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In Exodus 32:12 (NIV), Moses told God "Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people." Other translations say that Moses told God to repent or to change his mind.

Did Moses believe that his leniency was superior... compared to the threat that God was planning?

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    I'd rather think of it as an appeal to the merciful side of God. Sep 1, 2023 at 12:58

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Sometimes the emotion description of the Lord is a personification in the perspective of humans for ease of understanding. The Lord is omniscient, why would He upset with something He foreknowing about?

The Lord relented for He was pleased to hear Moses' plea for the people, that Moses did not seek for benefit of himself but the people.

The Lord told Moses: "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" (Exodus 32:10 NIV). Moses did not take the offer, instead, he asked the Lord for His mercy to forgive the people and this answer pleased the Lord. We may see there are at least other two occasions similar;

  1. In Genesis Abraham was tested to offer Isaac, the angel of the Lord interrupted Abraham and said:

    16 I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me. (Genesis 22:16-18 NIV)

  2. The Lord told Solomon whatever he wanted will give him and Solomon asked for wisdom.

    10 The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. 11 So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, 12 I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. 13 Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for—both wealth and honor—so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. (1 Kings 3:10-13 NIV)

Isn't The Lord delighted to find one righteous to carry out His works, rather than killing thousands of sinners?

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    Amen. As many other stories in the OT, it is all about God looking for the intercessor willing to plead for the sinners. Excellent answer. Sep 2, 2023 at 6:33
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Not only did Moses tell God to relent/repent/turn from his anger, but God actually did so, according to the text. Verse 14 says:

  • KJV And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.

  • NASB So the Lord relented of the harm which He said He would do to His people.

  • NABRE So the Lord changed his mind about the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people.

I would not say that Moses thought his own leniency was a better approach than God's threatened punishment. Jewish tradition holds that Moses knew God's heart better than anyone in history. Christians might add "except Jesus." Like Abraham in Genesis 18:25, Moses' relationship with God was so intimate that he dared to contradict "the judge of all the earth," knowing that God's chesed - his unchanging love and mercy - underpins any temporary feelings of anger toward his beloved people.

Readers may interpret the story in various ways: a test from God to see if Moses truly understood God's will; a dialog in which Moses reminded God of God's own true feeling; or a story to remind the Israelites how blessed they were to receive God's unmerited grace through Moses' mediation. In any case, the lesson is that God's love is eternal and paramount. His anger does not remain forever.

For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great tenderness I will take you back. In an outburst of wrath, for a moment I hid my face from you; But with enduring love I take pity on you, says the Lord, your redeemer. (Isaiah 54:7-8)

Moses understood what Isaiah would later teach: any feelings of anger on God's part towards his people are momentary; his love and mercy are eternal.


ADDENDUM: Moses' attitude is perhaps better expressed in Dt. 9, referring to the same episode (after the Golden Calf), when he says:

Those forty days, then, and forty nights, I lay prostrate before the Lord, because he had threatened to destroy you. 26 And I prayed to the Lord and said: O Lord God, do not destroy your people, the heritage you redeemed in your greatness and have brought out of Egypt with your strong hand. 27 Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Do not look upon the stubbornness of this people nor upon their wickedness and sin, 28 lest the land from which you have brought us say, “The Lord was not able to bring them into the land he promised them, and out of hatred for them, he brought them out to let them die in the wilderness.” 29 They are your people and your heritage, whom you have brought out by your great power and with your outstretched arm.

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  • While I broadly agree with this answer and have upvoted it, one must read the rest of the story in the same chapter to see that the Levites went through the camp to slaughter sinners and later a plague to kill more. Despite the slaughter, this was kinder than killing all the Israelites.
    – Dottard
    Sep 1, 2023 at 20:12
  • It occurs to me that Moses believed his approach was superior because... he issued God a directive. As God relented, he realized that Moses had a better idea. The implications of this are enormous. Meaning that any righteous man can change God's mind, if need be. Just like when Jesus said "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34) Sep 1, 2023 at 22:15
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    I thank @Dottard for his sobering reminder of the rest of the chapter. Sep 2, 2023 at 0:59
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    Stevie C. it does seem that Moses gives God a directive, but I read it as a plea for mercy rather than a command. See Dt. 9:25ff. Sep 2, 2023 at 1:06
  • God was not responsible for the slaughter of the 3000. It was Moses. Just like the story from Numbers 31. In both cases, the text says that "Moses was angry", to let the reader know it was mainly Moses's actions. In Exodus 32:14 God forgives. In 32:19 Moses gets angry. In 32:26 Moses tells his kin to slaughter the rebels. Sep 2, 2023 at 10:31
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This story of the golden calf in Ex 32 is a great illustration of both the immediate and ultimate effects of such sin which is summarized in V25

And when Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to the derision of their enemies) BSB

Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. NIV

As in any mass riot, there are degree of guilt ranging (in this instance)

  • the Levites who were apparently uninvolved and were willing to act as Moses' agents, see V26
  • The most guilty whom the Levites slaughtered with the sword, about 3000 people
  • Others who were killed by a plague from the LORD, see V35
  • Most who were simply forgiven, as per V14

That is, God had originally intended to kill the entire nation of Israel (V10) and make a nation out of Moses. However, (as the OP points out) Moses' intercession resulted in the God relenting and showing great mercy.

Now, of God simply forgave unconditionally every time people sin, then no reformation would be possible. God had to demonstrate the sinfulness of sin as was perfectly illustrated with the death of Christ. However, in the golden calf experience, Christ's sacrifice for sin was not yet revealed and so sinfulness had to be demonstrated directly and not vicariously.

Despite all this, the story of Moses' intercession would have become known and God's mercy enforced on the imagination of the Israelites. Thus, Moses became of type of the coming Messiah as was the rest of the ceremonial law.

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