Exodus 32:11-14 records a tremendous prayer of intercession, that of Moses in pleading to God that Israel not be destroyed for their idolatry. This led to God aborting a pre-announced judgment. Theological fireworks (until recently muffled) revolve around the issue of whether God had a real intention to judge the people and, subsequently, a real change of mind. It doesn't take much to show that one requires the other, and so our story begins in...
Mount Sinai. Moses is stil on the mountain receiving the 10 Commandments in tablet form. The Israelites get impatient and eventually abandon all trust in God (32:1), persuading Aaron to make them a god (32:1-5). The idolatrous event is 'consumated' the morning after the golden calf has been built, with the people making offerings, feasting and indulging in revelry (32:6).
God's anger is fierce to the point of renouncing the people, telling Moses that they were his (Moses') instead, in Exo 32:7, "Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt.".
"(The Lord said), 'I have seen these people and they are a stiff-necked people...leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.' (God makes it very clear that He will - or at least wants to - destroy Israel)
Then come Moses' prayer, Exo 32:11-14, where he gives three reasons why God should not destroy the people:
"But Moses sought the favor of the Lord, 'O Lord, why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? (Reason 1)
"Why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth'? (Reason 2)
"Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on
Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: 'I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promisd them, and it will be their inheritance forever.'' (Reason 3)
After which the text says that God relented and put His wrath on hold,
Exo 32:14, "Then the Lord changed His mind and did not bring
on his people the disaster he had threatened."
Allow me to first state my understanding of what happened here. I think that what occured is just what was recorded: God was angry and wanted to cancel the people out. Moses interceded. God changed His mind. That's basically it.
God's repentance as a result of Moses' prayer reflected His great intimacy with Moses and demonstrates that God values relationships and allows those He loves to influence His actions. This attribute of God - His 'shared' control together with His creatures - far from giving us a 'diminished' divinity, instead enriches it to present us with a true Person of love, of reciprocity, voluntary vulnerability (as only love can be) and an unselfish sovereignity.
We would consider someone seriously pathological who never allows the input of others to affect their decisions - why make an exception with God? Especially when His Word says, as clear as it can ever say, that God did indeed change His mind about His judgment that time.
I submit that our passage in question shows us just how much God values one who loves Him and sincerely and unselfishly pleads for the welfare of others. God repented of His decision when Moses prayed earnestly that He do so.
Now let's examine (and critique) the traditional reading of the passage...
This conclusion could be based on two arguments (the second is not as common but may be problematic for some):
1. God could not have destroyed the people without breaking His promises to bless Abraham's descendants (Moses' third reason above) and/or the tribe of Judah (Gen 49:10), thereby ruining His integrity, character, etc.
2. God cannot be less loving or merciful than Moses (a supposed/alleged implication of the view that God changed His mind because of Moses' intercession)
(Of course another point commonly raised is that since God knows the
future exhaustively, He simply could not have changed His mind and thus
the passage cannot literally have meant that God repented. This,
it can be easily pointed out, cannot be used as an argument against
divine repentance when the very issue is whether or not God repented.
This presupposition is that which we should be extracting from Scripture
and not employ as a control upon the reading of it, especially if
we believe that Scripture is the primary basis for us deriving our understanding
Let's then take a look at the first argument against genuine divine repentance in Exodus 32...
Argument 1: "God could not destroy the people WITHOUT breaking His promises to bless Abraham's descendants (Moses' third reason above) and/or the tribe of Judah (Gen 49:10), thereby ruining His integrity. Therefore, God couldn NOT have sincerely intended to destroy Israel. "
We'll go through all three reasons to see if Moses' presentation implied that God could NOT have wiped the people out WITHOUT damaging His character or promises:
i. "O Lord, why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand?" (32:11)
Frankly, why not? The people had sinned, had turned away
from what God commanded them (32:8), had built an idol of gold and, despite
God's provisions and promises thus far, had forgotten Him. God has
every right to be angry and, quite possibly, start all over again with
a new group of people.
ii. "Why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth'"? (32:12)
Could Egypt have proven that it was with 'evil intent' that God rescued them? Moses, though no doubt passionate and sincere, is making the (not uncommon) mistake of imagining problematic implications between God's actions and His character, where none in fact existed.
In no way would the judgment of Israel at that point be an 'evil' act by God, as He had every right to execute judgment and the people were justly under condemnation. Furthermore, God is under no obligation to answer to questions cum accusations (let alone false ones) about His character, least of all to Egypt.
So again, God could have blown Israel away - no real blemish in His integrity/character at all.
