Exodus 33: Moses asks to see the Glory of the LORD
This chapter begins with the LORD commanding Moses to tell the people to go up to the land He promised them—a land “flowing with milk and honey” (verse 3). He will send an angel before them, to drive out the people currently living there (the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (verse 2).) However, He will not go with them, else He destroy them, because they are a stiff-necked people.
He also tells them to take off their ornaments until He can “decide what to do with [them]” (verse 5). (I assume “ornaments” refers to jewelry, and that kind of thing, but it might be something else, perhaps relating to some type of idol worship rituals.) Uncharacteristically, the people do what they’re told, strip off their ornaments, and mourn for what they’ve done. (I know I’m being hard on them; as I’ve said here before, modern-day Christians are usually no better at following His commands or discerning His will than the Old Testament Israelites were. We’re just as stiff-necked.)
Verses 7–11 take a seeming tangent, to describe the tent outside the Israelite camp, where Moses met with the LORD, which he called the “tent of meeting”. Anyone who wanted to inquire of the LORD would go to this tent. (It’s not explicitly stated, but they would ask Moses, who would go into the tent to speak with the LORD on the person’s behalf.) Whenever Moses would go out to the tent, the entire community would get up and watch him go, until he was inside the tent. And whenever he went in, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the LORD talked with Moses. Verse 11a says that “[t]he LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.”
And then verse 11b says something very interesting: When Moses was finished speaking with the LORD, he would leave the tent of meeting, but Joshua never left the tent. See below for my thoughts on that, but this blows me away!
Moses then approaches the LORD, and asks Him to remember that the Israelites are His people—Moses wants the LORD to teach Moses His ways, so that Moses can know God and continue to find favour with Him. Moses is also worried because God has not told Moses whom He will send with the Israelites. I think this is referring to the fact that God told the people that He wouldn’t go with them; so Moses wants to know who will. God tells Moses that His “Presence” will go with them, and He will give them rest (verse 14). Moses responds that if the LORD’s “Presence” doesn’t go with them, he doesn’t want the LORD to send them at all. After all, without the LORD’s “Presence”, what would distinguish the Israelites from any other nation on Earth? God tells Moses that He will do “the very thing [Moses] asked” (verse 17), because He is pleased with Moses and knows him by name. (Actually, the verse says “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” The problem with English is that this could be a plural “you” or a singular “you”; but I think it’s singular, referring just to Moses, and not to the entire nation of Israel.)
Moses then asks to see God’s Glory, and God agrees:
And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” (verses 19–20)
God then gives Moses instructions on a particular place where he is to stand, where the Glory of the LORD will pass by. As God is passing by Moses, He will cover Moses with His hand, until He has passed, and then remove His hand so that Moses can see His back.
Above I mentioned “verse 11a” and “verse 11b”. Just in case I haven’t talked about this convention before, we sometimes use this notation to indicate part of a verse. From what I’ve been able to tell—with absolutely no study into the matter, just pure inference from when other people have done it—there is no hard and fast rule as to how to determine what part of a verse would be “a” or “b” or “c” or whatever, but usually it’s broken up by sentences. If a verse contains multiple sentences, you could call the first sentence “verse whatever a”, and the second sentence “verse whatever b”, and if there were more sentences within the verse, you would keep using letters. On this blog, even when I refer to part of a verse like that, the link to the Bible Gateway is always to the whole verse.
Perhaps I’ve mentioned this before—and perhaps I’ll mention it again, in a future entry—but I love the phrase “a land flowing with milk and honey”. I think it’s a wonderfully descriptive way to describe how good the land is. And while I’m at it, I also like that verse 11 says that the LORD would speak to Moses, not just face to face, but “as a man speaks with his friend”.
It would be interesting to do a study of Joshua’s life. The book of Exodus makes it quite clear that Moses was in charge of the Israelites, and that the LORD would speak only to Moses, and nobody else, and yet many times when Moses is going to speak with the LORD, Joshua was right there with him. When Moses went up on Mount Horeb, for forty days and forty nights, Joshua went with him. And then there is the tent of meeting, where Moses would go to speak with the LORD face to face, and nobody else was allowed in the tent, except for Joshua—who never left it. In a way, I envy Joshua. Imagine, being there and hearing the LORD speak to Moses, and learning so much about Him, and yet not having to shoulder the burden of leading the Israelites! He was free to simply learn about God, and, since he never left the tent, I’m sure he did a lot of meditating about what he had learned. Of course, later on—in the book of Joshua—he will become the leader of the Israelites. But for now, he is free to simply bask in the LORD’s goodness.
Above, when God said that He would send His “Presence” with the Israelites, I kept putting “Presence” in quotes because I’m not sure exactly Who He is referring to. Does he literally mean presence, as in, “I will be ‘present’ with you”? Or does He mean that He will send someone else in His stead, whom He is calling His “Presence”? For example, God the Father wouldn’t go with the Israelites, but the Holy Spirit would? Or an angel? I’m sure if I went to seminary this is exactly the type of thing I’d be learning, but as a “layperson”, I don’t really know what’s going on. My two theories are: 1) God is going to send the Holy Spirit with the Israelites. 2) God had said He wouldn’t go with the Israelites, but relented, when Moses begged Him to go with them. (See the last entry’s discussion of the word “relent”…)
My final thought is that the Bible often talks about the fact that Moses spoke “face to face” with God, and yet this passage says that nobody—not even Moses—may see God face to face and live. This leads me to believe that the text is not being literal, when it talks of Moses speaking face to face with God; I think that Moses saw more of God than any other living human has, but didn’t actually see His face. In any event, however much Moses saw of the LORD, it says that He spoke with Moses “as a man speaks with his friend”, so Moses clearly had a special relationship with God.