God is concluding His time and instructions with Moses. Meanwhile, down in the camp BIG trouble is brewing and Aaron is in the thick of it.
God and Moses have spent a wonderful time together on the top of Mt. Sinai. Joshua has been in attendance throughout as Moses’ scribe and helper. But it is time to rejoin the camp and bring back God’s words to His people.
This is not the place our story starts though. It starts in the camp way below the presence of God. I want to say it starts with boredom or fear but I really don’t know that for sure. Let’s look at the scene and try to figure out where things went off track.
We are not told how many days Moses and Joshua were up on the mountain but we do know what transpired just before they left. The people had gathered around the mountain, at God’s command, and He demonstrated His presence to each of them in an unmistakable way. He also asked for and received a commitment from the people that they would serve Him only. Moses brought many of the leaders partway up the mountain where they experienced God in an even more personal way. And then Moses was called the rest of the way up to meet personally with God.
This is just a recount of the immediate proceedings. We haven’t even touched on all the miracles (this time anyway) that God had performed on behalf of this group. Can we agree though that He had given them PLENTY of proof of His commitment to them?
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While Moses is on the mountaintop, daily life continues in the camp. Every morning mana is gathered from the ground to feed the people. All day long people come to the rock where water is flowing out from it to obtain water for themselves and their animals. No bandits assail the camp and no enemies are anywhere in sight. Aaron and the leadership Moses established previously judge the issues in the camp. And life goes on.
No night marches. No hiding in caves. No thirsty or hungry souls. No change in the daily routine. Every day is like the one before it, except for a growing sense of unease. Moses has been gone for a while and every day he doesn’t come walking down the mountainside that unease grows stronger. No, not everyone in the camp is feeling this way but those who aren’t are definitely in the minority.
“When is Moses coming back?” “What if he doesn’t come back?” “What are we supposed to do how?” “Maybe he died up there. That thunder and lightning was MORE than frightening, it was downright terrifying!” These are just a few lines gaining traction among the members in the camp.
Out of these thoughts spring others. “If Moses doesn’t come back we have lost our contact with his God. He was the one who spoke on our behalf to Him and spoke to us for Him. We need a god we can lay our hands on and keep in our presence. We have to have something because if we don’t all the other nations are going to recognize our weakness and destroy us.”
This fear begins to spread like wildfire. “We NEED a god to protect us!” “We need SOMETHING to believe in and put our trust in.” Before long the camp has found their new rallying cry and it’s time to do something about it. A group of leaders is formed to take this concern to Aaron, after all Aaron is Moses’ right hand man and successor. He is in charge in Moses’ absence. So if Moses is dead, Aaron is the new leader of Israel.
Aaron is not deaf to the concerns flying through the camp. He has heard the people’s concerns. He has wondered about Moses’ prolonged absence too. He initially tried to calm the people and reassure them but he no longer speaks out to quiet their fears. He is sitting outside his tent when the delegation approaches him.
“We want you to make us gods that we can follow.”
“We don’t know what happened to Moses. Sure, he brought us up out of the land of Egypt but he’s not here now. We needs gods now!”
“He ABANDONED us! Get up and make us gods we can follow NOW!”
“Fine. Take off your earrings of gold, every one of you and bring them to me. Take them from your ears, your wives, your sons and your daughters ears too. Bring them ALL to me and I will make you a god to follow.”
The delegation left Aaron and went to the people and began gathering the earrings. These were the rings that were worn by all the people in the camp. They were a symbol to them of their freedom and their new wealth. In Egypt each person was marked with a ring in their ear denoting slavery. Those rings were NOT gold but of bronze or iron. Since leaving Egypt those rings had been exchanged for gold obtained from those whom they had once served. Now their ears each bore a ring of freedom and opulence. These were the rings they were surrendering to Aaron in exchange for new gods.
The next morning Aaron was presented with the earrings of the people. It was a substantial amount of gold as the numbers of the people were immense. Aaron personally set about making this gold into Israel’s new god. He labored at his task for several days.
First he heated the gold so it became one mass. Then he picked up the metalsmith’s graving tools and carefully fashioned it into the likeness of a calf. The rough shape started with the body, then the head, and finally the legs. Each detail was carefully crafted until the “new god” was perfect. It looked like a calf on the ground with its legs curled under and its head raised, alert for anything in the distance. It’s eyes were fierce and its face determined. Quiet strength radiated from its features.
