The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.”
While Moses was on the mountain getting instructions from God about how to worship correctly, the Israelites were at the bottom of the mountain screwing up and doing it all wrong. Moses had been gone a long while and the people were freaking out. So they told Aaron to make them an idol. Aaron did make the calf with the idea that it was a symbol for God, but it was still wrong. He did, after all, say that they would celebrate a feast to the LORD (v 5).
When I come to passages like this, I need to apply what I know of God to them. At a glance, it looks like God is going back on His promise to Abraham. In Genesis 15, God tells Abraham that his descendants (plural) will be enslaved and that He (God) will bring them (plural) out and that they (plural) will return to the land that Abraham was in, viz. Canaan. This is not a promise to bring one guy out of Egypt into the Promised Land, although Moses singlehandedly conquering the Promised Land would be quite the story. The promise God made to Abraham was that He (God) would bring the whole of Abraham’s descendants out of Egypt. God has made good on that part of the promise. But the second part — the part about bringing them into the Promised Land — has not been fulfilled yet. So, God’s comment to Moses is either a contradiction or something else.
Anyone who has kids knows the value of reverse psychology. I have learned that it is sometimes best to make my daughter think that I want to do something entirely different than what I actually want to do and so lead her around to the place where I can both do what I want to do and have her participate gladly in it. This is important, because God is referred to as my Heavenly Father, so I can readily apply the best attributes of a father to Him. And this leading a child around to where he wants them to be is part and parcel of fatherhood — also of motherhood, I suspect, but I am not a mom and so do not know for certain.
So, which is it? Is God acting as a Father and leading Moses around to where He (God) wants him (Moses) or is God a capricious and self-contradicting individual? I know that God does not change and that His plans — particularly His plans for the Israelites — are for good and not for harm, I dismiss the idea of Him contradicting Himself. Then I must ask what God is trying to lead Moses around to.
The answer comes in the verses following. In verses 11-13, Moses intercedes for the Israelites beautifully, telling God that is was He (God) Who brought the Israelites out from Egypt and His (God’s) reputation that will be maligned if the Israelites are wiped out and that He (God) made promises to Abraham and Isaac and Israel/Jacob. This was all about God and Who He is and what He had promised. Verse 14 seems to imply that God is capable of changing His mind in the same sense that I am. That He can alter His intended course of action based on further inputs. But this is a view from within space and time. I see things progressing in a linear fashion: 1 to 2 to 3 and so on ad infinitum. But God is not bound by space and time. He already knew that Moses would intercede and already knew that He was not going to destroy the Israelites and He also knew that Moses is the one who needed the threat to hang over the Israelites so that Moses could intercede and be reminded of God’s character and the promises that God had made. In a few verses, Moses is going to be royally pissed with the Israelites and command a culling, but he will hike right back up the mountain and plead with God to forgive the remaining Israelites and to continue to lead them (vv 31-34).
What am I to do with these verses?
First, I need to realize that I am an obstinate person. I am inflexible and difficult to work with and God is patient with me and gracious to me and continues to shape me. I need to extend similar grace to others on whom God is working.
Second, I need to understand that God is a Father and will work with me where I am to get me where I need to be. He will sometimes make it seem as though He is going to punish for something when what He is really after is me interceding. Just as it looks to my daughter as if I am a cruel daddy who only wants to ruin her fun until she sees that my intention was to move her on to something better still, so, too, will my Father in Heaven sometimes seem to me to have changed until circumstances reach a resolution and I learn that He never changed, but circumstances did and so did I.
Third, and this is stretching things a bit, I need to realize that The Law that condemns is not meant, for me, as a cudgel with which to beat my fellow sinners about the head an neck, but rather as an invitation to intercede on others’ behalf and pray that God will lead them to repentance. The Israelites had just broken about half the commandments and still Moses intercedes for them. God will not forgive where there is no repentance and I should not expect it to be otherwise. But I can go before God on others’ behalf and pray. Moses prayed that God would blot out his (Moses’) name from His (God’s) book if God was unwilling to forgive the sin of the Israelites. Paul wrote that he could wish himself sent to eternal punishment if it would save the children of Israel. That is the heart that God is trying to foster in me and all of His children. That is the heart of Christ that was willing to die in our place; to take our judgment on Himself. And that is what God was after in telling Moses that He (God) was going to wipe out the Israelites. God was after the heart of Christ being formed in Moses. And was it ever. God wants to form that same heart in me.
Father, this is challenging. To be gracious and to keep things in perspective would be challenging enough, but to see that You want to form a heart in me that is so concerned for Your glory and so loving of people that I could genuinely want myself condemned if it meant saving others … that is overwhelming. Please keep my eyes on the next step; the road immediately before my feet. Please continue to work on me to make me gracious with others and to keep things in their right perspective. And, as You do so, please shape my heart into what You want it to be. I cannot promise to be still and always submissive to Your working — You know I am obstinate — but I will try. And I know You will succeed in making me what You want me to be.