Many of us are familiar with the episode of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32-34. The familiar telling of the narrative may be broken down to suggest the fault of the golden calf is purely the problem of the people of Israel. After all, the text does give many negative characterizations of the people, such as being stubborn. Aaron lacks of leadership is also implicated. However, this reading of the narrative puts no blame on Moses. He was absent from his people for 40 days; this certainly would provoke anxieties and concerns if one’s leader has been gone that long with no word. However, nothing negative is said about the character of Moses. That doesn’t mean, however, that the narrative doesn’t place some responsibility of Moses. I would suggest that, in fact, the narrative does contain an implicit critique of Moses, but it is muted so as to not suggest Moses fault was a deep problem of character for Moses.
I would suggest the question could be investigated by asking the question: why is it that God decides to forgive the idolatry and eventually remake the covenant with them? Common answers to this question from a classical theism perspective would somehow try to suggest God only appeared to be changing in order to maintain the immutability of God. But the narrative gives no indications of this whatsoever. In fact, the multiple stages of God’s changes suggest the events are no mere metaphor to reflect some other reality: the narrative is saying that God really did change his mind about the destruction to be brought upon Israel. So then, why did God change his mind? The narrative connects it to the intercession of Moses. God says he has one plan then Moses pleads for God to not put that plan into action. But what is it about Moses’ intercession changed God’s mind? To get to an answer to this question, it is pertinent to answer the question: what was God’s purposes for the Exodus and the people Israel?
In Exodus 9:13-19, YHWH tells Moses to inform Pharoah to let the people of Israel go. God then explains the reason Pharoah was where he was what that God was going to use Pharoah to make His name known throughout the world. God was on a mission to let the world that He was on the move and who He was. So the dramatic events would be a witness to YHWH the God of Israel and, implicitly though not mentioned in the narrative, how His power exceeds all the power of the Egyptian pantheon. While God was responding to Israel’s cries from the oppression and so God’s faithfulness to the promises to the patriarchs was one reason for His action, we might say that the shape of God’s redemptive action was determined by informing the world about who He is. Then, once Israel was dramatically and powerfully freed, God tells Israel His plans for them in Exodus 19:5-6: that they would be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. They were to simultaneously represent the kingdoms of the world to God as a priestly kingdom and represent God to the world in resembling His holiness; God’s purposes to make Himself known through the dramatic deliverance would be realized by the people of Israel between representatives of God to the world, along with also representing the world to God. After the provision of the Decalogue and other commandments, the people agreed to this arrangement and a covenant was formed between God and the people of Israel in Exodus 24. In other words, the people Israel had accepted this role that God had provided them.
So what happens with the incident of the golden calf? Israel not only dishonors their covenant with God by breaking the first commandment is the worship of multiples gods as redeeming them from Egypt and the second commandment against graven images directly. Their actions are a very threat to the very representative purpose they committed to fulfill. Furthermore, the incident of the Golden Calf is the beginnings of telling a different story of who redeemed Israel from Egypt. YHWH redeemed Israel, but it is others gods who were going to get the credit. This wouldn’t just be a failure of Israel to fulfill their purpose; it was thwarted the very purposes that God had for the Exodus. Reading between the lines here and including a larger, universal arc of redemption of God’s purposes, this was not just a failure of sin of the people, but it a very threat to the very plan God had for redemption for the whole world. God’s angry burned hot against them and they must be destroyed. The people were stubborn and so they were not going to change on their own accord.
If this reading is the case, then it may suggest part of the reason God changed His mind: God saw that Israel could still play their part to fulfill their purposes. But what does that have to do with the intercession of Moses? How would Moses actions suggest that Israel could still fulfill their assigned task? Let’s take a step back and look at Moses own background.
