In the previous blog, Face to Face with the Transcendent God, we looked at Exodus 32 and the relationship of Moses with God: friends talking face to face. When God is enraged by the ungrateful and rebellious behavior of His chosen people, it is Moses who intervenes with the Lord God on behalf of the people whom God wants to destroy. Moses reminds God that His nature and His promise is to be merciful and show steadfast love. While God continues to favor Moses, Moses himself tells God, “if you aren’t going to save your people, then I don’t want to be saved either.” God relents in the face of Moses own mercy and love, though He does in the end also visit judgment on the rebels.
In this blog we will consider a few passages from the Patristic writers and how they understood Exodus 32 and Moses’ willingness to sacrifice his own life and not accept his personal salvation if it doesn’t include the people as well.
St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258AD) comments in the 3rd Century on the efforts of the Holy Moses to save his fellow Israelites from God’s judgment. St. Cyprian sees Exodus 32 as an example where even holy men could not gain forgiveness for a sinful people. He sees this as a warning for any who will listen: don’t rely on holy men to save you. You yourself must repent and change your life in order to be forgiven by God:
19. Moses and other holy men never gained forgiveness for an impenitent people
Moses also prayed for the sins of the people. However he did not gain the pardon that he had sought: “‘I pray,’ he said, ‘O Lord, the people have sinned this great offence. And now, if you forgive them their sin, forgive; if, however, not, blot me from the book which you have written.’ And the Lord said to Moses: ‘If anyone sins before me, I will blot him from my book’” (Ex 32:31–33; 33:11; Deut 5:4; 34:10).
That friend of God, the man who spoke often with the Lord face to face, was unable to obtain what he sought. He did not atone by his plea for a transgression that earned God’s wrath. God praises Jeremiah and prophesies, saying: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you came forth from between your mother’s legs, I sanctified you and I made you a prophet amongst the gentiles” (Jer 1:5). He said to the same prophet, interceding very often and praying: “Do not,” he said, “pray for this people, and do not make claims for them in prayer and supplication, since I will not hear them in the time when they shall call upon me, in the time of their affliction” (Jer 7:16; 11:14).
Who is more just than Noah who, when the earth was filled with sins, was alone found just on earth? Who is more glorious than Daniel, who more constant in the steadfastness of his faith for bearing a martyr’s witness, more blessed in the esteem that comes from God? He was so many times victor when he engaged with the enemy, and survived victorious. Who was more well disposed in his actions than Job, braver in his temptations, more patient in suffering, more humble in fear, more true in faith? Yet God says that he would not even yield to these men if they should make supplication to him.
When the prophet Ezekiel entreated for the sin of the people, he said: “Whatever land shall sin against me so as to sin a sin, I will extend my hand over it, and I will break the staff of bread and I will send famine on the land and I will remove from it man and cattle. And if there will be these three men in the midst of it, Noah and Daniel and Job, they will set free neither sons nor daughters. Only they themselves will be safe” (Ezek 14:13–16). Thus not everything asked for by the petitioner in court is granted in the preliminary hearing, but only that which is mentioned in the final decision of the judge who grants the request. Nor should the judge in this case exercise any privilege for himself, claimed by his own human judgment, unless divine authority should approve. (Cyprian of Carthage, On the Church: Select Treatises, pp. 123–124).
