The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 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.’
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ‘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? 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. 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 for ever.” ’ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Picture the scene. You have just had a wonderful retreat. You have spent some memorable times alone with God. This close and intimate sense of a renewed relationship stays with you all the way home. Within twenty four hours of arriving back you have managed to fall out with most of your close work colleagues. They have failed to implement the instructions you thought you had given them and you are seriously considering sacking them all and hiring a more reliable work force. Then you have a huge row with your nearest and dearest with regard to the chaos you perceive on arriving home.
Something of the same scenario, albeit more serious, must have been Moses’ experience. After his close encounter with God on the mountain top he learns that mayhem has broken out in the camp and in his absence the Israelites had broken all those sacred laws that he hoped had been established last time they met.
How is it that a relationship with God can move from the sublime to the confused so quickly? That all the certainty and the clarity of vision can go so suddenly, leaving us prey to anger, disappointment and confusion.
We are encouraged to believe that God never changes. God is like a mountain that cannot be moved.
When staying in mountainous regions I am often struck by the changing nature of a particular peak. In the morning by the clear light of dawn it can look friendly and inviting. If the weather deteriorates it can look quite different. Similarly if I shift myself and observe it from another angle I can see yet another aspect. It is still the same mountain but it is my perception of it that is different each time.
The passage tells us that God threatened to destroy the children of Israel (and maybe if their behaviour had continued to spiral out of control they would have brought destruction on themselves). But Moses pleaded with Him and reminded him of His former promise. Then comes those astonishing words “but God changed His mind”……..What is one to make of that? If we believe that God is constant and unchanging how can He be said to change His mind?
Just as my observation of the mountain changed so too did Moses’ own perception of the situation shift. Moses starts by seeing God full of righteous anger but this dissolves as compassion and mercy take its place. Therein lies a paradox.
We can with confidence say that God’s laws are there to be obeyed but when we inevitably break them that same God so full of mercy and tender compassion is swift to forgive us and restore us to a right relationship.