The Consistency of God
Having searched out the general principles that underlie God’s behavior at the golden calf incident, the time has come to look at this and other specific incidents in detail.
One of the great characteristics that sets God apart from all others is His utter consistency and total reliability. He is “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (James 1:17). With such a God there can be no changeability, no acting from the motivation of self-interest, no disregard of the principles involved in the law, no seeking to justify certain means because of a desired and end result.
In the history of Israel and of humankind in general there are two different kinds of situation in which sin develops. One is where God alone is in the position of leadership so that the sole responsibility of dealing with the problem rests with Him. Should the sinners be unrepentant then the Lord simply leaves them to themselves to reap that which they have sown. They then perish at the hands of whatever calamity is brooding over the situation, be it fire, earthquake, pestilence, invaders, or plagues. Examples of these types of calamities are the flood; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; the plagues of Egypt; the overwhelming of the Egyptians in the Red Sea; the death of Korah, Dathan and Abiram; the attack by the serpents in the wilderness; the death of Sennacherib’s army; the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70; the coming plagues; and the final destruction of this solar system. None of these calamities befall humanity until ever possible avenue of divine mercy has been exhausted and there is nothing more that people will let God do for them.
Another situation exists when individuals replace God with themselves as the determiner of their fate and the administrator of their own affairs, thus establishing themselves as the investigator, judge, and executioner of those who sin against him. Because God has given the right of choice to His creatures and because He will never use compulsion, He has no choice other than to let them have their own way and manage their own institutions. However, He knows that human beings, left to themselves, are very foolish and cruel administrators who will unwisely adopt a course that brings fearful consequences. The Lord was in a position to see this and to offer counsel, which the Bible calls, “commands,” which, if heeded, would enable people to take actions that would save them from the worst effects of their chosen course.
Examples of these are the golden calf, the conquest of Canaan, the wars of David and the subsequent kings, the captivity in Babylon, and others.
In the golden calf incident, Israel had broken the law in the worst way. They had made another god in place of the true God, thus separating themselves from Him entirely. They had entered into the licentious practices of the heathen until they had become utterly debauched and depraved.
They could not so wantonly and defiantly break God’s law without sowing seeds that in this case, would bring a very speedy harvest. The harvest would not be something the Lord imposed upon them. It would be the simple and natural outworking of the breaking of the law.
Those who, at the base of Sinai, worshiped the golden calf laid themselves open to the terrible consequences. At first, they joined in a unified revelry, which they thoroughly enjoyed. It gave them the wild stimulation, feverish excitement, and heady intoxication so loved by humans. After the intensity of saturating the senses with sinful pleasures, there comes a depressing letdown, an emotional and physical low that can give rise to destructive behaviors. Destitute of the restraining Spirit of God yet desperately in need of Him to quiet and control jaded nerves and ugly feelings, there was nothing to stop the outbreak of bitter strife in the camp. It is a characteristic of the heathen that their revelries are usually succeeded by intense conflicts among themselves.
As strife broke out, the swords were unsheathed. One or more would be killed. Then the relatives of the dead would engage in a vendetta of revenge. More would be slain, calling for still further retaliation until it would escalate into a destructive outburst so great as to threaten to wipe out the entire encampment. Their ever-vigilant enemies would recognize the opportunity to launch a surprise attack on the confused mass, and the nation would be decimated. In the meantime, as revenge was sought by this or that person, family or faction, they would study the most cruel and prolonged ways of executing those unfortunate enough to fall under their power. The witness of history convincingly declares that the furthered a people move away from God, the crueler they are in treatment of their captives. On the other side, the closer they follow the Lord, the more humane they are.
It is written regarding the apostasy at Sinai: “Unless punishment had been speedily visited upon the transgressors, the same results would again have been seen. The earth would have become as corrupt as in the days of Noah. Had these transgressors been spared, evils would have followed, greater than resulted from sparing the life of Cain. It was the mercy of God that thousands should suffer, to prevent the necessity of visiting judgments upon millions. In order to save the many, He must punish the few. Furthermore, as the people had cast of their allegiance to God, they had forfeited the divine protection, and deprived of their defense, the whole nation was exposed to the power of their enemies. Had not the evil been promptly put away, they would soon have fallen prey to their numerous and powerful foes. It was necessary for the God of Israel, and also as a lesson to all succeeding generations, that crime should be promptly punished. And it was no less a mercy to the sinners themselves that they should be cut short in their evil course. Had their life been spared, the same spirit that led them to rebel against God would have been manifested in hatred and strife among themselves, and they would eventually have destroyed one another. It was in love to the world, in love to Israel, and even to the transgressors, that crime is punished with swift and terrible severity (Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 325, 326).
These then are the terrible things that would have come upon the transgressors themselves, the Israelites as a nation, and the world in general if God had done nothing for them. The worst possible results would have eventuated.
