27.4. God Condemns the People, but Moses Begs for Them to Be Forgiven (32:7-14)

(7) The Lord spoke to Moses, “Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely.

(8) They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I enjoined upon them. They have made themselves a molten calf and bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, saying: ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’ ”

(9) The Lord further said to Moses, “I see that this is a stiffnecked people.

(10) Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation.”

(11) But Moses implored the Lord his God, saying, “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand.

(12) Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.’ Turn from Your blazing anger, and renounce the plan to punish Your people.

(13) Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, how You swore to them by Your Self and said to them: I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever.”

(14) And the Lord renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people.

(7) The Lord spoke to Moses: This paragraph of eight verses is highly essential for understanding the dynamics of Moses’ personality and his relationship with the Jewish people.

In the introductory portions of this commentary on Exodus, where we examined Rabbi I. L. Ashkenazi’s (Manitou) ideas about Moses, we noted that God could not have offered to produce a new nation from Moses unless that offer coincided with Moses’ own inner desires. After all, a person can never be seduced with something that he finds unappealing.

Manitou goes on to explain that in fact, Moses had just such a desire and just such a plan: to abandon the Jewish people who were enslaved in Egypt, whom he considered hopeless, and to create of himself a new chosen people. This is why Moses (in his week-long dialogue with God at the site of the Burning Bush) at first refused flat out to lead the Jews out of Egypt.

But then, after much urging and cajoling by God, Moses finally agrees to work with the existing Jewish people. And in the story of the circumcision at the inn (4:24-26), Moses also acknowledges the importance of the Abrahamic covenant. But all this happens only under duress, which means that Moses’ assent to comply with the Divine plan is still incomplete.

Moses must therefore advance yet one more level: He must overcome independently the incorrect attitudes he had previously entertained, which eventually happens right here, in the incident of the golden calf. Moses’ previous plan (which he has long since relinquished), to become the progenitor of a new nation, now once again looms on the horizon of possibility, because God Himself is offering it to Moses. “Let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation” (v. 10). But Moses refuses God’s offer, and this time he does so entirely of his own free will. For Moses, this is a monumental spiritual advancement.

God’s relationships with the heroes of Tanakh – its greatest personalities, the Patriarchs and prophets, for example – are very often built on this scheme. At first, God, over a long interval, moves a person from his original position to another position along the spectrum that is more consistent with the Divine plan.

But when the individual in question finally takes this step, God suddenly retreats, fully opening again all pathways, and allowing the person to make his own choice. That moment, when he is again free to choose, when no one is forcing him to take the proper position or direction, and he chooses it of his own accord, is the moment when a person achieves the greatest spiritual growth.

So too is God’s approach with respect to Moses. At first, at the Burning Bush, God attempts to persuade Moses to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, and not to create a new nation. God explains to Moses that the Sinai covenant can be made only on the basis of its precursor, the Abrahamic covenant. But then, here at the incident of the golden calf, God suddenly steps back, and gives Moses the opportunity to choose, leading him on with logic as follows:

From the point of view of the “covenant of the commandments,” the Jews, still encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai, have clearly breached the covenant and forfeited their chosenness, by creating and worshipping the calf. Therefore, Moses, is it not worthwhile for you to reconsider your original plan to create an entirely new Jewish nation from yourself?

But Moses now refuses this option by the force of his own will and inner convictions, thereby withstanding this test and rising to a new level of personal development.

The formulation of the question in these terms – “Should a new nation be created, or can the Jewish People be remedied?” – resolves the dilemma of which aspect of Judaism takes precedence: the nationalist (they are the descendants of the Patriarchs) or the religious (their chosenness being conditional on the observance of the laws of the Torah, which they have now egregiously violated).

The Sinai covenant seems to give preference to the religious aspect, the observance of the commandments, while the line of the Patriarchs is clearly ethnic, with family ties playing the primary role: Father remains father, and son remains son, without regard to the observance (or non-observance) of religious prescriptions.

