In the aftermath of the Sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe does something seemingly inexplicable: he argues with God. Certainly, God has no temperament nor lack of reason. The very concept of arguing with God is something of a contradiction in terms.
One can suggest, of course, that, similar to a particular understanding of the mechanism of prayer, one must ask in order to receive. In this sense, God was not lacking anything, but rather simply desired Moshe to argue for what he wanted. Once Moshe opened his mouth and did his part, God would acquiesce.
The problem with such an interpretation is that God does not respond to Moshe in this way. Instead, He rejects Moshe’s plea and reaffirms that He will wipe out all those who sinned. God’s response to Moshe in this instance makes it untenable to understand their “argument” as God waiting with baited breath for Moshe to assist his people.
Indeed, Moshe’s argument itself is rather perplexing. After admitting that his people did, in fact, sin, Moshe continues as follows:
But now, if Thou wilt forgive their sin; and if not, erase me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book which Thou hast written.’
Once more, putting aside the theological difficulties with the seeming issuance of such a command to God, what does this request of Moshe to be “erased from God’s book” even mean? If it is Moshe proclaiming, in so many words, that he quits, it is an exceptionally strange way of speaking. Worse still, such a proclamation does not follow logically from the situation at hand.
Faced with such difficulties, many interpret this request of Moshe to mean that he is requesting to be written out of the Book of Life as a punishment for his failure to lead the nation. God, however, has other ideas. Not willing to accept Moshe’s ultimatum, God promises to do some erasing — but of those that sinned, not Moshe:
And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Whosoever hath sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book.
We must ask what, precisely, is occurring in this exchange between God and Moshe, the Almighty and His humble servant. What do both parties mean as they speak? How would one encapsulate this back-and-forth?
God Is Not So Flexible After All
A possible interpretation could be that, as alluded to above, Moshe was issuing an ultimatum to God. In response to God’s declaration that He will destroy the nation, Moshe proclaims in turn that if God plans on destroying the nation, God must destroy him as well. This could well be read as Moshe standing with his people no matter the circumstance. In this case, then, God’s response is a firm and resolute “no.” God promises to erase only the sinners, but erase He shall. God is not quite as flexible as Moshe had previously assumed.
Another possible interpretation could be that Moshe’s statement was a criticism, an indictment, of God. Moshe was proclaiming that he wants not part of such a God, pleading to disassociate, erase, and remove himself from any relation with Him. The major issue with such an interpretation, though, is that God’s reply to Moshe is a total non-sequitur.
An Implied Clause
Rashi proposes his own interpretation of Moshe’s statement. He points out that there are four segments of this verse, the second of which is missing:
IF: “If You [God] will forgive their sin…”
IF: “and if not…”
THEN: “Erase me… out of Your book which You have written.”
Rashi explains that the second clause, which would be something along the lines of “then all is well”, is to be filled in by implication, and that there are many other examples such as this in Chumash. Thus, Moshe is arguing that if God punishes the Jewish people, God will also be punishing him. God’s turning His back to the Jewish people would be Moshe’s greatest failure.
This exchange between God and Moshe, then, is to be explained as Moshe arguing on behalf of the Jewish people. There are, however, many textual hints that this is not the case.
There Is Another Way
While it is true that Rashi insists that there is a missing piece from the posuk that needs to be filled in as per above, Abarbanel reads Moshe’s plea to God in a radically different way: “If you forgive their sin, and [even] if not, erase me from Your book.” According to Abarbanel, there is no missing clause implied by context; the verse is to be read as a single, cohesive unit. Moshe is proclaiming that whether God forgives the Jews or not is irrelevant — he wants no part of the nation anymore regardless. Moshe had reached his breaking point; leading the nation had become too much for him to bear, he had failed, and he wanted out.
Moshe’s statement to God, then, is not an “if-then” statement, nor an empty threat, nor an ultimatum. It is instead Moshe simply expressing the fact that he no longer wished to be a part of the Jewish people due to his failure as their leader. The absolute beauty of this approach to the posuk is God’s response to Moshe, in which God refuses to accept Moshe’s resignation, and instead continues as follows:
And now go, lead the people unto the place of which I have spoken unto thee; behold, Mine angel shall go before thee…
God refuses to accept Moshe’s claim of responsibility. God’s reply is not so much a rejection of Moshe’s plea as it is a rejection of Moshe placing the blame solely on himself. God would not hold Moshe responsible; only the sinners would be punished. God then reaffirms that it will, indeed, be Moshe that leads the Jewish people to His land.
According to Abarbanel, it is clear that Moshe was not praying on behalf of the Jewish people, but on behalf of himself; and God responds accordingly.
Moshe’s exchange with God, then, was utterly heroic. His request to be erased from God’s book was not his shirking of responsibility for the nation, but his accepting of it.
While a cursory glance at this episode would reveal Moshe begging God for forgiveness and issuing an ultimatum on behalf of the Jewish people, in reality there is an entire conversation just beneath the surface — a conversation in which Moshe confronts his feelings of failure, guilt, and culpability that God responds to and answers. Moshe’s “מְחֵנִי נָא” was a cry, a confession; and God responded in turn.