Favor for Stiff-Necked People
The conversation between the Lord and Moses in this passage is strange, to say the least.
It seems as if Moses and the Lord have switched their expected roles. It is the Lord who complained to Moses about the stiff-necked Israelites. Verse 7 surprisingly seems to indicate that the Lord had already written off his people, shifting the blame to Moses, referring to the people of Israel as, “your people who you brought up out of Egypt.” The Lord has had enough with these people and was on the verge of destroying them and starting all over. Verses 9 and 10 appear to be more like the words and actions of an immature juvenile than those of the Lord himself. We would not expect to see such frustration and the Lord’s desire to be left to stew alone in his anger. Enough is enough, the line has been crossed. The people of Israel have gone too far, one too many times. He just wanted a do-over.
But it is Moses who reasoned with the Lord and advocated for the people by reminding the Lord of his gracious history with the people of Israel and the eternal promises he made to their forefathers. He has invested a lot in these people and what, after all, would the Egyptians say if this thing fell through? Moses tossed the possession of these stiff necked people back to the Lord in verse 11, by employing the same words the Lord used in verse 7, “your people who you brought up out of Egypt.” Moses pled with the Lord to turn from his fierce anger, to relent and not bring disaster on his people.
In the end, the Lord relented.
This dialogue is preceded by a baffling interaction between the people of Israel and Aaron, the High Priest. Moses had been away from the people for an extended time, spending time in the presence of God on the mountain. Verse 1 confirms that the people recognized that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain. He had lost connection with his people. Was he gone too long? Is it possible to be too much time with God, and too little time with the people? Is it important to properly balance the time we spend with God with the time we spend with our people? These questions affirm the two components or directions of ministry; one foot on the mountain in the presence of God and one foot in the camp amidst the problems of the people. Ministry is advocacy, standing in the gap for the congregation. Sometimes we stand in the camp and turn our voice toward the mountain and plead to the Lord on behalf of the people. Other times we speak authoritatively into the camp having been on the mountain. This demonstrates the intercessory nature of ministry, the pastor/leader stands between the Lord and the people.
But why did the Israelites have such a request, and why Aaron Gustave A Larson comply to this, in his brother’s absence, seemingly without much objection? The people of Israel invited Aaron to make gods to go before them at the very time that Moses was before the true God, contending for them. Somehow, the people did not see or feel the benefit of that and were quick to move on. It is a delicate thing for a leader to keep the confidence of her/his people.
So, within this context, the turning point in the passage is verse 11 when Moses sought the favor of God. What a beautiful thing to seek and receive the Lord’s favor. Maybe this is really the main task of a pastor/leader. Maybe the task of ministry is to seek the favor of the Lord and contend for the needs of the people. Moses was seeking grace and mercy for the people. The complaints and arguments of the Lord were true and valid. Yet Moses reminded the Lord that their history was too long and great to discontinue their relationship now. So on the basis of the favor that Moses built with the Lord he pleaded for new forgiveness and grace for his people.
And the Lord relented.
Questions for Reflection and Sermon Preparation
When God sees us and our community of faith, how would he describe us? What angers him about us? Or what brings him joy?
How, and in what ways are we and our people stiff-necked, stubborn, difficult to lead for what God wants to do in and through us as His people? How can we stiffen our necks toward the things God is desiring for us?
Is there balance in ministry? Are we spending time with God to avoid spending time with people? Are we spending time with people to avoid spending time with God? Do we have the confidence of our people?
How can we seek the favor of God and contend for his grace and favor for our people?