The Shattered Covenant

Last time, we studied the first half of Exodus 32: the Israelites’ disobedience against God and the making of the golden calf. So far, we’ve read everything from the perspective of the people. Starting in verse 7, however, the focus of the story’s action suddenly shifts back to God and Moses. As the reader, we are confronted with the full, unbridled, raw emotion of a betrayed God:

The Lord told Moses, “Quick! Go down the mountain! Your people whom you brought from the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. How quickly they have turned away from the way I commanded them to live! …I have seen how stubborn and rebellious these people are. Now leave me alone so my fierce anger can blaze against them, and I will destroy them. Then I will make you, Moses, into a great nation.” (Exodus 32:7-10, NLT)

In response to God’s anger, Moses immediately throws himself into the position of intercession for the people he loves – the people he knows God loves! Notice, how Moses in his prayer first turns God’s words around and gives the people back to God: “But Moses implored the LORD his God and said, ‘O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt…?” (vs. 11, ESV) Moses then appeals to God on the basis of His reputation: “Why let the Egyptians say…?” (vs. 12) In other words, “Your glory and reputation is at stake among the nations here, God! Don’t turn Your back on Your people!” Finally, in his desperate prayer, Moses ultimately appeals to God on the basis of His covenant promise: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self” (vs. 13, ESV). Moses knows that above all, God is a promise keeper. He knows that when all else seems to fail, he can count on God’s eternal covenantal faithfulness.

The astounding surprise of the story comes in verse 14: “So the LORD changed his mind about the terrible disaster he had threatened to bring on his people” (NLT). This verse has left many confused and frustrated. How can we reconcile the idea of God changing His mind with what we read about God’s unchanging and eternal nature? “God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through?” (Numbers 23:19, NLT) What we must recognize here is that God is using “anthropomorphic” (human-like) qualities to express himself in a way that we can understand and relate to. Even more importantly, God is using this interaction to thrust Moses into a Christ-like position of intercession for his people. I like how commentator David Guzik puts it:

God did not destroy Israel, and He knew that He would not destroy Israel. Yet He deliberately put Moses into this crucial place of intercession, so that Moses would display and develop God’s heart for the people, a heart of love and compassion. Moses prayed just as God wanted him to – as if heaven and earth, salvation or destruction, depended on his prayer. This is how God waits for us to pray. (David Guzik, Commentary on Exodus)

Moses prayed the exact prayer that God wanted to hear. “That’s right, Moses! That’s exactly what I hoped you would say. You have proven to me that you have the same heart of love that I have for our people.” As I reflect on this amazing reality, I find theologian R. Alan Cole’s words particularly meaningful: “We are not to think of Moses as altering God’s purpose towards Israel by this prayer, but as carrying it out: Moses was never more like God than in such moments, for he shared God’s mind and loving purpose”(Exodus, p. 227).

But the drama of our story is not over yet. We then read how Moses goes down the mountain to fully realize the extent of the people’s rebellion. It was worse than Moses could have ever imagined. Moses immediately gets down to business and carries out a swift sentence of justice on the leading offenders. But after that, Moses again returns to the mountain to speak with God. This time, Moses isn’t pleading for the people’s lives (that request was granted earlier). The question that now hangs in the balance is: Will God choose to continue His covenantal relationship with Israel? As the reader, we are left wondering, “Can the shattered relationship between God and Israel ever be restored? Will God ever claim the Hebrews as His people again?” The end of chapter 32 leaves us astonished and dismayed with what seems to be a clear and irrevocable “NO!”

And the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book… in the day when I visit for punishment, I will visit punishment upon them for their sin.”

So the Lord plagued the people because of what they did with the calf which Aaron made. (Exodus 32:33-35, NKJV)

In closing for this segment of the study, I would like to leave you with the thoughts of Professor Steve Rodeheaver:

That’s where our text ends for now. Plague. Israel must feel the pain of Yahweh… There was no forgiveness. It was still too soon. Imagine discovering that your spouse only married you as a means to an end. You have been reduced from a covenant partner to a manageable resource. The wound is deep. The rage is strong. Quick, automatic forgiveness? No such thing. Can the counselor coax you into forgiveness? Not a chance, not if it is going to be genuine. No, that forgiveness will have to come, if it comes, from deep within your own heart. And thus we wait to discover what lies deep within the heart of Yahweh.

[At this point], it would be easy, too easy, to jump to the New Testament and Jesus as the atonement for our sins. To make that move would be true enough, but to make it so quickly would distort the nature of forgiveness and shrink both Israel’s sin and Yahweh’s heart. The sin of reduction is huge. Only a huge forgiveness can cover it. Does Yahweh have a huge enough heart to re-covenant with Israel? So far, there is only a whisper of hope. Possibly, just maybe, plague is not the last word.

But we don’t know, not yet. We have to wait amid hushed tones of hope to see what’s in the heart of Yahweh. As a New Testament people it is an awkward place for us to be. But if we are to know Yahweh’s heart, if we are to know the heart that Christ reveals, that’s where we must be for now: the not-yet-forgiven side of forgiveness. (Steve Rodeheaver, Exodus Talks: Pastoral Devotionals¬†from Exodus, CRI/Voice, Institute)

Be sure to watch for our next study over Exodus 33!