“Even when they made for themselves
A calf of molten metal
And said, ‘This is your God
Who brought you up from Egypt,’
And committed great blasphemies,
Thou, in Thy great compassion,
Didst not forsake them in the wilderness;
The pillar of cloud did not leave them by day,
To guide them on their way,
Nor the pillar of fire by night, to light for them the way in which they were to go.
And Thou didst give Thy good Spirit to instruct them,
Thy manna Thou didst not withhold from their mouth,
And Thou didst give them water for their thirst.”
-Nehemiah 9:18-20 (NASB)
This is the thing which I forget, when I think of the story. That God was by no means silent or invisible when the people demanded that Aaron make them a new god. No. He had descended on the mountain in cloud and fire, so that the people could see Him; and He spoke to Moses with a sound of thunder, so that the people could hear Him (Ex. 19:9). I forget that they had been consecrated on purpose for this descent, and that they were commanded, on pain of death, not to touch the mountain (Ex. 1913). I forget that Moses had come and recounted the law to the people, and that they had vowed to do “All the words which the Lord [had] spoken” (Ex. 24:3). That Aaron and the elders had gone up the mountain with Moses and had seen “the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself” (Ex. 24:10). That, when “the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the mountain top” and “Moses entered the midst of the cloud .. and was on the mountain forty days and forty nights,” the people down below, with Aaron and the elders, were dining on manna each day (Ex. 24:17, 18).
You know how it must have been. They went out every morning (except Sabbath mornings, according to God’s command) and gathered manna for their families, and looked at the flaming cloud on the mountain-top, and warned their little children not to cross the boundary and touch the mountain. Boys watching the herds worried lest the lambs would cross the boundary, and little dogs brought out of Egypt trembled and barked at the constant thundering.
So it was by no means as if their God had suddenly become silent or invisible. The women gathering manna in the mornings perhaps grumbled to one another: the tiresome food, and the constant noise, and no progress made to any Promised Land with Moses so long absent … and when the grumbling spread through the camp, and the people came to Aaron with their request, Aaron, who had seen the true God of Israel–take note, you who say that if you could only see Him–made Israel a new god, and built that god an altar, and declared a feast to that god (Ex. 32:4,5). And I imagine that, even as “the people sat down to eat and to drink,” there were manna cakes in the feast, and even as they “rose up to play,” they were careful about the boundaries of the mountain.
And the Lord’s anger burned against the people, and Moses shattered the tablets which had been made by God, and the people learned, in sharp terms, the utter folly of their ways. And in the chaos, I prepared a scornful glance for the cowering Aaron, the wimp who would not stand up for the God he had seen and who lied to Moses about it afterward. But no. The journey is resumed, the tabernacle is built, and Aaron, dressed in “holy garments,” is anointed and consecrated to “minister as a priest to [the LORD] … and their anointing shall qualify them for a perpetual priesthood throughout their generations” (Ex. 40:13, 15).
Put your scorn away, foolish child. Your God is great in compassion.
©2011 by Stacy Nott