Exodus 33:12-23

How did you go with last week’s question:

  • I wonder if there are deities or idols that led us to misrecognize God and one another? 

Geoff, on Sunday, asked the question: What idols do we make?  What do we invest in, worship and give power to?  Is it our cars, houses, new piece of technology material possessions? Our careers, prestige, power?  This week’s gospel reading picks up on this theme of idols.  I will talk about this more as part of our service on Sunday. Here I will continue the story of Moses and the Israelite people as they continue their journey and continue to develop their relationship with God. 

This reading from Exodus 33 follows the story of the Golden Calf and can be understood fully only in light of that story, and of the larger story of Exodus.  The story of Exodus is the story of the Israelite people taking on a new identity as the holy people of God.  The story is a story of their transformation from Egyptian slaves to beloved people of God.  It is also a story about the identity of God.

  • What are the words that you think about when you think of God? 
  • What words help to identify or describe God?  Make a list of words that come to mind.

When Moses is called at the burning bush God reveals God’s self as “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Exodus 3:6). Moses wanted God to reveal more and asked God to tell him his name and so God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” also translated “I AM WHAT I AM” or “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE” (Exodus 3:14).  The name plays on the Hebrew verb hayah (“to be”). The same verb lies behind God’s other special name Yahweh, often written without the vowels, YHWH (called the Tetragrammaton, or “Four Letters”) making it unpronounceable since the divine name became regarded as too sacred to be uttered.  In English it is usually translated “the LORD” replacing the proper name with a title. The proper name of God implies that the identity of God, that is who God is, is found in the things that God does. By seeing what God does, we will see who God is.

God reminds the Israelites of what God has done and of who God is as the opening statement of the Ten Commandments “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). 

  • What does this action of God say about who God is? 
  • What sort of words would you use to describe God as revealed by this action?

Later, when God gave instructions for the way offerings were to be made, God expands further declaring God’s central motivation for this divine act of liberation: “And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them; I am the Lord their God.” (Exodus 29:46). 

Does this extra revelation of God’s actions bring more adjectives to mind that describe God?

God delivered Israel so God could be close, could live with them, could be in the midst of God’s beloved people. That’s why the book of Exodus spends so much time on the instructions (Exodus 25-31) and the building (Exodus 35-40) of the Tabernacle or tent sanctuary. The tabernacle is intended to be God’s home and dwelling place in the midst of God’s holy people.  It was to be a visible sign of that abiding presence of God (Exodus 25:8; 29:45-46). The tabernacle was a sort of portable Mt. Sinai. Just as God’s glory rested on the mountain in a cloud, so would God’s glory fill the tabernacle (Exodus 24:16; 40:34-35). God would be present with the people in a real and material way as they travelled through the wilderness.

God has always wanted to dwell with, be in relationship with and live with people.  We are after all created in the image of God.  We see this reach further fulfilment in the person of Jesus, the Emmanuel, God with us, God incarnate, God enfleshed and living among us. 

God had been traveling with the Israelite people but the problem is that by the time we get to Exodus 33, the people have stumbled, badly. By worshiping the Golden Calf, they have betrayed their relationship with God, and have hurt and angered God. So, right after that betrayal, we are told God has a change of mind about the relationship.  In the section just before our reading God says to Moses “I will send an angel before you… Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” (Exodus 33:2-3).

I wonder about the conversations that Moses had with God.  Did he hear an audible voice?  Was it a conversation in his head?  I can’t say I have ever heard the audible voice of God although I have had many conversations with God.  Although I am sure God has spoken to me, I do think that sometimes in our desire to understand God and describe God we project something of our humanity onto God. I wonder if this is the case here.  After Moses came down the mountain and “saw the [golden] calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain.”  Moses saw their sin and was angry. Trust had been broken and yet he needed to continue to work, live with and lead these people.

Have you ever been in relationship with someone, either through work or some community group or maybe even family relationships and wondered how you could possibly work with or live with them without, killing them or having them kill you, metaphorically speaking of course? Anyone? Or it is just me?  Anyway if God is anything like us humans, or me at least, the perfect and holy God could surely not live with such imperfect, sinful, “stiff-necked”, pig-headed, bloody-minded, obstinate, uncooperative, unmanageable people without smiting us along the way. I wonder if this was Moses’ thoughts?

Yet Moses was not satisfied with an angel/messenger of God. Moses wanted no other than God’s self to accompany them. Moses knew that what identified the Israelites and made them different from any other people or nation in the world was that God was in their midst and travelled “with them” on their journey (Exodus 33:16). He knew the Israelites were not a people without the presence of God. Their very identity was centred on God and God’s presence with them. So Moses presents God with a number of arguments as to why God should continue to be with them.

Moses appeals to the unique intimacy of the relationship between Moses and God (Exodus 33:12-13). Moses also reminds God that the Israelites are “your people” (Exodus 33:13). After the golden calf incident, God had tried to put some distance between God and the people by referring to them as “your people,” Moses — not mine (Exodus 32:7; 33:1). Moses was having none of that! These are your people, God — not mine!

God agrees that instead of the angel, “my presence will go” (Exodus 33:14). The New Revised Standard Version translation incorrectly reads verse 14 as “my presence will go with you.” But the phrase “with you” is not in the Hebrew. God agrees to go to Canaan but not “in the midst of” them, not “with” them, not “among” them. Maybe in front of, alongside, behind…but “not with us”.  Moses remains unsatisfied. Moses insists to God that you must “go with us” (Exodus 33:16).  God finally agrees! “I will do the very thing that you have asked” (Exodus 33:17).

Has Moses just put all the people in danger of God’s angry wrath?  Maybe the intimate relationship Moses had with God had already revealed something of God that had not yet been expressly spoken? Maybe Moses had already seen and experienced something of God’s grace and mercy even before it was expressly revealed. God who was “I Will Be Who I Will Be” (Exodus 3:14) is now revealed as “I Will Be Gracious to Whom I Will Be Gracious, and I Will Show Mercy on Whom I Will Show Mercy” (Exodus 33:19). This week’s passage closes with God’s announcement that God will physically pass by Moses in the form of a divine body (Exodus 33:21-23). As God passes by, “you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” Moses will be privileged to see something no other human has seen about God. Yet even Moses will not see or know all there is to know about God. Part of God’s ways, glory and goodness, the face of God will remain unknown, unseen. Dimensions of God’s ways in the world will remain mysterious, elusive, and incomprehensible. What we do know of God’s supreme love and mercy, however, is sufficient for the journey to continue.

The next chapter will continue with God’s further explication of the divine name that continues to highlight the priority of mercy, forgiveness and grace in the deep character and name of God (Exodus 34:6-7).

Rev Tammy Hollands