Moses was an Israelite but he never really lived among his people. Being brought up in Pharoah’s household, he would have had all the makings of status, wealth, and privilege that the common Israelite would never have even dreamed of. The narrative in Exodus 2:13-14 suggests that Moses may have seen himself as a potential leader among his kinfolk, based upon is intervention in the conflict between two Israelites. However, the nature of the response back to his interference was a repudiation of this role. Instead, his action to kill an Egyptian to protect a fellow Israelite, which he might have imagined to be to protect his people, was used by the Israelite to label him as a murder, instead of a protector. As Moses flees because the killing becomes knowledge to Pharoah, Moses is left isolated and, in a way, shunned and ostracized by his own people. Moses might have no longer felt an identification with these people as he lived in the wilderness of Midian. As an interesting fact to go along with this observation, it is only in the incident where Moses protects the Israelite from the Egyptian that the people of Israel are said to be Moses’ “people,” except when talking to God. This is quite revealing, as much of the of the narrative, Moses sees himself as distinct and different from his kinfolk. God refers to them as His people, but Moses never does in Exodus after that point.
This distance might then explain the forty days Moses spends on the mountain. Nowhere do we get a sense that God commanded Moses to spend forty days. Certainly, there were a lot of instructions given to Moses during his time on the mountain, but did it really necessitate forty days? God’s called out to Moses after seven days on the mounts. That is 33 days later that Moses stayed. And the only reason Moses decides to go back was because God told Moses about the idolatry; Moses might have had plans to stay their indefintively. While the narrative doesn’t say it directly, it does seem to imply that there was a distance between Moses and the people of Israel. You might be able to imagine how he would much rather spend long times alone with God, whom he had encountered and known in very powerful ways, rather than the people of Israel who had shirked him in his past.
Then, we see this distance being expressed in his intercession. God says to Moses that “your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” (32:7) Here we see God placing the subtle blame on Moses; it was Moses responsibility to lead the people, so God assigns responsibility to Moses, saying they were his people. However, Moses response is to assign the people of Israel to God, saying that God was the one would lead them out of Egypt. Moses isn’t eager to take on the responsibility, nor to identify himself with the people of Israel. Nevertheless, Moses does seek to intercede, but in a distant manner. We also see Moses blame Aaron for this incident in 32:11. Moses doesn’t think there is any blame or responsibility for what happened on his account.
However, the next time Moses intercedes with God on Israel’s behalf, he still maintains a sense of distance, referring to them as “this people” (v. 31). However, instead of accepting God’s offer to make Moses a great nation, Moses begins to act to identify with the people. If God were to blot out the name of the people, then God should also blot out Moses. Moses commits for his fate to be the same fate of the people of Israel. Then, in Exodus 33:12, Moses stills keeps a distance, still referring to them as “this people,” but he has clearly accepted responsibility for leading the people that God has assigned him. Then God promises His presence to go with Moses, rather than to simply send an angel to lead them. The forgiveness and mercy of God is becoming fully realized at this point, as God speaks of his own nature to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7. It is Moses’ response to the disclosure of God’s mercy that is most interesting. Moses says: “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” (Exodus 32:9) Moses no longer expresses himself in an absolutely distant manner, although he still refers to “this… people.” Instead, Moses now identifies himself with the people of Israel.
Through the event of intercession, something changed about Moses. Moses was reluctant to take responsibility for the people of Israel and did not identify himself as belonging to them as a people. In the end, however, Moses began to see himself as a part of the people and took on his responsibility. And it is this transformation of Moses through the act of intercession that I would suggest is the reason God changed His mind about the plans of disaster. The incident golden calf was the result of a stubborn people who had a vacuum of leadership; Moses bore some responsibility for what occurred, even if he was faithful to God and desired to be obedient. But as Moses’ own relationship to Israel changes, so too would Israel’s own future change. While still be stubborn and hard-hearted, through the leadership of Moses they could continue to retain their divinely given purpose to represent the world to God and God to the world.
This benefit of this explanation is that it offers a coherent account of how God could simultaneously be gracious and merciful and yet be so quick to anger at the action of idolatry. The idolatry with the golden calf wasn’t simply an offense to God. It was a threat to the very loving, redemptive purposes that God had in plan for Israel. God’s merciful nature that was ultimately being expressed through His redemptive plan in the Exodus was at risk. But through Moses identifying with and taking on responsibility for leading the people, God’s loving redemptive purposes for the world could be maintained because Israel would act in some capacity to represent God, even despite their sin and obstinacy.