Opening The Old Testament
The Backside of God: Reflections on Exodus 33:12-23
I can only imagine that the reluctant and recalcitrant Moses at the bush has reappeared here. He does not listen carefully to his God, and he demands absolute assurance of God's presence before he takes one more step toward the land of promise. But once again the graceful YHWH reassures God's choice. "YHWH said to Moses, ‘This thing which you have asked I will do, because you have found favor in my eyes and I do know you by name!'" (Ex. 33:17). In effect, God says, do not miss what I have now said twice: you are favored and known by your God.
And Moses now demonstrates that he has listened at last by asking the most astonishing thing of God he could ever ask: "Reveal to me now your glory!" (Ex. 33:18). More than God's ways, God's actions, Moses wants to look right into the heart of YHWH. But he has now gone too far.
"I will cause all my goodness (tov) to pass before your face, and I will announce before your face the name ‘YHWH;' I will show favor to whomever I show favor and mercy on whomever I show mercy. But you are not able to see my face, for no human being shall see me and live!" (Ex. 33:19-20). You may know my name, says God, as mysterious as that is, and you may know that I am free to act with favor and mercy with anyone I choose, including you, but my face, my glory, my essence, my person is forever hidden from any human being, even from you, Moses, my great friend.
And YHWH then directs Moses to a "place near me," a rock where Moses will stand. YHWH then pointedly announces that YHWH's "glory" will pass by Moses, but he will not see it, because YHWH's hand will cover Moses' face. Thus, Moses's request to see YHWH's glory is flatly denied. But after YHWH has passed fully by, God's hand will be removed and "you shall see my back (acher), but my face will not be seen" (Ex. 33:21-23). This notoriously ambiguous "back of God" has caused no end of speculation, some of it less than holy. Is it possible, some have asked, that God is mooning Moses, perhaps as a way to punish him for his cheeky requests to know more of YHWH than he can? Well, perhaps, but finally unlikely.
The power of the passage is in fact found in its ambiguity. Moses' very specific requests to see God's ways and God's glory are rebuffed, and all he, and we, are allowed to see is God's...whatever! Wake? Train? After? So it is with this God. YHWH is holy and other and fleet and is not to be seen so easily or readily or clearly. In the next chapter Moses and we will see God all right, but not quite in the way either of us had in mind.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.