Does the story of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32:1-14 portray a God who changes his mind. In one sense, the answer is obvious. It’s right there in verse 14:
And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. Exodus 32:14
The verb translated “changed his mind” has a range of meanings: have compassion, repent, regret, feel sorrow. Regardless, the story says that God intended to do one thing, but after Moses intervened he chose to something else. I don’t feel a need to perform mental gymnastics to make the text say something other than what it says.
The author uses the language and logic of story, not philosophy or science. Other Biblical texts make other kinds of statements about God’s eternal decrees, foreknowledge, things that existed before the beginning of time, etc. I am happy to let each text speak its own message.
The message in in Exodus 32:1-14 is this: the people whom God rescued from slavery, delivered at the sea, fed in the wilderness and claimed as his own were doing exactly what God told them not to do – worshiping an idol – thus violating the instruction which they had enthusiastically agreed to follow. God was angry with the Israelites and threatened to destroy them, but Moses intervened and God changed his mind.
There’s no hint that God was just seeing what Moses would do. There’s nothing to support any of the interpretive moves that attempt to circumvent a plain reading of the text.
This text portrays God as changing his mind. Specifically, it portrays God as changing his mind about means, not ends.
When Moses argued with God, he reminded God of the telos – the end state – the goal – that God had revealed to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: the patriarchs would have so many descendants that they couldn’t be counted, and they would live on the land promised to Abraham as their inheritance (Exodus 32:13). Even when God’s anger burned against the idolatrous Israelites in the wilderness, he never changed his mind about the promise he made to Abraham.
Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” (Exodus 32:10)
In this course of action, God could still preserve his covenant by making Moses into the “great nation” (Genesis 12:2) that he promised to Abraham, even if all the rest of the Israelites perished in the desert. Moses was a descendant of Abraham, and God could achieve his purposes for Abraham by preserving the prophet and giving him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. If Moses’ descendants inherited the land, God’s promise to Abraham would still be fulfilled.
Moses presented God with the disadvantages of that course of action: the Egyptians will say God never intended anything good for his people. Based on Moses’ advice, God chose a different means of achieving his long-term goals.
In the Army, we would call this an adjustment decision. When your actions aren’t achieving the operational effects you want, or the operational effects aren’t achieving your overall strategic goals, you adjust the plan. You change your mind about how, not what.
God’s declared end state doesn’t change. Rather, the full character of the end state emerges as the Biblical story unfolds Over time, God revealed more of what the end state fully entails: the descendants God promised Abraham include people from every nation on earth who are united by faith to Abraham’s crucified and risen seed, the prophet Jesus of Nazareth. The land of promise, it turns out, is not just a piece of dirt wedged between Egypt and Assyria, but God’s eternal kingdom in the age to come, anticipated in this age in the life of the church.
What we find in these Biblical texts is neither a dispassionate, rationalistic deity of philosophy nor an arbitrary, capricious god who changes his mind on a whim, one who must be cajoled to do what humans want.
Rather, we find a God who has sworn to establish his people in the land of promise so that they can live in peace and justice under his loving reign. We find a God who is angered by anything that threatens to undermine the achievement of his purpose, and who takes action against everything that puts his plan in jeopardy.
Like any good military commander, God knows what he is trying to achieve. He pays attention to how the plan is unfolding so that he can make the adjustments necessary to accomplish the mission. He parries every thrust of his adversaries. He counters every threat. He responds to every change in conditions.
It’s an interesting question, whether every detail of of every life is all part of God’s great master plan from the beginning. I’m not betting my life, however, on philosophical speculation. Rather, I’m trusting my life to the one I see revealed in the dynamic pages of the holy scriptures. God has promised to achieve his purposes no matter what, and I am willing to bet my life that he won’t change his mind about that.