Did God Almost Break His Promise

Some people object to God’s anger at the Israelites in Exodus 32 and Numbers 14 because he threatened to kill them off and start over, which would violate his promise to Jacob that all of his children will inherit the promised land of Canaan because they are from Abraham’s seed (1 Chr 16:14-18, Gen 35:12, Gen 48:21-22, Gen 50:22-26), and thus making God a covenant breaker and untrustworthy.

While God had every right to “divorce” and destroy them for breaking the covenant, God remained faithful to his promise even though they were unfaithful. It’s clear that God did not actually intend to kill them all and start over with Moses, but rather he led Moses into a dialogue that would reveal that he would not break his promise to Israel (Jacob). This conversation was a device he used to show that God is trustworthy despite how he feels when we fail and what we deserve as sinful people. Basically, after saying multiple times not to have idols (which was violated in Exodus 32) and that he would have their backs in Canaan (which the Israelites doubted in Numbers 14), God had to get through to them another way. He can only tell them a command or give them a promise so many times. This time he went the other direction and threatened to blot them out. Sinners in this situation would simply coward in fear knowing that they deserve it, but the righteous would come boldly to the throne of grace and remind God of his promises so that they may obtain mercy (Heb 4:16). This is what Moses did, he interceded on behalf of Israel both times. God wants us to remind him of his word and his promises and show him that we do believe in them. The act of doing this can strengthen our faith, it’s a way for us to remember God’s love for us and his promises to give us victory, as well as a way for us to remember to keep his commands and stay out of sin and in the blessing aspect of the covenant. Similarly, Abraham intercedes for Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18, he asks God to do what is right and not punish the righteous with the wicked and God agreed to spare the whole city if there are at least 10 righteous people. There weren’t even 10 but for Abraham’s sake, God spared Lot and his family because of Lot’s righteous actions. In Hosea chapters 1-3, God has Hosea marry a prostitute named Gomer, and she cheats by prostituting herself, then another man pimps her out. Divorcing her is his legal right because of her adultery, however, God tells him to buy her back from her lover and reconcile with her. This ends up becoming a metaphor for what God will do with Israel after the exile, despite their idolatry. Paul sums this idea up when he says, “we are unfaithful he will remain faithful” (2 Tim 2:13). God wants to reconcile with us no matter what, but we must come to him, rather than run away.

Some more examples of this kind of dialogue in the bible:
In 1 Kings 3:16–28, King Solomon threatened to cut a child in half to sort out a dispute between two women whom both claimed to be the mother, however, he didn’t actually do it because the goal was to trigger the real mother to reveal herself by letting the other woman have the baby so that her child could live. Likewise in Exodus 3-4, Moses was chosen by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt at the burning bush. Moses tried to get out of it but God made it clear that Moses was the chosen one but he did let Moses take Aaron along for help. In Exodus 4:24-26, on the way back to Egypt his wife, Zipporah, refused to circumcise their newborn son Eleazar, so God threatened to kill Moses until she submitted and allow him to be circumcised. The circumcision of every male was necessary under the Abrahamic covenant according to Gen 17:9-14, so this needed to happen so that Moses’ offspring would all be a part of the covenant for generations to come. However Moses’ wife had an object to it, their oldest son Gershom was already circumscribed and she probably figured the firstborn was enough. God didn’t actually intend to kill Moses since he said Moses was the chosen one and no one else could do it, so God just simulated a near-death event to trigger Zipporah into doing what was required.

This is similar to Jesus’ conversation with the Phoenician woman in Matthew 15:21-28, and Mark 7:24-30, where she asked him to exorcise the demon from her daughter and he says that the children (Israel’s) bread should not go to the dogs (Gentiles). Critics see this as Jesus insulting the woman’s daughter by calling her a dog. The greek text uses the word κυνάριον (kunarion) which is a little dog or pet dog. Some parts of the bible reference a wild dog or κύων (kuón) in greek, which is used as an insult when not referring to a literal dog. Since he uses the former, he is calling her daughter a pet puppy (a beloved member of the family), in comparison to the children of Israel. She knows this and still believes he will help her and he does.

Jesus has never objected to helping Gentiles before. He often did so without any fuss. For example, the Roman centurion who caused Jesus to marvel as his faith (Matt 8:5-13), and the men with the legion of demons in Matt 8:28-34 and Mark 5:1-20. In fact, after visiting the Phoenician woman near Tyre in Syria, he goes to Sidon (also in Syria) and heals a deaf man (Mark 7:31-37). Then he returns to Galilee and goes to Decapolis east of the Jordan river (the legion of demons was previously cast out in this area), and he ministers to Gentiles. Here he feeds 4000 families with seven loaves and a few fish (Matt 15: 32-39, Mark 8:1-10). This is similar to what he does for the 5000 Jewish families in Galilee with the five loaves and two fish. Note, the second time they go the Decapolis, the people were more welcoming. Previously when he exorcised the legion of demons they told him to leave out of fear, but the former possessed men stayed behind to testify about their deliverance as Jesus instructed. In addition, there was the Samaritan woman at the well who was one of the few people he told directly outside of his disciples that he was the Messiah (John 4:21-30). Usually, he kept it a secret and he even silenced demon-possessed people who were always trying to spoil his ministry by revealing who he was too early (Mark 1:21-28, Mark 3:11-12).

This is why in Acts 10 before God sends Peter to the Gentile Cornelius to minister to him so he could receive the holy spirit, God shows Peter a vision of unclean food. Even though he is hungry Peter rejects the food because they are unclean animals. God responds by saying, “Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean” (Acts 10:15). Then God sends him with Cornelius’ servants to minister to him. Afterward, Cornelius’ household gets saved and receives the holy spirit, and Peter realizes that this salvation that Jesus paid for includes the Gentiles as they are. In Acts 11 Peter informs all the other messianic Jews, who criticized him for going into a Gentile’s house, that Gentiles are to be included in the convent as they are (no need for circumcision or kosher food diets) since they received the holy spirit. The others received what he said when they heard the testimony of Cornelius. In Acts 10:15 God was reminding Peter of what Jesus said in Matt 15:10-11 when he told the Sanhedrin council that what a person eats doesn’t defile them. This connects with Jesus’ interaction with the Phoenician woman since she was a gentile, and gentiles didn’t follow kosher food laws. Peter was expected to apply this idea to Gentiles as a whole. This was said so he could see that in the new covenant a person is not defined by what they eat or whether or not they are related to Abraham or not. Instead, all can receive the Holy Spirit of God and be saved without converting to Judaism. The full revelation of this came in Acts chapters 10 and 11, but the lesson started in Matthew 15 (and Mark 7). Sometimes God has a back-forth conversation that seems insulting or contradicting in order to reveal something deeper.