It had been three new moons since the people of Israel ducked out of their bloodied doorways and fled the plagued and wailing Egypt. They had walked through the Red Sea on dry land with water stacked in mounds to their left and right. They had turned back to see the Egyptian army drown. Even their food and drink had been provided by miracle. Through it all, in spite of their grumbling and complaining, God proved his good intentions. Through it all, despite His provision, they complained.
Now they stood at the base of Mt. Sinai, careful not to step beyond the makeshift barriers erected to protect them from the holiness of the God who had made it all happen. They witnessed His glory. They heard the thunder of His voice as He gave them the law “out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and the thick darkness” (Deut. 5.22) They agreed to obey His every word. Moses sprinkled them with sacrificial blood, and they entered into covenant with Him. But the blood of bulls and goats was not enough to cleanse their consciences. His holiness was still too much for them, and they begged not to be subject again to the terrors of His voice.
Moses alone would meet with God. Up the mountain, into the consuming fire he climbed. And there he stayed for forty days. Forty days is a long time for a man to be on a mountain engulfed in flames, and the people both remembered and forgot Who they were dealing with. They remembered His power. They remembered the way He had destroyed His enemies, but they forgot He was not their enemy. They forgot how He had delivered them from slavery and carefully provided for them. They forgot how he had protected them from harm. They assumed He had consumed Moses on the mountain.
This holy God, with His power and righteous demands was too much for them. They couldn't control Him, and they wouldn't trust Him. You would think they would be afraid to cross this Holy Terror, but instead, the words of the covenant forgotten and Moses out of the way, they created a god of their own, a golden calf. “And they said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'” They even called the calf by God's own covenant name (Ex. 32.4-5).
This idol, however, was not the first. Ever since Eden, in the beginning, the Bible depicts the history of mankind as the history of God's people belittling God's provision, rejecting God's word, and replacing Him with gods of their own invention, gods who don't make them feel unholy, gods who don't terrify them, gods who speak the kinds of words they prefer to hear.
But now, at the end of the ages, God has spoken to us by His Son. The word of God became flesh and provided the only sacrifice that can cleanse our consciences from sin. By His blood we have access for the first time since Eden to this holy God. But even now, the scripture won’t let us forget our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12.29). And we are tempted to avoid His word, to pick and choose from it, to water it down, to mold and shape a new god for ourselves, and to call his name Jesus.