1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” 6 And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. – Exodus 32:1-6 ESV
While Moses had been up on the mountaintop receiving the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant from God, he had left his brother, Aaron, in charge of the people down in the valley. The last they had seen of Moses was him ascending Mount Sinai into the dark storm cloud. The thunder, lightning, and earth-shaking signs that accompanied God’s presence at Sinai had left them terrified and unwilling to go anywhere near the mountain or its summit. They wanted nothing to do with Yahweh and were content to let Moses act as their proxy.
Then Moses climbed up the mountain, and the cloud covered it. And the glory of the Lord settled down on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from inside the cloud. To the Israelites at the foot of the mountain, the glory of the Lord appeared at the summit like a consuming fire. Then Moses disappeared into the cloud as he climbed higher up the mountain. He remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights. – Exodus 24:15-18 NLT
During those 40 days and nights, the people of Israel began to wonder whether Moses was ever coming back. His long delay left them concerned about his safety and their own future. What would they do if Moses never came back? For all they knew, Moses had died on the mountaintop, a victim of Yahweh’s wrath.
It’s important to remember the sequence of events that precede chapter 32. God has already given Moses His laws and regulation, and Moses has shared them with the people. Not only that, the people expressed their eager willingness to obey all that God commanded.
Then Moses went down to the people and repeated all the instructions and regulations the Lord had given him. All the people answered with one voice, “We will do everything the Lord has commanded.” – Exodus 24:3 NLT
Following this corporate commitment to keep God’s laws, Moses wrote them all down for posterity (Exodus 24:4). Having completed his record of God’s commands, Moses “took the Book of the Covenant and read it aloud to the people” and, once again, “they all responded, ‘We will do everything the Lord has commanded. We will obey’” (Exodus 24:7 NLT). The people had heard every one of God’s commands and had agreed to keep them.
As part of the ceremony to inaugurate the institution of God’s laws, Moses offered blood sacrifices and sprinkled some of the blood on the people, telling them, “Look, this blood confirms the covenant the Lord has made with you in giving you these instructions” (Exodus 24:8 NLT). They had made a vow to obey all of God’s commands, and now that agreement had been sealed with blood, making it binding and carrying a penalty of death if they broke their commitment. This auspicious ceremony was then followed by a special invitation-only meal between some of the leadership of Israel and God Almighty.
Then Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel climbed up the mountain. There they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there seemed to be a surface of brilliant blue lapis lazuli, as clear as the sky itself. And though these nobles of Israel gazed upon God, he did not destroy them. In fact, they ate a covenant meal, eating and drinking in his presence! – Exodus 24:9-11 NLT
Then Moses was told to ascend back to the mountaintop where God promised to give a copy of the Ten Commandments written by His own hand.
“Come up to me on the mountain. Stay there, and I will give you the tablets of stone on which I have inscribed the instructions and commands so you can teach the people.” So Moses and his assistant Joshua set out, and Moses climbed up the mountain of God. – Exodus 24:12-13 NLT
Moses left Aaron and the elders of Israel in charge during his absence. These were the very same men who had been given the privilege of seeing the God of Israel and eating a covenant meal with Him. In sharing that meal with Yahweh, they had personally sealed their commitments to the covenant and pledged themselves to see that every law God had given was obeyed by the people of Israel.
What happens next is critical. According to chapter 24, Moses returned to the top of Mount Sinai, “And the glory of the Lord settled down on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from inside the cloud. To the Israelites at the foot of the mountain, the glory of the Lord appeared at the summit like a consuming fire. Then Moses disappeared into the cloud as he climbed higher up the mountain. He remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights” (Exodus 24:16-18 NLT).
This brings us to the events recorded in chapter 32. At the end of the 40 days, “When the Lord finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant, written by the finger of God.” (Exodus 31:18 NLT).
Moses left the mountaintop with the God-inscribed copy of the Decalogue and all the instructions regarding the construction of the Tabernacle and the establishment of the priesthood. His arms and his mind were full of the divinely revealed will of God for the people of Israel. It is essential to understand that Moses was coming down from the mountain with not only the Ten Commandments but the plans for the Tabernacle, the house within which God’s presence was to dwell among the people. God had made a commitment to live among His chosen people in a house that they could construct with their own hands and pay for with their own resources.
But all that God had shared with Moses regarding the Tabernacle stands in direct opposition to what was taking place down in the valley. In Moses’ absence, the people began to have second thoughts about Yahweh. They were well aware of His commands and had heard every one of the regulations contained in the Book of the Covenant. They had even given their hearty approval and voiced their full commitment to living their lives according to God’s law.
But it took just over a month for the people of Israel to lose all their enthusiasm. The longer Moses delayed, the more they began to have second thoughts about everything. In their minds, Moses was Yahweh’s official representative and spokesperson. If Moses wasn’t coming back, their link to Yawheh would be broken. After all, it had been Moses who showed up in Egypt with news of their deliverance by the hand of Yahweh. And Moses had been the one to lead them out of Egypt and into the wilderness with the help of his God. But with Moses apparently gone, they began to question Yahweh and all the commitments they had made to Him.
When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain, they gathered around Aaron. “Come on,” they said, “make us some gods who can lead us. We don’t know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 32:1 NLT
With Moses out of the picture, the people turned to Aaron. At this point, Aaron had no concept of God’s plans regarding the Tabernacle and his future role as the high priest. That information resided with Moses and he had not yet returned to share it. So, when the people came to Aaron and expressed their desire to replace Yahweh with another god, he eagerly obliged them.
“Take the gold rings from the ears of your wives and sons and daughters, and bring them to me.” – Exodus 32:2 NLT
Little did Aaron know that he was taking what belonged to Yahweh and ordering it to be used for idolatry. He was unaware that God had given Moses a very different use for the resources of the people of Israel.
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the people of Israel, that they take for me a contribution. From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution for me. And this is the contribution that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, goatskins, acacia wood, oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, onyx stones, and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.” – Exodus 25:1-9 NLT
Aaron ordered the people to donate their gold earrings to construct an idol that was intended to replace Yahweh. This false god would take the place of the one true God. And in carrying out the will of the people, Aaron violated the very first commandment of the Decalogue.
“You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods.” – Exodus 20:3-5 NLT
And the man who oversaw the construction of this false god was the one whom God had chosen to serve as the high priest of Israel.
Then Aaron took the gold, melted it down, and molded it into the shape of a calf. – Exodus 32:4 NLT
God had great plans for Aaron and the people of Israel. They had no way of knowing that Moses was on his way down the mountain with God’s blueprints for the Tabernacle and His plans for the atoning work of the priesthood. The creator of heaven and earth was getting ready to take up residence among them, and yet they were busy replacing Him with a false god of their own design. And when Aaron had completed the construction of the golden calf and its accompanying altar, the people exclaimed, “O Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4 NLT).
Buoyed by the people’s enthusiasm, Aaron declared a feast for the following day so that the people might worship their newfound god. And sadly, the text records that “The people got up early the next morning to sacrifice burnt offerings and peace offerings. After this, they celebrated with feasting and drinking, and they indulged in pagan revelry” (Exodus 32:6 NLT).
Don’t miss the irony in all of this. Moses was coming down the mountain with all the details concerning the Tabernacle, the priesthood, and the sacrificial system. He had the plans for the Bronze Altar and directions for how the people might receive atonement and cleansing for their sins. But before his feet could reach the valley floor, the people of Israel had decided to come up with a plan of their own. It took just 40 days for the Israelites to forget Yahweh and every commitment they had made to Him. In their minds, He had always been Moses’ God and not their own. So, when Moses failed to return, they seized the opportunity to seek and serve another god.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.