The people demanded of Aaron a god to replace Moses. Even though in some translations we find the word “gods,” in the Hebrew Bible text the word is Elohim (אלהים). It is the same word for the one true God, as is found in the first verse of the Bible: “In the beginning God [Elohim] created the heavens and the earth.” Or did “gods” create the heavens and the earth? No!
“…as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” (Exodus 32:1) Eight chapters previously, God had invited Moses to meet with Him on Mount Sinai. “I will give you the stone tablets with the law and the commandment which I have written for their instruction.” (Exodus 24:12) However, Moses’ return is delayed, and the people become impatient.
In the midst of the desert, without Moses, the people of Israel feel helpless and abandoned. In order to understand the background of this narrative we need to first realize how the people of Israel regarded Moses. In the eyes of the children of Israel, it was Moses who had liberated them from slavery: “Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” (Exodus 32:1) It wasn’t God who liberated them, but rather Moses. Although the people believed in God, they perceived the miracle as if Moses had accomplished it with his staff. Without this Moses, the people felt uncertain, stranded in the desert, surrounded by enemies and without water.
From this perspective, one might even wonder if the people of Israel regarded Moses himself as a god. After all, the people demanded from Aaron a new god to replace Moses. Why not try to replace Moses with another human leader, like Joshua or Caleb? Were there no other gifted leaders in the camp? We know that there were, but the people went to Aaron and demanded an idol, a golden calf, as is written in verse 4:
“And they said, ‘This is your god [Elohim], O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” The golden calf is not only described as god, but also as a replacement for Moses as their redeemer. Moses appeared to have supernatural powers. After their passing through the Red Sea (Exodus 14:31), it was written of the people: “And they believed in the Lord and in His servant Moses.” The people saw God and Moses as one power. In their view, Moses was a partner of the Almighty. In a sense, he was equated with God, and so his disappearance necessitated a replacement god.
Is it really so different from what we see today with certain Jewish and Christian leaders? We all know of rabbis and pastors who, due to supernatural signs, are revered by their followers as though they were God. Naturally, this is sin.
We should note that in this narrative there are two tangible illustrations. One of them is found in the tablets of the law, the other the golden calf. Both of these are destroyed; the stone tablets are shattered and the golden calf is burned. In both cases, God showed that His power is not hidden in tangible objects, but rather in faith and trust.
As a result of this dramatic confusion of God with Moses, we today do not find Moses mentioned even a single time in the Haggadah read during the Passover meal. For it was God who liberated the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, not His servant Moses. For the same reason, the precise location of the biblical Mount Sinai has also disappeared from collective memory. It is not a location, but rather God who should be glorified. It was not the moment in which the law was given that’s important, but rather the reminder of God’s revelation throughout the generations.
Israel Today Membership
Save 18% Per Month.
Six Months Membership
Save 9% Per Month.