I got a few days behind on my daily Bible reading in my Bible app and have been getting caught up today. I read Exodus 32 and was reminded at what a bizarre scene it is. We meet Moses on top of a mountain, pleading with God (who had just brought all the Israelites miraculously out of Egypt) not to kill all of his people.
God goes to all the effort to get his people free from Egypt and then one moment later and he’s ready to kill them all?
Where is the patience? Didn’t he expect some slip-ups from these people? Is this God really that naive?
And the only thing stopping God from wiping them out in an angry outburst is Moses’ convincing pleading? The guy who doesn’t talk so good?
What is going one here?
Maybe you should read Exodus 32 for yourself first:
Okay, bizzarre right?
Let’s recap… Moses goes up a mountain to talk to God. Meanwhile the rest of people stay behind. They get restless and tired of waiting and make an idol. God sees it and is apparently so angry that the Israelite people have made a golden calf that he wants to destroy them. It takes Moses talking him out of it to get him to relent. Moses begs for him to pardon them. God eventually agrees.
But then Moses comes down from the mountain and sees their idolatry himself. His response is equally violent. He gathers a small militia and kills 3,000 of the offenders.
Moses then goes back to God pleading for forgiveness of the rest of the people. But oddly, God has already agreed to this before Moses had come down the mountain and killed 3,000 people. It doesn’t seem that there is any necessary reason for Moses’ violent actions.
I think it’s possible that God (although angry) is not as angry as he first appears. (Are we really to believe that the perfect God who is merciful as well as all-powerful would so quickly give up on his plan to save all Israel and in an emotional outburst have them all killed?)
I think a better explanation is that God’s expression of anger voiced in wanting to destroy the Israelites is for Moses’ benefit. Perhaps he anticipates Moses’ violent response and tries some reverse-psychology to head it off before he heads down. Perhaps God takes on what he supposes will be Moses’ first response and allows Moses to talk him out of it to attempt to build patience and mercy in Moses.
Perhaps this isn’t an attempt to evolve God (from anger to forgiveness) but to evolve Moses. God hopes that if Moses sees God relent in forgiveness that Moses will too.
In other words, Moses isn’t really convincing God not to kill the Israelites, rather God is trying to convince Moses not too.
(*Sidenote: It appears God has good reason to suspect Moses’ temper may lead to violence. Exodus 2:11-12 tells us of Moses loosing his cool and killing an Egyptian that is abusing an Israelite. Moses has a pretty hot temper.)
All this is confirmed at the end when God meets with Moses again and God basically tells him he doesn’t need Moses to be the arm of the law. He reminds him he is capable of handling all disciplinary measures.
Exodus 32:33-34 (NIV)
33The Lord replied to Moses, Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.”
In other words, “Go do what I told you to do, Moses, and let me take care of punishment.” God doesn’t need or desire (and certainly never asks for) Moses’ violent response to the idolatry of Israel.
This story is not about the vicious anger of God but of Moses.
It also has a parallel in Jonah. In a similar scene, God tells Jonah he is going to destroy Nineveh. Is this really his plan? I wonder.
But of course, Jonah believes him. What’s more, so do the Ninevites. They repent and God spares them.
Seems like a happy ending, but the book ends with Jonah angry and pouting because he hoped God really would destroy Nineveh. There’s a little Moses in all of us, I guess.
Again, God appears to be concerned not just with the sin of the offenders but with the attitude/actions of his spokesperson.
Back to Moses, just moments later in Exodus 34 God describes himself to Moses as a “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness…”
Exodus 34:5-7 (NIV)
5 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.
God’s description of himself here doesn’t exactly sound like the picture of a God who throws a tantrum on a mountain at the first sign of his people misbehaving and threatening to kill them all. It’s almost as if God description of himself here is a correction of Moses’ view of what he is like and what Moses in turn should be like.
Now interestingly, Jonah actually quotes this description of God at the end of his story (Jonah 4:2) stating that it’s why he knew God wouldn’t follow through on his threat.
Jonah 4:1-2 (NIV)
1 But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
As Jonah sits on a hill overlooking Nineveh wishing it had been destroyed, does he become aware that God is using a similar approach on him as he did Moses on the steeper hill of Mt Sinai?
Jonah doesn’t have anyone killed (as Moses does), but probably only because he doesn’t have the power to do so.
Exodus 32 (and the story of Jonah) are a good reminder to be cautious in assuming that our violent inclinations find any correlation with God. And we see that even in the Old Testament the picture of an angry God is more likely a “mask” put on him by others (a term used by Martin Luther) than the reality of his nature.
So let’s confess with Jonah a belief in the goodness and patience of God: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
And let’s be aware of when our own temperament and response is anything but God-like.