The love of God, that marvelous, infinite, and unchangeable love, drove Him to tell them how they could save themselves from so terrible a fate. He could no longer do it for them for they had taken over the work themselves, but they could save themselves from the worst effects of their own choice provided they would listen to and follow His counsels.
Whether they followed those counsels or not was as much a matter of their own choice as to when they were faced with the alternative of leaving the swords with the dead Egyptians or of appropriating them. At the Red Sea they elected to take the wrong course by which they supplanted God as their Protector. But while not prepared to obey Him in this area, they were not tendered incapable of accepting His guidance in other matters. They could, if they would, adhere to His directions outlining how they could minimize the evil they had chosen.
In effect, as they faced the crisis occasioned by the worshipping of the golden calf, they were confronted with two possibilities. If they did not take some action, millions would perish. If they followed the Lord’s suggestions, then only a few would die by comparison, and a great deal of tragedy would be averted. But, if anything was done at all, it had to be by them because they had deprived God of any opportunity to take appropriate action Himself.
Great care must be taken not to slide into the trap of supposing that because force was necessary to put down the rebellion, God compromised His principles on this occasion and resorted to force by using the righteous Levites as His direct instrument. God does not change His principles for anything or anybody. With Him there is no variableness or shadow of turning.
The exercise of force is contrary to the principles of God’s government (The Desire of Ages p. 22).
Compelling power is found only under Satan’s government. The Lord’s principles are not of this order (The Desire of Ages, p. 759).
Earthly kingdom rule by the ascendancy of physical power; but from Christ’s kingdom every carnal weapon, every instrument of coercion, is banished (The Acts of the Apostles p. 12).
Had the Israelites been careful never to take up the sword, while fully trusting the Lord to take care of their needs, the problem would have been speedily resolved in accordance with divine methods of working. By their utter refusal to repent, the rebels would have certified that they wanted no more of God. He would have respected this decision and left them to themselves to reap what they had sown. Then, whatever impending disaster was present, would have taken them similar to the way the earthquake took Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, or the way fire destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, or the Red Sea Drowned the Egyptians.
But the situation was not such. Israel had taken the sword, and thereby, they made it their responsibility to take care of their own problems of defense against enemies within and without the camp. It was not possible for them to do this and for God, simultaneously, to still hold His position as their protector. This could not be, for either they did the work for themselves or they trusted Him to do it. But because they had not entirely cast all of their allegiance and respect for Him, He was afforded the opportunity of retaining the position of adviser to them. They did not have the wisdom to understand the results of one usage of the sword as distinct from another. He did. If they would listen and obey, He would teach them the differences so that they could save themselves, and the world, from much unnecessary sorrow and loss. It was for this reason that He counseled them that it was better to destroy the incurably affected than to leave the cancer to contaminate millions more.
Exactly as the father in the hunting story knew that killings were inevitable once his son had taken the gun, so God knew that there was going to be unpreventable slaughtering. It was no longer a matter of attempting to prevent the killings. All that could now be done was to work to make them as merciful and minimal as possible. God worked here just as at the later time of Babylonian conquest when He sought to direct Israel into a course that would enable them to make their servitude as pleasant as possible” (Prophets and Kings, p. 441). The unvarying consistency of God is truly remarkable.
It must be stressed that while the Lord commanded the Levites to kill the rebels, and much later told Zedekiah, the Ammonites, the Edomites, the people of Tyre, and the other nations concerned to submit quietly and cooperatively to the king of Babylon, He did not compel them to do it. The Levites chose to obey, but the others did not. By so doing, the Levites saved themselves, and the whole of Israel, along with the world from the most terrible consequences. By refusing to obey, Zedekiah and his contemporaries brought upon themselves dreadful reprisals.
Before the Levites was a third course. They could then and there, have repented of ever taking up the weapons of destruction. Had they truly done this, they would have cast away those swords, bowed before the Lord, and confessed that they had blundered. They could have given back to Him the sole responsibility of caring for them against enemies without and within the camp.
The Levites did not have sufficient understanding to do this, but they did know enough to obey the instructions God gave them and thus to avert the terrible consequences of not doing it. unfortunately, by the time we come to the captivity in Babylon, the people were so blinded they couldn’t even follow the Lord’s counsels, so they suffered the terrible wrath of Babylon for their continued spirit of rebellion and insurrection. There were some who obeyed however. Daniel and his companions gave a living demonstration of the honor and freedom to be enjoyed by those who were obedient to God’s command.
A question must arise here. Why were the people themselves left by God to destroy the rebels in the camp at the golden calf but not so with Korah, Dathan, and Abiram? In the instance of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, the people were simply called upon to separate themselves from the rebels and watch them die at the hands of a terrible natural calamity. Why is there this difference? Israel still carried the sword, so it would have to call upon them to slay the rebels.
