Numbers 14:1-20 is an amazing text in which Moses is presented as an effective intercessor, coming before an angry God pleading for the survival of Israel. Moses’ intercessory prayer is very instructive because it reveals the role of Moses as an effective mediator. Moses’ prayer also reveals how God depends on the prayers of his people in order to accomplish his work in the world.
Moses’ Intercessory Prayer (Numbers 14:1-20)
And the LORD said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”
But Moses said to the LORD, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for in your might you brought up this people from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O LORD, are in the midst of this people; for you, O LORD, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go in front of them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if you kill this people all at one time, then the nations who have heard about you will say, ‘It is because the LORD was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them that he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.’
And now, therefore, let the power of the LORD be great in the way that you promised when you spoke, saying, ‘The LORD is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.’ Forgive the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have pardoned this people, from Egypt even until now.
Then the LORD said, “I do forgive, just as you have asked.”
The Sin of Israel
The text above comes after the report the twelve spies gave to the people of Israel when they returned from reconnoitering the land. Moses had sent twelve men, each representing a tribe of Israel, to look at the land of Canaan and evaluate the chances of victory in preparation for the conquest of the land. When the spies returned, they spoke highly of the fertility of the land, but ten of them mentioned the fortified walls of the Canaanite cities and recommended against an invasion of Canaan.
When the people of Israel heard the negative report of the ten spies, they raised their voices and wept. In their desperation they said that it would have been better for them to die in Egypt than to die in the wilderness or to die by the hands of the inhabitants of Canaan.
When Moses and Aaron heard the complaint of the people and their desire to return to Egypt, they “fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the Israelites”(Numbers 14:5). The gesture of falling to the ground on their faces is generally an act of grief when one is confronted with a great tragedy. When the army of Israel was defeated in their attack at Ai, “Joshua tore his clothes, and fell to the ground on his face before the ark of the LORD until the evening, he and the elders of Israel; and they put dust on their heads” (Joshua 7:6).
The people failed to believe that God would fight for them, deliver them from their enemies, and give them the land of Canaan as he had promised to Abraham. The problem with the people was that they lacked faith to believe that the same God who performed all those miraculous signs in Egypt could do the same as they prepared to face their enemies.
In response to the rebellion of the people, Yahweh passed his judgment: “I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you [Moses] a nation greater and mightier than they” (Numbers 14:12). The implication of what God said to Moses in response to the rebellion of Israel has not been understood by many Christians who read this text. In response to the rebellious attitude of Israel, the Lord told Moses three things that he would do.
First, God said that he would “strike them with pestilence.” The word pestilence refers to any kind plague or disease that causes human death or the death of animals (Exodus 9:3; Numbers 11:33). Second, the Lord said that he would “disinherit them.” In her study of Numbers 14, Sakenfeld said that “The contexts suggest that the action is regarded as tantamount to rejection of the whole covenant relationship, an action which Yahweh must treat in judgment” (1975:321). This disowning of Israel means, according to Levine, that “Israel will no longer be God’s inheritance” (1993:110).
Third, the Lord said that he would make of Moses a great and powerful nation instead of Israel. This is the same promise God made to Moses at the time of the apostasy of the golden calf. At that time, God told Moses: “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation” (Exodus 32:10). Now, God promised to make of Moses a greater and powerful nation.
Moses’ Prayer for Israel
But Moses would have none of it. Instead, he asked the Lord to forgive the people for their rebellious attitude. In his prayer on behalf of Israel, Moses presented several reasons why God should not destroy the people (Numbers 14:13-16). Moses’ argument was as follows: Moses told God that the Egyptians would tell the people of Canaan that God had taken Israel out of Egypt with many signs and with great power. However, if God would kill the Israelites in the desert, then the nations would say that God was unable to bring the people to the land because he lacked power to deliver them and this was the reason he killed them in the wilderness.
In response to Moses’ prayer on behalf of Israel, the LORD said, “I do forgive, just as you have asked” (Numbers 14:20). In his commentary on Numbers, Baruch Levine writes about the boldness of Moses’ prayer and Yahweh’s decision to answer his prayer. He wrote: “God accedes to Moses’ request in a uniquely dramatic statement, as if in obedience to Moses” (1993:367).