St. Basil the Great (d. 379AD) writing about 100 years after St. Cyprian relates Exodus 32 to the notion that a human being is created as a social animal, a relational being who is supposed to love others. He writes:
Now then, the law cultivates and nurtures the powers implanted in us as seeds, as we have said in our previous discourses; and since we have been ordered to love our neighbor as ourselves, let us examine whether we also have received from God the power to fulfill this commandment. Who, then, does not know that the human being is a tame and communal animal, and is neither solitary nor savage? For nothing is so proper to our nature as to share our lives with each other, and to need each other, and to love our own kind. As, therefore, the Lord himself granted us to receive the seeds beforehand, in accord with this he also seeks after the fruits, saying, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another” [Jn 13:34]. And as he wished to arouse our soul toward this commandment, he did not demand in return as proof from his disciples miracles and extraordinary powers, though indeed he also enabled them to do these things in the Holy Spirit. But what does he say? “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” [Jn 13:35]. And he completely joins together these commandments, so that the good action done for the neighbor is transferred to himself. “For I was hungry,” he says, “and you gave me food” [Mt 25:35], and what follows. Then he adds, “Whoever has done it to one of the least of these my brothers, has done it to me” [Mt 25:40].
Therefore, through the first commandment, the second also is successfully accomplished, while through the second one returns again to the first. One who loves the Lord consequently also loves the neighbor. “For he who loves me,” says the Lord, “will keep my commandments” [Jn 14:23]. “And this,” he says, “is my commandment, that you love one another, even as I have loved you” [Jn 15:12]. And again, one who loves the neighbor fulfills love for God, who himself accepts the gift as given to himself. Therefore, the faithful servant of God Moses showed such great love for his brothers, as indeed to wish to have his name erased from the book of God, where it had been written, if the people’s sin was not forgiven [Ex 32:32]. And Paul dared to pray to be accursed from Christ on behalf of his brothers of the same race according to the flesh, wishing in imitation of Christ to give himself in exchange for the salvation of all [Rom 9:3]. Yet at the same time he knew that it was impossible to be estranged from God through his having rejected God’s favor out of love for God and for the sake of the greatest of commandments, and that because of this he was about to receive in return many times more than he had given. The things we have said provide sufficient proof that in fact the saints were first to arrive at this measure of love for their neighbor. (Harrison, N. V., On the Human Condition, pp. 117–118).
St. Basil does not offer the lesson of Moses as a failure of a holy man to obtain forgiveness for the people, but sees in Moses a holy act of love and self-denial which he compares favorably with an event in the life of St. Paul the Apostle. The lesson of Exodus 32 and Moses’ intercession on behalf of the people is for St. Basil a lesson about love your neighbor.
Some 800 years after St. Basil’s comments on Exodus 32, St Peter of Damaskos (12th Century) wrote about love for one’s neighbor and the lesson of Exodus 32. Like St. Basil the Great, St. Peter compares the spiritual actions of Moses with St. Paul the Apostle.
It is the same with love of one’s neighbor. If we are not willing to sacrifice this temporal life, or perhaps even the life to come, for the sake of our neighbor, as were Moses and St Paul, how can we say that we love him? For Moses said to God concerning his people, If Thou will forgive their sins, forgive; but if not, blot me as well out of the book of life which Thou hast written’ (Exod. 32:32. LXX); while St Paul said, ‘For I could wish that I myself were severed from Christ for the sake of my brethren (Rom. 9:3). He prayed, that is to say, that he should perish in order that others might be saved – and these others were the Israelites who were seeking to kill him. Such are the souls of the saints: they love their enemies more than themselves, and in this age and in the age to come they put their neighbor first in all things, even though because of his ill-will he may be their enemy. They do not seek recompense from those whom they love, but because they have themselves received they rejoice in giving to others all that they have, so that they may conform to their Benefactor and imitate His compassion to the best of their ability; ‘for He is bountiful to the thankless and to sinners’ (cf. Luke 6:35).” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 29017-40)
The effort of Moses to intercede before God on behalf of the Israelites is interpreted in the later tradition of the Church as a story of loving neighbor as Christ commands us to do. Early on St. Cyprian thought the story shows that even a holy man – and one who speaks to God face to face as a man talking to his friend! – does not always get what he requests from God. The spiritual lessons from Exodus 32 and the life of Moses are quite diverse. The scriptural story teaches us about how to love as Christ teaches us to love and it teaches us how mysterious God really is: both transcendent and so approachable as to have a real friend on earth.