Commentary on Exodus 33:12-23
In Exodus 32:1-14, Moses appeared calm and collected as he successfully negotiated with God on top of Mount Sinai to save the Israelites from God’s anger about the golden calf.
His manner changed, however, as soon as he descended, and actually saw firsthand what the people were doing. Moses became so angry, in fact, that he “threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.” (Exodus 32:19-20)
Moses didn’t let up, even after the calf was destroyed. He went to the gates of the Israelite camp to enlist anyone willing to fight on God’s side, saying: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.” (32:27)
What happened to the clear-thinking, unruffled Moses who was concerned about saving the lives of the Israelites? Although Moses indicated that this command came from God, the biblical text never reports that God spoke these words to Moses. One has to wonder whether or not God really wanted this type of response. At any rate, three thousand people are killed.
After the blood-letting, Moses gathered up the people to make his first public announcement about the whole calf incident: “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” (32:30) At this point, Moses once again put his life on the line for the people, telling God to forgive the sin of the Israelites, “but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” (32:32) God agreed to Moses’ terms, more-or-less, but informed him that “whoever has sinned against [God]” will be blotted out of his book at some future point (32:33). God then charges Moses with leading the people and sends a plague for good measure.
Exodus 33: Will God accompany the Israelites?
Exodus 33:1-3 picks up on God’s directive to Moses to lead the Israelites, but God makes very clear what his own role will be: “I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites… 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.”
In Exodus 33:12-13, Moses seems not to have heard these words or has perhaps decided to ignore them. Instead Moses wants even more from God than the knowledge of who will accompany them on their journey; he wants God to show him God’s ways so that he might both know God and find favor before God. He also wants God to clearly show God’s alignment with the nation of Israel.
God responds to this request by saying, “My presence [literally, ‘my face’] will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (33:14) Apparently, this answer doesn’t allay Moses’ concerns, so he tries again in vss. 15-16, asking God, “For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people…?” Moses’ persistence pays off. God tells him, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” (33:17)
What more could Moses want?
Hasn’t Moses gone far enough, overstepping the boundaries between humankind and God? So far in his conversations with God, Moses has persuaded God to change God’s mind about total destruction of the Israelites, insisted on forgiveness for them, secured God’s presence with them in their travels, and even been assured of greater knowledge of God along with a clear sign of God’s favor.
In Exodus 33:18, however, Moses goes for broke: “Show me your glory, I pray.” Commentators since ancient times have puzzled over what exactly is signified by “glory” in this plea. They generally agree, though, that it points to a need on the part of Moses for greater intimacy in his relationship with God. Basically, Moses tells God, “I need more than a business relationship with you. You know me, by face, by name, in every possible way, but I don’t know you and I can’t see you. I want reciprocity.”
So, what more could Moses want? He wants a deep, personal, intimate connection to God. What is remarkable here is Moses’ desire to know more of God, and his doggedness in realizing this goal. Taking care of the business of leading the Israelites isn’t enough for Moses–he wants relationship and connection with God, along with knowledge and experience of the Divine.
The ancient rabbis, in reflecting on this passage, wondered why God would choose to reveal God’s being in one setting (at the burning bush), yet place limitations on the divine revelation in this context. They concluded that Moses, while able to demand a lot of God, could not ultimately control God’s revelation.
What does God show Moses?
God tells Moses what he will reveal in vss. 19 and 23: “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy… you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
This answer suggests that while God values Moses’ request, there are limits to what God will reveal to Moses. “Moses,” he says, “You would never survive seeing all that you ask for; instead I’ll show you the kind of God that I am–a God that is both gracious and merciful.”
Through Moses’ sheer tenacity, he basically gets what he’s after–assurance of God’s commitment to both Moses and the nation of Israel, and a deeper knowledge of God really is. What if he hadn’t been so persistent?