In Exodus 32, God sees Israel’s first major rebellion against Him. While Moses is on Mount Sinai talking to God about commandments for Israel, Israel camps below and builds a false idol in the shape of a calf. God then begins plotting to destroy all of Israel:
Exo 32:9 And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people!
Exo 32:10 Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation.”
God states that He has seen Israel. God watched them rebel after a few days without Moses’ leadership. God then commands Moses to leave him alone. God says that He will destroy Israel and then use Moses’ lineage to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham.
What happens next is stunning:
Exo 32:11 Then Moses pleaded with the LORD his God, and said: “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?
Exo 32:12 Why should the Egyptians speak, and say, ‘He brought them out to harm them, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your fierce wrath, and relent from this harm to Your people.
Exo 32:13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven; and all this land that I have spoken of I give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ”
Exo 32:14 So the LORD [repented] from the harm which He said He would do to His people.
Moses literally convinces God not to destroy Israel. Notice Moses’ argument:
1. Israel was God’s people
2. God expended great power to lead His people out of Egypt
3. If God were to destroy Israel, the Egyptians would think poorly of God
4. Israel is the offspring of notable individuals to whom God made promises
5. That promise was specifically an eternal inheritance
To a classical theologian, perhaps point 1 or point 4 would be the key points of argumentation. But the Bible stresses that it was particularly due to the pagan conceptions about God that God changed His mind. If God were to kill Israel, that would look terrible on God’s character. God had a chosen people. God used His great power to free them from Egypt. Then if God were to slaughter them in the wilderness, all the pagans would think very poorly on God. They would view God as a suicide cult God, who saves His people just to destroy them. God cared very much about this foreign people’s perceptions of Him and changed His mind based on this line of argumentation.
In verse 32, God repents of the evil He said He would do. In case it was not clear, Ezekiel 20 recaps the reason:
Eze 20:8 But they rebelled against Me and would not obey Me. They did not all cast away the abominations which were before their eyes, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt. Then I said, ‘I will pour out My fury on them and fulfill My anger against them in the midst of the land of Egypt.’
Eze 20:9 But I acted for My name’s sake, that it should not be profaned before the Gentiles among whom they were, in whose sight I had made Myself known to them, to bring them out of the land of Egypt.
Notice that God ignores Moses’ other key points and focuses just on foreign perception. Moses literally convinced God not to destroy a nation because that action would not look very well to a neutral observer. Without Moses and Moses’ arguments, Israel would have been destroyed. In case Exodus 32 is not clear, Moses recaps in Deuteronomy:
Deu 9:13 “Furthermore the LORD spoke to me, saying, ‘I have seen this people, and indeed they are a stiff-necked people.
Deu 9:14 Let Me alone, that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven; and I will make of you a nation mightier and greater than they.’
Deu 9:19 For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure with which the LORD was angry with you, to destroy you. But the LORD listened to me at that time also.
Deu 9:20 And the LORD was very angry with Aaron and would have destroyed him; so I prayed for Aaron also at the same time.
Moses recounts that God listened to him. God listened to Moses. Not only did God listen to Moses’ intercessions for the people, but also to Moses’ personal intercessions for Aaron. Moses says “God would have destroyed him”. It appeared Moses changed God’s mind.
The Exodus event was central to Jewish theology, so it is recapped time and time again. Each time, it is recapped as a normal reading without 21st Century theology attached. In Psalms 106, the text explicitly states again that Moses was the reason Israel was not destroyed:
Psa 106:23 Therefore He said that He would destroy them, Had not Moses His chosen one stood before Him in the breach, To turn away His wrath, lest He destroy them.
Moses intervened in God’s plan. God had a plan to destroy Israel. Moses did not want Israel to be destroyed, and thus Moses argued in favor of sparing Israel. God listened to Moses (Moses had very convincing arguments). And God repented of what He said He was going to do.