Pushback: What about Ezekiel 20:4-29 which states that one of God's concerns was indeed to protect His name from being 'profaned among the nations'? Does this not imply that He couldn't have sincerely intended to destroy the people, as His name would in fact have ben 'profaned' as a result? Let's look at the three relevant sections (the reader is here encouraged to go through the entire passage):
Eze 20:8-9, "But (Israel) rebelled against me and would not listen to me; they did not get rid of the vile images they had set their eyes on nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt. So I thought I would pour out my wrath on them and spend my anger against them in Egypt. But for the sake of my name I did what would keep it from being profaned in the eyes of the nations they lived among and in whose sight I had revealed myself to the Israelites by bringing them out of Egypt."
Eze 20:13-14, "Yet (Israel) rebelled against me in the desert...So I thought I would pour out my wrath on them and destroy them in the desert. But for the sake of my name I did what would keep it from being profaned in the eyes of the nations in whose sight I had brought them out."
Eze 20:21-22, "But (Israel's children) rebelled against me...So I thought I would pour out my wrath on them and spend my anger against them in the desert. But I withheld my hand and for the sake of my name I did what would keep it from being profaned in the eyes of the nations in whose sight I had brought them out."
Some points to note:
God truly intended to judge His people, but His compassion, coupled
with the intercession of a God-loving man, caused Him to withhold His 'strange
work' and 'alien task' (Isa 28:21).
iii. "Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: 'I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promisd them, and it will be their inheritance forever.'' (32:13)
It merely needs to be reminded that Moses was Abraham's decendant (of the tribe of Levi, Exo2:1) and that God could have wiped Israel out and still maintain His covenant with Abe, as long as Moses was still alive. No problem there whatsoever.
However, let's take a look at Gen 49:10, "(Jacob said to his sons) 'The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his'."
Jacob's blessing of Judah is seen as a prophecy of the coming true King from Judah's tribe, and not surprisingly Messianic overtones are present. This suggests that God could not have actually wanted to destroy Israel because this would mean falsifying the prophecy given here (with subsequent implications for the character of God).
Can we maintain the idea that God sincerely intended to destroy Judah's tribe in the desert and not lose the integrity of Gen 49:10?
It is my conviction that the prophecies of Gen 49 represent conditional prophecies which are entirely different from covenantal promises. And it is the latter upon which the divine character stands. At the time of Exodus 32, God's explicit promises (and by extension the integrity of His Personhood) are tied to His covenant with Abraham, and NOT to a blessing by Jacob upon his sons. That Gen 49 is prophetic is not in doubt; to suggest that God has staked His character on it is something else altogether.
God certainly promised greatness for the posterity of Judah, but this does not mean that it could not have been forfeited by acts of treason and rebellion as exemplified by Israel in the desert.
Consider too the following scenarios where some of God's gracious promises are conditional upon Man's faithfulness and abiding trust in Him (and thus not 'immutable'):
1Sam 2:30, "(God declares to Eli): 'I promised that your house and your father's house would minister before me forever'. But now the Lord declares: 'Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained." (This revoking of God's promises was Eli's punishment for scorning the sacrifices of God, 2:27)
Eze 33:13, "If I tell the righteous man that he will surely live, but then he trusts in his righteousness and does evil...he will die for the evil he has done." (God's initial promise that a righteous man will surely live can be reversed by evil actions by the same person)
The above are 'blessing-reversals' and strongly suggests that it is valid to understand God's promises for the future as contingent upon the perseverance of the recipient(s) in their faith and love for God. Thus Gen 49:10 would not, by this view, require that God couldn't have genuinely intended to destroy Israel.
Not surprisingly, given that 'God is Love', there are many more 'judgement-reversals' in Scripture, which is what in fact Exodus 32 was all about. Three occasions, all within the space of 5 chapters in Numbers, repeatedly show God abandoning His declared judgment due to intercession from Moses (all of which should add even stronger weight to the initial argument of divine repentance). These example are commented on in Boyd's God of the Possible (p.158) (all emphasis mine):
Finally, to get a little on the 'offensive' here, the classical position
necessarily makes God out to rather insincere or downright deceptive regarding
what He thinks. In Boyd's own words: "The view that the future
is eternally settled in God's mind has the effect of undermining the honesty
of God's expressed intention to judge Israel and the power of prayer to
change God's mind as illustrated in (all the passages)."
In conclusion to our response to Argument No.1, God in His sovereignity could have chosen to judge the people with destruction WITHOUT having 'forfeited' His end of any divine-human contract. Israel faced deserved judgment and God has every right to exercise wrath. The intercession of Moses for Israel reveals both the power of heart-felt intercession and the value God places on His intimacy with His loved ones. It is unlikely that Moses, in his prayer, supplied God with new information. Rather, the prophet's appeal revealed his own heart of compassion which God gladly honoured by reconsidering His course of judgment.
Now let's move on to the next
reason why some people believe God could not have changed His mind:
Because it would imply that Moses demonstrated more mercy than God.
(This argument, interestingly enough, is more popularly raised by those
who see no a priori reason to deny what the text says - that God
changed His mind, *smile*...).