The Golden Calf: Moses’ First Prayer

The Adoration of the Golden Calf’
by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665)
Wikimedia Commons

Exodus 32:9-14

7 The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'” 9 The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 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.” 11 But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'” 14 And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

In my previous post on the golden calf, I discussed how the people made an image in the form of a bull to represent God. The worship of the golden calf was a violation of the covenant Israel had made with God. One of the demands of the covenant was that Israel could not make idols, they could not bow down before them, neither could they worship them (Exodus 20:5).

In today’s post I will look at the interaction between Yahweh and Moses. In this interaction, Moses acts as a prophet, interceding on behalf of Israel. In his dialogue with Yahweh, Moses is asking God to rescind the divine decision by means of prayer and intercession. Moses was Israel’s advocate, his mission was to mitigate the severity of God’s wrath and thus, avert the judgment that God had decreed.

What God said to Moses

After the people had made the image and had proclaimed a festival for Yahweh, God told Moses: “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” Yahweh told Moses that what Israel had done was Moses’ responsibility because it was he who brought them out of Egypt. These also are the same words the people said about Moses when they asked Aaron to build gods for them (Exodus 32:1).

In these ironic words to Moses, God told him that the people of Israel are no longer the people of God; they are the people of Moses. God is rejecting the people because of their violation of the covenant. They are Moses’ people and they are a “stiff-necked” people.

In those brief forty days Moses spent on the mountain after the covenant was enacted, the people of Israel were quick in departing from the teaching God gave them. This is how the Psalmist describes Israel’s sins: “They made a calf at Horeb and worshiped a cast image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass” (Psalm 106:19-20).

God said to Moses: “I have seen this people.” When God saw Israel in Egypt (Exodus 3:7, 9), God desired to save them from their oppression. Now that God has seen their disobedience, he wants to consume them and establish another nation with Moses (v. 10). Israel is a “stiff-necked” people. They refuse to bow before the God who redeemed them and accept his teachings.

Yahweh asked Moses to leave him alone (v.10). This request is mysterious because Moses cannot stop God from doing what God wants to do. What Yahweh is doing is asking Moses to pray for the people. The Psalmist clearly understood God’s request. He said: “Therefore [God] said he would destroy them — had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them” (Psalm 106:23).

According to the Psalmist, Moses stood in the breach against God to restrain God’s anger from destroying the people. Thus, the Psalmist says that if it had not been for the prayer of Moses, Israel would be destroyed. Moses’ prayer protected Israel against the anger of God. Moses’ intercession was the only thing between God and the people; it was the only power that could stop God from consuming the people.

God told Moses not to pray for the people because he had already decided to punish them. God told Moses that he was going to consume the people: “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” God also told Moses that he would become the father of a great nation: “and of you I will make a great nation.” God’s words to Moses are similar to the words God spoke to Abraham in Genesis: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2).

God’s desire to begin a new people with Moses means that God was willing to give to Moses the promise he made to Abraham. God would begin a new nation with Moses. Moses refused to accept God’s offer. Had Moses accepted God’s offer, then God would have violated the promise he had made to Abraham, a promise that was given again to Isaac and to Jacob.

What Moses said to God

Acting as Israel’s defense attorney, Moses reminded Yahweh that Israel was not Moses’ people, but God’s people. When God spoke to Moses, he said: “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them” (Exodus 32:10). In Hebrew, the expression “my wrath may burn hot against them” literally means “my nose will burn against them.” The proper understanding of this idiomatic expression is necessary to understand verse 11. The English version reads: “But Moses implored the LORD” (Exodus 32:11). But, literally, the Hebrew reads: “And Moses pacified the face of Yahweh.”

The way Moses pacified the wrath of God was by appealing to his reputation. In verse 11, Moses reminds God that Israel was saved by God’s “great power” and by God’s “mighty hand.” According to Moses, the destruction of Israel would be a denial of God’s power to save. Then, in verse 12, Moses appealed to God’s reputation among the nations. Moses said to God: “If you destroy this people, the Egyptians would make fun of you. They will say: ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth.’”

In his intercession on behalf of Israel, Moses is saying to God that his great power in delivering the people would be for naught if Israel was destroyed. He is also saying that God’s victory against pharaoh and against the gods of Egypt would be ridiculed if God delivered Israel from their cruel treatment in Egypt only to kill them in the wilderness.

In a similar statement in Deuteronomy, the Lord himself recognized the importance of preserving his reputation. In this statement, the Lord said: “I thought to scatter them and blot out the memory of them from humankind; but I feared provocation by the enemy, for their adversaries might misunderstand and say, ‘Our hand is triumphant; it was not the LORD who did all this’” (Deuteronomy 32:26-27).