The Work of the Intercessor
The question one must ask is whether the Lord really intended to do what he said he would do. It is clear that the Lord did not plan to forgive the people of Israel for their rebellion, otherwise, God’s statement to Moses that he would begin another nation with him makes no sense. Such a view also means that God’s word to Moses was not true. God meant to do everything he said he would do.
The fact that God did not destroy Israel has also another important implication, that is, that what God was planning to do in the near future was not yet determined because God changed his mind about what he was planning to do to Israel because of Moses’ prayer.
God forgave the sins of the people in answer to Moses’ prayer but there was no remission of punishment because God told Moses that although he would not strike them with pestilence and although God would not disinherit them, the generation of those who rebelled against God, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, would not enter the promised land.
The forgiveness of the people does not mean that Israel would escape the consequences of their sins. They would not receive the punishment they deserved. God forgave the people but those who rebelled against God would not enter the promised land.
The prayer of Moses on behalf of rebellious Israel demonstrates that there is power in prayer and that intercessory prayers are effective in changing the mind of God. In fact, the Bible clearly reveals that God wants people to come before him in prayer so that God may be convinced not to act and punish the people.
This great biblical truth is found in Ezekiel 22:30-31: “And I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one. Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them; I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath.”
If it were not for Moses, God would have destroyed Israel in the wilderness, but because Moses was strong enough to challenge God and because Moses was willing to stand in the breach before God on behalf of Israel, God changed his mind and the judgment was averted.
Moses’ prayer and God’s response are very important for the proper understanding of prayers in the Bible. God’s response to Moses’ prayer was shaped by more than what God wanted to do, begin a new nation with Moses. However, God’s response to Moses’ prayer was affected by what Moses said in his prayer to God.
In his prayer for Israel, Moses did not say that God’s punishment of Israel was unjustified. To the contrary, Moses clearly says that Israel deserved God’s judgment. This is the reason Moses does not claim that Israel did not deserve to be punished.
In his prayer, Moses tells God the reasons why God should act differently from the way he intended to act. Did Moses prevail in his argument with God? God’s response to Moses in verse 20 is a clear indication that without Moses’ prayer, the punishment of Israel would be severe and the result would have been tragic. Thus, the prayer of Moses made a real difference in the way God acted. Moses’ prayer affected the future of the people, for they were not destroyed, as God intended to do with them. Moses’s prayer also affected God because God changed his mind and did not destroy Israel, as he planned to do.
The reason Moses’ intercession for rebellious Israel was effective was because Moses had a special relationship with God, the kind of relationship in which what Moses said to God was as important as what God said to Moses.
In his article “To What Kind of God Do You Pray?” Terence Fretheim wrote,
The major difference is that certain matters are now being forcefully articulated by one with whom God has established a special relationship. Because God honors the relationship, the decision-making situation is changed from what it was prior to the prayer.
Through such prayers the human party in the relationship enters into the decision-making sphere set into motion by God’s announcement (see Gen 18:17-19; Amos 3:7). The two are now together in a power-sharing situation with respect to the shaping of the future. God now has some new ingredients with which to work. The decision (will), insight (knowledge), and energy of the intercessor are placed in the service of God. God thus has more possibilities within that situation. If those human beings upon whom God has chosen to be dependent in other ways (for example, Moses) think in these ways, then they help shape the future. God honors what the individual brings as an important ingredient for shaping that future. The situations are now more open, for both God and human are working together. It means that God’s presence is more intense and hence more effective. The possibilities for the future are more wide-ranging (2015:20).
Prayer is a God-given way for God’s people to make a situation more open for God, a God who desires to be as close to people as possible and who always has their best interests at heart. God is open to taking new directions and changing course in view of the prayerful interaction between God and people. Yet, always in view will be God’s unchangeable loving will for all. The people of God have been given the power of prayer by their God as a means (not unlike preaching; see Rom 10:14) in and through which God works to accomplish God’s purposes in the world.
So, let us pray to this wonderful, loving God.
NOTE: For other studies on Moses, read my post Studies on Moses.
Terence Fretheim, “To What Kind of God Do You Pray?” Word & World 35 (2015):13-21.
Baruch A. Levine, Numbers 1-20: A New Translation. Anchor Bible Series, Vol. 4A. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Katharine D. Sakenfeld, “The Problem of Divine Forgiveness in Numbers 14,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 37 (1975): 317-330.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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