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Commentary on Exodus 33:12-23

Eric Mathis
Exodus 33 shows Israel in a state of panic. Plain and simple, Gods 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 Israels 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 YHWHs response just isnt 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 Gods presence [was] Israels 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
YHWHs 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 werent 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 YHWHs 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 YHWHs back side. One
might conclude that the only thing Moses didnt receive is the one thing he didnt
specifically request: permission to see YHWHs face.
The good news of this passage is that life keeps going after the calf. God stays with Gods
people, and God propels them forward on a journey that is to be characterized by faithful
obedience. However, that wasnt 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 YHWHs 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
Gods 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 YHWHs presence. And in the end, for Moses and
perhaps for all of us, seeing through the mirror dimly might just be enough.

Notes:
1

Walter Brueggemann, The Book of Exodus: Introduction, Commentary, and


Reflections, in The New Interpreters Bible: Volume I, ed. Leander E. Keck, Thomas G.
Long, David L. Petersen, et al, The New Interpreters Bible: A Commentary in Twelve
Volumes (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), 937.
2

Ibid.

Ibid., 939.

Ibid., 941.