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Not least among the features endearing the prophet Moses to the mind of a believer is the memory of his efficacious and powerful intercession for God’s people in the hour of their apostasy. Thus, when St. Symeon the New Theologian sought to praise someone for this same quality, he could do no better than to compare him to Moses. “I know a man,” he wrote, “who desired the salvation of his brethren so fervently that he often sought God with burning tears and with his whole heart, in an excess of zeal worthy of Moses, that either his brethren might be saved with him, or that he might be condemned with them. For he was bound to them in the Holy Spirit by such a bond of love that he did not even wish to enter the kingdom of heaven if to do so meant being separated from them” (Book of Divine Love, Homily 54.1).
The biblical text that St. Symeon has in mind here is Exodus 32:32, where Moses prayed for sinful Israel in these words: “Yet now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, I pray, blot me out of your book which you have written!” That fervent prayer was more than a bare intercession; it was Moses’ generous self-offering by an association of himself with the people’s guilt.
The context of that prayer is worth a detailed examination. There is, to begin with, a two-level scene: Moses is on top of Mount Sinai with God, while Aaron is down in the valley with the Israelites. Just prior to the prayer, two things have been transpiring simultaneously, both of them having to do with Aaron. On the mountain Moses has been receiving from the Lord a series of ordinances and statutes governing the consecration, vestments, liturgical instruments, and other matters concerning the Aaronic priesthood (Exodus 25–31).
Meanwhile, however, Aaron was down in the valley proving himself unworthy of that priesthood, for the Bible describes his complicity in the construction and cult of the golden calf. At the people’s first idolatrous impulse, Aaron acceded to their wishes. “Break off the golden earrings,” he instructed them, “which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” And when they did so, “he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf” (32:2–4).
In this whole episode Aaron is portrayed as craven and double-minded, a hireling and no shepherd. Though very much involved in the people’s sin, he would never admit this association in their guilt. He becomes, rather, a classic example of rationalizing an infidelity, not regarding his action as the apostasy it was, but rather (as the saying goes) as “accepting people where they are.” “You know this people,” he would tell Moses, “they are set on evil” (32:22). Refusing thus to assume responsibility, he attempts to disentangle himself from the people’s sin.
In a line that the biblical author must have regarded as a kind of mockery, the irresponsible and cowardly Aaron endeavors, moreover, to minimize his own considerable role in the matter, claiming that when the Israelites gave him the gold, “I cast it into the fire and this calf came out!” (32:24).
Actively taking part in their apostasy, Aaron did not love the people enough to resist them. His attitude is described as the very opposite of that of Moses, whose prayer united him to the guilt of the people, even though he himself had not shared in their sin.
The self-sacrificing prayer of Moses, in which he deliberately associates himself with the guilt of the people, demonstrates an important quality of intercessory prayer in Holy Scripture. The biblical intercessor never stands apart from the state of those for whom he prays. Moses’ wish to be blotted from God’s book rather than see the Israelites perish is clearly repeated in the soul of St. Paul, who wrote of those same Israelites: “I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3).
The Bible’s supreme and defining example of this sacrificial intercession is that of the Suffering Servant who “was wounded for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5), and “was numbered with the transgressors” (53:12), and who, though he knew not sin, became sin for us, “that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).