Gateway to the Classics: Moses and the Exodus by Rev. J. Paterson Smyth
Moses and the Exodus by  Rev. J. Paterson Smyth

Lesson XIII

How Moses Broke the Tables of Stone

Read Exodus XXXII. 1-30.
Deuteronomy IX. 9-19.

§ 1. The People's Demand

S HOW the four sections in the chapter, verses 1-7, 7-15, 15-25, 25-35.

Recapitulate.—Awesome scene in last lesson. The vast crowd on the plain all white and trembling with dread. Above them on the great altar mountain the black cloud, the thunder and lightnings and voice of a trumpet, and the awful miraculous utterance of the "Ten Words" from Sinai. Now read Exodus xx. 18-21; xxiv. 15-18, and think of the old leader going up slope after slope, peak after peak, till at last he reaches the cloud, the pavilion of God. There he unhesitatingly passes within out of sight for forty days and forty nights.

We are only told some of the details of the sad after story. But as we read between the lines we can picture the rest. The tense excitement waiting for him to return. Then the awe and wonder as the days went by and he gave no sign. Then they became uneasy and restless, like children in the dark, with their leader gone and the guiding Pillar absorbed in the dark clouds on the mountain top. "What has happened? Has he lost his way, or died of starvation, or been consumed by the awful presence of God on Mount Sinai?"

And then—what? Yes. Does it not seem almost incredible? That crowd who a few weeks since had heard the miraculous words, "Thou shalt not make a graven image," and had promised, "All that the Lord hath spoken we will do,"—that they should go to make an image of the idol calf of Egypt to worship. How could they do such a thing! The moment Moses' eye was off them they fell. I dare say they would have committed idolatry and worse things fifty times over before this but for his strong hand over them. Now see how they talk of him to Aaron. Repeat their words for me. "As for this Moses," etc. What a wretched, hopeless, ungrateful lot to have to do with! No feeling of what they owed to Moses. No sorrow for the sad fate of their brave old leader. "There is no more to be gained from him, therefore let us forget him!" Does not it give you some idea of what he had to put up with all those forty years? and of what God had to put up with? How solemnly God had taught them of His purity and holiness. And now they are going on to indulge in the filthy orgies of heathen idol-worship. One sometimes hears from missionaries on the African coast of the long years before they can trust their converts, and of the shame and disgrace to the Mission when the passions of the wretched creatures break out. It helps one to understand the sorrow and anxiety of the leader of this Israelitish horde. And this Israelite story, on the other hand, may help us to understand the discouragements of missionary work and the unfairness of the sneers at missionary failures from idle critics sitting comfortably at home.

§ 2. The People's Sin

Which commandment were the Israelites breaking? No. Not the first. Not having other gods. What does second forbid? Making idols, images of God, and so degrading God as if He were like a dead, helpless calf of gold. How do you know it was not some other god they would worship? Verses 4, 5, "which brought thee out of the land of Egypt. . . . To-morrow is a feast to the LORD. They wanted an image like the Black Bull of Egypt. They could not believe in God's presence unless they had something to look at. And I fear also they wanted to indulge in the filthy sinful excesses that accompanied idol feast, where the people used to behave like brute beasts and degrade themselves in the most shameless way.

What do you think of Aaron? Did he sympathize with them, or was he too great a coward to resist them? I think he dared not refuse. He thought of a clever way of getting out of it. What? He said he could not make it without the women's gold ornaments—he thought he knew enough of women's nature to feel sure that they would refuse them. Did they? Then it was too late to take a higher stand. He should have done that at first. What answer do you think Moses would have given? Aye. They might be angry, they might stone him. What would it matter compared with the horror of disobeying God. Look at the shuffling excuse when Moses rebuked him (vv.  22, 24). You know the people are set on mischief. They brought me gold, and I only threw it into the fire and there came out this calf! As if the calf had walked out itself. As if he was hardly to blame at all! Even a good man may sometimes be a shuffling coward. A brave servant of God is only afraid of one thing. What? Grieving and disappointing God. Pray God you may be such.

Aaron made the calf, and the people made themselves as beasts in the wild intoxication of their idol feast. When people think their God can be represented by a calf, no wonder they make beasts of themselves in their worship! It happens the same way in Indian idol temples to-day. Men who know Indian idol worship well assure us that its vileness is too horrible to speak of.

§ 3. The Contrast

Now turn quickly from this horde of half-naked, brutalized, degraded creatures, yelling and leaping about their idol. Turn quickly to the sharp contrast. Where was Moses all this time? In the pure, holy, calm presence of God. What a wonderful experience! He must have felt like a being of another world.

