7 The LORD told Moses, Quick! Go down the mountain! Your people whom you brought from the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves.
8 How quickly they have turned away from the way I commanded them to live! They have melted down gold and made a calf, and they have bowed down and sacrificed to it. They are saying, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.’
9 Then the LORD said, ‘I have seen how stubborn and rebellious these people are.
10 Now leave me alone so my fierce anger can blaze against them, and I will destroy them. Then I will make you, Moses, into a great nation.’
11 But Moses tried to pacify the LORD his God. ‘O LORD!’ he said. ‘Why are you so angry with your own people whom you brought from the land of Egypt with such great power and such a strong hand?
12 Why let the Egyptians say, ‘Their God rescued them with the evil intention of slaughtering them in the mountains and wiping them from the face of the earth? Turn away from your fierce anger. Change your mind about this terrible disaster you have threatened against your people!
13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You bound yourself with an oath to them, saying, ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven. And I will give them all of this land that I have promised to your descendants, and they will possess it forever.’
14 So the LORD changed his mind about the terrible disaster he had threatened to bring on his people. (Exod. 32:7-14 NLT)
God said to Moses: “Now leave Me alone” (Exod. 32:10).
Christians believe in God. The problem is that most Christians do not know the God in whom they believe. Often, Christians are asked to explain their faith in God: “Who is the God in whom you believe? When asked this question, they answer: “I believe in the God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ.” This is a good answer, but how about the God who revealed himself to Moses? And to Hosea? And to Jeremiah?
Most Christians know little about the God of Jeremiah or the God of Moses. Just read carefully the passage quoted above again. What does the text say about God?
It is easy to believe in the God who can move mountains, but who believes in a God who struggles with deciding what to do with a rebellious people? Christians can believe in a God who knows the number of hairs on their head, but are reluctant to believe in a God who does not know how the people of Israel will react to a message sent to them.
Christians can believe in a God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, but they are reluctant to believe in a God who changes his mind, a God who repents, a God who agonizes like a woman giving birth, a God who sheds tears because of the rebellions of his people, a God who needs to be pacified. All these characteristics of God are in the Bible.
Why such a disconnect? Why is it so much easier to believe in the God who reveals himself in Christ? The answer is simple: because most Christians do not know the God of the Old Testament.
In addition, most Christians do not understand that many of their views about God are based on the speculative idea of the “God of the philosophers” and not on the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Or as Pascal emphasized, our views of God are based on natural theology, not on biblical revelation. Our views of God are based on the teachings of Augustine, of Aquinas, of Luther, or of John Calvin.
Helmut Thielicke, in his book A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (p. 51) wrote:
“Every theological idea which makes an impression upon you must be regarded as a challenge to your faith. Do not assume as a matter of course that you believe whatever impresses you theologically and enlightens you intellectually. Otherwise suddenly you are believing no longer in Jesus Christ, but in Luther, or in one of your other theological teachers” such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, or John Calvin.
Time and space will not allow me to introduce you to the God who revealed himself to Hosea or to Jeremiah. I will briefly introduce you to the God who revealed himself to Moses.
The passage you read, Exodus 32:7-14, deals with the events related to the making of the golden calf after the people made a covenant with God. God told Moses: “Leave me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them” (Exod. 32:10). God was very angry. He told Moses to leave him alone so that he could consume the people.
Listen to the irony in God’s voice: No longer is Israel the people of God, but now they are the people of Moses. God told Moses: “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely” (Exod. 32:7).
God is speaking as if Moses had the power to send the plagues or open the sea to save Israel. Moses had to correct God. Moses said: “It was you who brought them out of the land of Egypt with such great power and such a strong hand” (Exod. 32:11).
Yochanan Muffs, a Jewish scholar who taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America paraphrased Moses’ words to God:
“Don’t try to blame me for their sinful behavior. If they have sinned, they are Your people, not mine. If You want to get rid of them, do so, but don’t try to erase Your connection to them.”
But God was determined to get rid of the people: “Leave me alone.” He said to Moses. But, acting as a defense attorney for Israel, Moses tries to pacify God (Exod. 32:11). In order to pacify God, Moses used, what Muffs called “an audacious rhetorical device coupled with moral blackmail.” Moses appealed to God’s honor. And it worked.
Moses said to God: “Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people” (Exod. 32:12 KJV). In response to Moses’ desperate plea, “the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people” (Exod. 32:14 KJV).
A God who repents? A God who changes his mind? It is here that most Christians struggle.
When it comes to the God of the Bible, Muffs said that we have two choices: either an indifferent God who is devoid of personality and feelings or a personal God who is worried about what the nations of the world will think about his reputation. Muffs concluded: “The biblical God is anthropomorphic. He who strips God of His personal quality distorts the true meaning of Scripture.”
It is in this dialogue between God and Moses that we understand the work of God’s prophets. When dealing with Israel’s sins, the divine love turns into disappointment, and the disappointment turns into anger that overflows all boundaries and threatens the very existence of Israel.
If there is no restraint to God’s anger, then not only Israel, but the whole world is placed in great danger. This is what we saw at the time of the flood, when the whole world was threatened with destruction.
This is what happened to Israel. God told Jeremiah not to pray for Israel, because God had already decided to punish Israel. God told Jeremiah: “As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble” (Jer. 11:14 NRSV).
But Jeremiah disobeyed God and continued praying for the people. So, God had to forbid Jeremiah to pray for the people, not once, not twice, but three times. It is for this reason that God allows his prophets to intercede for the people in prayer, reminding God of his mercy, the very element that calms his anger. Thus, when God is angry, God needs the prayers of his prophets so that God can calm his anger and manifest his love.
This language may be new and offensive to some people in church and in seminary, but it reflects the very teachings of God’s word.
God was about to destroy Israel and begin again with Moses, in the same way he began a new humanity with Noah and his family. But before God judges Israel, he takes counsel with Moses. When God said, “Leave me alone,” God was in reality asking Moses to intercede for Israel.
God is searching for the appropriate response to deal with the apostasy of Israel, but he does so in consultation with Moses. God does not regard the unfaithfulness of Israel lightly. This is the reason he asks Moses to leave him alone so that he can let his anger take its course against Israel.
The key phrase for interpreting this incident is “leave me alone.”
God has made a decision to execute his wrath, but God’s decision is not final. Before God brings 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).
And this is precisely what God did before he brought judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah: ‘Shall I hide my plan from Abraham?’ the LORD asked” (Gen. 18:17 NLT).
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” (Psa. 106:23 TNK). Notice again the words of the Psalmist. He said: “Moses confronted God in the breach to avert His destructive wrath.”
So, the text in Exodus 32:7-14 teaches us that at times God needs to be confronted, that he needs to be pacified so that he may change his mind concerning an action of judgment he is about to execute. This is the God of the Bible, but this God is unknown to many Christians.
So, as we read Exodus 32:7-14, we learn two things about the God of the Bible:
1. 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.
2. Divine love triumphs over divine anger. The people of Israel were determined to abandon God, but God cannot give them up, he cannot destroy them, despite their rebellion. Because of divine love, God’s heart is torn within himself, and God’s compassion for Israel does not allow him to consume his people.
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” (Jam. 5:16 NLT).
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Previous Studies on the Golden Calf
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