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  • Do the texts indicate that God's reactions were an exaggeration?

  • Or, if He was serious about carrying out His proposal to Moses, what are the ramifications for the certainties of God's will?

  • Rather than closing the door, God chose to involve Moses in His decision-making process. So, what theological inference can we make about how God views human importance in working with God?

EX 32: 7-14:

7 And the LORD spoke to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. 8 “They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’”

9 The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. 10 “Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.”

11 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? 12 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. 13 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.’”

14 And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people. (ESV)

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The passage teaches us that human beings can influence God. This was a basic tenet of the hasidic Rabbis from the Ba'al Shem Tov to Martin Buber. We have to look elsewhere for Biblical proofs of God's foreknowledge.

What we have here is not a shell game where God only pretends to be influenced by Moses and never actually intended to kill the Israelites. That is the clear sense of the text: God really did involve Moses in His decision-making process. And the lesson is that we can do the same with God in our own lives.

Does this mean that God actually changes his mind or that he doesn't really know what lies in the future? Who knows? Not we mortals, but God alone. But if we are looking for biblical verses that prove God's complete foreknowledge, we will not find that teaching here. Nor will we find it the story of Abraham's bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom. (Gen. 18) Nor will we find it in the idea that "God will repent of the evil he thought to do" if the nation turns to him, even if it means a prophet of God has uttered a false oracle. (Jeremiah 18:8, see also the Book of Jonah)

Some passages of the Bible teach God's absolute sovereignty and foreknowledge. Others teach that God responds to human entreaties as a loving Parent who will, of course, be moved by our sincerity because of his steadfast love and mercy.

Is God's "I-Thou" love for human beings greater than God's sovereign power? Is His mercy greater than his sense of justice that moves him to predict disaster and intend to do evil to us? I submit that the Bible leaves us to answer such questions ourselves. In the end, we must all, like Jacob, wrestle with God to prevail.

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  • "Does this mean that God actually changes his mind or that he doesn't really know what lies in the future?". One view is that God sees many potential futures. For those that he doesn't want to happen, he intervenes. Those that fit within his long-term plan, he allows to unfold, intervening only in specific cases that will still keep the timeline within his overall plan. The "if it be your will" often said in prayers is saying "Please make the future like this, but only if it doesn't affect what you want". This explains how he can be omniscient and still not know specific details. Sep 9, 2022 at 13:16
  • Yes, the "many futures" model works but the clear sense of the text is that Moses influenced God's decision. Rather than explain away that clear meaning I accept that it tells us what it seems to tell us, even though other passages of scripture teach something different. Sep 9, 2022 at 14:40
  • yes, it doesn't mean that Moses didn't influence God. God was considering intervening (eliminating some possible futures), and Moses convinced him not to. Sep 9, 2022 at 16:56
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Here is a quote from a leading Jewish commentary. Exodus to the Jews is like the Gospels to Christians, thus well studied. The quote essentially says God's language anticipates Moses's intercession.

  1. let Me be [הַנִּ֣יחָה לִּ֔י] This phrase both intimates and anticipates intercession for Israel on the part of Moses. As such, it is a tacit comment on Moses’ extraordinary character. At the same time it implies that such intercession can be effective. Thus, it is also a statement about the nature of God: He is responsive to human entreaty. Intercession before God on behalf of man is an indispensable aspect of the prophetic role. In fact, the first scriptural usage of the term naviʾ, “prophet,” appears in such a context. In Genesis 20:7 Abimelech is told, “Since he [Abraham] is a prophet, he will intercede for you.” Moses frequently acts as intercessor, as do Samuel,21 Amos, and especially Jeremiah.23 -- Sarna, N. M. (1991). Exodus (p. 205). Jewish Publication Society.

The root נוּחַ means rest (Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A. (1977). In Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (p. 628). Clarendon Press.) Thus, the Hifil, imperative, 2ms literally means cause/let rest; with לִּ֔י let me rest, ie. leave me alone. A better fit to the connotation is give me a break.

The closest human relationship to compare with God's relationship to people is a parent to a child. Parents deal with children on the child's level. Often, this can cause us to impose human characteristics on God that aren't actual; thus, to see God as less than all-knowing.

Think of it this way. Moses complains. God says, "OK Moses this is what your complaint is asking for." Moses's response, "No God not that." Or, think of the movie, It's a Wonderful Life.

While God clearly puts Moses into a decision-making process, it is not clear that God actually changed his actions based on Moses's decision without God's foreknowledge of what Moses would decide. In fact, such a view is not consistent with the rest of scripture. Here we are dependent on God's revelation of himself because who he is goes beyond our understanding.

Looking at the Exodus 32:14:

And the LORD relented [וַיִּנָּ֖חֶם] from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people. (ESV)

The verb נחם doesn't require the meaning that God repented as a human repents. Such a meaning seems forced.

Figure 1. Senses of נחם in the Hebrew Old Testament (Tanakh)

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The Septuagint translates it with the verb ἱλάσθη.

ἱλάσκομαιa: to forgive, with the focus upon the instrumentality or the means by which forgiveness is accomplished... -- Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). In Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition., Vol. 1, p. 502). United Bible Societies.

Rather than the passage teaching that our actions change God's mind, it teaches that God is sensitive to our feelings (1 Sam. 16:7), our pain and suffering. God revealed no plan to destroy Israel before Moses's complaint, and he had no plans for such after Moses's intercession for Israel. Thus, this is not a good example for the question. The book of Jonah might be better.

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