What if Moses had come down the mountain and joined the party?

by Bob Schwartz

As the story is told in the Bible, while Moses was away on the mountain, the people crafted a golden calf to worship. When he returned, he found an abominable scene (Exodus 32):

Moses turned, and went down from the mountain, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand; tablets that were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other they were written. The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tables.

When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is the noise of war in the camp.”

He said, “It isn’t the voice of those who shout for victory, neither is it the voice of those who cry for being overcome; but the noise of those who sing that I hear.” It happened, as soon as he came near to the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing: and Moses’ anger grew hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands, and broke them beneath the mountain. He took the calf which they had made, and burnt it with fire, ground it to powder, and scattered it on the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.

That same scene is made more salacious in another scripture, the 1956 movie The Ten Commandments. There Moses (played by Charlton Heston) comes upon a wild party:

The cauldrons are gone, and in their place are great spits where men and women are roasting and basting an ox as well as lamb and fowl. From the turning spits, the fires illuminate the scene with a strange and varying play of light.

An air of tense expectancy is upon the crowd now, dressed in the gay colored fabrics of Egypt and Midian. Horn goblets, clay bowls, alabaster containers are ready to be filled from wine skins.

At a signal from Dathan, ten young men with gleaming torsos thrust the Golden Calf high into the air. There is a great shout of triumph from the crowd: “Hallel! Praise to the Golden Calf!”

The light from the coals in the receptacle beneath the stomach of the golden god filters through the grille work, suffusing the idol’s underside with a flickering evil glare.

Drumbeats mingle with the clash of cymbals and the blowing of pipes and horns, and strumming of lutes. As the Calf starts to move in a great circle around the camp, a spontaneous Saturnalia bursts forth. Aaron ­ swinging a golden censer – and Miriam, dancing with a timbrel – move before the golden idol, giving praise. Elisheba circles the Calf, waving a second, smaller censer toward the idol. A dancing girl with incense weaves through the procession. Another girl, dancing before the god, dips an ivory-mounted horsetail into a bowl she is carrying, flicking perfume first upon the god and then upon the people.

A girl riding high upon a man’s shoulders, arches her tawny body to hang a garland of acacias upon a horn of the god. Still other women are borne aloft to deck the idol with their ropes of jewels and silver chains.

In complete abandonment to pleasure, men and women mingle in wild Dionysian dance, whirling around the idol and before it, throwing wine and flowers at the god.

Thinly clad girls dance with clashing timbrels, now and again seized by a man who rips away a scarf, flinging it into the litter of the god where the fire curls it in devouring flame. It is an eruption of pleasure without pattern, without form, the joyous release of centuries of bondage. A dozen or more girls with harps rhythmically swing beside the idol, filling the air with sensuous harmony.

What if the story is told differently? What if Moses, instead of angrily smashing the tablets, took a more understanding and less severe approach? He knew the people were tired and discouraged. He himself was more than tired, having climbed the mountain, encountered God, and trudged back down with the stone tablets. Might he have considered setting the tablets aside for a little while, letting the people blow off some steam, maybe even joining the party himself? Instead of making the children of Israel drink the ground up golden calf, could he, after the fun was over, more calmly explain the massive cosmic significance of his latest adventure and of the message in the tablets?