Boy, Moses Had A Temper

Moses Destroys the Tables of the Law; illustra...
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The following is a scene that has haunted my imagination for a few days now.  It is a scene of chaos and darkness, red and gold, the sound of thunder clashing with the top of a mountainside off in the distance.   It is a scene where clouds hover low to the ground; mist and dampness cover the skin.  The smell of burning flesh  saturates the air which flows in and out of the tents of the people who are gathered.  As far as the eye can see,  these tents and dwellings dot the landscape.  There is an acute awareness of life and death all about.

This, in fact, is the scene I picture just before Moses descends Mt Sinai after being absent from camp for 40 days and 40 nights.  It is a scene filled with anticipation and excitement on one hand and disillusionment, disappointment, and agony on the other hand.

Exodus 32 makes plain what is going on on top of the mountain where Moses is, and what is happening back at camp due to Moses’ long departure.  Moses went up to Mt Sinai to meet God.  It was a spiritual journey to a holy place where, for 40 days, Moses encountered the divine presence of God. During their time together, God wrote His Law, The Ten commandments, to be taken by Moses and delivered to the Hebrew people.

During Moses’ time away, the Hebrews become anxious for their leader. His absence had been long, and there was no sign of his return.  The people grew tired of waiting, fearful of who and what might lead them if Moses did not return. Exodus 32:1 outlines the Hebrews’ solution to the problem, “And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.”

These people were basically asking Aaron for new leadership.  Note that the Hebrew word translated ‘gods’ in this verse can mean civil leaders or magistrates.  God is not capitalized in these verses ruling out the meaning of God as deity.  The people are asking Aaron to provide them with a new governor, and new administration.  They might even be asking Aaron to appoint them to these positions.

This is an interesting insight to me given that while Moses is on top of the Mountain, God says in Exodus 32: 7 – 10  “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt.  They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ “I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people.  Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

Moses then pleads with God not to destroy the Hebrew people in the following verses of Exodus 32.  He pleads for compassion and mercy.  However, when Moses descends Mt. Sinai with tablets in hand, he begins hearing the sounds of people shouting, the sounds of defeat, the sounds of singing.   In Exodus 32:  19 -20 we read what happend next, “When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.”  A few verses down we read where Moses commanded the Levites to kill three-thousand people because they remained against The Lord.

Why exactly did Moses lose his temper and smash God’s law?  Why after pleading for the lives of the Hebrew people, did he order some of them killed?  Was the worship of a false idol (golden calf) really the problem here?

What the golden calf represents here continues to be debated by scholars, but my line of questioning has me debating two other possible interpretations of the golden calf. The first interpretation is that Aaron never meant for the calf to be a god of worship since he proclaimed a festival in honor of YHVH when he finished making it (Exodus 32:5). In other words, he and the Hebrew people did not intend the calf to depict YHVH but to function as the conduit of His presence among them, as Moses had functioned previously.  The other interpretation is that the golden calf could have been a symbol for the new government much the same way we have symbols depicting Republicans and Democrats.

The latter would explain Moses’ temper tantrum more immediately. Moses had been communing with God, he had been in discussions with God as to how to lead and to take care of the Hebrews, he had even been interceding in prayer on their behalf to keep God from destroying them.  Moses cared for his people; he was dedicated to them and to doing what God had appointed him to do.  Everything he did was about serving God and serving the people.  I imagine that when he descended the Mountain and saw that  HE, not God had been replaced, disappointment, confusion, sadness and anger all became part of his repertoire.   Moses had been loyal to his people.  They had not, in his eyes, been loyal to him.

So, What we have here is not a change in deity worship or religion but a change in types of government.  A change from one leader, Moses to a government by the people.  A change from the government of God to the government of Man. Moses promptly takes control back and grinds the gold calf into powder.  He then mixes the gold with water and feeds it to the people.  Gold mixed with water is healing to humans.  Moses is seen here, giving the people healing medicine.  It is medicine for their own good.  But what does Moses do for himself?  How does he transform his anger into healing?  I’m not exactly sure, but I might have an idea or two.  Stay tuned.


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