This is the fifth post on the character of God based on God’s revelation of himself to Moses on Mount Sinai. The specific focus of these studies is the intergenerational punishment statement in Exodus 34:7, “yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” Each study in this series is based on arguments developed in previous posts. If you have not read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of this series, I encourage you to read them before you read the present post.
This post is divided into two sections. Section Two will be published soon.
The Violation of the Covenant
The story of the golden calf as presented in Exodus 32-34 is a good example of how the God of the Old Testament lavished his mercy and steadfast love upon the people of Israel. The nature and character of God are displayed in the way God dealt with Israel’s violation of the covenant and the worship of the golden calf. In his mercy, God makes his love known. God’s mercy is his faithfulness and steadfast love at work.
Soon after the covenant between God and Israel was established, the people of Israel violated the demands of the second commandment by making the image of a young bull and by declaring that he was the god who brought Israel out from Egypt. The story of Israel’s idolatry is narrated in Exodus 32 and its aftermath in Exodus 33-34. After the ratification of the covenant, Moses went up to Mount Sinai to meet with God. When the people saw that Moses was delayed on the mountain, they believed that he would not return to them. The people approached Aaron and demanded that he make the image of a god who would lead them to the land of Canaan.
The making and the worship of the golden calf were a violation of the covenant relationship established between God and the people of Israel. Twice the text says that God was furious with the action of the people: “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). Moses said to God: “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people” (Exodus 32:11). Even Moses was angry at the betrayal of the people: “As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot” (Exodus 32:19).
Because Israel had rejected God by making an image of a god, now God was prepared to invoke the clause which stipulated the consequences for the violation of the second commandment.
The second commandment reads as follows: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:4-6).
Dozeman explains the consequences for the idolatry of Israel: “The command against idolatry in 20:4-6 is framed negatively and stated in terms of love or hate and of obedience or punishment. There is only one consequence for idolatry in the Decalogue” (2009: 736).
Moses Intercedes for Israel
According to the words of the second commandment, the punishment for idolatry was severe. God was about to visit the covenant breakers and bring the consequences of their sins upon their children to the third and the fourth generation. As a result of the people’s idolatry, God told Moses, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation” (Exodus 32:10).
These words of God to Moses introduce two important issues about the future of Israel. First, the survival of Israel depends on how Moses works as an intercessor and how he deals with Yahweh. The implication of God’s words to Moses, “leave me alone,” “is that if Moses does not leave God alone, his wrath cannot burn hot . . . the implication is that God intends one thing but invites Moses to bring him to a place of repentance” (Ellington 2005: 53). Commenting on Moses’ contribution to God’s decision, Fretheim wrote: “Moses could conceivably contribute something to the divine deliberation that might occasion a future for Israel other than wrath. The devastation of Israel by the divine wrath is thus conditional upon Moses’ leaving God alone” (1988: 50).
Second, Moses prayed to pacify God and save Israel from God’s wrath: “Moses tried to pacify Yahweh his God” (Exodus 32:11 NJB). God takes his relationship with Moses seriously and accepts Moses input before the final decision is made. Fretheim explains the role Moses played in God’s decision: “God here recognizes the relationship with Moses over having absolute free decision in the matter. The devastation of Israel by the divine wrath is thus conditioned upon Moses giving God leave to do so” (1984: 284).
Third, God told Moses, “I will make you into a great nation” (Exodus 32:10). God’s decision to begin a new nation with Moses and his descendants suggests, as Ellington puts it, “that God’s plan is at least partially open. He will bring the descendants of Abraham into the land of promise, but it does not have to be these descendants” (2005: 54).
Fourth, by consuming Israel, God would breake his promise to Abraham to bring his descendants to the land of Canaan. However, by promising Moses that he would make him and his descendants into a great nation, God would still do what he promised Abraham he would do. As Ellington puts it, “Seeking to persuade Moses to remain on the sidelines, Yahweh offers a face-saving solution to the problem that allows for the continuation of the promise made to Abraham. If Moses will remain silent, God can consume ‘these people’ and start over again, this time with Moses as a new Israel” (2005: 54).
Leave Me Alone
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 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).
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” (Genesis 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” (Psalm 106:23 TNK). Notice again the words of the Psalmist. He said: “Moses confronted God in the breach to avert His destructive wrath.”
God Changes His Mind
Moses knew that God would consume the people because of their idolatry and because of their violation of the covenant. So, Moses interceded on behalf of Israel and asked God to have mercy upon his people. As a result of Moses’ prayer, Yahweh repented or changed his mind “about the disaster that he planned to bring upon his people” (Exodus 32:14). The remarkable statement that God repented is not the same as when humans repent of their sins. God’s repentance refers to God’s response to prayers, to repentance, or to human behavior.
By God’s grace, Israel was allowed to live, but not without some cost to God. As Fretheim puts it, “It is clear that human sin has not been without cost for God, and that cost is due in significant part to the fact that God has chosen to bear the people’s sins rather than deal with them on strictly legal terms. For God to assume such a burden, for God to continue to bear the brunt of Israel’s rejection, meant continued life for the people. Thus, there is an explicit connection made between divine suffering and Israel’s life; the former was necessary for the latter to occur. God’s suffering made Israel’s life possible” (1984: 148).
By changing his mind about the punishment, God was saying to Moses that he was willing to bear upon himself the iniquity and transgression and sin of the people, but that he was not willing to clear the guilty. Moses’ prayer saved Israel. As the psalmist puts it, “[Yahweh] would have destroyed [the people] had not Moses His chosen one confronted Him in the breach to avert His destructive wrath” (Psalm 106:23 TNK),
In his important article on God’s repentance, Fretheim wrote: “An appropriate emphasis on divine repentance, however, means that there must always be a reckoning with the effects of the continuing divine-human conversation when thinking about the future. God is ever about the business of making new decisions for new times and places in the light of that ongoing dialogue, which decisions are always in consonance with God’s most basic purposes to bring salvation to all” (1988: 65).
So, as we read about the angry reaction of God to the rebellion of the people and his desire to consume Israel, we learn two things about the God of the Old Testament:
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 could not give them up, he could not destroy them, despite their rebellion. Because of divine love, God’s heart was torn within himself, and God’s compassion for Israel did not allow him to consume his people because, notwithstanding the people’s egregious sin and appalling rebellion, God is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).
In the second part of this post, I will study how God punished the people who worshiped the golden calf and how this punishment is related to the intergenerational punishment statement as found in Exodus 34:7.
Update: The bibliography for this post will appear in section two of this post. Section two will be published soon.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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