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YEAR A: PENTECOST 24
October 16, 2011
Exodus 33:12-23


This passage takes a number of twists and turns as Moses addresses the Lord. Moses first states the Lord’s purpose in the whole episode in the book of Exodus – to bring the people up from Egypt. He then complains that the Lord has not let him know whom the Lord will send with him (v. 12). These last two words are the key for the passage: ‘with me’. But Moses is not just looking for some support in his role. As the beginning of the chapter (vv. 1-7) make clear the question at the heart of all this is the lord’s presence with the people. Moses is really asking for some confirmation that the Lord will be with him in spite of the Lord’s the earlier statement (v. 3).

Moses then claims that the Lord said he knew Moses by name and that the latter had found favour in the Lord’s sight. To be certain of this Moses now asks to ‘know the Lord’s ways’ (v. 13) so that he may know the Lord and find favour in the Lord’s sight. There are interesting twists here. In reverse, it is Moses who now wants to know the Lord (the Lord has already stated he knows Moses, v. 10). At the same time, Moses seems to doubt his standing before the Lord. His anxiety runs over into doubting the statement of the Lord, and to only finding certainty in his own knowledge of the Lord, not the Lord’s knowledge of him. This raises the interesting question ‘whence our security?’ Does it lie in our knowledge and control of life around us, or in God’s knowledge and claim upon us?

Moses next tries to shift responsibility saying to the Lord: ‘Consider too that this nation is your people’. The Lord responds with a promise that sounds very much like that made to Jacob as he left the promised land (cf. Gen 28:15), ‘My presence will go with you …’ (v. 14). The conversation is finally getting to the point Moses has been skirting around so far, for he now states bluntly that if that is not to be the case, if the Lord will not be with them, then let them not proceed with this charade, for this people he leads will not otherwise be distinct/separate (v. 16). Moses has a genuine concern for the people and their distinctiveness. A major ingredient in this concern, however, is Moses’ own uncertainty in his task and in his calling for his task.

The Lord relents in this discussion. He will accede to Moses request, which to this stage has been to see the Lord’s ways. But Moses now wants to see the Lord’s ‘glory’. In an extraordinary statement the Lord then says ‘all my goodness’ will pass before him and the Lord will proclaim before Moses the name ‘Yahweh’ (cf. Exod 3:13-15). At the same time the Lord declares grace and mercy to whomever the Lord will. But Moses will not be permitted to see the Lord’s face. To see that is dangerous.

Just what is meant by the Lord’s ‘goodness’ is not fully clear. The word ‘goodness’ can imply ‘beauty’ or ‘splendour’, or it might indicate God’s material blessings upon the people, or God’s shalom which also touches on matters of peace etc. Alternatively, it could refer to the attributes of God rather than the person, as the Rabbis have understood, or to the things God does. The overall scene remains a mystery but perhaps the point is that it is more important to know what kind of God this is than to ‘see’ God.

An elaborate protection plan is then put in place by the Lord so that Moses might be both satisfied and safe. God hides him in a cleft on the mountains and further covers him with his hand (cf. Elijah in 1 Kgs 19:9-13). In the end Moses gets to see but the back of God passing. The fullness of the Lord’s presence, what Moses in his fear and uncertainty thinks will help, is in and of itself too much for human comprehension. As one writer says, such presence ‘would be coercive; faith would be turned into sight, and humankind could not but believe.’ There is always some uncertainty with regard to the Lord’s presence, some mystery associated with God. Otherwise, would there be room for faith and trust?

But the story does not end there and we cannot understand the significance of the Lord’s response to Moses from these verses alone. The end of this story really comes in the next chapter (Exod 34:1-9). Moses makes two new tablets for the law, to replace the old ones which had been broken (32:19). As the Lord, in the cloud, meets Moses on the mountain the next day he proclaims his name ‘the Lord’ (34:5; cf. 33:19), passes before Moses (34:6; cf. 33:19, 22), and proclaims his mercy (34:6-7; cf. 33:19). Moses seeks the Lord’s favour again but this time in terms of the Lord’s presence with his people on their journey (34:9; cf. 33:12-16). Exodus 34 goes on with the Lord remaking a covenant with the people and giving Moses further laws, most of which in this instance are ritual in nature (see 34:10-26).

There is one other thing we should note. This episode, along with the story of the golden calf (ch. 32; see Pentecost 23), interrupts a long sequence in the Book of Exodus which gives detailed plans for ritual offerings, the building of the tabernacle and all its associated elements and priestly garb etc. and then describes the construction and setting in place of these things (chs. 25-31, 35-39). Exodus 32-33, which deal with the lack of confidence of the people and Moses in the presence of the Lord, are, therefore, surrounded by chapters dealing with the worship of the people – the priesthood, the tabernacle and all its paraphernalia – the very things that symbolise the presence of the Lord with his people.

While Moses sees only the Lord’s back and must live with the necessary mystery of God, he will also have the law written on the tablets of stone, and the means and the symbols of worship. And depending on how we understand the Lord’s ‘goodness’ (33:19) Moses could also have the witness of God’s past acts or peace etc. Together, these are indicators of the Lord’s presence and the means of knowing the Lord’s favour. The presence of the Lord, while ambiguous and mysterious in some ways, in others is evident in the midst of the people. And maybe that is all that is needed for our faithful response, the means and symbols of worship and the law that guides faithful life.

Preaching on this passage could address the uncertainty that is a necessary part of faith, or it might emphasise the way in which worship and discipleship are themselves acknowledgements of the presence of God with us. One could also stress that what is important in the end, is not our ability to ‘see’ or know God, but to recognise that we are indeed already known by God who travels with us.

Psalm 99

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