THOUSANDS of Israelites had watched up Mount Sinai from the time Moses had gone up with a few men. They had seen the cloud come down to cover the summit, and 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. Some were still watching when some of the men returned. Then there was growing concern. People wondered how the two men could remain on a mountain that was afire. Many decided they had become lost or had fallen into some deep ravine. "God will protect them," was Aaron's assurance. Days passed into weeks. Probably the most concerned person was Joshua, who didn't dare try going up to look for Moses nor groping his way down through the mist. During the first days he felt almost like a prisoner, but there was something about being so close to the Creator that soon imparted to him a feeling of warm satisfaction. As for his physical needs, there was a small brook close by and a fresh supply of manna six days a week.
Rebellion Against God's Law
Regardless of the miracles God had performed for Israel in the time of adversity, some of the people desired to cling to the habits of idol worship they had acquired in Egypt. Even while fire and smoke on Mount Sinai proclaimed God's presence, these people complained that Moses' absence showed God had forgotten them. "We need a leader to take us to a better place!" the rebellious ones declared. "And we need a god we can see and who will do more for us!" This outbreak of feeling was quickly taken up by those who were critical and disorderly. Within only a few days the complainers had created such confusion in the camps that thousands were stirred into an angry pitch. Aaron and Hur sent officers to seek out the offenders, but too late. A sullen crowd surrounded the tents of the Israelite leaders. Aaron and Hur could scarcely believe so many men were so anxious to cause unrest and trouble. "I'll try to calm them down until Moses and Joshua return," Aaron told Hur. Silently praying that he could talk the unruly crowd into returning home, Aaron strode in among the men and held up his hands for quiet. "I hear you are dissatisfied with matters!" he declared. "Why are you unthankful for the protection you have received?" A loud babble erupted from the crowd as everyone tried to voice his opinion. One man managed to out-shout the others, who quieted a little. "When we were back in Egypt, both the Egyptians and the Israelites had all kinds of food and drink!" the man yelled. "Yet the Egyptians didn't worship the invisible God you keep talking about! We want a god like one of theirs! We want one we can see and that doesn't have a lot of laws!" "But the Egyptian gods are powerless!" Aaron exclaimed. "They are anything from oxen to lifeless pebbles! Why would you want such things to worship?" "Because we want something we understand and don't fear!" someone shouted, and the crowd sounded loud approval. Aaron was dismayed. It was obvious these demanding people didn't intend to give up until they were at least promised something, no matter how ridiculous. "Would you be satisfied with some kind of animal image made of gold?" Aaron queried. Silence followed. Aaron was about to suggest something else equally absurd when shouts of agreement started ringing out. This was small relief to Aaron, who realized those around him were actually expecting him to build an idol for them! "Make it now!" someone bellowed, followed by a loud chorus of accord.
Aaron Makes a Golden Statue
"Then bring me all the gold earrings you can find," Aaron uneasily told the noisy crowd. "I will have the gold fused together to make you the false god you insist you want making for you. But I won't do this
willingly. Only a few days ago you promised to obey the one real God. Going back on that promise could be most unwise!" A volley of angry shouts swelled up from the crowd. The people moved in even closer, glowering 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, thereby 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. He sent for carpenters, metal workers, designers and sculptors to come from the multitude, who took only a few days, to completely build the large mold in which to pour the hot, melted gold to make a molten gold calf. (Exodus 32:1-4.) 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. 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. 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!" (Exodus 32:4.) 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.
The People Declare a Holiday
A short time later many of the people were consuming meat from the altar. As many more people arrived and more carcasses were placed on the altar, a spirit of revelry was developing. It was obvious that the altar before the calf image would be busy all day roasting animals and birds for the hungry crowd. The careless mood caught on with most of the people standing in line waiting to sacrifice. Large groups, moved by the music of musicians banding together, began to dance. Contagious laughter broke out. Profanity from lower characters erupted. By the middle of the afternoon there was such misconduct that thousands of other Israelites stood back to avoid being embroiled. (Ex. 32:6.) One might wonder how those people would dare conduct themselves so carelessly with God so close. One might wonder also how professed Christians today often allow themselves to live carelessly. As back at Mount Sinai, it's still a matter of lack of fear of, and respect for, God, who is present everywhere.
