We are entering this Sunday right into the midst of an ongoing argument between Moses and God about the shape of God's relationship with the newly formed people of Israel.
This reading from Exodus 33 follows (both in the Bible and in the lectionary) the story of the Golden Calf and can be understood fully only in light of that story, and of the larger story of Exodus.
After bringing the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, God had initiated a special relationship with them, calling them from all the peoples of the earth to be God's "treasured possession," to be "a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:4-6). God had given them the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), and instructions on building the tabernacle (Exodus 25-31).
God had even promised to dwell in the midst of the Israelites; and the tabernacle 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 traveled through the wilderness.
The problem, of course, 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, God changes his mind about the shape of that relationship:
The LORD said to Moses, "Go, leave this place, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, and go to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, 'To your descendants I will give it.' I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 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 33:1-3, emphasis added)
The LORD will send an angel, but will not go himself. The LORD will not abandon the people -- he will be true to the covenant made with them at Sinai -- but he will not be present with them in the way originally planned. The LORD's abiding, dwelling presence will not go with the Israelites as they journey through the wilderness.
And it's for their own good, says the LORD. The holiness of the LORD is such that it cannot abide with sin. (That, in a nutshell, is much of the theology of Leviticus.) Because the people are sinful ("stiff-necked", stubborn), God's holiness would consume them on the way. So God will be present with them in a less-direct way, through a divine messenger, an angel.
That's where our reading for today comes in. Moses, to put it mildly, is not satisfied with this new arrangement. And Moses has chutzpah, there's no doubt about it. He's not afraid to use the LORD's own words against him. Eugene Peterson's translation catches the tone of the exchange well:
"Look, you tell me, 'Lead this people,' but you don't let me know whom you're going to send with me. You tell me, 'I know you well and you are special to me.' If I am so special to you, let me in on your plans. That way, I will continue being special to you. Don't forget, this is your people, your responsibility."1
Moses is persuasive. The LORD concedes a bit. The NRSV translates verse 14: "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest." But that's more than the Hebrew says. There's no "with you" in the Hebrew. That's why Moses isn't willing to let the argument end. That's why he keeps pushing God about the matter, like a dog worrying a bone. Moses insists that God be explicit with God's promises:
"If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us?" (Exodus 33: 15-16a, emphasis added)
Finally, God concedes fully: "The LORD said to Moses, 'I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.'" (Exodus 33:17)
It's no small thing to persuade the Creator of the universe to change his mind, so Moses pushes his luck just a bit further. "Show me your glory. Please." God will not, however, for Moses' own sake, fulfill that request fully. Moses can see only God's back, not God's face, "For no one shall see me and live."
Commentators have long puzzled over this passage, especially because just a few verses earlier, it says that, "the LORD used to speak with Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend" (Exodus 33:11; cf. Deuteronomy 34:10).
One can explain this seeming contradiction, of course, by appealing to different sources or traditions. But the text as we have it now speaks to a central, paradoxical theme in Exodus and in Scripture as a whole that is worth exploring; that is, that the Creator of the whole universe, whose glory fills the heavens, deigns to abide with finite human beings.
That God chooses to abide with human beings is an astonishing thing indeed. That God chooses to be in relationship with human beings means that God makes himself vulnerable to the pain that ensues when that relationship is betrayed. But it also means that authentic communication is made possible, communication "face to face," and Moses is the model for us of that sort of authentic divine-human communication.
That is, Moses models prayer for us, prayer that is not afraid to hold God to God's promises, prayer that is not afraid to appeal to God's love for God's people, even over and against God's holiness. Moses, through this audacious prayer, succeeds in securing God's promise that God will indeed abide with the Israelites throughout their long wilderness wandering.
Moses, in other words, wins the argument.
But that's not the end of the conversation. There is this other matter about seeing God's glory. The fact that Moses' request is not granted reminds Moses, and us, that God is still God. For all his chutzpah, even Moses cannot presume too much. Even Moses cannot know or comprehend God completely. He cannot see God fully; he can see only God's back, the "afterglow of the effulgence of His presence," as Robert Alter describes it.2
And yet, it is enough. At this beginning of the wilderness journey, God has appeared in cloud and fire on Mt. Sinai, speaking to all the people "face to face" (as Moses says later in Deuteronomy 5:4). God has given instructions for the tabernacle, which will remind the people in a concrete way of God's abiding presence. And even in the face of betrayal, God has renewed God's promise to be with the Israelites on the long journey that still lies ahead. It is enough. It is more than enough.
1Eugene Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2003), Exodus 33:12-13. On the last sentence, where Moses emphasizes that Israel is God's people, compare Exodus 32:7, 11.
2Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), 506.