The Layperson’s Bible: In Which Moses Argues with God

I’ll probably never be able to stop picturing Moses as a strangely-altered version of Charlton Heston. For many years The Ten Commandments was to Easter what It’s a Wonderful Life is to Christmas: the one super-long movie your folks would let you stay up to watch even though it went on way past your bedtime.

Of course, at the time I didn’t see that there was anything all that special about Moses; he was just the guy who led the Israelis out of bondage in Egypt, which was cool enough in itself. But on reading The Bible many years later, it became apparent to me that what was really unique about Moses was his relationship with God. Because not only did Moses have what might be called a direct line to the Almighty, he actually had the power to influence the Lord’s decisions and behavior.

Now if you sit down and read the Old Testament, it becomes readily apparent that the Hebrews aren’t exactly quick to pick up what the Lord is putting down. I mean, although they are undoubtedly grateful for their deliverance, the living conditions while they’re wandering about the wilderness aren’t all that fantastic, and naturally as time goes on some of the people begin to wonder if their interests might be better served by worshipping some other god. In fact, during the very forty days and nights in which Moses is up on the mountain receiving the Commandments, the people have already grown impatient with their missing prophet and the God he’s been promoting:

“And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.
And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.
And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron.
And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:1-4)

It sounds ridiculous now, of course, the whole golden calf thing, and God, it seems, isn’t too pleased about it either. In fact, he gets really mad. So mad, in fact, that he asks Moses to go away so that he can brood in peace:

“And the Lord said unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves: (Exodus 32:7)
Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them…” (Exodus 32:10)

But Moses isn’t the prophet of the Lord for nothing. In fact, he’s pretty clever about it; counting on God’s ongoing concern for His reputation to dissuade him from vengeance:

“And Moses besought the Lord his God, and said, Lord, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand?Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people.
Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever.
And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people. (Exodus 32:11-14)

That’s a switch. It’s usually sinners who repent; how often do you hear of the Lord repenting? But of course, as time passes, the Israelites continue to act in ways that God finds reprehensible, and He… well, let’s just say He gets a bit testy with them. And once again it becomes Moses’ job to act as the go-between the Lord and the people: persuading the people to attempt to obey, and the Lord to forgive them when they fail. Thus when the Israelites are again complaining that the Lord has delivered them out of Egypt merely to die in the wilderness, it is to Moses that the Lord turns to vent his rage:

“And the Lord said unto Moses, How long will this people provoke me? and how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have shewed among them?
I will smite them with the pestilence, and disinherit them…” (Numbers 14:11-12)

Moses again plays the losing-face-in-front-of-the-Egyptians card, arguing that if God destroys the Hebrews, the Egyptians will hear about it and say:

“Because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land which he sware unto them, therefore he hath slain them in the wilderness.” (Numbers 14:16)

And in case the force of this argument isn’t solid enough to persuade the Lord away from his wrath, Moses supplants it with humility; even a little flattery:

“Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people according unto the greatness of thy mercy, and as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.” (Numbers 14:19)

Yet even Moses’ influence with the Lord is limited, and, in the end, after all he has done to promote the ways of God, he too is punished for a seemingly minor infraction, and must die before entering the holy land:

“Because ye trespassed against me among the children of Israel at the waters of Meribah-Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because ye sanctified me not in the midst of the children of Israel.
Yet thou shalt see the land before thee; but thou shalt not go thither unto the land which I give the children of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 32:51-52)

Yet even this punishment may have impressed the people with the power of the Lord; even God’s most deserving servant cannot expect immunity for his transgressions. And there is no question that Moses’ unique position vis-à-vis the Lord served as the primary means by which the tribes were eventually brought around to following Him. The Lord of Moses did not exist as mere theory and speculation in some far-off realm beyond the earth; to the people He was real, a being to whom they could personally relate, and who, through His servant, made His presence tangibly known. And indeed, what could be more powerful than a God who tells you exactly what his expectations are? A God who prescribes His own offerings and details His prohibitions; who promises specific rewards for following His path. A God with an almost-human personality, who behaves like a ruler of men is expected to behave, even, at times, turning to a trusted adviser when uncertain of his way.

Moses’ fame as a prophet is therefore no doubt justified, for he did far more than bring his people to the Lord; he brought the Lord to the people:

“And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” (Deuteronomy 34:10)

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