“If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here. For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people?” (Ex.33:15-16)
Thus says Moses, as he intercedes on behalf of the people whom God had commissioned him to lead. The exchange is thick with drama, and the reader, save for the knowledge in hand of how the story proceeds, is led to believe that God has turned His back on Israel and is only willing to deal with Moses. The intercession of Moses appears to save the day, despite the promises that God has already made to Abraham and his descendants.
The Jewish concept of election is far more nuanced than the austere, rigid idea found within Calvinism. Are the Jewish people the elect of God? Most certainly. Are followers of Christ also the elect? According to Paul, the answer is yes. Does this mean, as Calvinists would suggest, that election means predestined for salvation? Certainly not.
In Jewish understanding, election means selected for a purpose; a destiny. This election can be thwarted by human will, and often is. Esau was elected to be the first-born of Isaac, but he did not value this distinction, and sold the right to his inheritance to Jacob for a bowl of soup. Balaam was elected to be a Gentile endowed with the spirit of God and of prophecy, yet his disloyalty to God’s people cast him to the wrong side of the dispute, and he died by the sword, outside the kingdom. Lot’s entire family was elected for salvation from the judgment about to come, yet only Lot and two of his daughters made it out alive.
In each case, some of the elect missed out on the fulfillment of promise due to a rejection of God’s will for their lives, or a failure to walk out what was necessary to obtain it.
Were the Jewish people, en masse, elected for salvation? Most certainly, yes. Does this mean that all, or even the majority of Jewish people, are saved? Most certainly not. And this is not Christian replacement theology speaking, but the Jewish tradition itself. Where is the pen of Calvin bearing upon our current parsha? It is not present. Calvinism does not have answers for what is happening in these chapters of Exodus.
The concepts of election and predestination can suggest freedom from accountability. This idea is represented in the hyper-grace movement. Much worse, and more typically, however, it preaches (see John MacArthur) accountability without representation. This notion violates the concept of justice, when in fact, in the Bible, God is all about holding His people accountable while also giving them the fair warning and exhortation to choose obedience. Biblical freedom, the kind of freedom which truly liberates one from evil, is a freedom that is marked by self-restraint and the choices made by His people, when other options are available to them.
“The only person who is truly free is one who occupies himself with Torah study…” (Pirkei Avot 6:2)
Election and predestination, in a Reformed Christian tradition, suggests something which literally negates a person’s self-will, or his free choice, and enters the realm of fate, or inevitability. All of this, while at the same time insisting upon personal holiness and obedience to God’s standards. It’s frustrating, but in spite of our natural revulsion to this unfair arrangement, The Calvinists do make a valid point here. The truth is that Calvinism struggles to explain a tension found in scripture that the sages of Israel have also wrestled with mightily. However, the Jewish sages have come to a vastly different conclusion on the matter than Calvin did, even though they worked with many of the same texts, yet not without a considerable amount of hand-wringing along the way.
In a remarkable show of affrontery, Moses accuses God, in the Talmud, of setting the people up to fail:
“…Moses said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, because of the gold and silver that You lavished upon the Jewish people during the exodus from Egypt until they said enough, this wealth caused the Jewish people to fashion for themselves gods of gold…A lion does not roar over a basket of straw from which he derives no pleasure; rather, he mauls and roars over a basket of meat…in other words, the guilt is not exclusively theirs.” (Talmud Sanhedrin 102a, Koren Steinsaltz edition)
When Moses descends from atop the mountain and sees the heinous sin of the people with the Golden Calf, Moses appears to blaspheme God’s name by smashing the tablets written by God’s finger upon the rock of the mountain. The sages say, however, that Moses was correct in this action. Rabbi Elie Munk connects this to a Talmudic principle (found in Menachos 99b) that “it sometimes happens that an act of apparent destruction becomes an act of building a foundation.” In other words, a grave act of sin must sometimes be met with a defilement of the sacred and the destruction of something important in order to start anew.
In this idea may lie the secret to why Messiah Yeshua needed to die, rather than simply take over and initiate the kingdom during his earthly ministry, and also why the Temple was allowed to be destroyed before the great exile. Like Moses at Sinai, neither event spells the end of Judaism, but rather the beginning of a new era of the Jewish existence. In between, we have the Redeemer interceding for God’s people.
Like Moses, Yeshua is portrayed by the apostles as ascending before the throne of God and making intercession for us, by offering up his life and having God give it back to him through resurrection.
“Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.” (Heb.7:25)
We see this with Moses in our parsha:
“But now, if You will, forgive their sin – and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!” The LORD said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book.” (Ex.32:32-33)
Moses offers up his life on behalf of God’s people, but God gives it back to him, and then renders His judgment, which is executed by Moses himself.
The messianic parallels in this are significant, but it really gets interesting when we consider how God renders his judgment. We should notice carefully that in verses 11-15 of Chapter 32, Moses achieves forgiveness for the people by appealing to God’s grace. So what is this additional intercession? It speaks to the different purposes of the two acts.
The work of atonement is not the same as the work of restoration. Forgiveness comes after repentance, but restoration comes after justice has been rendered and new life begins to spring forth from the ashes of destruction.
In Jewish thought, the argument which justified God’s show of grace and mercy to his rebellious children, in ironic fashion,appeals to Calvinist logic concerning God’s sovereignty.
“Had it not been for these three verses…Israel would have been unable to withstand God’s judgment. One is (Micah 4:6, which states), “In that day, says the LORD, I will assemble the lame, and I will gather those who are abandoned and those with whom I have dealt in wickedness.” God states that He caused Israel to act wickedly. And one is…“Behold, like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, house of Israel” (Jer.18:6). And one is…“And I will give you a new heart and a new spirit I will place within you, and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and I will give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek.36:26). These three verses indicate that God influences a person’s decisions, and therefore one does not have sole responsibility for his actions. (Talmud Berakhot 32a, Koren Steinsaltz edition)
But, as the Talmud continues its discussion of Moses’s intercession, a beautiful picture emerges, which throws aside the fatalist’s view of the situation, and undermines the Calvinist position:
“…And the LORD said to Moses: Go and descend, for your people whom you have lifted out of the land of Egypt have been corrupted” (Ex.32:7). What is the meaning of “go and descend“? Rabbi Elazar said: The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Moses: Moses, descend from your greatness. Isn’t it only for the sake of Israel, so that you may serve as an emissary, that I granted you prominence; and now that Israel has sinned, why do I need you? There is no need for an emissary. Immediately, Moses’s strength waned and he was powerless to speak in defense of Israel. And once God said to Moses: “Leave Me be, that I may destroy them” (Deut.9:19), Moses said to himself: If God is telling me to let Him be, it must be because this matter is dependent upon me. Immediately Moses stood and was strengthened in prayer, and asked that God have mercy on the nation of Israel and forgive them for their transgression.” (IBID)
Contrary to the position of Calvinism, which looks at the sovereignty of God in a vacuum, and renders inert the will and effort of man, in the Jewish tradition, God is still sovereign, but He leaves room for His people to act and enter into relationship with Him. He even invites (as this passage in Talmud displays) bold attempts to go against Him for the sake of mercy. To intercede. To change the course of events.
The Redeemer stands in the gap between the iniquity of the people and the righteous judgment of God and makes peace.
In the narrative in the Gemara, Moses continues his plea:
“…I have a sense of shame before my forefathers. Now they will say: See this leader that God placed over Israel. he requested greatness for himself but did not pray for God to have mercy upon them in their troubled time. The Torah continues: “And Moses beseeched before the LORD” (Ex.32:11)….Rabbi Elazar said: It teaches that Moses stood in prayer before the Holy One, Blessed be He, until it made him ill from overexertion…And Shmuel said: The term vayhal teaches that Moses gave his life, from the term halal, a dead person, for Israel, as it is stated: “And if not, erase me, please, from Your book” (Ex.32:32) (IBID)
So we see that God’s mercy is bestowed upon the people, not because it was predestined for it to be so, but because of the courageous intercession of His Servant, His Agent of Redemption.
“…Rabbi Eliezer the Great says…that Moses stood in prayer until he was overcome by “ahilu“…What is the meaning of “ahilu“? Rabbi Elazar, an amora of Eretz Yisrael, said that “ahilu” is fire in the bones.” (IBID)
“Now an angel from heaven appeared to him, strengthening him. And being in agony he was praying very fervently; and his sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.” (Lk.22:43-44)
When God initially makes His covenant with Israel at Sinai, He makes it with the entire nation. But when He renews it, He does so with Moses alone, and then calls the nation “the people that you (Moses) brought here.”
Why the change? Moses offered his life on behalf of the people, and theretofore the people are associated with Moses as a result.
In like manner, our allegience to Yeshua Messiah makes peace for us. Was it predestined to be so? In a way we cannot understand, yes it was. But this does not change the fact that the Redeemer chose to lay his life down on our behalf, and it doesn’t change the fact that we must, in like manner, also choose to do the same if we wish to follow him to eternity.