“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of my book. Now therefore, go lead the people to the place of which I have spoken to you. Behold, My Angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit for punishment, I will visit punishment upon them for their sin.’ So the Lord plagued the people because of what they did with the calf which Aaron made.” (Exodus 32:33-35, NKJV).
Many times, people will look at the God of the Old Testament and wonder how this wrathful, vengeful, ready-to-punish god could possibly be the same grace filled, forgiving Savior of the New Testament. How do we correlate the two? How do we understand that the God of Heaven sent His Son, with the same character of the Father, to earth, incarnate, and that the wrath of the Old Testament god is the same as the grace of the New Testament Savior?
It would be easy for me to say that the simple-minded, recently freed, Hebrew slaves were the cause for God’s judgments. That such a wayward people of times past, who were used to the whips and bondage of their foreign rulers, needed a hard God who kept them in line and treated them as they were used to be treated.
While there may be some accuracy in the need to hold the Hebrews bondage to rules and regulations of which they were familiar, it would appear that it would be a cruel god that would free His people, who a few chapters earlier had “…seen the oppression of [His] people…have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for [He] knows their sorrows” (3:7) and planned to deliver them just to then punish them further. Afterall, why would God free His people just to kill them in the wilderness?
As always, it is very important to not take the Bible as an isolated event, we must take the Book as a whole, from Genesis to Revelation and all stories, books and concepts in-between. The story of the Exodus, in one way, is more about Moses as a leader than about the people he is to lead. Moses is being groomed, he is being formed, he is learning how to have an agape love toward a wayward people. Moses is to be an example of above mentioned “The Angel” in the text we are examining; Moses is the example of the love of God toward a wayward people, seen in Jesus as God Incarnate in the New Testament.
Taking the Bible as a whole, then, we can look at the prophet Ezekiel where he says, “So you, son of man: I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore you shall hear a word from My mouth and warn them for Me. When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you shall surely die! and you do not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand.” (Ezekiel 33:7-8).
Does this soften the wrathfulness of God in the Old Testament and help us put into the right place and context for the role of Moses? I think so, at least to a degree. Moses as an example of being the leader of God’s people, was responsible for warning of God’s judgments. Not that God is out for blood, but He is out for justice. It is up to the leaders that God places in the lives of these wayward people to warn the people who to approach the God of the Universe.
In fact, in the very next chapter of Exodus we see the centrality of grace in the God of the Old Testament and that should help us consider the character of the God of the Old and God of the New Testament to be the same – grace, love and consequence. In fact, grace and love are always followed by consequence. Consequences shouldn’t always be thought of as bad, rather, it is just the result. If you follow God’s commands, the consequence is eternal life; if you choose not to follow His commands, the consequence is punishment and, as Paul says, the wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23). Moses is a bearer of news to God’s people. Moses is the one to define or speak for God, the consequences of both right- and wrong-doing.
As Moses was able to communicate with God as a friend talks to a friend, (“face to face” as Exodus 33:11 notes); Moses also understands that he has a role as a leader for these Hebrew freed-slaves. “Then Moses said to the Lord, ‘…You say to me, ‘Bring up this people.’” (Exodus 33:12). Moses recognizes that he is the watchman for all these people. As Moses was still talking with God, Moses says, “You have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found grace in My sight,’ Now therefore, I pray, if I have found grace in Your sight, show me now Your way, that I may know You and that I may find grace in Your sight. And consider that this nation is Your people.” (33:12-13). The watchman discussed in Ezekiel is the role Moses considers here – he recognizes that he is not the savior of this people but works for the Savior through grace as a watchman – guiding them and directing them to have the same relationship with God that he enjoys.
Continuing, God replies to Moses saying, “…My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest…you have found grace in My sight and I know you by name.” (vs. 14, 17).
Jesus is recorded in Matthew as saying that He would give rest (Matthew 11:28) and again Jesus would later say, as recorded by John, that as the Good Shepherd, those that follow His commands, “…hear His voice; and He calls His own sheep by name…” (John 10:3). And lastly, Jesus again says that His Presence will be with us, “…even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20).
The argument that God is a vengeful god in the OT and a loving god in the NT is faulty. While there are many more stories, particularly difficult ones in the book of Joshua, I believe the premise is the same. The character of God is evident as loving, grace filled and produces consequences for those that follow Him and for those that don’t follow. But even more so, the burden is on the leaders of God’s church, pastors yes, but fellow lay Christians as well, have a responsibility to be watchmen over God’s people. To guide them, to instill in them the understanding of what God expects and needs to be able to have a Holy God dwell with an unholy people. As watchmen we relay information to the people God entrusts us with and as watchmen, we are held responsible if we are faithful to relaying that information or hiding it from them and thus having their punishment, their blood, on our hands.