God had had it with the people Israel following the debacle of the golden calf that took place only a short time after they pledged to live by the Law (including the prohibition on idolatry so flagrantly violated in that incident).Utterly “furious,” God informs Moses – who was clueless about what was happening in the camp, as he himself was on Mt. Sinai to receive the two tablets of stone containing the Ten Words – that “your people, which you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have dealt corruptly.”
Hence, God made up His mind to “consume” the Israelites and begin a new and great nation with Moses himself. Moses’ finest hour in this episode is seen in his speaking truth to power that begins by first “reminding” God that Israel was His people, not merely Moses’, and that it was He (God Himself) who had brought up the people Israel from Egypt en route to the Promised Land.
Moreover, Moses seeks to further “calm down” his angry God – yet, always intimately nearby – by “advising” him that if the people were to be slain in the desert, the “media coverage” in Egypt would be very harsh of Him, and that slaying his people would be a betrayal of God’s numerous pledges to the Hebrew Patriarchs to multiply their seed and repair their descendants to the Promised Land (as in Genesis 15:13-16).
Hearing these powerful words of truth to power, ”the Lord repented of the evil which He said He would do unto His people” (Exodus 32:14).
In this episode, a part of the weekly Torah portion that will be read in synagogues world-wide this Saturday, February 15, God was all too willing to listen to His faithful servant and accept his persuasive points.
Some generations earlier, it was Abraham who had taken God to task over God’s intent to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their residents’ virulent moral failings. Abraham, in speaking likewise, sought to point out to God that it would be immoral to bring about the demise of innocent Sodomites (i.e., residents of that sinful town) just because the sinners in their midst could not be singled out from the innocent folks if God punished collectively both cities.
Indeed, God agreed with Abraham’s point and prolonged His dialogue with him on behalf of the possibly righteous people in Sodom, and finalized His pledge to spare Sodom all together if even only 10 innocent residents lived therein. Abraham’s engagement with God in haggling over the exact number of innocent Sodomites that could convince God to spare their city from going under was another noble case of speaking truth to power.
Similarly, we also see this when Hana (Elkanah’s wife) was accused by Eli the high priest in the Shilo Temple of violating the prohibition of PUI (praying Under the Influence, see 1st Sam. 1). Essentially, Hana countered Eli by telling him that he had no authority in determining her to be unsuitable to pray and petition God for a son. Hana, too, spoke truth to power, and the high priest hastened to change his approach; standing corrected, he sent Hana off with and expressed his wish for the realization of her supplication.
From these examples and others (e.g., Jethro to Moses in Exodus 18, and Nathan the prophet who accused and reproached King David – God’s chosen link to messianic times – for causing by design the death of Bath Sheba’s husband so he could marry her …), the Torah this week and the Bible as a whole extoll the privilege and duty of man to disagree not only with mortal and inexorably fallible leaders who err and transgress, but even with God Himself who listens and relents at the behest of man on behalf of others.