By: Steve Daskal,
CHRISTIAN MESSIANIC ANALYSIS AND APOLOGETICS
** A brother in Christ recently asked me about a seeming inconsistency in the Exodus account of Moses’ interactions with God and the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. He thought it appeared as if the number of trips up and trips down didn’t match. I had never actually sat down to work this out, though I’ve been hearing and reading this story repeatedly since I was in grade school. This is what I found:
Ex 19 — The Israelites are three months after leaving Egypt via Rephidim [located in the Sinai desert]. They’ve reached Sinai, and set up camp in front of the mountain. Moses goes up the mountain the first time [v3], he returns to the people [v7] and warns them that they are going to get the terms of the Covenant, and they agree to them — without having heard them — based upon God’s taking them out of Egypt and providing for this huge mass of people in the desert for 3 months.
While Moses is still down on the desert floor, the LORD tells him He will appear in a dense cloud, and hear Him speak to him, so they will put their trust in Moses as God’s chosen leader. He then gave them 2 days for ritual purification, and warned them not to come up from the desert floor, even to the lowest part of the mountain. 19:14-15 indicates that Moses ensured that the Israelites did what God ordered in 19:7-13.
The third day came [19:16]. Moses led the people to the foot of the mountain [it is a volcanic mountain jutting up without foothills from the plain]. In v.20-21, the LORD calls Moses back up the mountain. He tells Moses to warn the people; Moses says [v23], I already told them and we set limits around the mountain. In verse 24, the LORD tells Moses to go down and bring up Aaron, but again warn the priests and people to stay on the plain. Moses is slow, but he finally gets it — God wants him to warn the Israelites AGAIN. He goes down and tells them again.
Ex 20-23 — God spoke from the mountain in the hearing of all Israel, giving them the Ten Commandments [vv1-16]. VV18-19 — the Israelites are justifiably terrified sinners in the presence of Holy God. They beg Moses to get the rest of the covenant from God and tell them, but not to have God speak directly to them lest they die of fear/shame/embarrassment. Moses reassures them in v. 20. In vv 22-26, and on into Exodus 21-23, God continues to lay out the core of the Torah [much of which would be restated in Leviticus or Numbers, and again in Deuteronomy, because the Israelites are NEITHER quick learners nor good at remembering]. Moses is at the foot of the mountain, where the dark clouds just about touch the plain. The people are some distance back, rightfully afraid to come closer.
Ex 24-31 — Moses is called up onto the lower part of the mountain with Aaron and a called group of priests and elders [vv1-11]. In 24:12, God calls Moses to come up onto the upper part of the mountain [this is now Moses’ 3rd ascent]. He is told he will be staying a while, and will be given tablets of stone with the Torah written on it. Aaron and the others were sent back to govern the Israelites while Moses was on the mountain. Moses & Joshua went a bit of the way up the mountain, but not into the cloud, while smoke covered the upper part for six days. On the 7th, Moses was called up to the top, into the cloud. 24:15 says Moses was on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights. Chapters. 25-31:18 detail the building of the ark and the tabernacle and the Levitical order of service and sacrifice, which conveyed to Moses while atop the mountain. At this point, Moses is given the stone tablets etched by the finger of God.
Ex 32 is the “meanwhile, back at the ranch” — Remember that neither the LORD Himself nor Moses told the Israelites how long he’d been gone. He was gone more than a week, but less than 7 weeks [the original 7 plus 40], when “the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain… and said, ‘Come, make us gods who will go before us… as for Moses… we don’t know what has happened to him.” Aaron must have felt the same, because he didn’t push back or remind them of their oaths to God, but collected their gold earrings, and then cast and shaped the golden calf. He finished this, and they began to worship it, and it was then [v7] that the LORD told Moses [who of course had no clue, and probably had no idea how long he’d been up with God atop the mountain in the dense cloud] to hurry down because “your people… have become corrupt.”
Moses 3rd trip down the mountain occurs here in chapter 32. He meets Joshua, who is waiting for him part of the way towards the foot of the mountain, and Joshua hears all the revelry, but doesn’t know what is going on — he thinks it is war in the camp [v. 17]. Moses says no, it is singing — it is not victory but defeat [they’re not singing praises to the God of Israel!!]
Moses smashes the tablets in anger. He apparently drives the Israelites from the golden calf, pulverizes it, mixes it with water, and made the Israelites drink it in punishment. He then deputizes the Levites to kill throughout the camp. It is not stated, but implied, that they are to kill those who promoted or led the false worship of the calf, and they killed about 3000. 32:30, Moses agrees to go up the mountain for the 4th time, to see if he can atone for the sin of Israel before the LORD. God partially agrees, but also sends a plague that kills more of those who had worshipped the calf.
Exodus 33 — In this chapter we see the LORD giving direction to Moses to break camp and head towards the promised land, saddened because God said He wouldn’t go with them into the Land. The rest of chapter 33 describes Moses’ further intercession for Israel and the further tightening of their relationship.
Ex 34 — Moses prepared a new set of tablets, and went up the mountain a FOURTH time. He is rewarded for his prayerful perseverance by being given to see the glory of the LORD atop the mountain. There is review of the major feasts to be celebrated and other key bits of the Torah, and then the LORD directs all of this be written down, along with the two new stone tablets. When he came down from the 4th ascent [34: 29], his face glowed from God’s glory — the people feared to come near him. This concluded Moses’ final excursion up and down Mt. Sinai, and the end of his closest and most extensive interactions with the God of the Patriarchs.