6 July 2013

Deuteronomy 9:15-21

“I was afraid that the anger the Lord bore against you was so fierce that he would destroy you. But the Lord listened to me that time also.” (v. 19)


Carrying on from yesterday Moses continues to tell the story of the sin of the golden calf (see Exodus 32), reminding the people of this horrendous turn away from their obedience to God's love. Moses himself had not been involved in this lapse, which took place when he was still on the mountain, receiving God's commandments. He describes his horror at their actions, and the very dramatic ways he responded. First, he smashed the tablets of the law, symbolising the way in which Israel had disobeyed right at the beginning of their special relationship with God. Then he lay prostrate in prayer and fasted, for the great length of time represented by the phrase "forty days and forty nights" (v. 18). It was only after this long period of prayer that he actually destroyed the idol which they had made. The account emphasises its absolute destruction (verse 21) and the way in which all the gold was lost forever, washed away down the mountain. Though Moses interceded for his people and protected them through his prayer, he absolutely refused to accept their sin, and the destruction of the golden calf makes this vividly clear.

This story takes very seriously the anger of God at those who are disobedient. The language suggests more than dispassionate judgement - there is a real sense of God's appalled horror and hurt at what the people have done. However, even such intense, anguished wrath can be averted by Moses' commitment to pray for his people and for Aaron his brother . The whole people is saved through the prayer of one individual who is in a right relationship with God (see Genesis 18:22-32, the story of Abraham's prayer for Sodom and Gomorrah). Jewish mysticism develops this idea with folk tales of the '36 righteous people' whose righteousness and humility prevents the world coming to its end.

Deuteronomy emerged at the end of a long period when Judah had been caught up in idolatry, partly through the rule of a series of 'bad kings' (2 Kings 21). When the book was first read, its hearers were horrified to realise how far they had gone wrong (2 Kings 22:11). This story reassures its hearers that however bad things have become, there is always the possibility of a renewed relationship through the prayer of those who trust God.

To Ponder

  • Do you think the Church is happier talking about God's love than God's anger? Why?
  • 'Disaster fails to happen' is not a common headline! So many can claim that prayer makes no difference. If this passage is right to suggest that the prayer of God's people can save people from the impact of their sin, what are the implications for our worship life both as individuals and as Christian communities?

Bible notes author

The Revd Caroline Wickens

Caroline is a Methodist presbyter, currently serving as superintendent of the Dudley and Netherton Circuit just outside Wolverhampton. She is married to Andrew, an Anglican priest, and has two teenage children.