By supporting an ethnic, nationalist line, Moses, champion par excellence of the “covenant of the commandments,” acknowledges that the nationalist aspect trumps the religious. In order for the Jewish people to receive Divine revelation, there must first be a Jewish people. Ontologically, and not only chronologically, the creation of the nation must precede the observance of the Torah.

The nation, familial and parental ties, are things that run immeasurably deeper than complying with the law, even if it is the Divine Law. The people already had to exist before the Torah was given, and not vice versa. The chosen people, created from the Patriarchs, is such a unique and special national organism, that its nationalist aspect supersedes any religious considerations.

Divine light enters the world primarily through the Jewish people as a single, unified entity; thus, the nation of Israel remains chosen even when a significant segment of the people refuses to abide by the laws of the Almighty. Compliance can be improved and corrected, but a people cannot be recreated.

The Lord spoke to Moses, “Hurry down”: This is meant in both the literal and figurative senses. Moses must go down from the mountain, and he must descend from the world of ideals back to reality – to the people whom he leads.

Moses has reached the summit both physically and emotionally – he has risen to an unattainable height. In that situation, there is nowhere to go but down, and Moses is forced to descend, both literally and figuratively.

For your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely: The Midrash sees the emphasis here on “your people,” and explains that “Moses’ people” are the Egyptians who were attracted to Moses’ unique personality, and whom, by his own devising, Moses brought into the Jewish fold as proselytes. Thus, the Midrash believes that the instigators to creating the golden calf were the the eirev rav, the “mixed multitude” (12:38) who joined the Jewish people at the Exodus and left Egypt with them. It was they who, as soon as Moses disappeared from their field of vision, were the first to demand his replacement.

Midrashic interpretations notwithstanding, the Torah text itself does not explicitly state that it was the eirev rav who initiated the creation of the calf. More simply, the words “your people” can be understood to mean that the Almighty is emphasizing the powerful bond between the Jews and Moses, and his responsibility as their leader.

(9) The Lord further said to Moses, “I see that this is a stiffnecked people: The words “the Lord further said to Moses” at first glance seem superfluous here, given that God has already been speaking to Moses since two sentences earlier (v. 7). But God must address Moses a second time, because His first appeal has elicited no response. Moses is so dismayed by the turn of events that he has nothing to answer. God must therefore force Moses to respond by confronting him with a yet more serious problem.

This is a stiffnecked people: They are stubborn and disinclined to obey. Note, however, that such stubbornness has both negative and positive aspects. The Jewish people were not easily persuaded to accept God’s Torah and follow it, but once they had accepted the Divine teachings, they remained faithful to them for millennia, even until this very day.

(10) Now, let Me be: Since Moses has not yet even begun to ask anything of God, the words “let Me be” can be seen as having a certain provocative character. The Almighty is inviting, even encouraging Moses to pray. He suggests that praying for forgiveness for the people might not be an entirely hopeless endeavor.

That My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation: As explained above, here Moses is being tested.

(11) But Moses implored the Lord his God: Only after the Almighty makes known what punishment might lie ahead – the destruction of the entire Jewish nation – does Moses begin to implore God.

At this first stage, Moses petitions God only for the physical survival of the Jewish people. Later, after Moses has descended from the mountain and dealt with the situation, he then ascends to God again, to ask for more – that their status as the chosen people also be preserved (v. 30‑32).

Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand: The Midrash contrasts this verse with v. 7 above: “The Lord spoke to Moses, ‘Hurry down, for your people… have acted basely.’ ” God holds Moses responsible for leading the people. But Moses here tells God, “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people.” So far as Moses is concerned, the leader of the Jewish people is God. Moses emphasizes the close association between God and the Jewish nation – if they are destroyed, mankind will get the wrong ideas about the Almighty.

