The Story of Patriarchs and Prophets
by Ellen G. White
Chapter 28: Idolatry at Sinai
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While Moses was absent it was a time of waiting and
suspense to Israel. The people knew that he had ascended
the mount with Joshua, and had entered the cloud of thick darkness
which could be seen from the plain below, resting on the
mountain peak, illuminated from time to time with the lightnings
of the divine Presence. They waited eagerly for his return.
Accustomed as they had been in Egypt to material representations
of deity, it had been hard for them to trust in an invisible
being, and they had come to rely upon Moses to sustain their
faith. Now he was taken from them. Day after day, week after
week passed, and still he did not return. Notwithstanding 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.
During this period of waiting, there was time for them to
meditate upon the law of God which they had heard, and to
prepare their hearts to receive the further revelations that He might
make to them. They had none too much time for this work; and
had they been thus seeking a clearer understanding of God's
requirements, and humbling their hearts before Him, they would
have been shielded from temptation. But they did not do this,
and they soon became careless, inattentive, and lawless.
Especially was this the case with the mixed multitude. They were
impatient to be on their way to the Land of Promise—the land
flowing with milk and honey. It was only on condition of obedience
that the goodly land was promised them, but they had lost
sight of this. There were some who suggested a return to Egypt,
but whether forward to Canaan or backward to Egypt, the
masses of the people were determined to wait no longer for
Feeling their helplessness in the absence of their leader, they [p. 316] returned to their old superstitions. The "mixed multitude" had
been the first to indulge murmuring and impatience, and they
were the leaders in the apostasy that followed. Among the objects
regarded by the Egyptians as symbols of deity was the ox or calf;
and it was at the suggestion of those who had practiced this form
of idolatry in Egypt that a calf was now made and worshiped.
The people desired some image to represent God, and to go
before them in the place of Moses. God had given no manner of
similitude of Himself, and He had prohibited any material
representation for such a purpose. The mighty miracles in Egypt
and at the Red Sea were designed to establish faith in Him as
the invisible, all-powerful Helper of Israel, the only true God.
And the desire for some visible manifestation of His presence
had been granted in the pillar of cloud and of fire that guided
their hosts, and in the revealing of His glory upon Mount Sinai.
But with the cloud of the Presence still before them, they turned
back in their hearts to the idolatry of Egypt, and represented
the glory of the invisible God by the similitude of an ox!
In the absence of Moses, the judicial authority had been
delegated to Aaron, and a vast crowd gathered about his tent, with
the demand, "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. [* See Appendix, Note 4.]
The cloud, they said, that had heretofore led them, now rested
permanently upon the mount; it would no longer direct their travels.
They must have an image in its place; and if, as had been 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 firmness, decision, and
unflinching courage; one who held the honor of God above popular
favor, personal safety, or life itself. But the present leader of
Israel was not of this character. Aaron feebly remonstrated with
the people, but his wavering and timidity at the critical moment
only rendered them the more determined. The tumult increased.
A blind, unreasoning frenzy seemed to take possession of the
multitude. There were some who remained true to their covenant
with God, but the greater part of the people joined in the
apostasy. A few who ventured to denounce the proposed image [p. 317] making as idolatry, were set upon and roughly treated, and in
the confusion and excitement they finally lost their lives.
Aaron feared for his own safety; and instead of nobly standing
up for the honor of God, he yielded to the demands of the
multitude. His first act was to direct that the golden earrings
be collected from all the people and brought to him, hoping
that pride would lead them to refuse such a sacrifice. But they
willingly yielded up their ornaments; and from these he made
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." And Aaron basely permitted this
insult to Jehovah. He did more. Seeing with what satisfaction the
golden god was received, he built an altar before it, and made
proclamation, "Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord." The announcement
was heralded by trumpeters from company to company
throughout the camp. "And they rose up early on the morrow,
and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and
the people sat down to eat and to drink and rose up to play."
Under the pretense of holding "a feast to the Lord," they gave
themselves up to gluttony and licentious reveling.
How often, in our own day, is the love of pleasure disguised
by a "form of godliness."! A religion that permits men, while
observing the rites of worship, to devote themselves to selfish or
sensual gratification, is as pleasing to the multitudes now as in
the days of Israel. And there are still pliant Aarons, who, while
holding positions of authority in the church, will yield to the
desires of the unconsecrated, and thus encourage them in sin.
Only a few days had passed since the Hebrews had made a
solemn covenant with God to obey His voice. They had stood
trembling with terror before the mount, listening to the words
of the Lord, "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me." The
glory of God still hovered above Sinai in the sight of the
congregation; but they turned away, and asked for other gods. "They
made a calf in Horeb, and worshiped the molten image. Thus
they changed their glory into the similitude of an ox." Psalm
106:19, 20. How could greater ingratitude have been shown, or
more daring insult offered, to Him who had revealed Himself
to them as a tender father and an all-powerful king!
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