Check out these helpful resources
The context for this text began with Yahweh’s call to Moses at the burning bush. Yahweh called Moses to go to Pharaoh “that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt” (3:10). When Moses protested, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (3:11), Yahweh promised, “I will be with you” (3:12a)—the implication being that the liberation of the Israelites would be due to Yahweh’s presence and would not be dependent on anything that Moses would bring to the transaction. In our current text, the issue of Yahweh’s presence with Moses and Israel is again the key point.
Since that beginning, many things have happened. The ten plagues persuaded Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave Egypt. Yahweh led the Israelites out of Egypt—visibly present with them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (13:21-22). Then we saw the loss of faith at the Red Sea—and the drowning of the Egyptian army—and the miracles of water and manna. Then Moses went up onto Mount Sinai to receive the commandments (chapter 20ff.), but came down from the mountain to find that Aaron had made a golden calf, a grievous sin (chapter 32).
At the beginning of chapter 33, Yahweh told Moses to leave Sinai and to go to the Promised Land, saying, “I will give it to your seed.’ I will send an angel before you; and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite: to a land flowing with milk and honey: for I will not go up in the midst of you, for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I consume you in the way” (33:1b-3).
In that passage, Yahweh makes two statements that are key to understanding our current text. The first is, “I will send an angel before you” (33:2a) and the second is “I will not go up in the midst of you” (33:3b). This represented a significant shift from the highly visible presence of Yahweh that the people had become accustomed to experiencing. Now, instead of Yahweh’s presence, it would be an angel leading the Israelites. The reason for the change was Israel’s idolatrous behavior in worshiping the golden calf. Yahweh’s anger is such that he would consume Israel if he were to continue to be present with them as he had been in the past.
Then, in the verses immediately preceding our text (33:7-11), we learned that, while Yahweh had distanced himself from Israel, he nevertheless allowed Moses to pitch a tent outside the Israelite camp where Yahweh would speak with Moses and make himself visibly present as a pillar of cloud. There the people could see the pillar of cloud (Yahweh’s visible presence) and bow down to worship. There Yahweh would speak to Moses “face to face” (33:11).
EXODUS 33:12-16. SHOW ME NOW YOUR WAYS
12 Moses said to Yahweh, “Behold, you tell me, ‘Bring up this people:’ and you haven’t 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 therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways(Hebrew: derek), that I may know you, so that I may find favor in your sight: and consider that this nation(Hebrew: goy) is your people.”
14 He said, “My presence (Hebrew: pan—face) will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
15 He said to him, “If your presence doesn’t go with me, don’t carry us up from here. 16For how would people know that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Isn’t it in that you go with us, so that we are separated, I and your people, from all the people who are on the surface of the earth?”
“Moses said to Yahweh, ‘Behold, you tell me, “Bring up this people:” and you haven’t let me know whom you will send with me'” (v. 12a). Moses’ protest that Yahweh has not revealed who will accompany him seems to directly contradict 33:2, where Yahweh says, “I will send an angel before you.” There have been various attempts to deal with this apparent inconsistency. Perhaps Moses is refusing to accept the angel’s leadership because he sees Yahweh’s leadership as essential. Perhaps he is wondering who will go with him as a human assistant. Perhaps it is simply Moses’ awkward start to his plea for reassurance.
“Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight'” (v. 12b). Moses strengthens his appeal to Yahweh by saying that Yahweh has said that he knows Moses by name and that Moses has found favor in Yahweh’s sight. While it is possible that Yahweh actually said these words to Moses, there is no record of it in the book of Exodus.
However, it seems unlikely that Moses would try to bamboozle Yahweh by putting words in his mouth. Yahweh knows what he has said, and Moses knows that Yahweh knows.
What Yahweh has promised is that he will make of Moses a great nation (32:10).
“Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways (derek), that I may know you, so that I may find favor in your sight” (v. 13a). In verse 12b, Moses established that Yahweh has acknowledged Moses as having found favor in Yahweh’s sight. Now Moses uses that as a platform for asking Yahweh to show Moses Yahweh’s derek—his path or journey or way. What Moses is asking for here is insight into the direction that Yahweh intends to take, including Yahweh’s intention for Moses and the nation Israel. Moses wants Yahweh to share this insight as reassurance that Moses has found favor in Yahweh’s sight.
