Last week we talked about the Israelites, and how they seemed to be trusting Moses more than they trusted God. God was working all these miracles for them, and yet as soon as Moses left them to go up a Mountain to talk to God they freaked out and made a new God to worship. Today we’re going to talk about what Moses did on that mountain, what happened when he came back down and saw that the Israelites were worshiping a false god, and what happens after.
We’re going to pick up right before Moses goes up the mountain. Can someone read Exodus 19:18-20?
18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. 19 As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder. 20 When the Lord descended upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain, the Lord summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.
God descends on this mountain in way that I imagine almost makes it seem like the mountain is about to turn into a volcano! There is smoke, the earth is shaking, there is fire. There is even a heavenly trumpet blasting! God’s presence is big and obvious here. So Moses goes up the mountain to talk to God.
While up on the Mountain God basically gives Moses the Law. If you’ve ever flipped through these first couple of books in the Bible before you’ll notice a ton of Law. We’re going to do a whole Sunday on what is the law and what it means. But basically, it’s the rule set God is giving to Moses and saying, “These are the rules I expect the Israelites to live by.” These rules would be everything from how to worship God to what sort of fine you have to pay if an animal you own accidently hurts someone else. Basically ancient Israel does not believe in separation of church and state. The church and state are one. The word for this you may hear in your government classes is “theocracy.” So while in our society if you blaspheme against God, God is disappointed in you but you won’t go to jail, in their society God will both be disappointed in you and you’re going to jail.
Like I said we’re going to spend a whole Sunday on this alone, but basically there are a lot of rules, which is partly why it takes so long for Moses to come down the mountains. He’s got to write it all down!
So God is on the mountain with Moses, right? But God can be everywhere and see everything. So even though he’s talking to Moses, he sees what’s going on with the Israelites. Do you think God is happy about how the Israelites have decided to make themselves a false god? [Let them answer.]
Well let’s see. Can someone read Exodus 32:7-10?
7 The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” 9 The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
God is very angry with the Israelites. He has given them everything and as we talked about last week, maybe they were never really trusting in God in the first place. Now they’re worshiping an idol that they made, a golden calf they made from their own jewelry. Rather than worshiping God, they are worshiping something they know is fake! So yeah God is mad.
But then God says “Leave me alone, Moses, so I might destroy them all and then I’ll just start over again with you. You’ll be the new Abraham.”
Woah. God’s going to destroy all the Israelites and start over again with Moses? What do you guys think Moses might think of this plan? Is he going to be like “Okay God, cool. Get rid of these people who are an absolutely burden to me.”—because let’s be honest, Moses doesn’t love his job as their leader. Or is Moses going to be like “Woah, God. That seems a little extreme. Maybe we should give them another chance.” What would you guys say if you were Moses? [Let them answer.]
I think I would be tempted to let God just start over again. Be like “Okay, cool, I’ll be the new start. Get rid of these dolts!” But let’s see what Moses says.
11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” 14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Moses is basically like “But these are your people who you saved from Egypt! You don’t want to destroy them!” And he gives God a 2 point argument. (1) What would the Egyptians think, if God saves the Hebrews just to destroy the Hebrews himself? (2) Don’t forget you swore an oath God.
And then it says God changed his mind.
Let’s talk about this. Did Moses convince God to change his mind? Sure, seems that way. And this is not the only time in the Bible for something like this to happen. In fact, this is the first of several times, where God tells a prophet he’s going to do something crazy wrathful, which then forces the prophet to either make an argument against God doing the wrathful thing or causes the prophet to take action. This sort of story is usually taken a couple of ways.
(1) God’s mind can’t be changed. God always knew what he was going to do, but was trying to teach the prophet a lesson, or basically test the prophet to see what he would do. In this case, would Moses—the weary, put upon leader of the Israelites actually stand up for them? Or would he just be like “Sure, God. Do what you want.”
(2) God’s mind can be changed, and stories like this demonstrate the power of prayer. Moses interceded and begged on behalf of his people, and only through Moses prayer did God decide not to take the action he was going to take.
There are of course shades of gray between these interpretations where they overlap. I’m not going to tell you which interpretation is right because I’m not sure we really know. And it’s possible the situation may chance in each case. Which camp you fall into generally lines up with your denomination sort of beliefs. In our case, as Presbyterians who generally believe in pre-destination, we would probably fall into Camp 1. This was always God’s plan, and God wanted Moses to fight on behalf of the Hebrews, to teach Moses that he really did care about them. People who fall into a more free will camp, might be inclined to see more of the second option, and see Moses as truly having changed God’s mind on this account.
