Moses stayed at the top of Mount Sinai for forty days. During that time God spoke to him, sharing His plan for how people can live their best lives. To Moses, the time must have felt like mere seconds, hearing God’s voice speak to him directly and being in His presence.
But for the Israelites down below, it felt like a lifetime. Why had Moses been gone so long? What was happening? Was he even still there? Trusting that God would send Moses back down again in His timing would take a lot of faith. But unfortunately, most of the people did not have that faith.
The Israelites grew frustrated and impatient. They forgot about the plagues, parting the Red Sea, the bread from heaven and the water from the rock. They believed God was not going to help them and Moses had disappeared for good. So they wanted to return to what felt familiar.
The Egyptians had worshipped statues of animals and humans. They made them out of gold and stone, bowed down to them, and acted wild when they worshipped them. The Israelites thought perhaps a statue like that was exactly what they needed.
“Aaron!” they called out to Moses’ brother. “Make us a statue of a god who will lead and protect us.”
“But Moses—” Aaron tried to argue.
“Moses is gone!” they retorted. “Who knows what happened to him! We want someone we can see.”
“Fine!” Aaron agreed, feeling overwhelmed himself. “Remember all that gold the Egyptians gave us as parting gifts? Bring it all to me.”
So the Israelites took off their gold earrings, bracelets and necklaces. They placed them in a giant pile in front of Aaron. Aaron worked hard all night, molding the gold into the shape of a young bull.
“Now that looks like a god that we want to bow down to!” the people cried out. “This is the god who brought us out of Egypt!”
Aaron built an altar in front of the idol and told the people they would celebrate in honor of the Lord the next morning. Aaron convinced himself that if everyone wanted an image to worship, he must be making it for God, no matter how wrong it felt.
The next morning the Israelites were ready for the kind of worship they had seen in Egypt. They ate and drank so much that they began to carry on like wild people. They jumped up and down and danced and shouted and rolled on the ground.
Meanwhile, God gave Moses two flat stones with His commandments on them, written with His own hand. His first and second rules were already being broken.
“You should hurry back down the mountain and see what the people are doing,” God told Moses. “They are making fools of themselves, carrying on like wild people and telling themselves that they are worshiping Me. Go and see how ridiculous they look!”
As Moses neared the bottom of the mountain, he saw the people dancing wildly before the statue. Furious, he threw down the two stones he had received from God, and they shattered on the ground.
“What have you done?” he cried out to his brother, feeling shocked and betrayed. “What on earth could the people have said to you to convince you to do something so terrible?”
Caught red-handed, Aaron stared back at Moses, not knowing what to say. “They made me do it!” he finally explained. “They said you weren’t coming back, and we needed something to look at to feel close to God.”
“The people just threw their jewelry at me,” Aaron continued, trying to excuse himself. “I threw it in the fire and this bull just took shape. Now that’s not my fault, is it?”
Moses shook his head at Aaron’s tale. He looked around at the people who had chosen to ignore God’s instructions on how to worship Him in exchange for the more mystical and exciting ways of the Egyptians.
Moses melted the idol in the fire and ground it into a powder. He scattered some in the water of each person who had disobeyed and made them drink it.
God knew His people were not perfect. He continued to love them and guide them, even when they did the unthinkable. His rules would help them, but it would take a much bigger sacrifice than any of them could imagine to make their relationship with Him whole again.