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Commentary on Exodus 32:7-14

Brian C. Jones
The exchange between the LORD and Moses in Exodus 32:714 follows Israels greatest
moment of failure, the golden calf incident, Israels paradigmatic sin.
The people gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai have tired of waiting for Moses to return,
and they come to Aaron asking that him to make gods to go before them. Aaron complies
without argument by making a calf idol of gold, a god of the kind they later will worship in
the land of Canaan.
Doubtless the first audience of the book of Exodus would have readily associated this sin
with the idolatry practiced in Israel and Judah during the monarchic period, especially with
the sin of Jeroboam son of Nebat who established cult centers at Dan and Bethel and placed
in each a golden calf idol (1 Kings 12:2533).
Gods Wrath Burns Hot
The LORD reacts to the peoples sin passionately. They have violated the first and most
fundamental of the commandments, the one that binds them to the LORD in a relationship
of exclusive loyalty: You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:3). Atop the
mountain, Moses is unaware of the peoples apostasy.
The LORD knows, however, and commands Moses to descend the mountain immediately
to deal with the people. But before Moses has a chance to respond, the LORD passes
judgment and announces punishment. The LORD will consume all the people in fire and
start over with Moses, if Moses will let me alone (verse 10). But Moses will not let the
LORD alone.
Moses Reasons with the LORD
Undaunted by the LORDs wrath, Moses undertakes to save the people. His response
suggests that he has heard in the crucial words let me alone a possibility, an opening for
mercy. And seizing upon this possibility, Moses endeavors to change Gods mind. The
LORDs has effectively disowned the Israelites with the opening line, Your people,
whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely (verse 7). Moses
will have none of it. Boldly, he reminds the LORD whose people the Israelites truly are: O
LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought up out of the
land of Egypt (verse 11).
Looking on from the outside, there is humor in this exchange. It is as if a husband and wife
are each attempting to assign responsibility to the other parent for a childs misbehavior.
Moses is more in the right than the LORD on the question of responsibility. The LORD had
sworn his promise long ago to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Those who have sinned have

inherited that promise, so Moses points out that the LORDs integrity is one the line. So,
too, is the LORDs reputation at stake. If Israel perishes in the wilderness, the Egyptians
will say that the LORDs intentions were evil from the start. Instead of a faith-keeping and
merciful deliverer, the LORD will appear to be a faithless, malevolent deity.
The arguments that Moses employs to change Gods mind seem to imply that the LORD is
an insecure deity with self-image issues. Is God really worried about what the Egyptians
might think and say? Does God need to be forced to remember past promises and oaths?
Moreover, the story suggests that Moses is more merciful than the LORD, and this raises
questions about the quality of divine mercy. There is no easy way around the unsettling
portrayal of Gods character in this text.
Perhaps we should take the simplicity of Moses theological assumptions as an indication
of either Moses or the narrators unrefined theology. Or we might view the dialogue as a
narrative device for portraying what is in fact a dialogue within Gods own being, with
Moses representing the mercy of God and the LORD representing the justice and wrath of
God.
God Repents
At the end of the passage, the narrator tells us that Moses arguments were effective: And
the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. This
is a remarkable statement inasmuch as it records the LORDs reversal baldly and without
equivocation. The Hebrew verb translated changed his mind is naham, a term elsewhere
translated be sorry or repent when its subject is a human. It is an emotion-laden term
and appropriate to a context in which one is deeply moved.
By entering into a covenant relationship with Israel, the LORD risked disappointment and
suffering. The Deist God is detached and unmoved -- God the boiling point of water (A.
MacLeish) -- but the Bible allows for no such uninvolved view of God. The God of the
Bible enters into relationship with humans and thereby into the suffering that love entails.
God Suffers
Our theology is often more shaped by the insistence on divine perfection characteristic of
scholastic theology than it is by the Bible. The God of the Bible is not impassible; rather,
God is passionately involved with humans. Nor is the God of the Bible omniscient and
unchanging. The biblical God freely surrenders Godself to the unpredictable course of
events dictated by human freedom and must adjust as history unfolds.
Amazingly, humans can affect God. God changes -- acts otherwise --in response to human
persuasion. Moses petitions; God reconsiders. Trite and problematic as it may be, the
saying prayer changes things has more biblical support than prayer changes us.

The passionate, persuadable God portrayed in this passage is in accord with the Crucified
God (Moltmann) of the New Testament. Humans cause God grief and suffering, but God
does not withdraw or give up. In costly love God embraces humanity, though pierced in the
act. God suffers none to be lost but pursues each wandering lamb, frantically searches for
each lost coin. And when the lost turn back, Gods heart is glad.