So Moses is up on Mount Sinai receiving God’s laws and commandments for his people. He’s up there for forty days and forty nights — which, when you think about it, is a little while to be cut off completely from all communication with the folks left behind. No cell phone. No text messages. No nightly news to let the Israelites know that he’s still alive.
On the other hand, forty days and forty nights isn’t all that long. The Israelites just heard God speak from inside a cloud. They’ve witnessed incredible miracles, from the parting of the Red Sea, to water from a tree, to manna from heaven. And still they managed to completely lose their faith in just forty short days.
I’m not judging. Really I’m not. I’ve been there. I’ve experienced God in ways that have prompted me to say, “If I ever forget this feeling, I’m too stupid to live,” and then, just a few months later, when things aren’t going the way I thought they would, I catch myself wondering if I made a mistake. It’s way too easy to get there.
Anyway, the Israelites convince Aaron to build them a golden calf so they can worship it. Aaron agrees to do it and asks them to bring the golden earrings from their wives, daughters and sons so he can melt down the gold and use it.
God sees what’s happening. He tells Moses to get back to his people and get things under control again. He tells Moses to step back so that He can exercise his anger against his people. They have built idols. They have broken the first, great commandment they agreed to obey just last month.
Moses responds this way:
12 Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people.13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever.
God needing to repent. That’s an interesting concept. I have to think about that one for a while.
It’s a little mind-boggling. My human brain resists it. I’m not a fan of the NIV version of the Bible, but I decided to look up how that translation interprets verse 12.
12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people.
A little easier to conceive of, I guess, but not exactly the same meaning. And I’m not sure it’s right to soften the meaning of the Bible just because my human brain can’t grasp an idea.
I may not understand how or why a perfect God would need to repent, or how He could even entertain an evil thought, or whether “repent” means repent as I know it. Maybe I just have to accept that this is a concept I can’t understand right now — or ever. Just because I don’t get it, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
So I’m accepting this passage from the KJV on faith. Moses tells God to repent of his anger, and in verse 14, God does:
14 And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.
Was God really thinking to do “evil” to his people, or was this some kind of test for Moses? After all, he’s been leading this ungrateful lot around for quite a while now, and whenever he stops to take a breath, they turn on him, turn on God, and forget everything they’ve seen and heard.
Now, even Moses’ faithful sidekick and brother is getting into the action, and after just forty short days. Maybe God was testing Moses to see if he would defend the Israelites or if he’d throw them under the bus … er, donkey cart.
And as you read on in Chapter 32, that’s exactly what seems to be happening. Moses goes down from the mount and sees what the people have done, He confronts Aaron, who says, yeah, I asked for the gold and I put it in the oven and this ox came out. All by itself, apparently.
Moses sets brother against brother and about 3,000 men are killed. Then Moses goes back to God and offers himself up, asking God to please forgive his people and, if God can’t do that, then he can wipe Moses from the book He’s writing.
33 And the Lord said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.
Which, really, is one of the greatest blessings we get from God. We aren’t punished for the sins of others. God doesn’t ask us to pay for our parents’ choices, or our childrens’ choices, or our friends’ choices. If we don’t teach our children, that’s on us, of course. But if we do and our children choose the wrong path after we’ve done our very best to ground them in the gospel, that’s on them.
What really impresses me here is how Moses intercedes between the Israelites and God. He throws himself on God’s mercy and offers himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the people. Was this a prophecy of some kind? A little clue to what’s coming when Christ is born? Foreshadowing that we’re going to need a Savior to intercede on our behalf? God didn’t include these stories in the Bible so we could have something to base a movie on later. He included these stories to instruct us.
If these people can stray when they have Moses living among them and they just heard the voice of God speaking from a cloud, when they were so overwhelmed by God and his presence, they made huge covenants with Him, how much easier is it going to be for the rest of us to stray? God wants us to know that the Israelites would not have made it to their promised land without Moses interceding on their behalf. He also wants us to know that we won’t make it back to live with Him except through Christ. There’s just no other way.