In a similar statement, Moses said to the Lord: “Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; pay no attention to the stubbornness of this people, their wickedness and their sin, otherwise the land from which you have brought us might say, ‘Because the LORD was not able to bring them into the land that he promised them, and because he hated them, he has brought them out to let them die in the wilderness’” (Deuteronomy 9:27-28). In his commentary on Exodus 19-40, Propp wrote: Yahweh “worries about his reputation among the nations” (2006: 555).

Moses asked Yahweh to change his mind, to repent about his desire to consume Israel. Moses said to God: “change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people” (v. 12). Prayer has the power to change the mind of God concerning the things God is about to do. The King James Bible translates this verse as follows: “repent of this evil against thy people.” The word niḥam in Hebrew means “to repent,” “to regret,” “to be sorry.” The repentance of God does not refer to repentance from sin for God cannot sin. It means that God changes his mind from doing something that he said he would do.

In requesting God to change his mind, Moses told God to remember the promises to the patriarchs: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.” Moses reminded Yahweh that the promises he made to the patriarchs must be kept. According to Moses, God had made a promise to the patriarchs and God was honor-bound to keep his promise.

God’s promise to Abraham was in the form of an oath: “God took an oath: and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, says the LORD: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore” (Genesis 22:16-17).

God’s response to Moses’ prayer

In response to Moses’ prayer, “the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people” (Exodus 32:14 RSV). Propp, in his commentary on Exodus wrote: “Although it is not said explicitly, Yahweh’s first act of repentance (niḥam) was to regret liberating Israel” (2006:555).

Moses’s prayer on behalf of Israel was effective: “And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (Exodus 32:14). Prayer has the power to affect God and his actions. God wanted to destroy Israel, but because Moses asked God to change his mind and not destroy the people, God changed his mind and he did not destroy the people.

Disaster was averted because Moses prayed: “And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (Exodus 32:14). God answered Moses’ prayer and decided not to consume the people. But in the matter of Israel’s sins and rebellion, the case was not over, as I will demonstrate in another post. Once again, Yahweh called Israel his people: God changed the way he deals with his people. Because of Moses’ successful intervention, God once again claims Israel as his people.

The Results of Moses’ Prayer of Intercession

There are several important things that can be learned from Moses’ prayer.

First, God was about to destroy Israel and begin a new nation with Moses, but before God judged Israel, he took counsel with Moses. When God said, “Leave me alone,” God was in reality asking Moses to intercede on behalf of Israel.

Second, God had made a decision to execute his wrath, but God’s decision was not final. Before God brought judgment upon Israel, God saw the need to consult with Moses. As the prophet Amos said: “The Lord GOD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants, the prophets” (Amos 3:7 NAB).

Third, in Psalm 106:23, the Psalmist said: “God would have destroyed Israel had not Moses His chosen one confronted Him in the breach to avert His destructive wrath” (Psalm 106:23 TNK). Note again the words of the Psalmist. He said: “Moses confronted God in the breach to avert His destructive wrath.” It was because of Moses’ close relationship with God that he was able to activate God’s grace and mercy and avoid Israel’s destruction.

Fourth, God takes the intercession of his people seriously. Prayer has power with God, and as we have seen from Exodus 32:14, prayer can change the mind of God. With Moses we learn that there is power in prayer. As James wrote: “The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results” (James 5:16 NLT).

Moses’ prayer saved Israel from being consumed by God’s wrath. This is the reason the prophet Jeremiah recognized Moses as a great intercessor (Jeremiah 15:1).

Studies on the Golden Calf

The Golden Calf

The Golden Calf: The Background of Israel’s Idolatry

The Making of the Golden Calf

The Golden Calf: Moses’ First Prayer

The Golden Calf: “Leave Me Alone”

The Golden Calf: Moses’ Second Prayer

NOTE: For a complete list of studies on Moses, read my post Studies on Moses.


William H. C. Propp, Exodus 19-40. The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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3 Responses to The Golden Calf: Moses’ First Prayer

  1. Thank you for this study of the calf.
    I have recently begun to realize that “God’s anger” is for our benefit, it is something we can understand and deal with. In this instance, Moses needed to understand how essential it was for him to care for the flock. He needed motivation beyond “keep the faith”. God’s Plan set out before Creation included the Exodus, in fact, demanded it. It had to succeed.
    Moses had come to know God in ways few humans have ever experienced. He understood that God seeks conversation–interaction–with humans, so defended God’s own chosen people.
    Or is that too anthropomorphic?

    Mike Lawrence


    • Mike,

      You are not anthropomorphic at all. God invites humans to interact with him and God also takes seriously what humans have to say. If you look at the whole Bible, God depends on humans to do his work in the world. Some people do not take seriously the fact that God enters our history and he communicates and works with people like Moses, Jeremiah, and many others. When people call this anthropomorphism, they are misunderstanding the God of the Bible. Yochanan Muffs wrote: “The biblical God is anthropomorphic. He who strips God of His personal quality distorts the true meaning of Scripture.”

      Thank you for your comment.

      Claude F. Mariottini
      Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
      Northern Baptist Seminary


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