A day at the breach

It doesn't take long for the children of Israel to begin behaving badly.  When God is ready to put them in permanent time-out, Moses steps into the middle of the fight - and an amazing thing happens!

Full Text: 

A day at the breach

Genesis 32:1-14 – October 7, 2012


After the near debacle narrated in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, God seeks to redeem all of creation by going to one man – Abraham – and promising him land and descendants and blessing – blessing not only for his descendants, but for all the families on earth.  Abraham and Sarah have Isaac.  Isaac and Rebekah have Esau and Jacob.  Jacob and his wives have 12 sons – the eleventh of whom is Joseph – who brings blessing by saving many people from starvation. 

But this also brings the descendants of Abraham to Egypt.  There they continue to grow in numbers, but they also become enslaved.  After a God vs. god struggle with the Pharaoh, Moses leads the people of Israel out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the wilderness.  Their destination is the Promised Land.

It is a long trip.  God’s chosen people don’t arrive immediately.  There is a time of testing.  There is a period where the people – and perhaps also God – learn what this relationship is like.  Not long after the people come through the waters and God has scored a decisive victory against the army of the Pharaoh, they start complaining.  They have no water. They have no food.  They don’t like the food that God provides.  And at each point – unlike the Pharaoh – God does not judge them, but provides what they need.

At last they come to Mt. Sinai.  God says to the people, by way of Moses:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.  Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.  Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. (19:4-6a)

So, Moses sets before them what God has commanded.  And the people respond, “All that the LORD has spoken, we will do!” 

So, Moses goes back up the mountain to receive all the commandments of God.  Included in these commandments are very detailed instructions about the tabernacle, the tent by which God will travel with them through the wilderness to the Promised Land. 

This takes some time.  The people grow restless.  The people grow impatient.  The people grow bored.  They say to Aaron, Moses’ brother, “Make a god for us who shall lead us through the desert.  As for Moses – he is so yesterday!  Whatever happened to him anyway?”

(Translation note: the word that is normally translated ‘gods’ is ‘Elohim.’  This Hebrew word is plural in form, but should be translated as a singular.  In fact, the people and Aaron identify this god as the one who brought them out of the land of Egypt.  So, it is not false gods that they make and worship.  It is a false image of the true God.  It is not a violation of the commandment not to worship other gods.  It is a violation of the commandment against graven images.)

Now, on the one hand, you can’t blame them.  The only concrete connection they have had so far to the God that has led them out of Egypt is Moses.  And Moses has been gone for some time.  Nevertheless, they adopt the religious practices of their neighbors.  The golden calf was a common idol in those days.  Perhaps worst of all, whether it is to hold no other gods higher than the LORD or to make no graven image of the LORD, they fail to do what they have just promised to do.  This is not their finest hour.

Nor, might I say, is it the LORD’s finest hour.  God is ready to push them all off on Moses.  God is ready to turn them all to toast.  God is ready to abandon his promises.  Luckily for both of them, I believe this is Moses’ finest hour. 

First, Moses reminds God that they do indeed belong to God and not Moses.  “Why does your wrath burn hot against your people whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” (32:11)

Second, Moses calls God to consider the wider consequences of such an action.  “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’?”  How will other nations regard this God who liberates a people from slavery only to destroy them in the desert?  In essence, what will the neighbors think?

Finally, Moses reminds God of the promise God made to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.  “…how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of the heaven…’”  This is the promise that you made to make of them a great nation.  You promised and you are faithful to your promises!

All this Moses does after God offers to make of him a great nation.  What religious leader do you know who would not be sorely tempted by such an offer?

This is indeed Moses’ finest hour!  He stands in the breach an enraged God and a profligate people.  That is the way Psalm 106 describes it:

They made a calf at Horeb and worshiped a cast image.  They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass.

They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt, wondrous works in the land of Ham, and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.

Therefore he said he would destroy them – had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them. (Psalm 106:19-23)


Moses stands in the breach.  Moses takes his place in the thick of things, in the middle of the rupture in this relationship.  Because of his courage to stand there and speak to God, the LORD changes his mind and the people of Israel are spared.  To be sure, Moses has choice words for the people as well.  Moses speaks on behalf of God to the people.  That is what we expect of a prophet.  But Moses is also a prophet who speaks to God on behalf of the people.

I confess that I’m not real fond of the way God comes off in this story.  Yes, the sin of Israel is serious.  And coming so quickly after the public acceptance of the rules of their relationship with God, it is understandable why God is so put out with them.  But God’s anger and his desire to destroy the whole lot of them seems a bit extreme.  God has also just proclaimed to Israel that they are to be a treasured possession out of all the peoples on earth.  Now God wants to get rid of them completely.

Yet, what is even more amazing to me is that when Moses challenges God, God listens.  God listens and God changes his mind.  It’s not the first time that God changes his mind.  It’s not the last time God will change his mind.  This is the way God is.  God takes our prayers seriously, so seriously that God is willing to change what God has planned to do. 

This seems to be at odds with the way we normally think about God.  We tend to think that God never changes.  We tend to think that God knows everything that is going to happen in advance, that God has planned out everything ahead of time.  We tend to think of God as unchanging, a thought that gives us comfort amidst all the changes in our own lives.

What is unchanging about God, however, is not the plans and foreknowledge of God.  What is unchanging about God is the steadfast love of God.  God is willing to change his mind in order to continue showing great love.  God is willing to change his plans in order to continue being faithful to God’s promises.  God is willing to change what God has decided to do in order to show mercy – in order to seek the salvation of all. 

When we forget our promises to God, when we live unfaithfully, when we do not live in a way that promotes life, we can turn back to God.  We can confess, we can own up to what we have done and God will remember the mercy that he has promised.

It is mercy that God showed in listening to Moses.  It is mercy in God changing his mind about the punishment of Israel.  It is mercy he has shown in sending his own Son for us – a Son who stands in the breach and, by his love, brings us together at last with God.