7 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.'” 9 “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
11 But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. “LORD,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 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. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.'” 14 Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
To people who do not know much of God, this seems like a very harsh and unforgiving God speaking. Indeed, even to many Christians, this is an odd characterization of God. Why is God speaking of “destroying” the people He saved from Egypt? Why isn’t He just forgiving them and letting them come back to Him? And why is He speaking to Moses like a confidant?
One reason: there is much more going on here.
Moses has been up on Mount Sinai receiving word from the Lord for so long that the people waiting for him have all but given up; they need something tangible to worship, something physical and real. The Israelites pressure Moses’ brother Aaron into making a “substitute” god–they take a page from the ancient Canaanite religions of the region, and end up making a calf-shaped idol to worship instead.
God is angered by this, this blatant breaking of the covenant He had cemented with Abraham, but not so much that He is in a killing rage. In fact, that is against the nature of God, to want to kill His creation.
“But He just said–” you might be thinking. “Look at that, in verse 10–He JUST told Moses He wants him to leave Him alone so that He can destroy the Israelites!”
Exactly. He’s telling Moses all this. This isn’t a statement of what God is INTENDING to do–it is a test for Moses’s faith and leadership. What God is doing is allowing Moses to respond and to stand up for the salvation of his people. Though we do not know the mind of God fully, we can surmise that God tests three things about Moses:
- Moses’ faithfulness to the Lord, even to not leave him alone as God asks in verse 10;
- Moses’ knowledge of the covenant and of the graces which God has bestowed on Israel before now;
- Moses’ ability to lead the people of Israel back to God.
God knows that Moses is capable of this–after all, He created Moses. What remains now is for Moses to rise to this test. In effect, God is bluffing, and Moses calls Him on it in verses 11-14, showing that he knows all about the covenant struck with his ancestors, and all about God’s loving grace towards His people when he rescued them from Egyptian slavery. Not to mention that he actually pleads with God on behalf of the Israelites.
Here, Moses is being a true spiritual leader for the Israelites, even if he himself doesn’t realize it yet. God wants Moses to see that he IS capable of leading God’s people, and that he IS fit to teach them about the will of God. Moses had been reluctant to accept God’s call to work in this capacity before, citing his lack of eloquence and other faults. But God knows him better–knows that this man is fully capable, if he will accept the duty. This ultimatum which God delivers only to Moses’ ears is a challenge to bring Moses’ bravery out of hiding for the last time.
God challenges us to accept the calls He’s made to each one of us, every day. After all, He made us; He knows what we’re capable of. Sometimes, however, it takes a grave threat to make us actually step up and become the people God made us to be. God knew this about Moses, and made the exact threat He knew would spur Moses into action. Is God spurring you toward something new and better?