“and consider that this nation (goy) is your people” (v. 13b). This word, goy, means nation, but it is often used to mean heathen or Gentiles. But the nation of Israel is not a heathen nation, in spite of their idolatry at the base of Mount Sinai. It is a special nation, having been chosen by Yahweh to be his own nation—his own people. Moses is appealing with Yahweh here to remember his covenant relationship with these people—Yahweh’s people.
Yes, these people sinned at Mount Sinai, but Moses appeals for Yahweh to demonstrate the steadfast love that he mentioned on the mountain (20:6). Without Yahweh’s steadfast love and presence, this will no longer be a special people, Yahweh’s people. It will become a merely ordinary, ragtag people struggling for survival.
“He said, ‘My presence(pan—face) will go with you, and I will give you rest'” (v. 14). Yahweh yields to Moses’ plea. Not only will Yahweh be present. The only question here is whether Yahweh is promising to be with Israel or just with Moses.
By making this assurance, Yahweh intends to alleviate Moses’ anxiety, making it possible for Moses and Israel to relax—to rest.
“He said to him, ‘If your presence doesn’t go with me, don’t carry us up from here'” (v. 15). But Moses, who has been severely disturbed by the prospect of Yahweh’s abandonment, is not reassured. He seems only to have half-heard the promise of Yahweh’s presence in verse 14. Still anxious, he continues to seek reassurance—continues to plead for Yahweh’s presence with him and with Israel.
“For how would people know that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Isn’t it in that you go with us, so that we are separated, I and your people, from all the people who are on the surface of the earth?” (v. 16). Moses continues to belabor his plea by telling Yahweh that only Yahweh’s presence with Moses and “your people” (Israel) will reassure Moses that he has found favor in Yahweh’s sight.
The phrase, “I and your people,” is key here. Moses was not a party to the idolatry at the base of Mount Sinai. Israel is at risk here, not Moses. But Moses, who is still in good favor with Yahweh, is anxious to bring Israel back into favored status. He demonstrates the same concern—the same identity with Israel—that he earlier expressed when he said, “Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made themselves gods of gold. Yet now, if you will, forgive their sin—and if not, please blot me out of your book which you have written” (32:31-32).
Moses reminds Yahweh again of the covenant relationship that he established with Israel. In making a covenant with Israel, Yahweh made them a distinctive people—Yahweh’s people—a people of destiny—a people through whom “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). However, if Yahweh should choose to abandon Israel, all would come to naught. To set the world aright, Yahweh must honor his covenant with Israel and embrace Israelites as his people.
EXODUS 33:17-23. SHOW ME YOUR GLORY
17 Yahweh said to Moses, “I will do this thing also that you have spoken; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”
18 He said, “Please show me your glory.” (Hebrew: kebod)
19 He said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of Yahweh before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” 20He said, “You cannot see my face, for man may not see me and live.” 21 Yahweh also said, “Behold, there is a place by me, and you shall stand on the rock. 22 It will happen, while my glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
“Yahweh said to Moses, ‘I will do this thing also that you have spoken'” (v. 17a). Once again, Yahweh reassures Moses, giving the impression that Moses’ impassioned plea has hit home—has persuaded Yahweh to show mercy to Israel.
“for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name” (v. 17b). Moses has found favor in Yahweh’s sight, and that has led to Yahweh’s extending favor to Israel.
“(Moses) said, ‘Please show me your glory'” (kebod) (v. 18). Moses, never satisfied to rest on his laurels, adds a new dimension to his plea—”Show me your glory.” The word “glory” is used in the Bible to speak of various wonderful things—but it is used especially to speak of God’s glory—an aura associated with God’s appearance that reveals God’s majesty to humans. Biblical writers, attempting to describe God’s glory using human words, portrayed it as “a devouring fire” (Exodus 24:17).
Moses has seen Yahweh’s glory when the cloud (Yahweh’s presence) covered Mount Sinai and “Moses entered into the midst of the cloud, and went up on the mountain” (Exodus 24:18). Now he is asking to see Yahweh’s glory again—or to see it more completely—or both.
