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.