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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Does God Know Everything?

Don Stewart :: Did Moses Persuade God to Change His Mind?

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Did Moses Persuade God to Change His Mind? (Exodus 32:14)

Does God Know Everything? – Question 24

When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai after receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 32) he found that the people had fallen into sin. They had made for themselves a golden calf, and were worshipping it, instead of the Lord. The Lord then told Moses that He was ready to destroy the nation. The Bible says the following.

And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation.” (Exodus 32:9-10 RSV)

The death sentence on the people was certain just. They had continually rejected God’s truth and turned to idol worship. Instead of honoring the Lord for their deliverance from Egypt they attributed their freedom to idols. Consequently, the Lord told Moses that He would destroy the people and start the nation over again.

However, Moses pleaded to God not to destroy the people. The Scripture then says the following occurred.

And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people. (Exodus 32:14 RSV)

The Holman Christian Standard Bible has this to say.

So the Lord changed His mind about the disaster He said He would bring on His people. (Exodus 32:14 HCSB)

The New Living Translation puts it this way.

So the LORD withdrew his threat and didn’t bring against his people the disaster he had threatened. (Exodus 32:14 NLT)

Is this not a clear example of God changing His mind? Indeed, Scripture seems to say that this is exactly what happened. How are we to understand this description of God repenting or changing His mind?

This is a difficult portion of Scripture. As can be imagined, there have been a number of ways in which this passage has been interpreted by people. Consequently, we must make a serious attempt at understanding what it really says and what it is trying to teach us. Bible-believing Christians have interpreted this passage as follows.

Option 1: God’s Change of Mind Should Be Understood Literally

Those who hold the open view of God believe the passage should be understood at face value. In other words, it is saying that God actually changed His mind when Moses prayed or interceded for the people. While He was determined to destroy the people, the prayer of Moses actually changed His behavior.

According to open theism, this verse has a number of important implications.

First, it shows that God’s plans are not irrevocable or set in stone. In fact, He can change what He is about to do. Indeed, according to this passage, He changes His mind and plans when prayers are offered up by believers. This should be a tremendous encouragement to all of us about the need to pray. Prayer truly does change things!

Open theists further believe this is a much more encouraging and satisfying interpretation than the traditional way this verse is understood. Traditionally, it is taught that God did not alter His plans because of Moses’ prayer. He was never really going to destroy the people. He only said that to Moses to bring out his godly reaction and cause him to fervently pray for the people. This, it is argued, makes the prayer of Moses meaningless. Those who hold the open view of God believe that because of the relationship Moses had developed with God, the Lord decided to heed Moses words and not destroy the people. In simple terms, Moses caused God to change His mind.

Option 2: This Is an Anthropopathism: Human Actions Are Attributed to God (He Did Not Really Change His Mind)

While open theism believes that their interpretation of God actually changing His mind is the best way to understand this passage, the traditional view of an unchanging God who does not alter His plan is the proper way to interpret this episode. A number of points need to be made.

In this situation, God was angry because the people had rejected Him in favor of an idol, a golden calf. His desire to destroy them at that time was not unalterable. Moses’ intercession on behalf of the people kept them from being destroyed at that particular moment. From humanity’s point of view God’s mind was changed but God had known all along what would happen. Moses prayed for mercy and God answered his prayer. The people were granted a reprieve.

Therefore, this verse does not truly mean that God changed His mind or altered His plan because of Moses’ prayer. He never was planning to destroy all the people at that time for that particular sin.

God Wanted Moses to Intercede for the People

In fact, there are hints in this passage that God wanted Moses to intercede for them. The Bible records the Lord saying,

“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)

The fact that the Lord asked Moses to leave is perhaps significant. If he left, God would destroy the people. However, if Moses stayed, he could intercede in their behalf and possibly stop the judgment the Lord pronounced.

In fact, we find in the Book of Exodus that the role of Moses was as the mediator between God and the people. Here is another opportunity for him to fulfill that role. More than ever, they needed him as their representative at that particular moment. While a holy God must judge the people for their sin, the judgment could become less severe.

God Could Not Have Started over with Moses

There is something else in God’s statement which must be considered. His words, “I will make you into a great nation” are almost exactly the same words God spoke to Abraham when He initially called him. The Lord said to Abraham,

“I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:2 HCSB)

Abraham was promised that a great nation would come from Him.

Now the Lord says the same thing to Moses. These words caused Moses to remind God of the promises which He had made to Abraham.

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? 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. 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.’” (Exodus 32:11-13 ESV)

The fact that Moses appealed to God’s previous promises, as prompted by the Lord, shows that God could not have started the nation again with Moses and him alone. Indeed, God had made promises to Isaac and Jacob which must be fulfilled. The nation could not be entirely destroyed at that time.

