Moses, joints aching from his climb up Sinai—Could you not have chosen a younger man for this mission, O’ Mysterious, Bellowing God?—had first taken the laughter and singing from the mountain’s foot as rejoicing, welcoming him back after he had been away from his people so long—but, as he came around the last curve in the mountain path and, his aged eyes clearing, saw what the sinful people were doing, he staggered, and the Tablets, which had at first felt so light, grew stoney and tumbled from his grasp. They shattered on the rocky path of Sinai, and shards tumbled into the ancient lava-pits, never to be found. As his shoulders sagged, he heard the voice of his God:
O My People—I took you out of Egypt; I saved you from Pharaoh; I freed you from slavery—but you have betrayed me—and Moses will punish you.
Me? I will punish them? The Prophet thought, as he lay, exhausted, on the mountain’s dusty path, tears leaking through the wrinkles of his face and gathering in his white-and-grey beard.
Can not You, God-Who-Is, You Who can fight your own battles, punish Your own children? Why must the disciplining always be left to me? They should love me, not fear me; I ought to be their father—Oof!
He felt Joshua’s strong, young arms lifting him, as his disciple and foster son had done many times before, and his elder brother Aaron—dear, sweet, patient Aaron—pulling him up from the other side. Moses felt his own, shepherd’s strength returning: No time for self-pity, he told himself, for they have sinned, sinned greatly; and they must pay the penalty—but what penalty?
He spoke as he was thinking: “Who are the ringleaders?” he asked Joshua and Aaron, “and are there any people—or, better, tribes—who remain loyal to us?”
Aaron thought, looked, and pointed. “See there, My Brother Moses? Those are the tents of the Levites, all drawn closed, and shut up tight.”
Moses nodded. “Gather them.”
Aaron frowned. “What do you have in mind, Brother?”
Moses looked—there was a huge bonfire. In its garish flames—now blue, now green, now blood-red—the Egyptian sorcerers, part of the “mixed multitude” Pharaoh had driven out of Egypt with the Israelite slaves and all of his assorted troublemakers, emptying his prisons, his asylums, as well as his private jail, where he placed his political prisoners—the mob, most of them half-dressed or totally naked, were dancing drunkenly around the Calf. His gorge rose as he saw men and women openly fornicating, there in the full light of the moon. Golden and silver cups, looted from the Egyptians, lay on the ground, with their spilled wine winking in the moonlight. Off to one side, a mixed group of men and women alternated between singing and choosing partners for their animal-like sexual acts.
Snatches of pagan poetry wafted up the mountainside; the men shuddered as they heard it:
O Israel see your god
He is great He is good
Broke Pharaoh’s rotten wood
Come and taste it is good
Young maiden do you dare
Come and let
Down your hair
Let me touch
You down there
Israel do you dare?
Drums, tambourines; skirling pipes, even a kinnor, a seven-stringed harp, which Moses had thought to include as part of the Sanctuary worship, when Betsalel completed the work—where was Betsalel? Now, the harp would have to be destroyed, having been used to sin, and encourage others to sin—
Moses shuddered, and turned away. He heard the Voice:
You must act, Moses: you must carry out My will.
“It is not my mind, Aaron—no; such is the will of the Living God. Assemble the Levites—blow the shofar!” he said.
Joshua took the shofar he wore always, slung from his girdle-belt, and blew a series of blasts—long-three shorts-nine shorter still-and a long: Tekiah-Shevarim-Teruah-Tekiah. As the three men watched the Levite camp, pitched on the side opposite the Calf, someone turned back the flap of each tent, and looked out—a man from some; from others, a woman. Tent-roofs began to ripple, as men emerged, looking around in curiosity; they saw the three, pointed, began to run in their direction, holding their keffiyehs up so as not to gaze at the orgiastic couples writhing on the ground; others covered their ears, not to hear the hellish music.
“Where is Chur?” asked Moses, “Where is our old comrade? Aaron, you and he held my arms aloft when Joshua led the armed men into battle against the Amalekites.”
“I have bad news—“ Aaron began, and, when Moses’ face fell, he was quick to add, “Our dear friend, Chur—”
Joshua continued, as Aaron, compassionate as he was, began to cry.
“When the people saw that you did not return and the Egyptian refugee mob told them to think of building the Golden Calf, Chur was the only man with the courage to oppose them. You had appointed Aaron here to monitor them while you were away, but they were shouting and picking up rocks—‘Build us a god, or at least, a Seat for this Mystery to sit his exalted Self on, or we will kill you, false prophet!’ Chur and I were the only ones who urged them to be patient, that you would return in due course of time.
