I've been teaching through the five books of Moses and after a while it struck me that God seemed just plain meaner and more short-tempered in the Pentateuch than anywhere else in the Bible.
While there is a myth among the ignorant of the "mean" Old Testament God, a light perusal of the Old Testament shows this just isn't so. God endured rebellion after rebellion of His people with punishments that were quickly rescinded as the people repented. Although the cycle of sin/punishment/repentance/salvation in Judges is well known, what is sometimes missed is that this occurred over more than 300 years, and, often, fairly localized. Over those 300 years we see eight or nine periods of punishment for the near constant sin of God's people?
Once kings were established and the northern ten tribes broke away, those ten tribes constantly lived in sin. First perverting the worship of God, they then turned away from Him to Baal. And yet God, in His mercy, begged them through prophet after prophet to repent for more than 200 years after "Jeroboam the son of Nebat who made Israel to sin," and more than 100 years after the death of Ahab, who turned them to Baal, before He finally destroyed them.
The southern kingdom of Judah, with its periods of repentance, lasted nearly 120 years more, despite greater levels of sin. As the end came near, God begged Judah to repent for He did not wish to destroy them (Ezek. 18:31; 33:11). Truly, the Old Testament shows not a vindictive God, but a merciful God who delayed punishment beyond all reasonable expectation of the people, desiring that "all should reach repentance." (2 Pet. 3:9)
But in the Pentateuch? Wow! In less than forty years, God plans to wipe out all of Israel and start over with Moses's offspring multiple times (Ex. 32:9-10; Numb. 14:11-12; 16:21). Since the people had so thoroughly and quickly broken the covenant, He could not be held to it either. He would get them to the Promised Land to fulfill His promise to Abraham, but He would not go with them (Ex. 33:1-3). God "broke out against them" many other times in drastic punishments of their sins. We see the jealousy and vengeance of God more often in the forty year period of wilderness wandering than we do in the rest of the Old Testament combined (maybe a slight exaggeration). It made me wonder why.
Maybe one reason is this: in every instance of God's wrath we see an instance of Moses interceding for the people. In Ex. 3:11-14, Moses implored and God relented. In 32:30 he tells the people they have sinned greatly but perhaps he could make atonement for them. In 33:12-17 Moses intercedes and God renews the covenant relationship with the people. Moses intercedes again in Numbers 14:13-19 and in verse 20 God relents again. This is repeated in Numb. 16:22. Again, it was Moses who interceded for the people when the fiery serpents came upon them (Numb. 21:7). Even on a personal level Moses interceded for the people. When Miriam was struck with leprosy for her rebellion, Aaron did not pray to God for mercy, he begged Moses to intercede (Number 12). Moses did, and Miriam was healed after a seven day "timeout". Moses constantly stood ready to intercede between the people and God, even when he was personally wearied by the people's sins.
In Deut. 18:15 Moses prophesies that a prophet will arise "like me" and it is to that prophet that the people should listen. When discussing this, most look at the fact that Moses spoke to God face-to-face rather then prophesying through dreams and visions and that Moses was the law-giver. Jesus fulfills these qualities of a prophet like Moses. He had been face-to-face with God for eternity and is the giver of the perfect law of liberty. But to be truly a prophet like Moses, Jesus would have to stand between the people and God. He would need to be ready always to make intercession and turn away the wrath of God. Lo, and behold, Heb. 7:25! "Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them." (emphasis mine) We can stand before God only because Jesus makes intercession. We live, despite the wrath our sins generate, only because Jesus turns that anger away. He is the only one who can stand with His hand on the shoulder of both God and man (Job 9:33), as He alone knows what it means to be both God and man. He embodies this aspect of Moses as well, truly making Him the prophet that was to come.
It is easy, as one reads through the Pentateuch, to see that the burden of intercession bore heavily on Moses. One imagines that it might be so for Jesus as well. Let us strive to lessen that burden as much as possible by living lives of righteousness. One day that burden will grow too great and He will return "rendering vengeance to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus" (2 Thess. 1:8)
Rom. 8:34 "…who is he that condemneth? It is Christ Jesus that died, yea rather, that was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us."
Isa. 53:12 "Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors: yet he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors."