Moses Has to Beg God Not to Kill Everyone?!

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.

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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:

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus+32&version=NIV

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.

What gives?

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)
Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. 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,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)
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 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.

The Death of Religion

Jesus doesn’t really like a lot of what passes as religion.  Even religion with his name on it.  Maybe especially that kind.  In fact, he is so disturbed by the religion that was devoted to God during his day that he flat-out curses it (Matthew 23).

We recently started a series entitled “How To Kill a Religion” at church. (You can listen to them as we go along here: https://soundcloud.com/pathwayschurch).  We’ve been looking at the things from Matthew 23 that Jesus says will kill a religion.

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And while there are many fatal pills that religion can swallow that will put it six feet under, there are three that seem especially deadly:

A lack of sincerity.  Not practicing what you preach.

A lack of compassion. Prioritizing rules over people.

A lack of humility. Practicing religion in order to be noticed by other people.

Religion that lacks sincerity, compassion, and humility is dangerous. It hurts people and Jesus thinks its should die.

Probably many of us who have been hurt by that kind of religion agree. In an unexpectedly weird way, many people who are wary, skeptical and against religion are to some degree on Jesus’ side. And it has been freeing to learn this.  It’s been relieving to discover that Jesus isn’t as petty and oppressive as much of the religion we’ve seen. Sometimes I just wanna cheer, “yea, Jesus! You tell ’em!”

If I’m honest though, it’s also been a little convicting. I’m sure I am guilty at times of lacking any one of these key ingredients to religion that truly honors God.  It’s caused me to examine who I am, what I do and most importantly WHY I do it.

Am I sincere in actually living what I believe?

Do I really prioritize people over rules and rituals?

Would I do this particular thing if no one ever knew about it?

 

I’m finding that I can even do the right thing, but for the wrong reason. And when I do, rather than honor God, I drink the poison that kills religion.

But more than conviction, this series and these words of Jesus have caused me to dream more about the identity of our particular church community.  As we have discussed the things we DON’T want to be, it has inevitably had the side-effect of forcing me to ask “what DO we want to be?”

And what DO we want to be?

After all, while there is religion that is dangerous and hurtful, not all religion is bad.  Jesus’ own brother, James, reminds us of this:

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.  (But) religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

(James 1:26-27)

Now I know that defining ourselves by what we are NOT is not of itself adequate. But what if it adds some clarity to us as a community of things we want to avoid and prompts us, like James, to discuss what we really DO want to be about?  Saying “no” to some things may inspire us to say “yes” to what’s better.

This week we celebrate “Orphan Sunday” at Pathways Church.

We’ll be discussing ways to get involved in protecting the most vulnerable in our global society.  There will be ways to get involved that are more immersive than maybe we’ve ever been involved with before.

I don’t know what will happen with all this, but it feels big.

It feels like it might be defining for us.

Maybe there is more here than just a simple Sunday.

Maybe there is the beginning of identity.

Religious community starting to be reformed around the right things.

I’m praying that this series will be more than just a few shots at the religion God hates but that it will call us forward into the religion God delights in.  Could be this Sunday is the first step in that calling.  Join me in praying for that vision and identity to come bubbling out of these moments.

 

The Core Values

Here is what I’ve been meditating on lately.  Seems like every day I re-read this list multiple times.  I think I’ve almost got it memorized.  Hahaha.

They are the “Core Values” of Pathways Church (Mill Creek, WA) that I have recently accepted a call to help lead.

In fact, it is these values that really drew me to this community.  I love the choice of terms and the almost poetic language in which they are described.  There is honesty, reality, grittiness, hope and beauty described here.  They remind me of the best of what church can be.  And I pray that they are a source of refreshment, hope and inspiration to you as you read them.

Struggle

Personal depth is developed by asking tough questions, by struggling. Those who abandon the struggle either come to believe that they have gained all of the answers or quit caring about those answers altogether. Life is not meant to be lived in either of these extremes. Life is a struggle. Following Jesus does not alleviate our struggle, give us the answer to every question, or enable us to conquer every difficulty of life. But it does make the struggle worth facing by tying it to something greater than ourselves. It is in this wrestling that we learn to trust and draw closer to the heart of God.

Meaning

Because we have been purposefully created, everyone seeks meaning and truth. The desire for purpose is built into us. Satisfaction of this inner hunger will only be found by exploring why we were created. Jesus claimed to give “life to the full.” As we gain an understanding of His teachings from the Scriptures, our eyes are opened to the ultimate meaning of life. This fullness is not only found beyond this life, but it can exist in how we live our lives right now, everyday.

Redemption

To “redeem” is to buy back something that you originally owned. All truth and beauty belong to God. Unfortunately, selfishness, pride, and hatred have twisted and marred much of it. Christ came not only to reclaim individual lives, but all of creation as well. Redemption can occur in the simple beauty of art and creativity, the profound redirection of a life consumed by self, or the overwhelming task of tackling poverty, hunger and sanitation in third-world countries. We partner with Christ to recover the sense of beauty, renewal, and justice which He intended for our lives.

Sacrifice

Here the teachings of Jesus become very unpopular. True love transcends self and ease and therefore requires sacrifice. God first demonstrated that love to us through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus, on the cross. As an act of worship, and in response, we give our lives, sacrificially, to Him and to those around us. To follow Jesus is to reflect His giving nature; to take more interest in the needs of others than of ourselves.

Community

We struggle, but not alone. We search for meaning, but others walk the path alongside us. We partner with God to redeem creation, but we do so in conjunction with others. We sacrifice of ourselves, but must have others to whom we give. The New Testament is filled with teachings on how we are to live with “one another”. We laugh together and cry together. We celebrate together and grieve together. We were not meant to journey alone.

 

 

 

 

 

Wherever you are tonight, may you find struggle, meaning, redemption, sacrifice and community as a core experience in your faith journey.