Moses Talks with God
To go back a few weeks to when Moses left Joshua to go on up Mount Sinai, Moses found that the higher he climbed, the less tired and more exhilarated he became. As he neared the summit, he could sense the powerful presence of the Almighty Creator of the universe. "Stay where you are, Moses!" a strong Voice called out. Startled, Moses halted and looked around. He was on a fairly flat area out of which jutted massive rock pinnacles. Although the shining aura from above wiped out shadows, visibility extended only a few yards. "You will remain here while I tell you more to speak to the Israelites and other things you are to do," the Voice continued. Moses fearfully bowed his head to the ground until God told him to seat himself. During the next forty days Moses spent many hours listening closely to God's instructions. Every word and vision was etched sharply into his mind, made especially alert by God's presence, without which he would have at times been miserably cold, thirsty and hungry. An unusual energy from the Creator supplanted the need for heat, food and water. (Deuteronomy 9:9.) Among the things Moses learned he must do was remember the instruction for building a portable tabernacle in which contact with God could be made during the trip to Canaan. He learned that Aaron and Aaron's sons were to be the chief priests, whose duties and equipment were explained. (Ex. 25-31.)
Sabbath Command Repeated
God stressed the importance of Sabbath observance, referring to both weekly and annual Sabbaths. "My Sabbaths are holy," God reminded Moses. "They are a sign forever between Me and you who observe 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.) On the fortieth day near the top of the mountain, God ended the meeting by producing two slabs of elegant stone, on both sides of which were beautifully engraved the Ten Commandments. (Ex. 31:18 and 32:15-16.) "Leave here now!" God commanded Moses. "Hurry back to your camps!" Puzzled that God would request such a hasty departure, Moses firmly gripped the stone slabs and strode swiftly down the trail. As he hurried on, God's voice followed him with the startling information that the Israelites below were at that moment breaking the covenant by indulging in riotous deportment around a metal idol. Moses was so dismayed that he dropped to his knees to beg God to be merciful to the people. "I know your people!" God thundered. "They are unruly and stubborn! From you, who have been a faithful servant, I can still produce a great nation. As for most of the Israelites, I should wipe them out with a shower of fire in the valley!" (Ex. 32:7-10.) "In your mercy you have brought them this far. Please don't give the Egyptians reason to say that you used your power to deliver them from Egypt only to slay them at Mount Sinai!" Moses pleaded. "Remember your promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob! You told them their offspring
would number as the stars! You promised Canaan to their children! How can they receive it if you destroy them?" (Verses 11-13.) There was a short, awful silence. To Moses' relief, God then spoke in a less wrathful tone. "You deal with those who have committed idolatry today!" God told Moses. "Seek them out and punish them! If you fail, I will destroy them!" Moses hesitated only long enough to express his gratitude. In a short while he reached the spot where he had left Joshua forty days previously. He hardly expected Joshua to still be there, but Joshua was still waiting, and naturally happy to see him. When Joshua asked what had happened and what he was carrying, Moses hardly heard him. "I'll explain matters later," Moses told Joshua. "We must hurry down to the valley to stop a terrible thing happening there!"
The Return to Camp
At that moment the loud voices of the reveling people reached Moses' and Joshua's ears. Assuming that only a state of war would produce such loud yelling, Joshua observed that the Amalekites must be attacking again. "Unfortunately, that's not the situation," Moses answered gravely. "Hear that singing?" Without further talk the two continued down the trail. A few hundred feet below they emerged from the cloud. They could see a large throng grouped together, but they were too distant to make out what the people were doing. In a tent down there, Aaron and his family sat in glum silence while celebrants laughed and chanted wildly. Suddenly an officer outside the tent called to Aaron. "There is a report that Moses and Joshua have been seen coming down the mountain!"