Exodus 32: Throw your rope over the wall

Throw your rope over the wall

Moses faced many barriers in his effort to get the children of Israel out of Egypt.  It has been said that it was easier for Moses to get the children of Israel out of Egypt than it was to get Egypt out of the children of Israel.  Having conquered Pharoah and his 600 chariots, warring tribes, and the impossible task of crossing the Red Sea, Moses faced what was probably the worst obstacle of all: rebellion from within his own camp.  When Moses comes off the mountain and sees that the Israelites were worshipping a false god he responds:

Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the LORD’s side? let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him.  (Exodus 32:26.)

Sometimes we have to break from the past ideologies if we are going to make any progress.  The rebellious Israelites that are destroyed in the following verses represent things in our lives that give us excuses for not moving forward with positive changes in our lives.

Occasionally when we approach a barrier in our lives it is best to trust in the Lord and tackle it head on.  We see examples in the scriptures where the Lord asks his servants to accomplish a terrific task.  These individuals go to the Lord with faith and “throw their rope over the wall” and start climbing.  Oftentimes the Lord gives us commands or directions but does not spell out the details.  Looking back to the past or trying to make excuses for why we cannot accomplish the task at hand only delays us in getting to the finish line.

Moses being commanded to take the children of Israel out of Egypt, Nephi being told to build a ship (something he had no experience doing), Joseph Smith instructed to build a temple – all of these are examples of how the Lord works with his children: He gives instructions and expects us to do all we can to fulfill his commands.  It is in the doing of His will that we continue to receive instruction.  Waiting around, hoping that things would be like they were in the past, making excuses – all of these tactics just cause more stress and delay.

Not looking back, going for it, burning your ships, going all out – all of these expressions teach the truth that once we know the direction we need to go, putting forth our best effort is what we need to do.  Looking back, equivocating in the face of pressure, will not help us achieve what the Lord wants us to achieve.  After his experience in seeing the Father and the Son, the Prophet Joseph Smith was pressured to deny the reality of his vision.  All manner of influences came into his life pressing him to deny his experience.  From his account we read the following:

25 So it was with me. I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two aPersonages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was bhated and cpersecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me dfalsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not edeny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation.  (Joseph Smith History 1:25 italics added)

What is going on with the calf in Exodus 32?

Heroes in the Old Testament exhibit this trait – this tenacity – once they are called, no amount of pressure can make them deny what they need to do to complete the work the Lord has given them.  A story from history, although not religious in nature, teaches this same concept.  When faced with a difficult situation in which the temptation to look back or go forward and face seemingly insurmountable odds presented itself, Hernan Cortez did the unthinkable.  For this one act he changed the course of history.

The no-return tactic

In 1504 an ambitious nineteen-year-old Spaniard named Hernan Cortes gave up his studies in law and sailed for his country’s colonies in the New World.  Stopping first in Santo Domingo (the island today comprising Haiti and the Dominican Republic), then in Cuba, he soon heard about a land to the west called Mexico – an empire teeming with gold and dominated by the Aztecs, with their magnificent highland capital of Tenochtitlan.  From then on, Cortes had just one thought: someday he would conquer and settle the land of Mexico.

Over the next ten years, Cortex slowly rose through the ranks, eventually becoming secretary to the Spanish governor of Cuba and then the king’s treasurer for the island. In his own mind, though, he was merely biding his time. He waited patiently while Spain sent other men to Mexico, many of them never to return.

Finally, in 1518, the governor of Cuba, Diego de Velazquez, made Cortes the leader of an expedition to discover what had happened to these earlier explorers, find gold, and lay the groundwork for the country’s conquest. Velazquez wanted to make that future conquest himself, however, so for this expedition he wanted a man he could control, and he soon developed doubts about Cortes–the man was clever, perhaps too much so.  Word reached Cortes that the governor was having second thoughts about sending him to Mexico. Deciding to give Velazquez no time to nurse his misgivings, he managed to slip out of Cuba in the middle of the night with eleven ships.  He would explain himself to the governor later.

The expedition landed on Mexico’s east coast in March 1519. Over the next few months, Cortes put his plans to work–founding the town of Veracruz, forging alliances with local tribes who hated the Aztecs, and making initial contact with the Aztec emperor, whose capital lay some 250 miles to the west. But one problem plagued the conquistador: among the 500 soldiers who had sailed with him from Cuba were a handful who had been placed thereby Velazquez to act as spies and make trouble for him if he exceeded his authority. These Velazquez loyalists accused Cortes of mismanaging the gold that he was collecting, and when it became clear that he intended to conquer Mexico, they spread rumors that he was insane–an all-too-convincing accusation to make about a man planning to lead 500 men against half a million Aztecs, fierce warriors known to eat their prisoners’ flesh and wear the skins as trophies. A rational man would take the gold they had, return to Cuba, and come back later with an army. Why stay in this forbidding land, with its diseases and its lack of creature comforts, when they were so heavily outnumbered?  Why not sail for Cuba, back home where their farms, their wives, and the good life awaited them?

