Many people think that the story of Musa AS ended after the crossing of the Red Sea. However, events continued to unfold after the destruction of Pharaoh. The story carries on with the new lives of Bani Israel, no longer overshadowed by the tyranny of Pharaoh's regime.
During the crossing of the Red Sea, angel Jibril AS was riding beside Musa AS. According to some reports, every time the horse's hooves struck the ground, the earth was illuminated. Some other reports say that the nature of the soil around the hoof prints transformed and grass grew from it. In any case, a sly and manipulative man from Bani Israel by the name of Al Samiri noticed this and picked up the dust secretly. We shall explain why later, insha Allah.
When Bani Israel reached the opposite shore, they saw people worshipping idols. Although their feet were still wet from the journey, and despite having experienced one of the greatest miracles known to mankind, some of the Bani Israel demanded Musa AS to create a similar idol for them to worship! Notwithstanding all they had undergone, they were still hankering over false gods and statues because they wanted visible evidence of a deity!
Musa AS responded that they were certainly a most ignorant people and reminded them of the favours of Allah upon them: having sent them a Prophet, His book and having saved them from the bondage and slavery to Pharaoh, by drowning Pharaoh and his army and by allowing them to inherit his property and wealth. It would be utterly wrong for them at this stage to still be tempted by false gods when so much evidence had been laid out before them, which they experienced first hand and witnessed with their own eyes.
This matter was not finished, but we shall come to that later, insha Allah.
They then travelled towards Baitul Maqdis (Jerusalem), which was overrun by transgressors and wrongdoers. Musa AS commanded Bani Israel to enter the city, and expel the wrongdoers from Jerusalem, for Allah had promised this land to them by their father Ibrahim AS and then through Musa AS.
We shall see from this story and many of the subsequent ones that Bani Israel is the most impertinent, cowardly and troublesome race. That is why prophet after prophet was sent to their communities, to rectify their disbelieving ways. In this instant, unwilling to believe in the promise of Allah, they offered paltry excuses, and therefore not only denied what Allah had promised, but blatantly disobeyed Him.
[Musa AS said] "O my people! Enter the holy land (Palestine) which Allah has assigned to you, and turn not back (in flight) for then you will be returned as losers. They said: "O Musa (Musa)! In it (this holy land) are a people of great strength, and we shall never enter it, till they leave it; when they leave, then we will enter." (Al Qur'an 5:21- 5:22)
Even with Allah's promise of victory, their faith in Allah was so weak that they flatly refused. Only two of the entire Bani Israel (estimated to be around 70,000) were willing to heed Allah's command.
Two men of those who feared (Allah and) on whom Allah had bestowed His Grace [they were Yusha' (Joshua) and Kalab (Caleb)] said: "Assault them through the gate, for when you are in, victory will be yours, and put your trust in Allah if you are believers indeed." (Al Qur'an 5:23)
As for the rest, they preferred to just sit and watch like cowards, publicly confirming their disbelief and insolence to Allah. They had just witnessed the destruction of Pharaoh's kingdom, which was a more powerful regime than what they would have had to face in Jerusalem, but they were so spiritually blinded and defeated from within that they had no courage to overcome their internal humiliation and behave with dignity:
They said: "O Musa (Musa)! We shall never enter it as long as they are there. So go you and your Lord and fight you two, we are sitting right here." (Al Qur'an 5:24)
In response to this, Musa AS turned towards Allah and said:
"O my Lord! I have power only over myself and my brother, so separate us from the people who are the Fasiqun (rebellious and disobedient to Allah)!" (Al Qur'an 5:25).
As a punishment for their disobedience and rebelliousness, Allah made them lost in the desert for forty years. The tribes travelled aimlessly, with no destination, purpose or comfort, day or night; lost and without any bearings.
(Allah) said: "Therefore it (this holy land) is forbidden to them for forty years; in distraction they will wander through the land. So be not sorrowful over the people who are the Fasiqun (rebellious and disobedient to Allah)." (Al Qur'an 5:26)
The Golden Calf
One day, Musa AS was commanded by Allah to meet Him at Mount Tur, a mission which was to last 30 nights. He entrusted his brother Harun AS to stand in his place of taking care of Bani Israel, and "do right, and not follow the way of the corrupt." (Al Qur'an 7:142-7:143)
During this time, Musa AS fasted for the entire duration in spiritual preparation for his appointment with Allah. At the end of thirty days, he gathered some sweet smelling herbs and chewed them to freshen his breath before meeting Allah. For this act, Allah commanded him to stay for another ten days. We are reminded here of the hadith which says that the smell of the mouth of a fasting person is fresher (to Allah) than the fragrance of musk. Thus, Musa's AS return to his people was delayed.
After Musa AS left, the cunning Al Samiri melted the gold booty that they collected from Pharaoh's people and moulded it into a golden calf. He then threw the dust that he had secretly collected from the footsteps of Jibril's AS horse on the day Bani Israel crossed the Red Sea, either into the fire or onto the completed golden calf. The statue also had a hollow running from its front to its rear, the cow produced a strange sound, which gave it the impression of possessing supernatural qualities.
"Then he (Samiri) took out (of the fire) for them a statue of a calf which seemed to low. They said: "This is your ilah (god), and the ilah (god) of Musa (Musa), but [Musa (Musa)] has forgotten (his god).'" (Al Qur'an 20:88)
The faith of Bani Israel in Allah was weak, and it was further shaken by Musa's AS delay. Therefore, they pounced upon this excuse to worship the golden calf. The divine miracles they had witnessed were all but forgotten. Disregarding all the evidence of Allah they had seen, they went back into their ignorant and corrupted ways, saying: "We will not stop worshipping it (i.e. the calf), until Musa returns to us." (Al Qur'an 20:91)
Harun AS tried to advise them during his brother's absence, but in vain.