March 18, 2014

Heart and Soul: Biblical Studies

Exodus 32:1-6 finds Moses on Mount Sinai. He receives the Ten Commandments and enjoys fellowship with God. In fact, he is gone long enough that the people below become restless. They ask Aaron to make them an idol to represent the God who had brought them out of Egypt.1 Aaron complies, makes the idol, and declares that the next day will be a feast to the Lord. (Yes, the feast was to be held in honor of the Lord!) The next day the people “sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play” (Ex. 32:6).2

Worst-Case Scenario

While all this is under way, God tells Moses to go down the mountain. The people’s actions require his attention. The Bible tells us that God is weighing the idea of destroying Israel for its idolatry, and wants to be left alone with His thoughts (Ex. 32:10).

One option apparently considered by the Lord is to start over with a new nation drawn from Moses’ descendants. “But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, “I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever” ’ ” (Ex. 32:11-13).

If God had wanted to, He could have destroyed Israel without saying anything about it to Moses. But He does involve Moses. And when Moses replies, the substance of what he says is: They’re not my people; You know this. They’re Your people—fallen and guilty, it is true, but Yours nonetheless.

God finally accepts Moses’ request to give the people another chance, and Israel remains under God’s protection, just as before.

Back From the Brink

Notice the form of Moses’ argument: First, if God were to destroy Israel, the surrounding nations would surely misunderstand. Second, when Israel sins they still belong to God and need Him just as much as before. A closer look at these two thoughts help us better understand the narrative.

If God had destroyed Israel, who could say they didn’t deserve it?

1. The surrounding nations: God’s mighty act of delivering Israel from Egypt had involved pouring out plagues on the Egyptians and, ultimately, resulted in the death of all their firstborn.

So how would God look to the surrounding nations if, after leading Israel out into the wilderness, He did the same things to them that He had done to the Egyptians? Such actions, however justifiable, would be misunderstood.

The only conclusion the nations could draw in this case would be that Israel’s God is harsh and unforgiving, easily provoked, with no real depth of affection, and quickly turning on people when angered. In other words, He would appear to be indistinguishable from the pagan deities He had commanded people not to worship.

Put another way: The Lord would appear to be the opposite of everything He wanted to convey about Himself: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty” (Ex. 34:6, 7). If God were to destroy Israel, who could say they didn’t deserve it? But doing that would not make any of the points God was trying to convey.

2. The people of Israel: Notice that in the passage quoted earlier, when Moses refers to the patriarchs he lists them as “Abraham, Isaac, and Israel” (Ex. 32:12). But isn’t the sequence normally “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”?3 Why does Moses use the name “Israel” instead of “Jacob”? Is it not to remind God—through a form of wordplay based on the Bible’s double use of the name “Israel”—that Israel (= Jacob) was faithful under extremely trying circumstances and that therefore Israel (= the people recently freed from Egypt), though fallen, had a continuing claim on His mercy and protection?

I think that as Moses argued his case on Israel’s behalf, God found it a source of both joy and pride. Here was an Israelite who had come to think as He thought, and who reflected important aspects of His character. God stooped to allow this mortal—this creature—to instruct Him, and when Moses did so, God accepted the advice and acted on it. It is an altogether remarkable story.

Take-Home Point

This is not just an interesting story. An important principle is illustrated: namely, that when we delight to do God’s will, He in turn delights to do our will. This is not a reversal of roles, but an illustration of what it means to have a living relationship with God.

Sometimes God must answer our prayers in ways we would not prefer. There has never been a relationship closer than that between the Father and the Son (see John 10:30), yet in Gethsemane—after Jesus prayed three times, with tears—there was no way for God to change His plan and still save humankind. There was no way out, consistent with the Father’s broader purpose.

It will sometimes be the same for us as it was for Moses on another ocassion, when he prayed to enter the Promised Land (see Deut. 1:37; 3:23-27; 31:2; 32:48-52). God’s answers to our most fervent prayers may be unpleasant in the short term. In such cases we must leave matters with Him to handle as He sees fit.

Unlike Aaron, God does not always give us what we ask for. He is too wise and loving for that. Yet we can bring to Him the needs we have (even those we think we have), and He will delight to answer our prayers that He knows would be for our best good and the good of others.

Your will be done is not just a memorable part of Jesus’ model prayer—it represents a lifestyle worth imitating.

  1. See also Numbers 14:12. By comparing the two censuses recorded in Numbers 1 and 26 we can see that the rebellion was not equally distributed among the people of Israel. The group hardest hit collectively by God’s punishments at Sinai (shortly after leaving Egypt) and at Baal Peor (shortly before entering Canaan) was the tribe of Simeon. Which event had what effect is an open question, because both occurred between the same two censuses, but the result was that Simeon lost more than 62 percent of its population (59,300 in Numbers 1:23; 22,200 in Numbers 26:14).
  2. Unless otherwise marked, all Scripture quotations in this article have been taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  3. The sequence of names, “Abraham, Isaac, and Israel,” is found only in four passages other than the present one (1 Kings 18:36; 1 Chron. 1:34; 29:18; and 2 Chron. 30:6). “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” on the other hand, occurs in 33 passages representing both Testaments (Gen. 50:24; Ex. 2:24; 3:6, 15, 16; 4:5; 6:3, 8; 33:1; Num. 32:11; Deut. 1:8; 6:10; 9:5, 27; 29:13; 30:20; 34:4; 2 Kings 13:23; Jer. 33:26; Matt. 1:2; 8:11; 22:32; Mark 12:26; Luke 3:34; 13:28; 20:37; Acts 3:13; 7:8, 32).