(12) Let not the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.” Turn from Your blazing anger, and renounce the plan to punish Your people: The Hebrew for “with evil [intent]” is be-ra’ah, a common word used here in a somewhat atypical phrasing, but which seems to echo Pharaoh’s words to Moses before the Exodus (10:10): “The Lord be with you … to let your children go with you! Clearly, you are bent on mischief.” The word translated there as “mischief” is also ra’ah, and the usage there too is oddly idiomatic. It seems to suggest in Pharaoh’s words something along the lines of: “Can’t you see that if I let you go, there is catastrophe in your future?!”

The Midrash adduces this similarity of phraseology to explain what Moses is saying here. The Egyptians (and other peoples after them) will not understand why the Jews perished. They will say that Pharaoh was quite right when he warned Moses that leaving Egypt to serve their God would bring the Jews only misfortune.

We note here in passing that since we see that God did in fact accept this argument advanced by Moses for preserving the Jewish people intact, we can infer that God deems public opinion important; that is, He takes into account the interpretations that the nations of the world can reasonably be expected to impute to His actions. We shall deal with this issue in more detail just a little further below.

(13) Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, how You swore to them by Your Self and said to them: “I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever”: Moses stresses the nationalist theme. Even if the people have violated the Sinai covenant, they must not be destroyed, because they are descendants of the Patriarchs, to whom God solemnly swore that their descendants would become a mighty nation.

How You swore to them by Your Self: Moses is saying to God: A Divine oath is one of the building blocks of the universe itself that establish the fundamental order of things. If indeed the world is to advance, something in it must remain immutable and unshakable. If this order is violated, there will be no hope for correcting the world.

(14) And the Lord renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people: The fact that God accepted Moses’ arguments clearly demonstrates that He considered those arguments valid.

The essential points of Moses’ arguments are these:

  1. The heritage of the Patriarchs, and God’s covenant with them, must endure.
  2. The four-hundred-year history of the birth of the people from the Patriarchs, and the Exodus itself, together comprise a unique historical experience that finds its culmination in the generation that left Egypt.
  3. If the Jewish people is destroyed, the Egyptians will misinterpret the Almighty’s actions, and this will inevitably interfere with the ability of the nations of the world to comprehend the Divine light.

All these points are the “safety net” that has allowed the Jewish people to remain alive for millennia, despite the mistakes they have made, and even despite the crimes they have committed against the Torah.

And the Lord renounced the punishment: Literally, “And the Lord changed his mind.” Some commentators maintain that it is unacceptable to imagine the Almighty revising His decisions, having second thoughts, or being disappointed in any of His creations. They understand the words “and the Lord changed his mind” as a metaphor exemplifying the principle stated by the Sages that “the Torah speaks in the language of mankind,” that is, in human terms that people will easily understand.

In other words, it only seems to us that God has changed his mind. These commentators take the position, apparently, that since changing one’s mind or revising one’s decision can only be a sign of weakness, one cannot speak of those things with reference to God. When the Torah seems to do just that, we must understand it only in a metaphorical sense.

But in fact, the Torah is the source of all monotheistic religious conceptions; thus, our theoretical conjectures about God are only secondary to what is stated plainly in the Torah. Instead of speculating theologically about whether or not God can revise His decisions, the question we should be asking is: Why does the Torah (here and elsewhere[1]) represent God as subject to a change of heart?

The answer is that any characteristic portrayal of God in the Torah has only one intended purpose: To teach us to follow in God’s ways, to emulate Him, so that we may find the correct path in life[2]. When the Torah says that God changed his mind, this is meant to teach us that revising one’s point of view in light of new evidence and new arguments is completely natural and proper, and not a sign of weakness in any sense.

[1] For more on the concept of hinachem, “having a change of heart,” with reference to God, see Bible Dynamics in Genesis §7.8.

[2] We will provide more detailed coverage of the principle of imitatio Dei (Imitating God) in the Bible Dynamics commentary to Leviticus.

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Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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