Of course we cannot conceive what it was—all the unutterable wonder and glory and awe of that forty days. But we can make a faint guess. Did you ever wish to have stood by Christ in Palestine when he was doing and saying such beautiful things to people? Or to get a glimpse into the Unseen Life where some dear one has gone? Or to feel absolutely certain of God's near presence and approval when you were at your prayers or longing to be good—to feel as if He were touching you and saying, "My child, I am helping you"? You can imagine a little of what it meant to Moses, that he should in some measure have got what you often long for, that in some way he should feel the presence of the Holy Loving God as close to him as a man's presence to his friend. Another man once had an experience like Moses'. Who? (2 Corinthians xii. 2, St. Paul is speaking of himself). No wonder the sense of God's presence filled Moses' whole being, and that his face should shine with the reflected glory of it (Exodus xxxiv. 29-35).

Now think of the horrible contrast between that purity and holiness and love—and the filthy, brutal scene going on in the plain. Think of the awful shock when the intimation came to him (read it, v.  7). Then at once the chance of a great personal gain came to him—what? (v.  10). I do not quite understand this. A strong impression, perhaps, entering his mind that these Israelites were not worth struggling for any longer, and that he might pick out a set of faithful followers himself. I think it must only have been a testing of him, as when Abraham was tempted to offer Isaac. How did he bear the testing? Grandly as Abraham. Selfishness and self-seeking had no part in him now. He had grown too close to the likeness of God.

§ 4. The Anger of Moses

Now I can picture him rushing down, his heart bursting with holy grief and indignation, his hands holding—what? (v.  15). Who was waiting for him high up the mountain? Did Joshua know of the evil thing? (v.  17).

I can picture the two silently hurrying, Moses too full of his own sorrowful thoughts to speak, when suddenly, as they turn the shoulder of the mountain they are startled by the wild shouting from below. What does Joshua think? Just like a soldier to think that. What did his leader reply? The next turn brings the whole camp full in sight, and a horrible sight it was—the graven image on high with an altar before it, and the brutal half-maddened crowd dancing and yelling, and Aaron his brother in the midst of it all! Oh, it was horrible—and coming from the presence of the pure, holy God it seemed more horrible still. What did he do? Make the picture of it in your mind. The old fierce anger that made him long ago kill the Egyptian slave-driver, burst forth again. Can't you picture the tablets flung down from the cliff. And then—don't you see him starting straight for the camp, his eyes blazing with indignation, and the crowd standing spell-bound, watching him as he comes. Terrified, paralyzed, they stand where he has discovered them. And then can't you see him striding fiercely through the midst, till, all flushed and angry, he reaches the altar, and hurls that wretched image down crashing from its place!

What next? He turns fiercely on Aaron. Did Aaron deserve it? And then? (vv.  26, 27). Perhaps he saw signs of resistance or refusal of dancers to cease their debauch. Ah! they had not Aaron to deal with now. "Who is on the Lord's side?" Who came to him? What was his terrible order? Do you think he was right? I do. Remember it was probably only those who resisted and persisted in their sin. Remember our lesson about God's sternness and God's love. There are times when a surgeon must cut into a man with his knife to remove a foul ulcer, and there are times when surgery like that is needed with nations too. Sometimes by one terrible judgment like that a whole nation may be saved from corruption.

But was it great pain to God? Was it great pain to Moses? I am sure it was. I have heard cruel, wicked things said about such deeds as this—that it shows the true attitude of every righteous man zealous for God's honour—that it shows that in the hereafter the saved will be so full of zeal for God that they can think without sorrow of the sufferings of the lost! I think that is a cruel slander on them and on God. Next day we shall see Moses' real feelings as he watched the camp mourning over these new-made graves—we shall see him, with all his holy sternness, full of sorrow and forgiveness, wanting to give up his own life to save those wretched sinners who deserved of him so little. Ah, that is more like the heart of Moses, more like the heart of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.


V.  1. Make us gods  should be "Make us a god." The Hebrew word Elohim, though plural in form, is the word commonly used in the Pentateuch to denote the one true God.

Aaron and Hur were left in charge (ch.  xxiv. 14). The Jews have a tradition that the people first came to Hur, and on his refusal murdered him for his opposition to them, and that Aaron was therefore frightened and yielded.

V.  4. The Israelites were accustomed to the ox-worship of Egypt, and even shared in it while in Egypt (see Joshua xxiv. 14;  Ezekiel xx. 8), and therefore it would be easy to fall back into it. Notice when Jeroboam made the calves he used the same cry. These be thy gods, or this is thy god, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt (1 Kings xii. 28). In both cases the breach was not of the first Commandment but the second.

V.  28. The slain were doubtless those who resisted and persisted in their sin. It was not a general massacre of all who had sinned. Moses gave them all a chance of drawing back when he cried, "Who is on the Lord's side?"

Questions for Lesson XIII

Try to describe this awful breaking of the Commandments. Which of them especially?

What part had Aaron in this?

Where was Moses when it happened?

Tell of his terrible anger and what he did.

Was he right to be angry? Is it ever right to be angry? When? Give instances in our own life.

Could God be pained and angry? How does His anger differ from ours? Answer:  Pain, stern love, forgiveness if we are sorry.

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