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Does God ever change his mind?

To explore and answer this question, let’s take a fresh look at an ancient incident.

An ancient incident

The Israelites are in the wilderness waiting for Moses who has been with God “on the mountain forty days and forty nights” (Exodus 24:15-18). During Moses’ absence, the Israelites make a golden calf claiming it as the ‘god’ that delivered them from Egypt. Next, they worship that inanimate hunk of metal (32:1-6).

This is idolatry— an act that displaces God in their lives, diminishes their own humanity, and distorts creation.

The divine response

Here’s what the LORD says to Moses (32:9-10):

I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you”    

Most of us would retreat in fear, but not Moses

Douglas Stuart, in his commentary on Exodus, writes that

God “was challenging Moses rather than commanding him.  … it was a rhetorical way of saying to Moses: ‘Here is what I will do unless you intervene.’”

The human entreaty

Moses then engages with the LORD (32:11-13): 

But Moses implored the LORD his God and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?  Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’”

Here are five important elements of Moses’ response:

1.     An attitude of reverence.

Here’s an insight I’ve found helpful for a partial understanding of reverence: 

“a wholesome dread of displeasing the One we love.”

This attitude of ‘wholesome dread’ permeates Moses’ engagement with the Lord he loves.

2.     Moses humbly “implored the LORD his God.”

The meaning of the Hebrew word translated ‘implored’ is also captured by  ‘entreated,’ ‘sought the favor of,’ and ‘besought.’ Again, it reflects an attitude of reverence and humility. It is not demanding.

3.     Questions.

Moses wonders how God is honored in the threatened destruction of the very people he delivered from slavery in Egypt. He asks,

O LORD, why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 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?” 

The Lord threatens to destroy all the Israelites and replace them with Moses and his descendants. Moses is not in it for himself or the elevation of his descendants. Instead, Moses intercedes for the people, asking two relevant questions beginning with ‘why.’ This appears to be more than a rhetorical question. Moses is genuinely concerned. How will the Egyptians interpret the destruction of all the people? How will they interpret the character of Israel’s God?

I suspect that Moses is also wrestling with his understanding of God and His ways. This incident confirms my impression that God invites our honest questions. 

4.     Moses recalls God’s promises.

If God destroyed Israel, what happens to God’s promises?

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 promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.” (Exodus 32:13) 

Perhaps reducing the Israelite lineage to Moses and his descendants would still fulfill the promises. Perhaps not. Despite this (apparent) technicality, Moses continues to press for the preservation of God’s integrity and Israel’s survival. 

5.     Moses then pleads with the LORD.

Moses pleads boldly with the Lord:

turn from your burning anger and relent [nacham change your mind] from this disaster. 

If I was reading this for the first time, I would be surprised, even shocked, by God's response (32:14): 

“And the LORD relented [nacham – changed his mind] from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” .

Did God just change His mind?

What we can learn

Mulling over this incident, I feel I’m walking in unfamiliar territory. It is both disquieting and expanding. 

Here are four things we can learn from this (you may have more):

1.     Prayer really works.

Clement of Alexandria describes prayer as “keeping company with God.” It is not a passive, ineffectual discipline— it is a dynamic engagement with the living God.

As Moses was keeping company with God, God changes his mind. Regarding this, Douglas Stuart states: 

The idea that God would not shift direction or adjust his plans in respect to prayer is foreign to the Bible but unfortunately at home with some forms of deterministic theology.

In common parlance, prayer really works!

2.     Moses was changing

In the previous post, we encounter an excuse-laden Moses resisting God’s call to lead Israel.

Now we see a man who is fully invested in God and His purposes for Israel. Moses demonstrates this not only by his intercession for Israel but also by his willingness to give his life for Israel (32:31-32). 

God was neither insulted by Moses’ questions nor forgetful of His promises. This incident revealed Moses’ heart, not only for God and His honor but also for the people and their well-being.

Keeping company with God has a transforming effect on one’s character

3.     God is open to real dialogue.

By this I mean, God wants us to be open, honest, and even bold as we keep company with Him. This confirms the first two points. 

Terence Fretheim writes that this text reveals God as:

one who is open to change. God will move from decisions made, from courses charted, in view of the ongoing interaction with those affected. God treats the relationship with the people with an integrity that is responsive to what they do and say.

Is Fretheim taking it a bit too far? Perhaps his statement is more acceptable if we (a) maintain an attitude of reverence, and (b) acknowledge that the ultimate purposes of God will never be frustrated. 

4.     God is greater than we can ever imagine.  

This incident poses a conundrum for me:

How can the Lord’s honor and glory be maintained as He changes his mind about judging Israel’s inexcusable idolatry? 

Some may think this change of mind makes God smaller and weaker. I would argue that the opposite is the case. 

Our God is ready, willing, and able to deal with any array of possibilities and still bring about his ultimate purposes. This is one indicator of His immeasurable greatness.

Our God was even ready, willing, and able to become a full member of the human race— and his name is Jesus. Even when it meant dying the most shameful death of all— he was advancing his ultimate purposes, his utter vindication, and his incomparable glory.

Our God is great, and greatly to be praised!

Do you have anything to add?

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Photo credit: Wikipedia, The Adoration of the Golden Calf, Nicolas Poussin (ca. 1634)

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