Exodus: Audacious Moses, Part 2

Moses does not give up until he exacts a promise from God.

Moses, a drawing by Jacob de Wit, Dutch, 18th century

As I noted in my last blog posting, the infidelity of Israel in worshipping the golden calf poses an existential danger to Israel. God wants to destroy the nation and begin all over again. Moses challenges God not to do so, arguing that God must be true to God’s character. God changes his mind. 

This sets Moses free to descend the mountain and deal with the crisis himself. There is a confrontation with Aaron, followed by a purging from the nation of those who constitute an unruly mob (said to be running wild). This work done, Moses again ascends the mountain, where God still seethes with anger over what Israel has done. 

Moses shows unbelievable solidarity and loyalty to the people despite their sin. 

Then the text (Exodus 32:30-33:23) carries us back to the dialogue between Moses and God. When they broke off their conversation on the mountain, God had determined not to destroy Israel. But will he forgive Israel? That is not yet certain. This sets the stage for Part 2 of Moses’ audacious challenge of God. 

Moses asks God to forgive Israel. And if he will not, then Moses asks that God blot him Moses out of the book of life. Moses shows unbelievable solidarity and loyalty to the people despite their sin. 

So when we come to chapter 33, we find God responding that Moses may lead the people to the land God has promised to them. God will honor at least that part of his promise. But ominously, God says he will not go with them. Israel is a stiff-necked people. They are not docile and obedient. As a result, God in his anger might just consume them if they sin again. So instead God will send an angel to take God’s place. This is an assurance of something less than God’s full presence. 

This word of God devastates the people. It means that their future is precarious. They may survive for the moment, but they can have no confidence for the future. They will live with constant anxiety that they may just trigger God’s destructive anger once again. 

I often think that describes well the spiritual situation of many Christians who live in constant fear that they will do something so heinous that it will trigger God’s anger. God will bring upon them something truly evil, like a serious illness, a tragic death, or some other terrible misfortune. It is not a way to live with a sense of spiritual peace, because we can never truly trust that when the pinch comes, God will truly be there for us. 

Moses in the Breach

This leads to further negotiation between Moses and God. Moses is not willing to settle for an angel to lead them. It must be God himself. Will God’s own presence go with them or not? If not, then Moses says, Let’s call a halt to this project immediately. Will you go with us with your full presence, God, or not?

What this question does is ask the question: Will you, God, fully forgive your people, or will you hold back on forgiveness? If you are going to hold back, then there is no reason why this whole exodus event should go forward. Only full forgiveness will satisfy Moses and meet the needs of Israel. No half-way forgiveness will do the trick.

God continually shows favor and partiality to Moses, but Moses does not use that favor to his own aggrandizement. Instead he plays that partiality as the final card in his effort to get God to fully forgive the people. 

Only full forgiveness will satisfy Moses and meet the needs of Israel. No half-way forgiveness will do the trick.

We come to the climax in verse 33:17. God promises to Moses to do what Moses asks. He will forgive the people and go with them with his full presence. He does so as a special favor to Moses who has stood by his people. Moses has won in his negotiation with God. 

Then God grants Moses a special blessing. He permits Moses the special favor of a partial vision of God’s glory. Not a full vision. Moses is allowed only to glimpse the backside of God as he passes by in glory. But it is something no one else has been granted.

God will revive the covenant with Israel. As a sign of that restoration, God presents Moses with new stone tablets. Israel’s relationship with God is secure.

Majestic Moses

As I read through this extended session of negotiations between God and Moses, I feel utter astonishment at what I have called the audacity of Moses and Moses’ solid spiritual backbone. Moses could easily have been cowed into unquestioned submission to whatever God proposed to do. Afterall, God was the far superior power. But Moses does not cave. He stands up to God and stands up for his people. 

…Moses holds God accountable. God is not allowed to be an arbitrary and irresponsible authority.

Moses also steers his way through what for most people would be irresistible temptations. God proposes to make Moses patriarch of his own nation. Moses turns downs that proposition. 

Instead Moses holds God accountable. God is not allowed to be an arbitrary and irresponsible authority. God must honor God’s character and exercise his power in accordance with that character. Moses will settle for nothing less.*

In this part of the Book of Exodus, we see Moses rise to his true majesty. He remains humble in his ambitions. And we see the immense love that he has developed for his own people. Over and over again the people will try his patience and treat him with some disrespect. But Moses will never waver in his commitment to them and their welfare. He will become a living icon of God. No wonder he is the prophet without compare for the Jewish tradition. 


* One is reminded of the famous aphorism of Lord Acton that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Moses will not allow God to fall for the potential temptation to corruption posed by God’s own absolute power.

Exodus: Audacious Moses

After the incident of the golden calf, Moses stands up to God.