Either way we learn from this that God gets deeply angry and hurt when we go against him, when despite all he has given us, we turn to false idols and turn our backs on him. We also learn that God is not quick to make wrathful decisions. He could have struck down the Hebrews instantly and mentioned nothing to Moses. He didn’t need Moses’ permission to do his actions. Instead he told Moses and gave Moses the opportunity to speak on his people’s behalf. I think this shows that God just doesn’t care about the relationship between him and us alone, but rather he also cares about how we as a community care about each other. Did he even want Moses in charge if Moses really didn’t care about the Israelites? But here Moses proves he does care. Just as our leaders should honestly care about us. Just as I honestly care about you.
So no smiting happens. God allows the Hebrews to live. And Moses finally heads down the mountain. Can someone read Exodus 32:15-16?
15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. 16 The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets.
The tablets referred to in here are the tablets on which the law is written. Most people when they imagine these tablets, imagine them with only the ten commandments written on them. But it says the tablets were covered on both the front and back. So I imagine it was more than just the ten commandments, but probably all of the law. And I imagine they were also probably rather large tablets.
Can someone read Exodus 32:19-24?
19 As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.
21 Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?” 22 And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 24 So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”
Even though Moses knew the people had started worshiping an idol, he hadn’t seen it for himself. So he comes down the mountain and he sees it, and he is furious. He literally throws the tablets he’s holding—the tablets covered in God’s word, God’s own hand writing according to the previous section—and breaks them. Because remember these are stone tablets so they would be breakable.
I think it’s safe to say Moses has a little bit of an anger management problem.
When Moses went up the mountain he left his brother Aaron in charge. So naturally he goes to Aaron and is like “WHAT THE HECK, AARON?” And Aaron tries to explain himself, tries to be like “they asked me to do it.” But is Aaron’s excuse really viable? [Let them answer.]
Yeah, no. Aaron should have been like “this is not okay.” He was put in charge. He could have stopped it. In a lot of ways, I think Aaron just gave into the pressure. He wasn’t as confident in his relationship with God as Moses was, God didn’t talk to Aaron in the same way. So he just sort of caved when the people asked him to something he probably knew was wrong. Sometimes we do this too. It’s called peer pressure. We know we’re not supposed to do something, but we do it anyway. And that doesn’t excuse us. What Aaron did was wrong.
And there is a punishment. God sends a plague down on them, a plague like a sickness. Some people die from it. Our actions have consequences. In this case, they thought God would do everything for them, and they could just do whatever they wanted, scot free. But that wasn’t the case.
Eventually God lifts the plague, and the people are able to continue on their journey to the promised land.
Before they set off again, Moses goes back up the mountain to talk to God some more. At the very least, he has to make new tablets, since he destroyed the last ones in his anger. So Moses goes up the Mountain to talk to God. In Exodus 33:11 it says “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend.” That’s kind of an amazing image. Sort of like how in the beginning of Genesis, God literally walked with Adam and Eve. But despite the fact that is says “face to face” it doesn’t mean actual face to face. It means that more metaphorically, as in like personal discussions in private. In French there is a similar phrase “tête-à-tête.” Tête alone means “head” but all that phrase really means is private, personal conversations. That’s what it means here. How do we know it’s not face to face? As in actual faces. Well because a little later Moses has a conversation with God about wanting to see God’s face. Can someone read Exodus 33:18-23?
18 Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21 And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
If these verses seem familiar to you, it’s because we’ve talked about them before, when we talked about Jacob wrestling with God. But in the context here, we see that Moses has been serving and talking to God for a long time now. Since he saw that burning bush in the desert and God told him his name was “I am who I am.” But in all that time, Moses has never seen God.
I think it’s a very human thing to want to see someone we’re talking to. I know I’ve had several friends that were basically pen pals for a long time before I saw them face to face, and when I finally did it brought my heart such joy. I think it’s a human desire that we want to see those we love face to face. And Moses loves God, so it makes sense.
But God says no one can see his face and live. However, he tells Moses to stand behind a rock, and then God will basically cover Moses while he walks by and Moses can see God’s “back” or basically like afterglow, the glory that trails behind him. But not his face. And even that has a tremendous impact on Moses. Can someone read Exodus 34:29-35?
29 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33 When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34 but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
Moses finally comes down the mountain, with new tablets in hand, and his face is literally shining. Not like metaphorically glowing like people might say about a pregnant woman. No, his face is so bright that he has to put a veil over his face. And Moses only saw God’s like back and it has that sort of physical effect on him. Because God’s glory is so great, it physically affects Moses. It’s amazing.
