Commentary on Exodus 32:7-14
“I used to think that God never changes,” said one of my seminary students a few years back, “and then I read the Old Testament.”
This story in Exodus 32 is one of the prime examples of what my student was talking about. God tells Moses that God will destroy the people of Israel for their sin of making and worshiping the golden calf, and then God changes his mind.
A fruitful sermon on this story will focus on the main characters in it: Moses and God. I will explore each briefly. But first, it is worth noting that the story of the golden calf is a kind of “fall” story, similar to “the Fall” in the Garden of Eden. In both stories, immediately after the establishment of a relationship between God and humanity, human beings disobey. In the case of Exodus 32, God forms Israel as a new creation and they immediately fall into sin. What is God to do?
The LORD’s initial reaction to the people’s idolatry is to pronounce judgment on them: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely … 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.’”
Though this judgment is harsh, it is best understood in light of its context. This sin of idolatry comes after God has freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt with “signs and wonders” (Exodus 7:3). They have seen with their own eyes the deliverance of the LORD. They have passed through the waters of the Red Sea on dry ground. They have heard the voice of God from the mountaintop and have been chosen as God’s “treasured possession” out of all the nations on earth—called to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6). And they have received the Ten Commandments, the first one of which is, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).1
And now, because Moses takes too long on the mountaintop, they immediately break the first commandment: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” say the people (Exodus 32:4), and God echoes their words bitterly to Moses (32:8). God will start over with Moses since the people have failed so miserably at being God’s people.
The text gives us some clues, however, that the destruction of the people is not actually God’s desire. “Now let me alone,” says God. It is a curious expression. It is as if Moses has some say in the matter. It is as if God is calling on Moses to play some part in this conversation so that it may result in a different outcome than destruction.
Moses does have a role to play in this situation. Moses is a prophet. In fact, if we take Deuteronomy as our guide, Moses is the prophet: “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10).
And what does a prophet do? A prophet speaks for God to the people and speaks for the people to God. In this latter role, the prophet is often the one who “stands in the breach” between God and the people. In Ezekiel 22, God pronounces judgment on princes, priests, prophets, and people because of their sins (oppressing the poor, stealing from the foreigner, lying, killing, etc.), and then says this: “And I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one” (Ezekiel 22:30). Jerusalem will be destroyed because there is no one to stand in the breach.
The image is that of a defender of a walled city. When an enemy army wanted to take a walled city, they had to starve the inhabitants out and/or make a breach in the city wall. In the case of Ezekiel’s metaphor, the enemy army is God or, more accurately, God’s wrath; and the walled city is the land of Judah and its inhabitants. God wants someone to stand in the breach, to turn away God’s wrath from the land, but no one—prophet, priest, or king—is found.
In the case of Exodus 32, God finds Moses to stand in the breach. The writer of Psalm 106 retells the story:
They made a calf at Horeb
and worshiped a cast image.
They exchanged the glory of God
for the image of an ox that eats grass …
Therefore he said he would destroy them—
had not Moses, his chosen one,
stood in the breach before him,
to turn away his wrath from destroying them. (Psalm 106:19-20, 23)
Moses, like a lone soldier defending a city, turns away God’s wrath and saves the people. He does so by using a three-part argument:
- Moses turns the tables on God. God had said, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” Moses corrects the LORD: “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” These aren’t my people, God, they are yours. It is as if Moses and God are a married couple arguing over the children: “Just wait till you hear what your daughter did today.”
- Next, Moses uses the “What-will-the-neighbors-say” argument: “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.” Think of your reputation, God. You proved yourself more powerful than the gods of the Egyptians. Now what will the Egyptians say if it looks like you saved your people only to destroy them in the wilderness?
- Finally, and this third part of the argument is the clincher, Moses reminds God of God’s own promises: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” Moses reminds God of God’s own promises that began with the call of Abraham in Genesis 12, and that were reiterated several more times to Isaac and Jacob and their descendants.
Moses’ argument works. “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”
Moses stands in the breach as God wants him to and turns away God’s wrath from the people. And he does so by reminding God of God’s promises to this people. Because here’s the thing: God is faithful. God will keep his promises.
When God promises Abraham that he will become a great nation, that his descendants will inherit the land of Canaan, and that he will be a blessing to all the nations of the earth, that promise binds God (Genesis 12:1-3, 7). That’s why, generations later, God “changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”
My student was right. God does change in the Old Testament (and the New). God changes God’s mind and often relents concerning judgment because God’s basic character never changes. God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex 34:6). God changes God’s mind because God’s faithfulness to God’s people never changes. While there are consequences for sin (as it true in this story, too), God will not break promises. Moses knows this about God and it will prove the saving of the people over and over again in the wilderness journey to come.
- The Ten Commandments are given in Exodus 20. The internal chronology of Exodus, though, is confusing. The story of Exodus 32 seems to assume that Moses has not yet come down from Mt. Sinai with the stone tablets on which the commandments are written (see Exodus 31:18, 32:19).