When we come to chapter 32 of Exodus, we find Moses is still on top of Mount Sinai. He is continuing in his kind of “classroom” experience as God instructs him on how to build the tabernacle and set up Israel’s institutions of worship. 

Moses by Michelangelo

Meanwhile on the plain below, the people have set up the golden calf and proclaimed it to be their god. Infidelity has invaded the sacred relationship between God and Israel. This leaves us with the question: What will be God’s response? Is divorce or destruction the next step? We are left with that hanging question as we read that on the morrow the people of Israel rise up early and join enthusiastically into sacrifices to the calf image and a reveling feast afterwards.

The text then turns back to the mountain top where God and Moses have been in dialogue.  We get God’s angry response to what is happening on the plain below. God says to Moses:

“Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’ “(Exodus 32:7-10)

Note carefully the wording. God begins the Ten Commandments with the statement, I am the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery….(Exodus 20:2).

But now God disavows any connection to Israel. It is Moses, he says, who brought the Israelites out of Egypt. (That’s why I boldfaced the your and you in the text above.) They are not God’s people. They are Moses’ people. 

In the legal language of the covenant, these are words of divorce. God threatens to destroy the people and then start out a new course by creating a new nation out of the descendants of Moses. If God does this, he will be stepping back from his promises to Abraham. 

His words pose a severe temptation for Moses. God holds out the option to Moses of becoming the patriarch who replaces Abraham. If he wishes, he can reach out and seize this special honor which will redound to his glory. 

Moses Argues with God

We now come to a passage that I consider one of the most extraordinary in all of the Bible. It takes my breath away. Something totally unexpected happens. Moses turns down the temptation. Instead he engages in an audacious argument with God. 

First, Moses throws God’s word back into God’s face. It is not Moses who brought the people out of Egypt. It is God. He says God cannot disavow that responsibility.

Second, he pulls out the public relations card. He says to God in effect, “Think of how this would affect your reputation in the world. The Egyptians whom you have just defeated would laugh uproariously, saying, “Look at this God, who freed the people from slavery only for the purpose of destroying them.” Does God want to acquire that reputation?

Third, he reminds God of the promises God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Is God going to refuse to live by his own promises? Is God going to be untrue to himself? Who then in the future would ever believe in one of God’s promises? 

I find this dialogue extraordinary because of Moses’ boldness in challenging God himself. This is the Moses who earlier in Exodus told God frankly at the bushing bush to find someone else to free the Israelites from Egypt. Now we have a Moses who boldly insists that God be true to himself. Isn’t that extraordinary in showing us the evolving character of Moses?

Also, we see Moses’s own humility. Offered to become the ancestor of another great people—something most kings and dictators dream of—Moses turns down the offer and instead remains committed to the people of Israel, a people whom God has described at still-necked. 

Again we are given an insight into the developing character of Moses. As a matter of fact, when Moses dies, he is not succeeded by his son or grandson. His descendants vanish into history.

And maybe most astonishing of all to me, Moses’s audacity works with God. God steps back from the disaster of destroying Israel. Possibly that audacity is what God was looking for from Moses all along. 

Faith as Bold Assertion

If that is true, then this passage turns our conventional ideas of what faithfulness looks like on its head. Rather than faith becoming synonymous with meek resignation and passivity, faith is pictured as strong assertion. Moses holds God accountable for being true to God’s character. God is not allowed to evade his own promises. And Moses is not shy about doing this.

Lest we think this passage is without parallel in Scripture, I call our attention to the fact that we encounter this same faith as bold assertion throughout the psalms. In psalm after psalm, the psalmist calls upon God to be true to his promises.

One notable example is Psalm 89. In this psalm, the psalmist celebrates the covenant that God establishes with David. God promises that he will show faithfulness and steadfast love to David and his descendants. Their kingship will last forever. 

But the psalmist is writing after Babylonian imperialism has brought an end to the Davidic dynasty. Jerusalem with its royal palace and temple have been razed to the ground. The psalmist questions how this is consistent with God’s promises to David. He concludes his lament with these words:

Lord, where is your steadfast love of old,

            which by your faithfulness you swore to David?

Remember, O Lord, how your servant is taunted

    how I bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples,

         with which your enemies taunt, O Lord,

            with which they taunted the footsteps of your anointed.

        (Psalm 89:49-51)

Implicit in the psalmist’s complaint is the assertion that God be faithful to his promise to David. The psalmist has stepped into the shoes of Moses.

The psalmist as well as Moses give us warrant for being bold in holding God accountable. The life of faith never gives us grounds for manipulating God. We must accept that God’s ways and God’s will may not be our ways and our will. But we can always hold God accountable to his promises and his character.