The Covenant Broken

Chapter 19

In the fearful demonstration of power that had accompanied the giving of His Law, God sought to raise Israel from a demoralized condition brought about by the years of servitude in Egypt. Years of oppression and association with the idolatrous Egyptians had left its mark upon them. Before God could fulfill His promises and purposes through them, great changes would have to take place.

Now, Moses was again called up into the mountain. As he was to be gone for some time, Aaron and Hur, assisted by the elders, were to act in his place. The absence of their visible leader was a time of waiting and suspense to Israel, and they watched eagerly for his return. Accustomed as they had been in Egypt to material representations of deity, in the form of idols, it had been difficult for them to trust in a God Who could not be seen. They had come to rely upon Moses to support their faith, and now he was taken from them. Day after day, week after week passed, and still he did not return. Even though the cloud was still in view, it seemed to many in the camp that their leader had deserted them, or that he had been consumed by the devouring fire.

The Lord had promised Israel that if they would obey His commandments, He would supply all their needs. The Hebrews, however, were not willing to submit to the directions and restrictions of the Lord. They wanted their own way. They desired to follow the leadings of their own minds and be controlled by their own judgment.

Now, deprived of their visible leader and feeling their helplessness, the people desired some image to represent God and to go before them in the place of Moses. In this moment of crisis, they returned to their old superstitions. Among the objects regarded by the Egyptians as symbols of deity was the ox or calf. It was proposed by those who had practiced this form of idolatry in Egypt that a calf be made and worshipped.

A large crowd now gathered about Aaron's tent with the demand, "Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him." The cloud that had previously led them, they complained, now appeared to be resting permanently upon the mount. As it would no longer direct their travels, they must have an image in its place. If, as some had suggested, they should decide to return to Egypt, they would find favor with the Egyptians by bearing this image before them and acknowledging it as their god.

Such a crisis demanded a man of firm resolution and steadfast courage; one who held the honor of God above all else, even life itself. Aaron was not, however, a man of this character. Fearing for his own safety, he gave in to the demands of the people. His first act was to direct that the golden earrings be collected from all the people and brought to him. Secretly, he hoped that pride would lead them to refuse such a sacrifice; but they willingly gave up their ornaments. From these he fashioned a molten calf, in imitation of the gods of Egypt. The people proclaimed, "These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt." Under the pretense of holding "a feast to the Lord," they gave themselves up to gluttony and sensual entertainment.

Meanwhile, up on the mountain, Moses was told of the apostasy in the camp and was directed to return without delay. "Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves," were the words of God. "They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto."

God's covenant with His people had been voided, and He declared to Moses, "Let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation." Their sins had already forfeited the favor of God, and justice called for their destruction.. The Lord therefore proposed to destroy them and make of Moses a mighty nation.

Where there appeared only discouragement and indignation, Moses sensed a basis for hope. The words of God, "Let Me alone," he understood to encourage intercession, suggesting that nothing but the prayers of Moses could save Israel. He saw hope that if God was thus pleaded with, He would spare His people. When Moses poured out his heart to God in behalf of Israel, the Lord listened to his pleadings and granted his unselfish prayer; Israel was spared.

As Moses and Joshua came down from the mountain, they heard the shouts and outcries of the excited multitude, evidently in a state of great disturbance. To Joshua, the soldier, the first thought was of an attack from their enemies. Moses, however, judged more truly the nature of the commotion. The sound was not that of combat, but of a festival. "It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome: but the noise of them that sing do I hear."

Drawing nearer the encampment, they saw the people shouting and dancing around their idol. It was a scene of heathen riot, an imitation of the idolatrous feasts of Egypt. Moses was overwhelmed. He had just come from the presence of God's glory; and though warned of what was taking place, he was unprepared for that dreadful exhibition of the debasement of Israel. His anger was hot. To show his horror, he threw down the tables of stone, breaking them in the sight of all the people. In so doing, he was signifying that as they had broken their covenant with God, so God had broken His covenant with them.

