Imagine that you and your young family hop in the car for a trip to the grocery store. You pull into the parking lot and notice a crowd gathered near the entrance. You can’t quite see what’s going on, but it’s nothing bad; the people seem happy and energized.
And they’re all looking down at something in their midst.
Puppies. Of course. Someone has brought a litter of the cutest puppies you’ve ever seen, and is giving them away to anyone who will give them a good home.
Your kids, of course, are immediately smitten. “Oh, look!” your daughter squeals as she picks one up. “He’s so adorable!”
Your son chimes in. “Can we keep him? Please?” he begs, making his own puppy eyes at you. “We’ll take care of him, we promise!” His sister, naturally, nods vigorously in agreement.
You don’t say it, but if the truth be told, the kid part of you wants to take a puppy home just as much as they do. But the adult part of you is thinking about all the work and expense, the soiled carpets and the chewed slippers. You know the kids’ promise is earnest, but naive. At first, they may fight over who gets to take care of the dog. But soon, they’ll be fighting over who has to take care of the dog.
You know this, because that’s what happened when you were a kid. You’ve learned something they haven’t yet: we may start with the best of intentions, but the heart is fickle.
That’s a relatively harmless example. But sometimes, our fickleness can be disastrous.
The story of the Israelites in the wilderness is a case study in the fickleness of idolatry. I’m reminded here of the 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt, a reimagined version of the story of Moses. The movie ends on a triumphant note, as Moses comes down the mountain with the stone tablets, and looks out upon the massive crowd of Israelites below. It’s portrayed as the required happy ending to the story. Cue the heroic music; roll credits.
Biblically, however, the scene is the furthest thing from a happy ending.
It’s both a dark moment and a foreshadowing of darker things to come.
Consider how the larger story is told in Exodus. The Israelites have escaped their slavery by the mighty hand of God, who parted the Red Sea before them, and closed the waters back over the pursuing Egyptian army. Standing on the far shore, they look back, see the dead bodies, and rightly fear God (Exod 14:31).
The next chapter begins with the triumphant songs of Moses and Miriam (15:1-21). Hallelujah! Praise God! But three verses later, the people are complaining to Moses about not having fresh water to drink (Exod 15:24). And shortly after that, they’re waxing nostalgic about Egyptian cuisine, accusing Moses (and by extension, God) of dragging them out to the desert to starve (16:3).
They’ve already forgotten their slavery. They’ve forgotten their miraculous rescue. They’ve forgotten their jubilant songs of triumph. All they know is that they’re hungry, and they turn against Moses and Aaron.
The heart, as we’ve seen, is fickle.
Fast forward to Mount Sinai. The people are encamped en masse at its base. God descends in fire, wrapping the mountain in thick smoke. Lightning flashes. The air is split by deafening trumpet blasts, and the ground shakes as God speaks to Moses in thunder.
Can you imagine it? How would you have responded, if you had been there?
The people, understandably, tremble with fear, saying to Moses, “You speak to us, and we’ll listen. But don’t let God speak to us, or we’ll die” (Exod 20:19, CEB).
God’s word to the people includes a double prohibition against idolatry: “You must have no other gods before me. Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth” (Exod 20:3-4). Moses receives other instructions, ending with a renewal of God’s promise and then, for good measure, another warning against idolatry (23:31-33).
When Moses reports these things to the people, they answer in unison: “Everything that the Lord has said we will do” (Exod 24:3). Then Moses goes back up the mountain to receive the stone tablets and even more instructions. He’s gone for forty days and nights (vs. 18).
All of this is the biblical prelude to the scene so badly distorted by the ending of The Prince of Egypt. It’s anything but a triumphant moment. When Moses heads back down the mountain with the tablets, he’s already had to talk God out of destroying the people.
Why? Because despite their healthy fear of the raw power of God at the Red Sea,
despite their jubilant celebration of the exodus,
despite their terror at the sound and fury of God’s self-manifestation on the mountain,
despite the clear, repeated prohibition against idolatry,
despite their enthusiastic promise to obey everything they’ve been told,
they have already broken the first and second commandments by making a golden idol to worship, instead of the God who so lovingly and powerfully saved them from Egypt.
And that, as we’ll see, is the background to Stephen’s final argument to the Sanhedrin, as he answers the charges of blaspheming against Moses, God, and the Temple.