The People Were Eventually Judged by the Lord

However, these people would indeed be judged by God. None of the people of that generation of Israel, except for Joshua and Caleb, were allowed to enter the Promised Land. Consequently, in this case the judgment was merely postponed. Therefore, instead of changing His mind, God merely altered the timing of the judgment until a new generation could arise and replace this sinful generation. These people were eventually judged for these as well as their other sins of unbelief!

We Should Still Pray Though We Do Not Completely Understand Why It Works

The fact that God knew all along what would happen should not be seen as a discouragement to pray. Prayer does work. Yet how prayer works is somewhat of a mystery. Scripture records examples of people praying and God answering their prayers. It does not, however, explain the process of what happens to cause these prayers to be answered. Indeed, we do not understand many things which God has done, why He did them or even how He did them. Yet, since we are commanded to pray, we should pray.

We Should Be Careful about Drawing Conclusions from This Passage

While it does seem that God responded in some way to Moses words we should be careful about drawing conclusions from what transpired. In fact, the Bible does not give us any specific reasons as to why God did not follow through with His immediate judgment upon the people.

The argument of Moses cannot be what changed God’s mind. Moses certainly did not provide God with any new information. He merely informed Him of His earlier promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Certainly open theists will not contend that God forgot His previous promises to these men! Therefore, the content of Moses argument could not have been the key which changed God’s mind.

Option 3: God Had Not Determined That the People Were to Be Destroyed

Some commentators argue that God had not decided that He was going to destroy the people when He told Moses His intentions. Instead of telling Moses that He had determined to eliminate all of the people, God was merely telling Moses that He was contemplating doing this. In other words, God was still undecided. Moses helped Him make the decision not to destroy the nation at that time.

This, however, does not seem to be what actually occurred. A straightforward reading of the passage has God already deciding to destroy the people and merely informing Moses of His decision. This is not the best way of explaining this difficult passage.

Conclusion: This Passage Should Not Be Used to Assert That God Changes His Mind

In conclusion, this passage does indeed contain a number of difficulties. However, as we consider it with the totality of Scripture we can determine that the God of the Bible does not change His mind or His plans as humans change their mind. God has a plan for our world. Nothing can stop Him from fulfilling this plan.

Yet, He does not always share the details with us as to why He does certain things. Thus, there are a number of things about God with which we will remain ignorant. We must accept this fact that we cannot know everything about what He does or why He does it. On the other hand, there are many things which we can know. These are the things which we must give our attention.

Summary – Question 24
Did Moses Persuade God to Change His Mind? (Exodus 32:14)

There is a passage in the Book of Exodus where God seemingly changed His mind in a response to a prayer by Moses. While Moses was on Mt. Sinai meeting with the Lord, the people constructed a golden calf. They attributed their deliverance from Egypt to this calf. They did not give credit to the Lord, the God of Israel. The Bible says that God was going to destroy the entire nation until Moses intervened. Scripture specifically says that He changed His mind about His immediate judgment. This change of mind of God has been understood a number of ways.

Those who hold to the open view of God believe that the Scripture means exactly what it says. Indeed, God changed His mind concerning what He was about to do when Moses pleaded to Him on behalf of the people. This, they say, is a clear example of God repenting or changing His mind as to what He was about to do. This means that it is possible for God to alter or change what He planned to do.

Furthermore, this passage also indicates that prayers of believers are truly are meaningful. Instead of God already arranging everything which will happen in the future, the future is open to a certain degree. Our prayers can truly influence what will occur. This is why Scripture encourages us to pray. Consequently, those who hold the open view think they have the best explanation as to what exactly happened as well as the most encouraging to the believer.

However, there are other ways to understand this account without resorting to the idea that God actually changed His mind. Many commentators believe this is an anthropopathism. This means that Scripture explains God’s behavior in human terms. God did not actually change His mind as the literal language would indicate.

In fact, God had previously made promises to Abraham as well as the sons of Jacob. For them to be fulfilled, God could not destroy the entire nation at that time. Yet God did not retract His vow to judge the people. Indeed, they were judged. None of them except Joshua and Caleb were allowed to enter the Promised Land. Justice was delayed until a new generation arose. Therefore, the judgment which God threatened did indeed come to pass.

This interpretation does not mean that our prayers are meaningless. While prayers are indeed meaningful, and we are commanded to pray, there is a certain amount of mystery which we cannot completely understand. This should not stop us from praying. God tells us to pray and we should do what He commands.

Another way to see this passage is to understand God’s statement to Moses as conditional or something He was contemplating. In other words, God did not tell Moses that He was actually going to destroy the people but that He was merely considering this as an option. Moses prayer removed that option.

This, however, does not seem to truly express what God said or meant. He clearly said that His intention was to judge the people. It should not be understood as something which He was merely contemplating.

In summary, this is a tough passage no matter how a person attempts to understand it. Indeed, there are many things which God does where He does not explain the motivation behind His actions. We need to accept the fact that we cannot know certain things about Him. Thus, our attention should be turned to the things which we can know.

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