you would let me know how my God appears." "No man can look upon my face and live," God told Moses. "However, I want you to cut two tables of stone similar to those you broke. Bring them up to the top of Mt. Sinai early tomorrow morning, and I shall write on them the words that were on the first set of tables. While you are there, I shall quickly pass before you, and you will receive a glimpse of my back — but not face to face." (Verses 18-23.) "Is anyone to come with me?" Moses asked. "No," God replied. "You must come alone. No man must come up on any part of the mountain except you. Make certain, also, that none of your flocks or herds are allowed to graze too close to the base of the mountain." When the conversation was ended, Moses sent out officers to make sure that the barricades beneath the mountain were intact, and that the people were warned again not to go beyond them nor to allow their animals to pass them. (Exodus 34:1-3.) Moses then quickly called in expert stonecutters and directed them to carefully hew two stone tablets out of beautiful rock similar to that from which the first tablets had been made. While the stone slabs were being cut, Moses met with his top officers, including Joshua, Aaron and Hur. "Tomorrow morning I am going again up Mt. Sinai to meet our God," he told them. "Perhaps I shall be gone many days. But no matter how long I am gone, I am now charging you with the task of keeping order in these camps. If you let these people get out of control as they did before, God will blot out every living being in this valley. Remember, your lives depend on your ability to keep matters in hand." Early next morning Moses set out alone up the mountain. At that hour not very many people were up and around. But some of them in the camp nearest the mountain noticed their leader climbing up the rough slopes, and a few of these were curious enough to try to follow. However, they were stopped by officers who had been ordered to patrol the barricades. Meanwhile, the cloud over Mt. Sinai floated down to hide the mountain peak. Moses climbed up through the thick vapor until he arrived at the ledge where he had received the laws from God. "Enter the small cave at the end of the ledge, Moses," a voice instructed him. "Do not come out of the cave until your God has passed by." Moses obediently stepped into the small opening in the solid rock and waited. Suddenly he found himself shaking nervously. The grayness of the heavy cloud was melting away under a dazzling light. He had reason to tremble, for the very Creator of the universe — the One who later became Jesus — was approaching close to him. "I am the Eternal God!" The tremendous voice, seeming to come from all directions, cracked like lightning. The growing brilliance became so strong that it sent stabs of pain through Moses' eyes. In the next instant a dazzling figure — even brighter than the surrounding light — burst on Moses' vision. It was more blindingly brilliant than the sun, and seemed to be standing with His back to Moses. He saw the figure only for a moment. Then, before he could clap his hands over his eyes, the figure was gone and the light faded. (Exodus 34:5-6.) "I am a merciful and gracious Creator," God continued. "I am slow to anger, loving and faithful. My love for thousands is not to be swayed. I forgive men of their sins, but I will punish those who continue in their guilt. Furthermore, I will also bring punishment on their children, their grandchildren and even their great grandchildren!" Weak, trembling and temporarily almost blinded, Moses stumbled out of the little cave and dropped face down on the rocky ledge. "Oh, God!" he cried out. "If I have found favor with You, forgive the sins of my stubborn people! Dwell with us from this day on. Don't cut us off from your protection and the things that only You can give us!" (Verses 7-9.) After quite a silence, during which Moses remained with his face to the ground, God spoke again. "I will renew the covenant with your people," He said. "I will do marvelous things for them — things that have never been done before on this planet. They shall witness my great and terrible miracles." God went on to repeat to Moses many of the plans He had told him when Moses was on the mountain to obtain the first two stone tables. Moses stayed in God's presence for another forty days and forty nights, during which he neither ate nor drank. As before, God's energizing presence kept him well and strong. God again wrote the Ten Commandments — this time on the stone slabs brought up from the camp. When at last Moses went back down the mountain, he was a happier man than he had been
when he previously had come down with Joshua. Now he had a new set of tables, the covenant had been renewed and there was no sign of trouble in the camps. (Verses 27-28; Deuteronomy 10:1-5.) When he reached the barricade, the first people to meet him stared and backed away in fright. "Look at his face!" some of them muttered fearfully.