Finally it was finished. Aaron was satisfied with his work and he set his tools down. Aaron called for the leaders who had commissioned this task so they could witness its completion. All of them gathered around as Aaron removed the cloth that covered his work. There were gasps of awe, nods, and quiet praise for his work throughout the group. The leader spoke after admiring Aaron’s handiwork. “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (verse 4b).
Aaron was pleased with their response. “Assemble the people for a proclamation.” The leaders were proclaiming this as a success.
The leaders quickly followed Aaron’s instructions and began gathering the people. While they were busy Aaron tended to the next task. Any god needs is an altar so Aaron built one in short order. All was ready.
The people assembled within the hour. Aaron faced them and stated “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord” (verse 5b).
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I need to interrupt here. In my bible Aaron’s statement comes with a capital L in Lord. I’m curious if he is trying to combine a few pieces here and thinks he can get away with making the altar and the feast the REAL God’s or is he is referring to his creation with a capital L. Either way, NOT a way to honor God. I think we try this “combining technique” at times too. The WWJD movement (What Would Jesus Do) got side tracked that same way. People began to act like wearing the bracelet was enough to make whatever they did ok because they were “witnessing” for Him. In actuality what they were doing was giving Satan one more tool to say “All Christians are hypocrites” instead.
Aaron’s “technique” also comes into play any time we ask God to share the throne in our lives with anything else. He DOES NOT share. He is either on the throne or He is not. There is no “scooting over to make room” allowed. I personally have had to take the junk I tried “piling on His lap” back off and put it back in its place. Those times are when my sin gets in the way and He has to reign me back in. They are not pretty times but they are LIFESAVING and sustaining. Back to our story. Sorry for the interruption.
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Everyone left excited for the new day. The women were making menu plans for the next day. They had to get busy so everything would be ready come morning. The men discussed what sacrifices should be made. It was decided there would be a burnt offering and a peace offering made that day. Baths were taken and clothes were scrubbed for presenting themselves to their new god. As night fell the whole camp collapsed into their beds, exhausted by all their perpetrations.
Morning broke and the camp rose in anticipation. Excitement ran like water through the camp. The calf had been erected in the large clearing before the mountain and the altar stood before it. The women arranged blankets with food about the perimeter with openings for the processions to pass through. There would be a meat offering which would then be laid out to join the food already prepared and a peace offering that would remain in view of the new god.
The ceremony started at daybreak as the men gathered the finest calves from the field. There would be twelve of them. One from each tribe. The sacrifices would take hours to cook to perfection, all under the watchful eye of their new god. While the meat cooked the women went quickly to gather the day’s mana from the field. They had to gather it before the dew left the ground. They needed this for tomorrow’s meals.
Meanwhile, up on Mt. Sinai, Moses and Joshua were accepting the tablets from the Lord. These tablets were carved by His own hand and written on in His own script. Every word God had commanded had been inscribed on them. Both front and back were full of God’s love for His people.
But He wasn’t blind to what was going on down in the valley. He knew the changes in the people’s hearts. He knew when they demanded another god from Aaron. He saw as Aaron worked the gold with the graving tool. He was aware of what finally emerged from Aaron’s hands, including the altar Aaron erected. He also knew of the party planned for the morning. All through the process though He hoped and waited. He hoped they would remember their promise made not so long ago. And He waited to see if they would really go through with their sin.
The people sealed it. He had watched them rise this morning, gather the mana from Him and gather their sacrifice to their abomination at the same time! Fire was in God’s eyes and pain was in His heart. “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ (verses 7-8, emphasis added by me). I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff necked people. Now therefore let Me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you” (verses 9-10).
Moses heard the anguish in the Lord’s voice. He was struck dumb momentarily at the words God had just spoken. “The people made another god? Oh PLEASE say this is a mistake!” “Lord PLEASE reconsider! These are YOUR people, not mine. YOU brought them up out of the land of Egypt by YOUR mighty hand. If You destroy them now all the nations will say that You only brought them out here to kill them. Please turn from Your anger and don’t destroy them. Remember Your promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. You promised them that You would make a nation of them. You promised to multiply their offspring and to give them the land as an inheritance. Please, bear all this in mind as You deal with Your people.”
God breathed a deep sigh and let the anger recede. No, the people were not off the hook but He would not destroy them and start again, today.
Moses and Joshua hurried down the mountain as quickly as possible. Moses hadn’t shared the details of what was transpiring in the valley with Joshua, he had instead set out on his fast pace back to the camp. Moses carried the stone tablets the Lord had given him and Joshua carried all the writing and drawings he and Moses had done while receiving the specifications for the temple.
