2 May 2012

Exodus 32:1-35

"And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people." (v. 14)


This is the story of at least three different turning points. It is a story which is dramatic and troubling, not simply because of the sin of the Israelites but also because it is God who threatens them with punishment, Moses who pleads for mercy and God who ultimately backs down.

The people of Israel have promised: "All the words that the Lord has spoken, we will do" (Exodus 24:3). The story then continues as Moses goes up the mountain and receives instructions for worship (Exodus 24:12 - 31:18), some of which we have looked at this week. However, in his absence, the people of Israel immediately forget their promise and create new gods and new ways of worshipping for themselves. It is possible that the calf is a symbol from Canaanite fertility religion. It is worth reflecting on how quickly the people desert God and the crisis that this story presents.

At the beginning of Exodus, Moses tried to avoid taking on the role of leading Israel (Exodus 3-4) and the story has shown that he was right to be wary, they have been consistently difficult. Verse 10 therefore represents another crisis, God offers Moses the opportunity to be rid of them and to start again with only his own family - and Moses turns God down. Somehow in the midst of this crisis, Moses recognises that no matter how difficult the people he cannot walk away from them. The third crisis is a crisis for God. The Bible does not back away from presenting God as angry and demanding justice. In an age which held life cheap and assumed that one who blasphemed against God deserved to die, it is clear that the risk of the Israelites being extinguished is a real one. And God's mind is changed (verse 14) - one possible alternative translation is 'repents'. All of these can be challenging ideas and they need to be balanced against other passages which stress God's love and mercy. But do we, today, also need to be reminded that sometimes our image of God is too tame?

To Ponder

  • Moses prays and God's mind is changed - what does this say to you about the human relationship with God?
  • How do you respond to biblical images of a God who is angry?
  • What is it about today's world that might make God angry?

Bible notes author

The Revd Judith Rossall

Judith Rossall is a Methodist tutor at Queen's Foundation in Birmingham. Before moving to Queen's, she was a circuit minister and taught at STETS in Salisbury.