Exodus 33:1-6 The LORD’s Separation from Israel
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.’ 2 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. 3 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.”
4 When the people heard these harsh words, they mourned, and no one put on ornaments. 5 For the LORD had said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, and I will decide what to do to you.'” 6 Therefore the Israelites stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb onward.
Trust was broken when the Israelites cast and worshipped the golden calf. Perhaps it is my own experience of a broken relationship as well as helping others deal with broken relationships that makes me hear this passage between the LORD and Israel being like the struggling attempts of a couple after trust was broken. The God of the Bible is not the unmoved mover that many Christians imagine, the LORD the God of Israel was passionately invested in this covenant. We see here and many other places in scriptures a wounded God nursing broken dreams and beginning the long journey to the place where trust can be rebuilt. It is not only a journey from Mount Sinai/Horeb to the promised land, it is a journey of rebuilding trust between God and God’s people.
At this point the LORD needs some space from the people. Like a couple who needs to live in separate places after an affair because the presence of the other is a continual reminder of the brokenness that exists between them, the LORD needs space and time to deal with these emotions. The Israelites too in their own way go into mourning. Their ornaments were once removed to cast the golden calf and now they are removed as a mourning of the pain and grief they caused for the LORD and for themselves. They are a people who have lost their God’s trust and who exist in the hope that in the future that trust can be rebuilt, and the relationship restored.
God has not completely walked away from the people or from hope. An angel, and emissary continues to lead and go with the people but the LORD’s desire to dwell among the people has been for a time shattered. The previous focus on the tabernacle is temporarily set aside amid the pain of the broken relationship. Moses still stands between the LORD and the people, clung to by both. For now the people and God journey in parallel paths and Moses’ job will be to bring healing to both God and God’s people.
Exodus 33: 7-11 Separate Camp
7 Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp; he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the LORD would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. 8 Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise and stand, each of them, at the entrance of their tents and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. 9 When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses. 10 When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and bow down, all of them, at the entrance of their tent.11 Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then he would return to the camp; but his young assistant, Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the tent.
Much as adults going through a strained portion of a relationship often separate because the immediate presence of the other causes too much pain, now the LORD meets with Moses outside the camp. Moses’ role as the mediator between the people and God in now intensified as Moses still has the LORD’s trust. The people who are longing for reconciliation, those who seek the LORD, wait and watch Moses’ departure to the tent of meeting and return hopeful for some sign that the relationship will be renewed. This is not the desired state of things for God. The LORD’s desire was to be in the center of the camp but now God’s place of meeting is beyond the borders of the camp.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his theological exposition of Genesis 1-3, Creation and Fall, talks about Adam’s original orientation of God placing God in the center of existence. (Bonhoeffer, 1997, p. 88f) In a similar way, the intent for the tabernacle was to echo this place in creation where God is symbolically and theologically in the center of the people of Israel’s life. Both Adam and the people of Israel were to realize their dependence on the LORD’s providence and protection. Yet both would eventually by their disobedience push God to the margins (using Bonhoeffer’s theological metaphor). Yet, God also withdraws to the margins as an act of grace. In the creation narrative it is a grace which overcomes the threat of death to Adam and Eve for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In Exodus it is a grace which prevents the people from being consumed by the wrath of God over their betrayal with the golden calf. Moses as the mediator will now continue to work to bring the people and their God back together and to move God away from the margins and back to the center.
Exodus 33: 12-23 The Presence of God
12 Moses said to the LORD, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13 Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14 He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
17 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.” 18 Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’;1 and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21 And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
For a beautiful description and meditation on this scene see Ellen Davis’ chapter ‘A Fool for Love: Exodus 33’ in Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament. (Davis, 2001, pp. 153-159) Even though I will be coming at the scene from a different perspective she has some beautiful insights into this scene and suggestions about the character of the LORD. Moses is, “disgusted with the Israelites, betrayed by his own brother, and now even God has bailed out, leaving him alone with a job he never wanted in the first place” (154) and yet he is the one who is caught between a people and their God attempting to make peace. Moses asks for a demonstration of the LORD’s favor and trust in this place where Moses feels abandonment. The LORD attempts to reassure Moses that Moses is seen and known and that the relationship between Moses and God remains strong, but Moses is not willing to allow things to remain as they are. God promises to be present and to walk with Moses (the Hebrew is second person singular-Hebrew has a singular and a plural you unlike English). Moses refuses to allow God to only journey with him, if God will not go with the people Moses asks him to return to the original intent of journeying with the people. For Moses sake God consents to journey with the people and to be vulnerable to the pain that they will cause God along this journey.
God grants Moses request based upon the relationship with Moses, not the people. Moses becomes the one whose prayer is heard when the prayers of the people are not. Moses is one who is righteous for the people, who stands in the gap between the people and God and who holds the relationship together.
Moses makes a bold request of God, to see God’s glory. Moses has been the one who seeks after the LORD throughout the Exodus journey and the LORD grants this request as fully as possible. Moses continues to be the one seeking after God and God consents to be seen in a manner that Moses can endure. God is not insulted by Moses’ request and, as Ellen Davis highlights, God seems to be flattered by it. (157) God has been taken for granted by the people but not by Moses and the LORD has stated that the LORD is a jealous God who will not be taken for granted. Yet, God is willing to show Godself to those who seek and to enter into the relationship with those who are willing to be open to God. Moses’ faithfulness to God’s vision for the relationship between the LORD and the people pulls the LORD back to the LORD’s original dream. Moses’ intercession for the people and desire for God becomes instrumental in the process of reconciliation.