The Lord spoke to Moses: “Go quickly, descend, because your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have acted corruptly. They have quickly turned aside from the way that I commanded them – they have made for themselves a molten calf and have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt.’”
What follows is the classic story of the jealous Jehovah dissuaded by the brave hero Moses from carrying out his “evil” wrath on the descendants of Israel. Moses seems to me like a man who would be horrified by this reading of his story. I think his matter-of-fact writing style doesn’t convey tone or some of the nuance that a more artful writer (Luke, for instance) might convey.
I have seen this people, the Lord continued. Look what a stiff-necked people they are! So now, leave me alone so that my anger can burn against them and I can destroy them, and I will make from you a great nation. In his response, O Lord, why does your anger burn against your people, Moses’ writing style paints himself as clueless as it paints Jehovah vengeful. Yet the provocation for Jehovah’s anger is clearly stated in the rest of Moses’ rhetorical question. O Lord, why does your anger burn against your people, whom you have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?
Who wouldn’t be angry if his or her beneficence was credited by its recipients to their own work? How angry should Jehovah be when we claim that his gift of righteousness through his bearing of our sins by his death on a cross and his resurrection is by our own efforts or our own intrinsic goodness?
As I read this I heard Jehovah shouting angrily, Look what a stiff-necked people they are! So now, leave me alone so that my anger can burn against them and I can destroy them, and I will make from you a great nation. But would Moses have disobeyed Jehovah’s direct command—leave me alone—spoken in anger? Or did he hear the lamentation in Jehovah’s voice and understand that Jehovah was asking leave of Moses to stand aside and allow Jehovah’s anger to follow its natural course and burn against them and destroy them?
Why should the Egyptians say, “For evil he led them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth” Moses continued. Turn from your burning anger, and relent of this evil against your people. Again, the writing here leaves the impression that Moses didn’t understand the covenant the people agreed to, Whoever sacrifices to a god other than the Lord alone must be utterly destroyed. They had violated the covenant. Did Moses expect Jehovah to violate it, too?
Moses had told the people all the Lord’s words and all the decisions. All the people answered together, “We are willing to do all the words that the Lord has said,” and Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He took the Book of the Covenant and read it aloud to the people, and they said, “We are willing to do and obey all that the Lord has spoken.” By what authority did Moses declare the Lord Jehovah’s intent to honor the covenant by destroying the people who violated it evil?
I am not saying that Jehovah did wrong by declining to carry out the punishment demanded by the covenant. Jehovah never bound Himself to that, but said to Moses, I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy. What I am saying is, though the collection of writings known as the Old Testament continues for many volumes, the Old Covenant as an agreement between Jehovah and the descendants of Israel to keep his commandments and receive his blessing came to its crashing conclusion right here. When Jehovah declined to exact his vengeance on Israel according to the covenant they agreed to, when He did not purge the evil from Israel by executing them but showed them mercy, He consigned all [Israel] to disobedience so that he may show mercy to them all.
Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel your servants, Moses pleaded, to whom you swore by yourself and told them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken about I will give to your descendants, and they will inherit it forever.” And Paul wrote the Romans (Romans 4:13-17 NET):
For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not fulfilled through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if they become heirs by the law, faith is empty and the promise is nullified. For the law brings wrath, because where there is no law there is no transgression either. For this reason it is by faith so that it may be by grace, with the result that the promise may be certain to all the descendants – not only to those who are under the law, but also to those who have the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all (as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”). He is our father in the presence of God whom he believed – the God who makes the dead alive and summons the things that do not yet exist as though they already do.
Then the Lord relented over the evil that he had said he would do to his people. Moses was not as clueless as his writing style made him appear to be. As for Jehovah—and I want to say this as reverently as possible—there is always a sense of theatricality in his interactions with human beings, for He knew this particular circumstance, this particular conversation and its particular outcome before the beginning, when He created the heavens and the earth. For many years I declined to tell Him about my day, my reactions to it, the ways I thought and felt about it all. It seemed like a waste of time. He knew me better than I knew myself. Eventually I realized that fact alone made the retelling valuable—for me. As I tell Him about it He points out things that I missed or didn’t understand, about me and the things that happened during the day.
As I turn my attention to the authority by which Moses declared the Lord Jehovah’s apparent intent to honor the covenant by destroying the people who violated it evil, I am confronted with three different instances. All three however are the same word raʽ. Yes, the Hebrew word for evil sounds like the Egyptian word for sun god. Allan Langner wrote in the Jewish Bible Quarterly, “in Exodus 32:12, when Moses pleads with God…The word for evil [b’raah] can also be taken as a reference to Ra. The verse would then read: ‘Wherefore should the Egyptians say, Ra brought them out to slay them in the mountains?’” Perhaps the Egyptians would have said that. Perhaps Moses would have said that the Egyptians would say that. Or, perhaps Moses said that the Egyptians would say that Jehovah had led Israel into, or for, an evil purpose.
