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Exodus 32:9-14 (NIV quoted):

9 “I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now 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.

11 But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. “LORD,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 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’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 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.’” 14 Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

God threatens to destroy Israel, and apparently declines to do so because Moses mentions the promise God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel that their descendants would be numerous.

But this is exactly what God promised Moses to start with in verse 9—making a great nation out of Moses, who was a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, would still fulfill the promise. So why does Moses' restatement of the promise have the desired effect? He doesn't have any other arguments than "what would Egypt think".

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This question is interesting in its own right, but all the more so in light of John's pronouncement in Matthew 3:9 that God is able from stones to raise up children for Abraham.

One way we might understand the argument in Exodus 32 is to note that Moses does not ask God to remember his promise so much as to remember his servants to whom he made the promise. The mention of the promise perhaps then functions to connect the people with the patriarchs. In this view Moses is making an appeal for God's mercy to the people on account of his favor to the patriarchs. One weakness with this view, however, is that Moses does seem to emphasize the promise when he adds "by your own self".

Another approach might be to focus on the first piece of bold text. While technically the descendents of Moses would continue to be descendents of Abraham, as this answer mentions, Moses would essentially be a "new Avraham". In essence, God would be making Moses into a great nation instead of making Abraham into a great nation. In a black and white sense, God might be keeping his promise while starting over with Moses; but would He still be keeping the heart of the promise?

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You are correct in noting that His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob could have been fulfilled through Moses. However, consider verses 11-12. Moses points to two aspects of the Exodus that would be affected by a rejection of Israel:

  • God demonstrated His mighty power in bringing out the Israelites from Egypt. This would effectively be wasted effort on His part.
  • To cut off the Israelites would give the Egyptians an effective tool to disdain God's glory and wisdom. Egypt is not really the focus here - it is God's glory.

There is a third issue at play here as well, though not mentioned by Moses:

  • Moses was not in the line of Judah, to whom had been promised both the royal line and the Messiah. (Genesis 49:8-10) (The net.bible.org notes on these verses lay out the various Davidic/Messianic implications of this passage)
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  • Hmm... does omnipotence have a sense of 'wasted effort'? (Indeed, Romans 9:18-24, etc., suggests that the potter creates some vessels to destroy them.)
    – Muke Tever
    Jan 5, 2012 at 2:31
  • Not from God's perspective, certainly, but Moses is the speaker and seems to suggest that from a human perspective. Jan 5, 2012 at 13:58
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Another consideration is that this passage may, in part, have been a test for Moses. Consider John 6:5-7. Jesus asks a question of Philip, though the question is a test. Jesus knew the answer ahead of time, and essentially presented Philip with a question to determine Philip's state of soul. It seems Christ was trying to teach Philip his own insufficiency, while demonstrating the all-sufficiency of Christ.

Back in Moses' situation, the same dynamic may have been in play. From Moses' perspective, he was in a life-or-death earnest plea to save his beloved people from destruction. From God's perspective, I think he knew 'the end from the beginning'. Though not directly stated, I suspect that God put Moses in this position to test his mettle. As we all know, by Moses' response, he revealed his care for the people of Israel, his desire that God's name be glorified, and his lack of ambition for his own glory.

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    – Tau
    Jul 12, 2015 at 8:35
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1. Question Restatement:

Why does Moses' appeal to God's promise to the forefathers succeed, even though that same promise could have been fulfilled through Moses?


2. When Appealing to God for Mercy - the Appeal Itself is Sufficient, Regardless of the Merits:

This is a "paradigm shift" for a lot of people, so I won't get into an extensive argument, but here is the "Legal Precedent", in Scripture:

NKJV, Hosea 6:6 - For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.

NKJV, 1 Peter 4:8 - And above all things have fervent love for one another, for “love will cover a multitude of sins.”

Simply: advocating for mercy, for others or oneself, is sufficient to move the heart of God, and will supersede any other condemnation made - even his own.

Paraphrase of the Bible: I will be who I choose to be - and I will be he who desires life, and not death. And, I created you to reflect who I am.
Note: Anyone want to buy a leatherbound version of this Bible? HAH! *cough.

Examples:

  • Eve's contention with the Serpent, then God - resulting in Adam's life being spared - though completely wrong.
  • Job's prayer for his friends - healing Job, even though they were all very wrong in their theologies and representations of God.
  • Abraham's advocacy for Sodom, exhibiting desperation.
  • Moses' weak argument appealing to the fathers.
  • Rahab's advocacy for the spies, though obviously unlawful.
  • Samson's advocacy for Israel's deliverance - though it was completely wrong.
  • Jesus advocating for all - simply because they were ignorant, (which has no legal basis in Scripture, even untrue in a way, and contradictory in many places).
  • etc, etc.

The only "just" and "equanimitable" judgment one can ask for others, is mercy - since that is what they are seeking themselves.

NASB Paraphrase, 1 Corinthians 11:29 - For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge others justly - with mercy.

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In Moses’ first encounter with God, He told him:

Exodus 3:16-17 NET

16 Go and bring together the elders of Israel and tell them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, appeared to me — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — saying, “I have attended carefully to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt, 17 and I have promised that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, to a land flowing with milk and honey.”’

God was telling Moses and the elders of Israel that the promise made to Abraham was referring specifically to the Israelites alive in Moses' time.

Remember that God did not simply promise to make a great nation from Abraham and give him the land of Canaan. He was very specific about how and when:

Genesis 15:12-21 NET

12 When the sun went down, Abram fell sound asleep, and great terror overwhelmed him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign country. They will be enslaved and oppressed for 400 years. 15 But I will execute judgment on the nation that they will serve. Afterward they will come out with many possessions. ... 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will return here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its limit."

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking firepot with a flaming torch passed between the animal parts. 16 That day the Lord made a covenant with Abram: “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River— 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites.”

God specifically promised that He would give the land to the Israelites who were alive after 400 years of slavery and who had been freed from their oppressors through judgment and with many possessions.

Of course, because of Israel's sin in the desert, God forced them to wander for 40 years until everyone who was an adult at the time of the exodus had died, so only those who were children at the time that God spoke to Moses in Exodus 3 actually saw the promise fulfilled. But still, I think it makes sense that the "you" in "I have promised that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites" can be applied to the Israelite children. However, it would be a stretch to think that God would have fulfilled his promise in Exodus 3 if only Moses and his descendants survived and inherited the land - Moses was not speaking to himself and his family, but to the elders, or representatives, of the rest of Israel, when he conveyed God's promise from Exodus 3.

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