So, I had someone ask me if Aaron and the Jewish people knew that the idol they made was wrong. The reasoning used was that they didn’t have the 10 Commandments yet. I think they got their information from watching the movie “The 10 Commandments,” which eludes that the tablets Moses was carrying were the 10 Commandments.
To be honest, that is what I believed, but while thinking about it, it didn’t make sense that God would be angry at them, and yet they didn’t know it was wrong. Lo and behold, I was wrong, and so was the 10 Commandments (the movie)! Let me quote you some relevant scripture (or go here for the full context) from Exodus 19:18-Exodus 20:21 (I trimmed some of the verses to make it quicker to read):
So Moses went down to the people and told them.
Then God spoke all these words, saying,
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol…You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain…Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy…Honor your father and your mother…You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
All the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood at a distance.
So, at the end, we know that all the people were there, and that they “perceived” the thunder, lightning and a trumpet noise. Perceiving something involves a few things. First, it means to be aware. This means that Moses was certainly at the bottom of the mountain, and the people were relatively close, otherwise it would not have frightened them. Second, it also means to understand. When they heard all this noise, they must have also heard the Ten Commandments. Now, what if they just heard and understood the noise to be God? Well, Hebrew is a very particular language, meaning that every word has very significant meaning; for instance, there are multiple words to describe rain, and they would have to be used properly and in the right context. Likewise, the word “perceived” was used specifically to note the awareness and understanding of the noise.
So, the quick version: they knew about the Ten Commandments before they fashioned their idol, and knew it was wrong, but they desired a “touch of home,” which was Egypt for most of them, and at that time, Egyptian people would take part in idol worship in the forms of men, animals, and combinations of the two.
And that leaves the question: what was on the stone tablets Moses brought down later in Exodus 32? They were tablets of “testimony,” meaning proof that Moses was on the mountain with God, and as a memorial that God had chosen Moses’ people to represent Himself.