Moses met Yahweh at Horeb, the “mountain of God.” But which god? Elohim is a designation of place, not a proper name; it describes a denizen of the unseen realm. There are many elohim, but only one capital-E Elohim, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Based on the name Sinai and its location in the middle of the Wilderness of Sin, it’s reasonable to conclude that in Moses’s day, this mountain was considered the abode of the moon-god.
Yahweh brought Moses to Mount Sinai during his sojourn with Jethro and the Midianites for a reason. And He brought the Israelites there right after springing them from Egypt for a reason. What could that reason be?
Evidence suggests that from the last days of Sumerian rule over Mesopotamia through the rise of Babylon, the moon-god, Sîn, was the most important deity of the Amorites. It wasn’t Marduk, although he was the patron god of Babylon, or the elder god, who went by different names across the Near East—Enlil in the east, Dagan along the Euphrates River (and, later, Dagon of the Philistines), and El in the west. All across Mesopotamia, Amorites served the moon-god, whether they hailed from Babylon, which preserved the traditions of Ur, the ancient city of the moon-god; the north, where Harran was a major moon-god cult center; or from Canaan, where the oldest city known to man, Jericho, bore the Amorite name for the moon-god, Yarikh.
Although God’s first supernatural showdown on the way out of Egypt targeted the king of the Canaanite pantheon, the storm-god Baal, it was to the mountain of the moon-god that Yahweh led Moses and the Israelites. Imagine what must have been going through the minds of the people when they realized where they were!
Yet that was where God led the Israelites immediately after their escape from Egypt. And it was there He called Moses to receive the Law.
Then, God did something even more remarkable. He directed Moses to bring some guests up the mountain.
Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.Exodus 24:9–11 (emphasis added)
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this brief passage. All of history is about God’s plan to restore humanity to His divine council. The council originally met in Eden on “the holy mountain of God.” We’ve been barred from the council because of the sin of Adam and Eve, but the sacrifice of the Messiah, Jesus, paid the price for our sins and bought back the right for us to enter the garden someday.
The point is this: The long war between God and the gods is for control of the holy mountain—the har môʿēd, the “mount of assembly” or “mount of the congregation.” There at Mount Sinai, Moses, Aaron, and the seventy elders of Israel became the first humans since Adam and Eve to see God face to face on His holy mountain!
This was a message aimed right at the rebel gods: “My people are free. And someday, they will take your place in My council.”
Remember—When God divided the nations after Babel, “He fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God”—angelic beings that He “allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven” as the gods of the nations. Remember, too, that the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 names seventy clans descended from Noah, representing all the people of the earth.
Seventy nations. Seventy elders of Israel. Coincidence? No way.
By the way, there’s a chance you’re thinking that the story of dinner on Sinai must be a weird translation. Haven’t we been taught that it’s impossible for humans to see the face of God and live?
Yes, that’s in the Bible. Moses was in that story, too. That was different, and we’ll come to that episode in a moment. God did appear to humans in the form of the angel of Yahweh, or the Angel of the Lord. That was the pre-incarnate Christ.
Well, the moon-god didn’t just surrender. While Moses was up on the mountain for forty days, the people coerced Aaron into creating an idol—the golden calf.
“Up, 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.” So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.Exodus 32:1–6
We should note that the Hebrew word rendered “play” here, tsachaq, is used in other contexts as a euphemism for sexual activity—for example, Genesis 39:14 and 17, the encounter between Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. This wasn’t a day of celebrating the holiness of God. This was a pagan party of carnal indulgence.
It’s easy to empathize with Aaron to a point. It’s hard to stand up to pushy people, especially mobs, and particularly when they’re motivated by the fear that they alone among the nations were without the protection of a national deity. But, come on—Aaron had personally witnessed Yahweh supernaturally part the Red Sea and feed the people Israel in the middle of the desert! (Not that we would have done any better in his place.)
The excuse Aaron gave to Moses when he came down from Sinai is comical:
Let not the anger of my lord burn hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. For 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.” So I said to them, “Let any who have gold take it off.” So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.Exodus 32:22–24
“Out came this calf”?! Most parents have heard better excuses from seven-year-olds.
Some scholars interpret the golden calf as evidence that Yahweh was a bull-god, or at least represented by a bull. To be fair, there are passages in Scripture that liken the power of God to a bull, which was a common theme among gods in the ancient Near East. But that’s not what this was about.
Several years ago, Derek speculated that the golden calf represented the storm-god, Baal, who was sometimes described as a bull. But that wasn’t typical; Baal was usually depicted as a human in a smiting pose, with a mace in one hand and thunderbolts in the other. It’s more likely that the golden idol represented “the frisky calf of heaven,” patron god of shepherds and pastoralists, the god whose mountain the Israelites were camped in front of—the moon-god, Sîn.
God was not amused. His reaction was like His response after Babel: Yahweh told Moses that Israel had better repent, and they could forget about God traveling with them into the Promised Land because, as stubborn as they were, He’d probably smite them before they got there and start over with just Moses.
Well, the people mourned, like children caught doing something they shouldn’t. Based on future actions, the regret was more about being punished than about disappointing the Creator of the Universe. (Not that we would have done any better in their place.) Moses, while pleading for the people, asked Yahweh for a favor:
Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, 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. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”Exodus 33:18–23 (emphasis added)
Why the change since the meal on Mount Sinai? What about those verses that describe Yahweh talking things over with Moses “face to face”? These are hints of the Trinity in the Old Testament. The personal encounters of the patriarchs—remember, Abraham ate a meal with God and bargained with Him to try to save Sodom—was with a visible, physical presence, a form that concealed His true, overwhelming glory. In a sense, Moses asked for a peek behind the mask. That’s something Yahweh couldn’t do, not even for Moses.
In any case, God did send His “presence” (pānîm) with Israel to the Promised Land. This is a concept that’s hard to wrap our heads around. What’s the difference between Yahweh, His angel, and His presence? In some verses, none. Sometimes, the Angel of Yahweh is obviously Yahweh, because He takes credit for things that Yahweh did and promised.
His “presence,” however, is a little different. The clearest example may be in the priestly blessing that God taught Aaron:
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face [pānāy] to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance [pānāy] upon you and give you peace.Numbers 6:24–26
It may be of interest that in Ezekiel 38:20, God promises that His presence will be on the battlefield during the war of Gog and Magog, which concludes with the Battle of Armageddon. We’ll dig into that in more depth later, but it’s safe to say that the one time you do not want the Lord to lift up His countenance upon you is when He’s leading the army you’re about to attack.
Armageddon won’t be the first time somebody’s made that bad choice. That’s exactly what happened about thirty-four hundred years ago in Canaan. And the forces lined up against the host of Yahweh were devotees of the moon-god.
 See Ezekiel 28:2, 13–14.
 Deuteronomy 32:8.
 Deuteronomy 4:19.
 See Derek’s book Last Clash of the Titans for a more thorough treatment of the connections between bovid imagery and pagan gods. The old gods of Greece, the Titans, derived their name from an ancient Amorite tribe, which in turn appears to have been named for the Akkadian word for “bison” or “aurochs,” an extinct breed of wild cattle that was huge—up to 72” at the shoulders—and very dangerous.
 See, for example, Exodus 33:11; Numbers 12:6–8; Deuteronomy 34:10–12.
 For example, Judges 2:1–3: “I brought you up from Egypt.… I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you’.… But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you.”