Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’
“I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened. (Exodus 32:7-14)
Moses left the Israelites in his brother Aaron’s hands while he went to get God’s Ten Commandments up on a mountain. He was gone a long time. The people grew restless, and so Aaron helped them build idols that they worshipped in place of God. He even told them that the idols represented the gods that had rescued them from Egypt. Then they had a wild party.
God was furious. He felt the same pain, the same anger that a spouse feels when the other spouse has an affair. In fact, later prophets would use adultery as a picture of idolatry. God’s first response was to dump the Israelites and replace them with Moses. It’s hard to forgive because it means you have to give up on getting justice.
But Moses begged God to forgive the people of Israel, without disputing that they deserved punishment. Instead, he reminded God of how important the Israelites were to him. So God forgave them. The relationship meant more to God than getting even.