For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 13 – Exodus 32:7-14 (Related)
One of the clichés I’m fed up of hearing is the oft-stated assertion that prayer doesn’t change God, but it does change us. When we pray for something, it doesn’t talk God into giving it to us, but rather we talk ourselves into not wanting it after all! In a liberal and deistic Church where it is politically incorrect to suggest that God might actually do anything, we have lost sight of the power of direct and specific intercession to affect our lives and situations. So let’s have a look at this story of Moses the intercessor and see what the Bible actually says.
It’s worth saying that the whole incident was driven by fear, and that the people had every right to be afraid. Hunger and thirst were very real possibilities in the desert, and whether death came quickly or slowly it was a very real prospect. But as is so often the case, fear has distorted their perceptions of reality. First of all, they had distorted their view of Moses. In spite of his repeated assertions that it was God who was going to lead them to the Promised Land, they were fixated on him. It was all his fault: he had brought them out into the desert to kill them. As I write two Tory hopefuls are slugging it out to see who will be the Prime Minister to lead the nation out of the mess their party has got it into, and the more optimistic (or naïve) are hoping for a human leader who will make everything all right again, and stop them either starving or dying of hypothermia. If you put your faith in a human leader who then goes awol, there is a real panic.
Then they acted out of their distorted perception of who God was. They needed a god they could actually see, one they had made in their own image, and who would come to save them. Having cast the idol, they believed that it was this god, the one they had just made for themselves, who had and who would lead them. And finally they acted out of a distorted perspective of their whole situation, the whole journey they were on. The Hebrew uses two different words for their journey through the desert. Alah means simply to go from one place to another, like getting a bus to town, whereas yatza is a technical term for a slave being taken out of bondage and into freedom – it’s the world used extensively in chapter 21 for the freeing of slaves. While God and Moses talk about yatza, the people only use alah. Their fear has made them lose sight of the fact that they are being set free: they merely see a long journey which isn’t going to end up much better than where they had come from.
So with these three distortions in mind, it is easy to see how God might just be a bit cross with them. This is where Moses the intercessor comes in. Note first that Moses doesn’t have his own mind changed. He is in no way tempted by the offer of becoming the father of a great nation instead of Abraham. Instead he argues with God, using three different techniques to drive home his prayers. He reminds God that they people are his: your people, whom you brought out of Egypt (v.11) It’s like a couple of parents saying ‘Look what your son has been up to!’ The people are not someone else’s; they are God’s.
Then he asks about the PR effects of mass destruction. What will all the people around think if you destroy your people? he asks. This just won’t look good on you. But finally, and this might just be the clincher, he claims God’s promises and his character. You’ve promised, and I know you’re not one who breaks promises. So God relents, and a much milder punishment is meted out (because God is righteous, and he can’t just tolerate wrongdoing.
Did God really mean to wipe out the whole nation? Or was he just testing Moses, inviting him to be the prophet he was meant to be, to stand in the gap in the wall and protect the people as Psalm 106 describes? One day we might find out, but the story as it stands encourages bold intercession. Put it alongside other biblical texts about the power of intercession, and it gives us, I believe, a strong encouragement to cry out to God in situations of evil and injustice, to claim God’s character and his promises, and to watch for the salvation of the Lord.