Cortes did what he could with these troublemakers, bribing some, keeping a close eye on others. Meanwhile he worked to build a strong enough rapport with the rest of his men that the grumblers could do no harm. All seemed well until the night of July 30, when Cortes was awoken by a Spanish sailor who, begging for mercy, confessed that he had joined in a plot to steal a ship and return that very evening to Cuba, where the conspirators would tell Velazquez about Cortes’s goal of conquering Mexico on his own.

Cortes sensed that this was the decisive moment of the expedition. He could easily squash the conspiracy, but there would be others. His men were a rough lot, and their minds were on gold, Cuba, their families–anything but fighting the Aztecs. He could not conquer an empire with men so divided and untrustworthy, but how to fill them with the energy and focus for the immense task he faced? Thinking this through, he decided to take swift action.  He seized the conspirators and had the two ringleaders hanged.  Next, he bribed his pilots to bore holes in all of the ships and then announce that worms had eaten through the boards of the vessels, making them unseaworthy.

Pretending to be upset at the news, Cortes ordered what was salvageable from the ships to be taken ashore and then the hulls to be sunk. The pilots complied, but not enough holes had been bored, and only five of the ships went down. The story of the worms was plausible enough, and the soldiers accepted the news of the five ships with equanimity. But when a few days later more ships were run aground and only one was left afloat, it was clear to them that Cortes had arranged the whole thing. When he called a meeting, their mood was mutinous and murderous.

This was no time for subtlety. Cortes addressed his men: he was responsible for the disaster, he admitted; he had ordered it done, but now there was no turning back. They could hang him, but they were surrounded by hostile Indians and had no ships; divided and leaderless, they would perish. The only alternative was to follow him to Tenochtitlan.  Only by conquering the Aztecs, by becoming lords of Mexico, could they get back to Cuba alive.  To reach Tenochtitlan they would have to fight with utter intensity. They would have to be unified; any dissension would lead to defeat and a terrible death. The situation was desperate, but if the men fought desperately in turn, Cortes guaranteed that he would lead them to victory.  Since the army was so small in number, the glory and riches would be all the greater.  Any cowards not up to the challenge could sail the one remaining ship home.

No one accepted the offer, and the last ship was run aground. Over the next months, Cortes kept his army away from Veracruz and the coast. Their attention was focused on Tenochtitlan, the heart of the Aztec empire. The grumbling, the self-interest, and the greed all disappeared.  Understanding the danger of their situation, the conquistadors fought ruthlessly.  Some two years after the destruction of the Spanish ships, and with the help of their Indian allies, Cortes’s army laid siege to Tenochtitlan and conquered the Aztec empire.


On the night of the conspiracy, Cortes had to think fast. What was the root of the problem he faced? It was not Velazquez’s spies, or the hostile Aztecs, or the incredible odds against him.  The root of the problem was his own men and the ships in the harbor. His soldiers were divided in heart and mind. They were thinking about the wrong things–their wives, their dreams of gold, their plans for the future.  And in the backs of their minds there was always an escape route: if this conquest business went badly, they could go home. Those ships in the harbor were more than just transportation; they represented Cuba, the freedom to leave, the ability to send for reinforcements–so many possibilities.

For the soldiers the ships were a crutch, something to fall back on if things got ugly.  Once Cortes had identified the problem, the solution was simple: destroy the ships.  By putting his men in a desperate place, he would make them fight with utmost intensity.

A sense of urgency comes from a powerful connection to the present.  Instead of dreaming of rescue or hoping for a better future, you have to face the issue at hand. Fail and you perish. People who involve themselves completely in the immediate problem are intimidating; because they are focusing so intensely, they seem more powerful than they are.  Their sense of urgency multiplies their strength and gives them momentum.  Instead of five hundred men, Cortes suddenly had the weight of a much larger army at his back.

Like Cortes you must locate the root of your problem.  It is not the people around you; it is yourself, and the spirit with which you face the world. In the back of your mind, you keep an escape route, a crutch, something to turn to if things go bad.  Maybe it is some wealthy relative you can count on to buy your way out; maybe it is some grand opportunity on the horizon, the endless vistas of time that seem to be before you; maybe it is a familiar job or a comfortable relationship that is always there if you fail. Just as Cortes’s men saw their ships as insurance, you may see this fallback as a blessing–but in fact it is a curse. It divides you.  Because you think you have options, you never involve yourself deeply enough in one thing to do it thoroughly, and you never quite get what you want.  Sometimes you need to run your ships aground, burn them, and leave yourself just one option: succeed or go down.  Make the burning of your ships as real as possible–get rid of your safety net.  Sometimes you have to become a little desperate to get anywhere. (The 33 Strategies of War, by Robert Greene, p.  42-44)

About LDS Scripture Teachings

I write about ways scripture applies in our lives: LDSScriptureTeachings.org
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