14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
This idea of a god who changes his mind collides with our inherited notions of a god who is all knowing, all powerful and everywhere present. Such a god is not changeable. He doesn’t make mistakes. He shouldn’t have to change his mind.
To hear the text say that God did so is discomfiting. It grates on the ears a little. Like God hardening pharaoh’s heart or the decision to destroy humanity at the time of Noah, such ideas don’t seem god-like. And when a translation uses the word “repent”, it suggests notions of guilt and regret.
We can argue that God never intended to destroy the Israelites as they danced around the golden calf, that it was all a test of Moses. But then the narrative possesses no danger. Then there is no real risk in the people’s idolatry, no threat to them in consequence of their sin. Then God is just playing mind games with Moses. A fictitious wrath is more troubling than real wrath.
Cannot wrath and mercy compete in the heart of God? And doesn’t the fate of humanity hang on which side wins? Isn’t the Gospel, in its purest form, the simple yet profound declaration that mercy has triumphed?
Here is the newly saved community doing what God has just forbidden. Rescued from slavery, they now declare that this golden calf is the source of their salvation. For this they deserve to be destroyed. It’s like catching your bride in the coatroom with your best man on your wedding day. It should be all over.
But Moses asserts to God that he is a god of mercy, and his mercy should trump his wrath. Such a mercy costs God something – even as a groom’s forgiveness would not come easily.
God’s grace is not easily dished out. It is a labor of love. It is a sacrifice. It is a willingness to shoulder betrayal. It is a willingness to receive spittle and be mocked with a purple robe. It is a willingness to hear those you love cheer as soldiers drive the spikes through your hands.
This simple statement about God’s change of heart is not troubling; it is wonderful. God claims his betrayers as his own people. God chooses mercy. God chooses to forgive. A species capable of dropping sarin gas on children deserves to be stomped out. But God breathes it in. His rainbow hangs in the sky; he will not make war against humanity, however much we deserve it.
God’s “repentance” contains no hint of guiltiness and regret; it is laden with compassion. God is justified in his wrath, but he chooses a different direction – which is all the Hebrew word means: to turn and go in a new direction. God has turned towards us. He has chosen grace over wrath.