None of this compels me to conclude that Jehovah’s apparent intent to honor the covenant by destroying the people who violated it was in fact evil. But in the next instance—Turn from your burning anger, and relent of this evil (raʽ) against your people—Moses called Jehovah’s apparent intent to honor the covenant by destroying the people who violated it evil. This was more troubling. The note in the NET reads: “The word ‘evil’ means any kind of life-threatening or fatal calamity. ‘Evil’ is that which hinders life, interrupts life, causes pain to life, or destroys it.” In other words, Jehovah’s apparent intent to honor the covenant by destroying the people who violated it would only be apparently evil from a human perspective, not actually evil from Jehovah’s perspective.
I did entertain the idea that Moses meant trouble as opposed to evil. The Israelite foremen saw that they were in trouble (raʽ) when they were told, “You must not reduce the daily quota of your bricks.” Moses used a different word (albeit the root verb) when he complained to Jehovah about it. Moses returned to the Lord, and said, “Lord, why have you caused trouble (râʽaʽ) for this people? Why did you ever send me? From the time I went to speak to Pharaoh in your name, he has caused trouble (râʽaʽ) for this people, and you have certainly not rescued them!” But the third instance was the kicker, if you will.
Then the Lord relented over the evil (raʽ) that he had said he would do to his people. It is simply a statement of fact, like, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Here the Holy Spirit declared that Jehovah’s apparent intent to honor the covenant by destroying the people who violated it would have been evil from Jehovah’s perspective. And here for Moses Jehovah Himself modeled the behavior of repentance, giving up his right of vengeance by covenant (by law) for a higher righteousness. Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me, He said later, troubled by his own death. Yet not my will but yours be done.
This brings me back to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (raʽ). We may eat of the fruit from the trees of the orchard, Eve replied to the serpent, but concerning the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the orchard God said, “You must not eat from it, and you must not touch it, or else you will die.” Adam’s gezerah—and you must not touch it—and the alteration (whether Adam’s or Eve’s) of you will surely die to or else you will die seems to imply that Adam and Eve thought the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (raʽ) was poisonous or contained some intrinsic property that caused death.
This opened the door for the serpent to say, Surely you will not die. And Eve handled and tasted the fruit with impunity. She didn’t die. Of course, her eyes weren’t opened and she didn’t become like a divine being knowing good and evil (raʽ) either. But when she approached her husband with the forbidden fruit she had at least part of the assurance of the shrewdest of any of the wild animals that the Lord God had made, and (with every breath she took) a rapidly increasing quantity of empirical proof that Adam, too, would not die from eating forbidden fruit. Adam had only his memory of God’s word. When he ate the forbidden fruit, the eyes of both of them opened, and they knew they were naked… It was unpleasant no doubt, but was it death?
My point here is that God did not give Adam knowledge of forbidden fruit when He said, You may freely eat fruit from every tree of the orchard, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die. He gave Adam knowledge of God, what God would do; namely, the Lord God expelled him from the orchard in Eden to cultivate the ground from which he had been taken. When he drove the man out, he placed on the eastern side of the orchard in Eden angelic sentries who used the flame of a whirling sword to guard the way to the tree of life.
I think it is important not to miss that distinction here as well. When the Holy Spirit says, Then the Lord relented over the evil (raʽ) that he had said he would do to his people, He is teaching me knowledge of God rather than moral philosophy. After this interaction with Moses, He said, I will make all my goodness pass before your face, and I will proclaim the Lord by name before you; I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy. There is a sense here that He said to Moses my new name is, I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy.
It is repeated when the event occurred: The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with [Moses] there and proclaimed the Lord by name. The Lord passed by before him and proclaimed: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love and faithfulness, keeping loyal love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” And for those who might rightly protest, “But the Lord is not a jolly old soul, an easy-going, devil-may-care sort of fellow,” Jehovah continued proclaiming his name: “But he by no means leaves the guilty unpunished, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”
Granted, it is a long name, but it does me good from time to time to remember Him by name and repeat it aloud. It is knowledge of God, who He is, what He is doing and will accomplish—and it is eternal life.
 From the footnote in “THE GOLDEN CALF AND RA”: Allan M. Langner was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1948. He was Rabbi of Congregation Beth-El, Mt. Royal, Quebec, Canada, for 40 years, and is now Rabbi Emeritus.
 John 17:3 (NET)