Can I change God’s mind? – Thursday, 4th Week of Lent – Exodus 32:7-14/John 5:31-47

Read also based on the Gospel of today.

The golden calf will forever be the metaphor of betrayal. A people that was loved much, brought out of slavery, fed in the desert and now gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai have tired of waiting for Moses to return. We are told that Moses entered into the midst of the cloud and went up on the mountain; “and Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights” (24:18). Having waited this long, the people come to Aaron asking that him to make “gods” to go before them. Aaron complies without argument by making a calf idol of gold.

Here is the irony of it all. Such was the fickleness of the people of Israel that they sought to break the very first commandment that God had just given them. In a religiously pluralistic country such as India, it is not uncommon to see similar sinful behaviour of Christian politicians and businessmen who wish to ‘please’ and ‘not offend’ their vote banks and business partners by participating in religious ceremonies before idols. Sometimes the most ‘devout’ Christian who in the name of keeping friendly relationships with their neighbour, will bow down before an idol. They have violated the first and most fundamental of the commandments, the one that binds them to God in a relationship of exclusive loyalty: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3)

I have often advocated that to assume that sin comes without the wrath of God is a delusional belief that Christians hold. While we have a forgiving God, that God is also capable of inflicting his wrath. On seeing the sin of his people, God’s wrath blazed. He says to Moses, “let me alone.” This was God’s way of saying, ‘this time I will not chose to listen to you Moses, this time I have decided to act and act decisively in destroying the people I once loved.’ But there is another way of looking at these words of God. Sometimes when people say, “Don’t try to stop me!” they are really signaling their desire for the listener to give them a good reason to stop. That seems to be the case here. Yahweh is ordering Moses not to interfere, but instead seems to be inviting Moses to do just that.

Yet the anger of God is also evident. In addressing Moses, God says “for your people, who you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves” (v. 7b). In the past, Yahweh spoke of these people as “my people” (3:7, 10; 5:1; 6:7; 7:4, 16, etc.) but now he refers to them as “your people,” as Moses’ people; the people whom Moses brought up. It is the kind of thing that a frustrated parent might say to his or her spouse, “YOUR son or daughter did this.”

Mercifully, Moses chose to implore the Lord. If one were to paraphrase it all, Moses simply tells the Lord, ‘Calm down.’ Then using a very clever emotive and intellectual argument He asks the Lord to think for it is the Lord’s reputation that is at stake. If Israel perishes in the wilderness, the Egyptians will say that God’s intentions were evil from the start. Instead of a faith-keeping and merciful deliverer, the LORD will appear to be a faithless, malevolent deity.

What the Bible records next is just shocking. We are told that God repents! The English translation of verse 14 tells us that the Lord ‘changed his mind.” The Hebrew verb for “changed his mind” is naham, a term elsewhere translated as “be sorry” or “repent” when its subject is a human. It is an emotion-laden term and appropriate to a context in which one is deeply moved. It is not so much that God has done some wrong, but his repentance is really a ‘feeling sorry’ for giving into his anger even though God was justified.

There is something here that may miss the eye. The tendency would be to focus on the mercy of God which the text does highlight but the text also highlights another reality and that is the fact that humans can ‘affect’ God. In the text of today, God changes his plans of destruction and acts otherwise. He did this in response to human persuasion, to Moses petitions for his people. If there is any takeaway here that consoles the faithful is that we have the ability to prevail on God’s mercy and petition him to change his mind. And guess what! He does it.

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