As they neared the base of the mountain noise from the camp drifted up to meet them. Joshua commented on it. “Something has happened while we were gone. It sounds like war cries but not victory or defeat. It is sounds of singing that I hear and it seems to be coming from the whole camp!” Moses said nothing. He marched on.
As soon as they came near the camp Moses saw the calf and the dancing. Moses’ eyes burned with fire and every muscle in his body screamed in anger and anguish at what he saw. He threw the tablets God had just given him down at the foot of the mountain. He walked straight up to the calf and tipped it into the fire.
The people stopped in their tracks as he approached. All eyes were on Moses as he dealt with their sin. God helped by adding His fire to that which burned the calf. In moments all that was left was a molten piece of gold. Moses retrieved tongs and took the remains from the fire and brought it to the forge. He grabbed the hammer and began pulverizing the gold until it was a fine powder. All the while the children of Israel looked on without a word.
Moses collected the dust and took it to the water which flowed from the rock. Here he scattered the dust of Israel’s abomination on the surface of the water. Moses commanded the crowd, “DRINK IT! EACH one of you!” The people stood still, afraid to move or even speak.
Moses turned to Aaron and said “What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?” (verse 21). Moses heart is breaking as he demands this answer from his brother. He was the man God gave as his helper. He should have kept the people in line. But he has failed them. What could possibly be the reason?
Aaron answers him. “Please calm down. You know the people. They are set on evil at every turn. They demanded that I make them a god because they were afraid that you weren’t coming back. I told them to take off their gold and let me have it. I tossed it into the fire and out came this calf. What could I do? I took it as a sign.”
Moses grabbed Aaron’s robe and drew him to the water. “DRINK IT! NOW!” Aaron took some to his lips and drank. Moses then grabbed the next man in line and propelled him to the water to drink. Finally the whole camp was approaching for their drink of shame. None raised their heads in defiance or arrogance. They knew not to cross Moses at this point, even if they were not all convinced they had done wrong.
After the camp had all drank from the water under Moses’ watchful eye, Moses stood at the foot of the mountain and called out to the people. “Whoever is on the Lord’s side, come stand by me!” Only those of the tribe of Levi approached to stand with him. Aaron had joined in this group.
“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’” (verse 27).
This was not a joyful task or even an easy one. This required the men who chose the Lord to go and kill their own kinsmen. From one end of the camp to the other a thorough search was made and a quick dispatch of anyone who refused to follow the Lord. Any who still held a heart towards rebellion fell by the sword. Three thousand lay dead in the end.
When the warriors for the Lord returned to Moses once their task was done. “Today you have been ordained for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon this day” (verse 28).
There was quiet weeping in the camp as the dead were carried out and buried. Night brought only regret and little comfort. The next day Moses called all the people together again. “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (verse 30).
The people watched as Moses, once again, ascended the mountain. They would wait for the Lord’s answer.
When Moses came to the place where he had enjoyed so much time with the Lord he fell to his knees. “Lord, the people have committed a GREAT sin! They made gods of gold for themselves and worshiped them. They are repentant. Please forgive them. If You won’t forgive them then remove me from Your book that You have written too.”
“I will write out from my book those who have sinned against Me and no others. But go lead the people to the place I told you about. My angel will go before you. But when I visit them they will reap the consequences of their sin.”
Moses rose from his knees and made his way back down the mountain. When he approached the valley he heard cries of pain from the people. The Lord had indeed repaid them for their sin in the form of a plague. Death and disease reined in the camp for a week.
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Father God, I am blown away with how quickly the children of Israel turned away. While still receiving Your daily blessings they searched for another God. You had given them miracles beyond belief yet they still walked away.
I know I have probably been just as hard headed in my life too. I don’t really have room to judge. I’ve known miracles as a child yet still doubted as I got older. I even went through deep struggles that I wondered if You even knew about at the time. I’ve put things on Your throne in my life that had NO business being there. But I had Someone they didn’t. I had Your Spirit living in me to bring me back and to cleanse me from sin. And, oh yes, there was sin I needed cleaned up and forgiven. You gave me Your forgiveness and I am FOREVER grateful You have not blotted me out of Your book. I have had to suffer some consequences for my sin too, just like Israel did, but not nearly what I deserved. Thank You for that too.
Father God, is it wrong for me to scratch my head in wonder at Israel’s behavior? Did You give me these stories to show me how messed up they were? Or are they to show me that even these people, fatally flawed aw they were, were still loved by You? THAT should give EVERYONE hope! I know the first generation didn’t make it to the Promised Land because of their doubt but You didn’t wipe them all out and start over with just Moses. That’s restraint! And LOVE.