The Midrash shares a most unusual exchange between Moshe and God. After God informs Moshe that the Jewish people are worshiping the Golden Calf, Moshe responds with what seems to be a most outlandish and irreverent argument. Moshe asks God if He is jealous of an inanimate object.
רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם, וּבְמָה אַתָּה מְקַנֵּא, בְּשׁוֹר. וְכִי הוּא מְסַיְּעָךְ. אַתָּה מַשִּׁיב רוּחוֹת וְהוּא מוֹרִיד גְּשָׁמִים. אַתָּה מַזְרִיחַ חַמָּה וְהוּא לְבָנָה. אַתָּה מַעֲלֶה אִילָנוֹת וְהוּא מַצְמִיחַ צְמָחִים. אֵין בּוֹ מַמָּשׁ, הוּא אוֹכֵל עֵשֶׂב, עוֹמֵד לִשָּׁחֵט
“Master of the Universe, are You indeed jealous of an ox? Is he Your helper? Do You bring the winds while he causes the rain to fall? Do You make the sun shine, and he the moon to glow? Do You cause the trees to grow, and he the blossoms to sprout? After all, the ox is powerless; it merely eats grass and then is slaughtered” (Midrash Tanchuma Ki Tisa, 22:2).
Moshe was obviously not asking a serious question of God. What then could the Midrash possibly mean?
You probably didn’t consider the public relations angle
The implausible language in the Midrash doesn’t seem to be any less comprehensible than the language recorded in the Torah itself. After the sin of the Golden Calf Moshe reminds God that wiping out the Jews will make God look really bad in the eyes of the Egyptians and other nations. Is this the most heartfelt prayer that could be made on behalf of the Jewish People? Especially at a time when their survival is hanging in the balance.
To solve this difficulty, the master Chumash teacher of Chumash teachers, Nechama Leibowitz, puts Moshe’s argument in proper perspective. She pointed out that this same sensitivity to how the nations of the world will misread God’s actions, was put forth by God himself in Parshat Devarim (Studies in Shemot: Ki Tisa, part 3):
לוּלֵ֗י כַּ֤עַס אוֹיֵב֙ אָג֔וּר פֶּֽן־יְנַכְּר֖וּ צָרֵ֑ימוֹ פֶּן־יֹֽאמְרוּ֙ יָדֵ֣נוּ רָ֔מָה וְלֹ֥א ה’ פָּעַ֥ל כׇּל־זֹֽאת׃ “Where it not that the anger of the enemy was pent up, were it not for the fact that his (the Jewish Peoples’) tormentors will misrepresent the facts, and say, ‘it is our own power that has prevailed and none of this was directed by God”’ (Devarim, 32,27).
Furthermore, Nechama Leibowitz, sites the commentator, Ramban, (Nachmonides) who explains how God’s approach, and Moshe’s approach, is bound up in the same fundamental notion of the world’s destiny. God requires that the all the nations of the world recognize God’s sovereignty. Since many deny God’s existence, the Jewish people have the critical role of spreading the knowledge of God:
השם ברא את האדם בתחתונים שיכיר את בוראו ויודה לשמו ושם הרשות בידו להרע או להטיב וכאשר חטאו ברצונם וכפרו בו כולם לא נשאר רק העם הזה לשמו ופרסם בהם באותות ובמופתים כי הוא אלקי האלקים ואדוני האדונים
God created mankind in the lower realms (earth) in order that they acknowledge their Creator and be thankful to His Name, and He placed in their hands the choice to do evil or good. But when people sinned willingly and they all denied Him (God’s existence), only this people [Israel] remained devoted to His Name, and so He made known through them by means of signs and wonders that He is God of gods, and Lord of lords. (Ramban on Devarim, 32,26)
The Midrash is amplifying Moshe’s argument
Now that we understand that Moshe was tapping in on the principles upon which God runs the world, perhaps our unusual Midrash can be seen as doing the same thing. If God would (God forbid) destroy the Jewish people, the nations would indeed assume it’s because God was jealous of the golden calf – a legitimate God that was prevalent in Egypt. This misconception would nullify the Egyptians’ understanding of God that they witnessed – from Yoseph saving them from famine to the ten plagues. After all, the Exodus was dramatic evidence that the Egyptian Gods were powerless and illegitimate. Moshe was arguing that if God destroyed the Jewish People, Mankind would assume that it’s because of God’s jealousy of another god. And all the powerful lessons that there is only one true God would be forgotten.
So what seemed to be an outlandish and irreverent plea was, in fact, exactly what was needed.