Eventually they do leave Mount Sinai and continue on their journey to the promises land. Before they go they construct a couple of things that we’ll talk about in more detail when we talk about the law, but the most important is the Tabernacle, which is basically like a portable tent church, so Moses has a place to talk to God on the journey.
Eventually they do make it all the way to the promised land of Canaan. We’re going to skip ahead to the book of Numbers now. So skip past Leviticus, which is pretty much a whole book of the law, and to Numbers, the fourth book of the Bible. Can someone read Numbers 13:1-3?
The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites; from each of their ancestral tribes you shall send a man, every one a leader among them.” 3 So Moses sent them from the wilderness of Paran, according to the command of the Lord, all of them leading men among the Israelites.
God tells Moses not just to barge into the promised land. But rather to send spies ahead—one from each tribe—so twelve spies—to go figure out the lay of the land. Now can someone read Numbers 13:25-29?
25 At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. 26 And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the Israelites in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh; they brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. 27 And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28 Yet the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. 29 The Amalekites live in the land of the Negeb; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live by the sea, and along the Jordan.”
The spies spend 40 days in the promised land and then come back and give a report. Basically, they’re like “The land is so beautiful, omg, here is even some sample fruit. BUT the people there are super scary and there are even GIANTS.” The descendants of Anak would be the giants. Most of the spies are basically like “So let’s not go there.”
But then one spy says something else. Can someone read Numbers 13:30-32?
30 But Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” 31 Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we.” 32 So they brought to the Israelites an unfavorable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size.
Caleb is one of the spies. He’s like “Who cares if they’re strong? We’ve got God so we’re stronger, so let’s go.” But the other spies are still just like “NOPE. Not gonna happen. They are giants.”
Needless to say when the Israelites here this report, they freak out. They don’t want to go to the promised land. They are scared and basically are like “I can’t believe God brought us out of Egypt all the way over here to just kill us now. We should go back to Egypt.”
Caleb tries to convince the people otherwise, that they should go and take the promised land. That God has got their back and everything will be fine. Moses I think is mostly just exasperated at this point and can’t believe they are having this same argument again. The most important reaction to all of this is, of course, God’s. Can someone read Numbers 14:20-24?
20 Then the Lord said, “I do forgive, just as you have asked; 21 nevertheless—as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord— 22 none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, 23 shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it. 24 But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me wholeheartedly, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it.
The Hebrews have basically shown they don’t believe in God again. They don’t believe God has their back if they enter the Promised Land. And God’s reaction is basically “fine, you don’t believe? You don’t get to go.” There punishment is the people who did not believe will not get to step foot in the promised land. Caleb, however, who believed, will get to. Because of this, the Israelites are sent to wander in the desert for 40 years.
Now Moses—he believes God—he’s just trying to lead the people. So that should mean he gets to enter the Promised Land—assuming he lives that long. However, we’re going to see that eventually Moses’s own struggle with his temper catches up to him.
Here we have another case of the people not having water, and complaining about it. They want Moses to give them some water. So Moses goes to God and asks for water. Now Can someone read Numbers 20:7-12?
7 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 8 Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock.
9 So Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he had commanded him. 10 Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. 12 But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.”
God gives Moses very specific instructions. He is to speak to the rock and it will provide water. Moses goes out to his people and you can just tell from how he talks to them that he’s frustrated. He calls them rebels, he’s a little snarky “Shall I get you water from this rock?” And then instead of speaking to the rock, he strikes it with his staff twice.
The water comes, but is that what God told Moses to do? No. He told him very specifically, he was to speak to the rock. This is just one in a line of examples of Moses’ temper getting the better of him, like breaking the stone tablets. So Moses is to be punished too, for disobeying God.
God tells Moses that Moses will not be the one who leads the Israelites in the Promised Land. Moses too will die before the Hebrews reach that place.
In the end, however, God does let Moses look at the Promised Land, just not enter. I need everyone to skip ahead another book of the Bible to Deuteronomy. We’re going to skip to the very last chapter, chapter 34. And I want us to read the whole chapter, so I’ll read it.
34 Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, 2 all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, 3 the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. 4 The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” 5 Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. 6 He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. 7 Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. 8 The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.
9 Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.
10 Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. 11 He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, 12 and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
Moses eventually got everyone to the Promised Land, but he himself never got to enter. Moses, who was once a baby in a basket who floated down the Nile, then became Prince of Egypt, then a shepherd, and finally the reluctant leader of Israel. He succeeded in his task, and God let him look upon the land that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had once lived in.
But then it was the next generation’s turn to lead, and Joshua—the new leader of Israel—lead them into Canaan.
And that is the story of Moses.