Exodus 32:7-14 (CEB)
The Lord spoke to Moses: “Hurry up and go down! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, are ruining everything! They’ve already abandoned the path that I commanded. They have made a metal bull calf for themselves. They’ve bowed down to it and offered sacrifices to it and declared, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I’ve been watching these people, and I’ve seen how stubborn they are. Now leave me alone! Let my fury burn and devour them. Then I’ll make a great nation out of you.”
But Moses pleaded with the Lord his God, “Lord, why does your fury burn against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and amazing force? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘He had an evil plan to take the people out and kill them in the mountains and so wipe them off the earth’? Calm down your fierce anger. Change your mind about doing terrible things to your own people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, whom you yourself promised, ‘I’ll make your descendants as many as the stars in the sky. And I’ve promised to give your descendants this whole land to possess for all time.’” Then the Lord changed his mind about the terrible things he said he would do to his people.
CRIPES!! This is serious stuff! Some proper heavyweight theological thought might need to be deployed to deal with this! Thankfully, that’s not the purpose of this blog – other proper heavyweight theological sources are available!
I have not set out to explain hard stuff to people – merely to note my own reflections on it and ramble on for a bit, so here goes!
At first glance it seems shocking that God quite clearly changes her mind. She was going to do something violent and bloody – and Moses persuades her that this won’t look good, that there would be no way of spinning this so that God came out looking good in the eyes of the Egyptians. Moses is acting as the first spin-doctor – advising God on how things might look… (yes – literally!)
This is by no means the only time this happens in the Bible, it happens quite a few times, but I won’t bore you by listing them because it doesn’t really add to the issue!
It seems shocking for several reasons..
For one thing, we tend to think of God as “unchanging” – “immutable”. But we can stop worrying about that because that really means that God’s essential nature is unchanging – namely, that God is love. It doesn’t mean that God cannot choose to act and respond in ways that change according to the situation. But what we have here does not sound very loving – it sounds like an angry God talked down from genocidal destruction by Moses. I think there is a helpful way to think about this. It is by no means a simple linear progression of increased understanding, but I think the Bible is (amongst other things) unfolding journey of human understanding about who God is. Ideas are wrestled with, sometimes discarded, sometimes developed. And God reveals herself through this struggle. One dominant idea that has been wrestled with on and off for centuries is the idea that stuff can only happen if God has decided it will happen – if something happens than it is God’s will – it has to be – else it wouldn’t have happened. If a rampaging army slaughters everyone then God was punishing them or God ordered it. If someone is sick – then there is a reason… you get the idea. If the people of Israel abandonned God and made a golden calf and worshipped it and gave it credit for rescuing them from Egypt, then Moses might have expected God to be cross and destroy everyone, and this might have filled Moses with horror, and there was then only one way to explain why the People of Israel were not destroyed – that God had changed her mind. (I imagine God might have been a bit cross about this – “Hey, Moses! I never intended to do that anyway – you projected it onto me! So don’t go taking the credit for changing my mind.. oh… too late!”) It didn’t do Moses any harm to be seen as the one who could stop God killing them all… think about it… That all works for me – to a point. If God is God, she doesn’t need Moses to teach her how to love or how to forgive.
(readers of a nervous disposition should read no further – you can stop here!)
But you could go further and suggest that all of this talk about God changing her mind is a bit anthropomorphic – it imagines that God is just a big version of us. As I have got older I don’t view God so much in anthropomorphic terms. I’m not startlingly new or radical in this – the Bible was there long before me… “God is love”. I’m not sure what it even means to argue about whether “love” has a “mind” – the kind of mind that can change…. I’m not sure what it means to argue about whether a force like “love” makes plans or intervenes in human affairs, yet God (as love) can change things – God (as love) moves and flows through everything and everyone – God (as love) is the one in whom we live and move and have our being…(Acts 17:28) So – maybe this Exodus incident is only difficult if you are glued to a less-than-helpful idea of who God is… If God is love – she never planned to slaughter everyone; If God is love – she was always ahead of Moses; If God is love – she journeyed every step of the way with those people and wept at all the death and destruction, and was grieved that she took the blame for some of it. She didn’t just love them – more than that – she WAS and IS love itself. It’s not that we have a loving God, it’s that we have a God who actually IS love! But that’s a bigger story for a bigger blog!