This is not the only event in which these exact things happen. When Israel first reaches the Promised Land, Israel is too afraid to enter. God again starts plotting to destroy them:
Num 14:11 Then the LORD said to Moses: “How long will these people reject Me? And how long will they not believe Me, with all the signs which I have performed among them?
Num 14:12 I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”
Moses again intervenes. This time Moses sticks to his key point: how God’s wrath would be perceived by pagans:
Num 14:13 And Moses said to the LORD: “Then the Egyptians will hear it, for by Your might You brought these people up from among them,
Num 14:14 and they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that You, LORD, are among these people; that You, LORD, are seen face to face and Your cloud stands above them, and You go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night.
Num 14:15 Now if You kill these people as one man, then the nations which have heard of Your fame will speak, saying,
Num 14:16 ‘Because the LORD was not able to bring this people to the land which He swore to give them, therefore He killed them in the wilderness.’
Num 14:19 Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray, according to the greatness of Your mercy, just as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.”
Num 14:20 Then the LORD said: “I have pardoned, according to your word;
Moses’ argument basically remains unchanged. If God were to kill Israel it would look really bad on Israel. The Egyptians would see Israel leaving, then the next news they would hear is that all of Israel was found dead in the wilderness. They might even think God just was not capable of leading Israel into their Promised Land. The pagan people would have no respect for God.
This convinced God, again. God repents of the evil He said He would do. Ezekiel 20 recaps this reason:
Eze 20:13 Yet the house of Israel rebelled against Me in the wilderness; they did not walk in My statutes; they despised My judgments, ‘which, if a man does, he shall live by them’; and they greatly defiled My Sabbaths. Then I said I would pour out My fury on them in the wilderness, to consume them.
Eze 20:14 But I acted for My name’s sake, that it should not be profaned before the Gentiles, in whose sight I had brought them out.
This is the second time that God changes His mind and spares Israel because of how God’s actions may be perceived. Ezekiel 20 goes on to show that even both these events (Exodus 32 and Numbers 14) are not alone. God time and time again spares Israel for this explicit reason.
This event is also recapped in Deuteronomy 9. Again Moses says that God said He would destroy Israel. Again Moses convinces God not to destroy Israel. Again Moses uses the exact same argument that God would impugn His own character by such action:
Deu 9:25 “Thus I prostrated myself before the LORD; forty days and forty nights I kept prostrating myself, because the LORD had said He would destroy you.
Deu 9:26 Therefore I prayed to the LORD, and said: ‘O Lord GOD, do not destroy Your people and Your inheritance whom You have redeemed through Your greatness, whom You have brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand.
Deu 9:27 Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; do not look on the stubbornness of this people, or on their wickedness or their sin,
Deu 9:28 lest the land from which You brought us should say, “Because the LORD was not able to bring them to the land which He promised them, and because He hated them, He has brought them out to kill them in the wilderness.”
Deu 9:29 Yet they are Your people and Your inheritance, whom You brought out by Your mighty power and by Your outstretched arm.’
Moses convinces God again. Moses’ personal relationship and Moses’ persuasive abilities actually affected God. God knew this about Moses and passively points out Moses’ abilities in a later (centuries later) judgment against Israel:
Jer 15:1 Then the LORD said to me, “Even if Moses and Samuel stood before Me, My mind would not be favorable toward this people. Cast them out of My sight, and let them go forth.
God is saying in this verse that He is so certainly set against Israel that not even Moses (and Samuel) could convince Him otherwise. The listener, who would be familiar with Exodus, would understand inherently that this was a high hurdle. Moses could convince God to spare wickedly rebellious people. If Moses was unable to convince God, no one could.
Exodus 32 is not meant to be taken figuratively. God really meant to destroy Israel. God really was furious with Israel. Moses really did convince God not to destroy Israel. God really did listen to Moses’ reasoning. And God really was concerned about how His own actions would make Him appear to other nations. The Bible could not be more explicit about these facts. The Exodus is God’s defining moment to Israel, it was taken very seriously by the writers of the Bible and is meant to be taken very seriously by the readers.