Entering the camp, Moses passed through the crowds of revelers. Seizing the idol, he cast it into the fire. He afterward ground it to powder; and having scattered it upon the stream that flowed from the mount, he made the people drink of it. Thus was shown the utter worthlessness of the god which they had been worshipping.

If Aaron had had courage to stand for the right, without regard as to the consequences, he could have prevented that apostasy. If he had firmly maintained his own loyalty to God, reminding the people of the majestic display of God's power that they had so recently witnessed and of their solemn promise to be obedient to God and keep His Law, the evil would have been restrained. But his submissive attitude to the desires of the people and the calm confidence with which he carried out their plans encouraged them to go to greater lengths in sin than had before entered their minds.

Of all the sins that God will punish, none are more heinous in His sight than those that encourage others to do evil. God would have His servants prove their loyalty by faithfully condemning sin, however difficult a task it may be. Those who are honored with a divine commission are not to be weak, yielding time-servers. They are not to avoid disagreeable duties but to perform God's work with straightforward faithfulness.

Though God had granted the prayer of Moses in sparing Israel from destruction, their apostasy was to be punished. The lawlessness and rebellion into which Aaron had allowed them to fall, if not speedily crushed, would rapidly lead to great wickedness. The decay, already begun, would soon reduce the nation to ruin. By terrible severity, the evil must be put away. Standing in the gate of the camp, Moses called to the people, "Who is on the Lord's side? let him come unto me." Those who had not joined in the apostasy were to take their position at the right of Moses; those who were guilty but repentant, at the left. The command was obeyed. It was found that the tribe of Levi had taken no part in the idolatrous worship. From among other tribes there were great numbers who, although they had sinned, now signified their repentance. A large company, however, mostly of the mixed multitude that initiated the making of the calf, stubbornly continued in their rebellion. Moses now commanded those upon his right hand, who had kept themselves clear of idolatry, to take their swords and slay all who persisted in rebellion. "And there fell of the people that day about three thousand men." All who repented and humbled themselves were spared; but the ringleaders in wickedness were cut off without regard to position, blood relationship, or friendship.

Not only justice, but love required that for this sin judgment should be visited. God is the guardian as well as the ruler of His people. He cuts off those who are determined upon rebellion, that they may not lead others to ruin. In sparing the life of Cain, God had demonstrated to the universe what would be the result of allowing sin to go unpunished. The influence exerted upon Cain's descendants by his life and teaching led to the state of corruption that demanded the destruction of the whole world by a flood. The history of the ancient world testifies that long life is not a blessing to the sinner; God's great patience with their persistence in rebellion did not lead them to repent of their wickedness. The longer men lived, the more depraved they became.

As the people began to realize the greatness of their sin, they were filled with terror that all of them would be destroyed. "Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto the Lord; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin." In his prayer to God, he said, "Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold. Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin—; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written. " God's answer was, "Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book. Therefore now go, lead the people unto the place of which I have spoken unto thee: behold, mine Angel shall go before thee: nevertheless in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them."

In deep sadness, the people had buried their dead. Now the message came to them that the divine Presence would no longer accompany them in their travels. God had declared, "I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiffnecked people: lest I consume thee in the way." The command was given, "Therefore now put off thy ornaments from thee, that I may know what to do unto thee." There was mourning throughout the encampment. In penitence and humiliation, "the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments by the Mount Horeb."

By God's direction, the tent that had served as a temporary place of worship, called the tabernacle of the congregation, was moved outside the camp, evidence that God had withdrawn His presence from them. Though He would speak with Moses, He made it evident that He had withdrawn Himself from the people.

All of the people who had truly repented were directed to go outside the camp and gather at the tabernacle of the congregation, confess their sins, and seek God's mercy. When they were done and had returned to the camp, Moses entered the tabernacle. With intense interest, the people watched for some indication that the Lord accepted Moses' prayers for them. The cloudy pillar descended and stood at the door of the tabernacle, "and all the people rose up and worshipped, every man in his tent door."

This chapter is based on Exodus 32–34