Commentary on Exodus 33:12-23
Exodus 33 shows Israel in a state of panic. Plain and simple, God’s people were in triage management following the fiasco with the golden calf (Exodus 32).
Like any individual, community, state, or nation who has fallen asunder, the Israelites realized the severity of their actions. They had broken the covenant with YHWH, and their leaders were paralyzed with questions, not answers, about how to move forward in the days ahead.
Brueggemann claims that Israel is really experiencing a “crisis of presence.” In other words, the nation and its leaders were haunted by two significant questions: 1) Would they be able to exist as a nation after breaking the covenant with YHWH? and 2) Would YHWH remain with them on their pilgrimage to the land flowing with milk and honey? These questions are answered in the second half of Exodus 33, a narrative that may well be “the most thorough and sustained struggle with the problem of presence in the entire Old Testament.”1
The struggle for presence in Exodus 33 is two-fold. First, it is a struggle for confirmation that Israel will maintain its presence as a nation. Second, it is a struggle to confirm that YHWH will continue to be with them on their journey. As the Israelite leader, Moses was acutely aware of this struggle. It became the impetus for him to approach YHWH with an uncanny boldness.
To risk being crass, in verses 12-16, Moses is a brawler. He dominates the conversation with YHWH, leaves little time for YHWH to respond, and demands that YHWH give the Israelites and him security of presence. He makes a personal request for the certainty that he does, in fact, have the support and favor of YHWH as Israel’s leader (verses 12-13). He also demands confirmation that YHWH will continue to bear responsibility for the community of Israel (verses 15-16). YHWH interrupts Moses briefly with the assurance of presence and rest (verse 14), but YHWH’s response just isn’t enough for Moses.
After all, Moses knew what the Old Testament prophets knew: the Israelites were not a people without the presence of God (e.g.: Hosea 1:9). Or, put differently, “only upon the condition of God’s presence [was] Israel’s existence viable.”2 Moses had no confidence in “going up” without YHWH (verse 15), and he knew that Israel was not unique among other nations unless it could center its identity in YHWH (verse 16).
The second half of this passage answers the dominant questions raised in the struggle for presence. YHWH dominates this half of the conversation, assuring Moses that he has found favor, that he is known, and that his petitions will be granted (verse 17). Not to be confusing with generalities, God makes specific promises: to show goodness, to proclaim YHWH’s name, to be gracious, and to show mercy (verse 19). These four promises assure Moses that Israel will continue to exist as a nation, and they offer hope that YHWH will continue with Israel on the journey.
But, these promises just weren’t enough for Moses. In this passage, Moses always wants YHWH to give more. And, what Moses receives in presence is never enough.3 In the midst of YHWH’s response to Moses, Moses fervently interjects another request — to see the glory of YHWH (verse 14). This request was akin to asking for privileged access to YHWH. It should come as no surprise, then, that YHWH provided a resolutely negative statement: that Moses could not see the face of YHWH and live (verse 20). Yet, YHWH did not stop there. YHWH gave Moses a glimpse of glory through YHWH’s back side. One might conclude that the only thing Moses didn’t receive is the one thing he didn’t specifically request: permission to see YHWH’s face.
The good news of this passage is that life keeps going after the calf. God stays with God’s people, and God propels them forward on a journey that is to be characterized by faithful obedience. However, that wasn’t readily apparent to Moses or the Israelites. Their temptation was to resort to fear: fear that God would abandon them, and fear that they would cease to exist as a nation.
As their leader, Moses knew that their survival depended on presence: the presence of YHWH and the identity the Israelite community found in YHWH. Bruggemann suggests that this survival “means exactly the durability of a cultural system that can provide a ‘home’ for individual persons.” And, presence is “the holy source of covenantal life in our very midst.” The combination of survival and presence hints that “the survival of a durable cultural system depends on the known, acknowledged power of holiness in its midst.”4
That survival depended on presence prompted Moses to approach YHWH with an unreserved freedom in prayer. This approach is something that Christians today can learn from. It might be said that we are often too passive or too submissive to God in our prayers, yet Moses provides an alternative example for us. He approaches God with all of his might, yet he also shows restraint; he knows when to stop and listen for YHWH’s response.
And, as is no surprise, YHWH responds in a selfless way. YHWH extends grace, mercy, and assures the promise of a holy presence and a communal presence. YHWH also sets up a tension that is at the heart of our own relationship with God. God gives of Godself, but in God’s infinite holiness, God also places limits on accessibility. In this sense, the episode with Moses and YHWH points to 1 Corinthians 13: “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face.” Moses sees the glory of God, but only partially. However, that was enough to assure Moses of YHWH’s presence. And in the end, for Moses and perhaps for all of us, seeing through the mirror “dimly” might just be enough.
1 Walter Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume I, ed. Leander E. Keck, Thomas G. Long, David L. Petersen, et al, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), 937.
3 Ibid., 939.
4 Ibid., 941.