“But Chur, Chur was brave, brave to the point of being reckless. He stood before them, shaking his fists, brandishing his staff, daring them to rebel: he shouted, ‘Any Egyptian or half-breed cur who opposes the One True God, him will I beat into the ground!’ And the mob growled at him, like so many wolves; they were already forming lines to give me—give me—“
“Not you, Joshua,” said Aaron, fresh tears gleaming on his cheeks, “the sin was mine, entirely mine. I had thought to delay them, by asking them to forfeit the fortune in gold and silver they had taken from the Egyptians—which of those foolish ex-slaves would willingly part with the treasure they had earned, during our four-hundred-year slavery? But I reckoned wrongly—they raced to their tents, seized their bags of loot, their women’s jewelry boxes, and flung the gold and silver into a sacred pot I took from the Altar. I had no choice—“
“Choice? It was magic—those two half-breed Egyptian sorcerers, Datan and Aviram, and that Levite rascal priestly wannabe, Korach himself, flung flash-powder into the air to fool the rabble, and caused that Golden Abomination to emerge. Aaron,” pleaded Joshua, “it was not your fault! Not his fault, Lord Moses—“ and here, Joshua fell to his knees, bowed his head, and grasped Moses’s robe, even as the Levites, swords and bucklers in hand—Where has this tribe of priests and Levites gotten such weapons, and so quickly? Moses asked himself, foolishly and bemusedly—gathered around them.
“What will you have us do, Lord Moses? We wait on your command,” said Elisamach, a burly, dark-bearded Levitical leader, of the Kedemite clan.
“Give us the word, and we will wreak bloody destruction on those rebel sinners!” cried Ben-Gevurah, a red-headed tyro, whom Aaron himself was teaching the slow, detailed, and proper way to do sacrifice.
“Brothers! Please—silence!” said Aaron, and the warriors grew quiet; they respected Aaron, whose leadership of the Levites was secondary only to Moses’s ability to lead the Israelites.
Moses could already hear the words of He-Who-Is in his head: Such is My will, Moses My Servant. Tell the Levites, the One True Tribe, loyal to Me only among Israel on this tragic day, to go through the camp.
“What would You have them do, O’ Lord?” asked Moses, trembling, for he had already guessed the answer.
Kill the sinners, the orgiastic mob; they have brought evil and destruction on My Holy People. Let every man kill his brother, his sister, even his child, if they have brought evil upon My people, for building that Desolation of Abomination. Heed Me, and obey, lest greater destruction follow….
The Divine whispers in Moses’s old ears faded; he strained to hear if there were more, but there was none; only a bit of hamseen-winds, lashing sand-pebbles against his ears; he pulled his keffiyeh closer. Moses turned; it was time for him to carry out God’s will. The aching in his shoulders was gone; he stood up, straight and tall. He felt younger, somehow, but sadder, as well. Was there to be no mercy for the sinners, whose crime had begun by a mistake? And what of Brother Aaron, whom he had assigned to watch the people, and prevent any sinning? Had not Aaron failed in his task? God did not respond to his mental query.
As he passed by Joshua, who was finishing buckling his short sword to his girdle, while a small boy, one of Aaron’s great-nephews, held his wooden shield with dented bronze plate surrounding the center targe, the young leader cocked his head, alert as a hawk to the needs and desires of his master.
Moses nodded, slowly and sadly: “The Holy One, our Lord God of Hosts, desires that we kill all the guilty. Let their blood flow throughout the camp, as a warning to others who may backslide in the future and disobey the words of the One True God. You may begin….”
Even before Moses had completed his last sentence, Joshua had raised his right arm, but leaving his sword at his belt.
“Israelites!” shouted Joshua, in a voice so loud that the raucous music coming from near the Calf faltered for a second. “We go to wreak vengeance on those who have sinned, in the Name of the One True God! Assemble your ranks!”
Before Moses, Aaron, and Joshua, the Levitical strike force, some armed with swords and small bucklers, others, behind them, with bows and arrows, and, in front, men with short spears with bronze tips, sharpened to razor-thinness, formed a ragged line.
“Attend me!” said Joshua, in a lower voice, and the men gripped their weapons; each archer took a fletch, pointed with a flinty tip, and strung it to the bow.
“Bow-benders, on my command,” said Joshua, and the orgiasts, finally realizing their fate, began to cry, scream, reach for their discarded clothing, and, in small groups, run back to what they thought was the safety of their tents.
“Fire arrows!” shouted Joshua! The bolts flew straight and true; all of Israel’s faithful, those who had not worshiped the Calf, heard the screaming of the sinners, as the flinty tips thudded home, in tent-cloth, ground, and human flesh.
The carnage and screaming began. Some Israelites from the remainder of the camp stood and watched; others herded both children and elderly relatives into their tents, where the leaders heard them chanting loudly a psalm of praise, both so that they would not hear the massacre, and that the Levitical warriors of vengeance would not strike at their peaceful, God-fearing homes:
The Lord is a Man of War;
The Lord is His Name.
The chariots of Pharaoh
He cast into the Reed Sea,
And the chosen of Pharoah’s cavalry
He drowned in the deep….
“Come, Brother,” said Aaron to Moses, “It is not right or fitting that you, as Rabbi and Leader of Israel, should hear or see this carnage.”
“No, Brother Aaron,” said Moses, setting his jaw firmly, “I will stand with you on yonder hill, and see how the Lord punishes the guilty. For I, as leader, and you, as High Priest, must share the blame. Could you not have held them back, back for at least one more day?”
Aaron’s mouth opened; he tried to protest his innocence. But the screams of the people being attacked—the low, persistent sound of blades slicing flesh, and the attendant screaming—overcame the brothers; they knelt slowly down on the lowest rocks of Sinai, put their heads together on its stoney floor, and wept for God to forgive them and their erring people.
And the blood of the Israelites flowed, an offering before God….