Once the principle governing God’s actions in dealing with situation such as the rebellion at Sinai is learned, it would be expected that every disorder in the camp was resolved in the same way. It would be anticipated that, until Israel handed back to Him the position of full administrator of all their affairs, God would direct them to slay the rebels.
This is precisely what happened on numerous occasions. Notable examples were the stoning of the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath, the adulterer, Achan who stole the Babylonian garment from Jericho, and the extermination of the Canaanites.
But it was not always done after this fashion. When Korah and his companions arose in defiance of God, when Miriam and Aaron rebelled, when the people murmured against Moses and God, the people were not commissioned to go out and strike down the offenders. They were taken by an earthquake, the infliction of leprosy, plagues, and the invasion of fiery serpents. In none of these punishments did the people have a part. Yet there had been no change in the situation of government. The people still carried the sword. So why was it done one way on certain occasions and differently on others? Is there an underlying principle that decides what it will be each time?
God is neither capricious nor inconsistent. Indeed, there was an underlying principle that determined how each problem should be dealt with. Within the structure of the camp two different situation existed. One concerned the people in general, and the other, the position of Moses, God’s personal appointee.
The people had placed themselves under the protection of the sword. By doing this they had reconstituted their government accordingly; therefore, when any offenses threatening that government were committed, they had to be dealt with by weapons of force wielded by the people. Those threats could be internal or external. In the case of worshiping the golden calf, it was internal, but when the Amalekites came against them, it was external. Because they did not have faith to accept God as their protector, they were left with self-protection as they only recourse. They became still further entrenched in this when they chose to have a king like the nations around them.
But there was another area in the encampment not under the jurisdiction of the people. This was the office of Moses. No one stood between him and God. God had appointed him his work so that he was answerable to the Lord and no one else. Furthermore, Moses had never joined with the people in taking up the sword. Even though he was the best-trained military man of all, he had learned the lessons of trust in God while in the wilderness of Midian that when the opportunity came to take up weapons, he chose not to. Not once do we read of him leading Israel into battle with the sword in his hand.
Therefore, when Moses himself sinned by striking the rock, the people could not touch him. He was not under their government, in any sense. Only God could deal with him, and He would do it according to His righteous procedure and principles.
In like manner, when the people sinned against Moses and against God, they transgressed in a realm that had not come under their jurisdiction, for the sovereignty of the sword did not reach that far. So whenever the people sinned in this area, the punishment came by God’s departing from them and leaving them exposed to the surrounding perils.
Consider the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. It was specifically a challenge to God’s appointment of Moses, as was the protest of Miriam and Aaron and Israel’s miserable complaints of which the following is typical: “And the people spoke against God and against Moses: ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For There is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread’” (Numbers 21:5).
All of these were in the same category. They were outside the jurisdiction taken over by the people when they took up the sword. Therefore, God was free and unhampered in dealing with these problems. In every such case He worked in the same way, Korah and his supporters were swallowed up by an earthquake; Miriam was afflicted with leprosy; and Israel suffered from plagues and the invasion of fiery serpents.
The same principle applies in the case of David. When he committed adultery and murdered Bathsheba’s husband to cover up their sin, he would have been stoned to death had he been an ordinary citizen. But the people had made him a king like the kings around him. This placed him above the law of the land, for the kings of those days were exempt from obedience to that law. Therefore, he was outside the domain in which the people had taken authority to themselves, so they were not able to punish him for his crimes. He was thus placed in a position where his sin had separated him from God’s protection. The troubles that overtook him were the direct outworking of his departure from the paths of righteousness.
Thus each situation in the camp was met in the way appropriate to it. When the people sinned within the area taken over by them, when they acquired swords, they had to administer the punishment to assure their continued protection. God’s work was limited under those circumstances to offering them the counsel He was so capable of giving, whereby they would be delivered from the worst effects of their chosen order.
When they sinned outside this area of jurisdiction, the matter could not be settled by them, for they had neither the right nor power to deal with it. All God could do was to accept their insistence that He separate from them, and they were thus left exposed to the perils continually threatening them. God did not depart from them prompted by a hurt or revengeful spirit. It was with infinite sorrow and only with the greatest reluctance when ever saving effort had been rejected that God accepted the necessity to withdraw. A careful study of the various incidents confirms that, with the utmost consistency, God dealt with each situation according to its nature. How the Israelites perished depended on whether they fell into the hands of their own established governmental system or whether they sinned outside of that and fell under the powers of nature released from God’s control and direction.
The question of God’s methods of dealing with such problems as the worshipping of the golden calf has now been thoroughly explored. It is thus made evident that when rightly understood, the Old Testament records do not reveal a different God from the One portrayed by Christ during His earthly sojourn. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4).