“He said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of Yahweh before you'” (v. 19a). In verse 20, Yahweh will deny Moses’ request to see Yahweh’s glory—but first Yahweh tells Moses what he will do. He will allow Moses to see Yahweh’s goodness, and he will proclaim before Moses the name Yahweh.
The name, Yahweh, comes from a form of the Hebrew verb “to be” that means “I am who I am.” This is the word that God used to identify himself to Moses. When Moses asked God his name, God replied,YHWH or “I am who I am” (3:14).
In that culture, people considered a person’s name to be more than a simple label to identify that person. They believed that something of the person’s identity was tied up in the name—that the name expressed something of the person’s essential character. They also assumed that a name—at least some names—possessed something of the power of the one who wore that name. When Yahweh agrees to proclaim before Moses the name, Yahweh, he is inviting Moses and Israel back into the intimate relationship that once characterized them.
“I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (v. 19b). This grates on modern ears, which have been trained to hear any sign of unfair or unequal treatment for all people. However, throughout scripture, we find God calling particular people for particular missions. In the Old Testament, God chose Abram and Abram’s descendents, bringing them into a covenant relationship that made Israel to be known as God’s chosen people. In the New Testament, we find the idea of election (John 15:16; 17:6; Ephesians 1:4; 2:10; 2 Thessalonians 2:13). This might offend our modern sensibilities, but I like the way that Charles Spurgeon dealt with the doctrine of election. He prayed, “Lord, save all the elect, and then elect some more.”
The apostle Paul quotes Exodus 33:19b in Romans 9:15 as part of a passage dealing with the divine election of Israel (Romans 9-11). In that passage, Paul deals with the problem that many Jews, whom God has chosen to be his people, were not embracing the salvation available through Jesus Christ. Paul says that it isn’t biological descent from Abraham that insures salvation, but spiritual descent. Salvation is a gift given by God, who remains free, in spite of the covenant with Abraham and Moses, to bestow salvation on Gentiles who embrace Christ and to withhold it from Jews who don’t.
We should be sure to hear two points in that passage. The first is that, while there seems to be an element of caprice in divine election, there is also an element of choice on the part of the elect/non-elect. Second, Paul makes it clear that God is not abandoning Jews permanently, but has made provision for Israel to be saved (Romans 11).
“He said, ‘You cannot see my face; for man may not see me and live'” (v. 20). Yahweh’s glory is so overwhelming that humans aren’t engineered to be capable of experiencing it. An analogy might be coming into contact with a live high-voltage electrical line. It would be too much for us. We couldn’t deal with it.
“Yahweh also said, ‘Behold, there is a place by me, and you shall stand on the rock. It will happen, while my glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back; but my face shall not be seen'” (vv. 21-23). While denying Moses the opportunity to see Yahweh’s face, lest Moses die, Yahweh nevertheless devises a plan for Moses to see what he is able to see without danger.
“the rock” suggests that this is Mount Sinai, but that is not made explicit. Yahweh puts Moses in “a cleft of the rock”—a protected place—and covers Moses with his hand while he passes by—a protective gesture.
Moses will not see Yahweh’s face, but will be allowed to see his back. Moses will see little of Yahweh’s being, but Yahweh will permit him to see that which he can bear.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bruckner, James K. New International Biblical Commentary: Exodus (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008)
Brueggemann, Walter, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994)
Childs, Brevard S., The Old Testament Library: Exodus (Louisville: The Westminster Press, 1974)
Cole, R. Alan, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Exodus, Vol. 2 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Craghan, John F., Collegeville Bible Commentary: The Book of Exodus (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1985)
Dunham, Maxie D., The Preacher’s Commentary: Exodus (Dallas: Word, Inc., 1987)
Durham, John I., Word Biblical Commentary: Exodus, Vol. 3 (Dallas, Word Books, 1987)
Fretheim, Terence E., Interpretation Commentary: Exodus (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1973)
Goldingay, John, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Janzen, J. Gerald, Westminster Bible Companion: Exodus (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
Janzen, Waldemar, Believers Church Bible Commentaries: Exodus (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1987)
Newsome, James, in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Rawlinson, George, The Pulpit Commentary: Genesis-Exodus, Vol. 1 (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, no date given)
Stuart, Douglas K., The New American Commentary: Exodus, Vol. 2 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan