(Lectionary for October 22, 2017)
I have long found the text for today richly delightful in its feints between Moses and his God. After the long and wonderful Molten Calf story of the previous chapter, it is difficult to predict just what the relationship between the lawgiver and YHWH might now be. After all, Moses has first talked God into sparing the reveling people at Horeb’s base by using a series of odd and rather tendentious arguments, and then finally has offered his own life for theirs, announcing that he, Moses, refuses to live in a world where YHWH will not forgive even these grubby little Israelite sinners. YHWH does forgive—sort of—but still sends a plague on them for their calf worshipping, apparently to warn them off future apostasy.
Now here in Ex.33, YHWH first says to the people, through the agency of Moses, that they need not expect YHWH to accompany them on their journey, because if YHWH were to draw too near, God’s holiness would swallow them up. “Take off all that gold,” demands YHWH, “while I decide what to do with you” (Ex.33:5). They do remove the Egyptian gold from themselves, but then YHWH and Moses are only allowed communication via the tent of meeting, purposely placed outside the camp to prevent human contamination of God and divine destruction of the humans due to excessive holiness. Moses may talk to YHWH “as with a friend,” but no one else can.
And so there we are as we enter today’s scene. Moses, perhaps a bit peeved at YHWH for not overtly coming with them through the wilderness and weary of communicating with God in less than direct ways, gets downright cheeky, saying’ “Look, you said to me, ‘Bring this people up;’ yet you have not made known to me who it is you plan to send with me. But you said, ‘I know you by name, and you have found favor in my eyes.’ Well, if I have found favor in your eyes, let me know your way so that I may know you and find favor in your eyes. Now look! This nation is your people” (Ex.33:12-13. That is a decidedly odd speech! Moses first says that YHWH ‘s demand that he bring the people up has been satisfied in that he, Moses, has led them out of Egypt, but the result of Moses’s victory for the people and for YHWH has not led YHWH to reveal to him just who his companion will be as they continue through the wilderness toward the land of promise. Has YHWH ever promised Moses a companion? Does Moses expect someone to help him with these grumbling and recalcitrant people? Why does he bring this companion business up now?
He drops that demand and turns to something else. YHWH claims to know Moses by name, and Moses understands that he has found favor in the eyes of YHWH. The word “favor” may also be translated “grace,” the free gift of YHWH. But if that is really true, then Moses makes a sharper demand of his God: “Show me your way,” he asks. What might that mean? The word is the common word derek, “way” or “path.” Does he mean the path through the wilderness? Or does he imply something more broadly metaphorical, something like “God’s ways,” how God operates in the world? Given what he says soon after, I think he has a deeper theological demand in mind. After all, Moses concludes, this nation, however flawed, however weak, is your people. I assume he says that to put YHWH on the hook for his way; in effect Moses appears to say that YHWH’s choice of Israel was YHWH’s way, and if that is so, then Moses demands a closer look at that way in the attempt to discover more about YHWH and YHWH’s actions in the world.
YHWH’s response to this twisted speech is equally unusual. “My face will go, and I will give you rest” (Ex.33:14).YHWH appears at least to answer Moses’ initial query about just who will go with him on the journey; YHWH answers, “I (my face) will go.” Is this a dodge on YHWH’s part, a refusal to answer the larger theological question of YHWH’s way? If so, it will not be the last feint on YHWH’s part in this scene.Moses either does not hear what YHWH has just said, or he is completely dissatisfied with the answer. “If your face will not go, then do not carry us up from here” (Ex.33:15). But YHWH just said that the face of God will indeed go! And Moses adds, completely gratuitously, that no one will know that YHWH has favored him unless YHWH goes with them. If YHWH will only go, then “we will be unique, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth” (Ex.33:16). In reply to this absurd response to God’s clearly stated favor for Moses, God reiterates that God really will go with them, “for you have found favor in my eyes (duh!), and I do know you by name.” YHWH here is lecturing a simple-minded pupil by repeating what God has already said will be done and for the reasons God has already enumerated!
And now Moses asks one thing too far: “Show me now your glory” (Ex.33:18)! Moses first asked to see God’s way, but now he asks to see God’s glory. I can only see the first request as one for the ability to plumb the depths of God’s actions, while this second demand is nothing less than the possibility of perceiving YHWH’s essence, the full revelation of the divine person. And YHWH is having none of it!
“ I will make all my goodness pass in front of you, and will announce before you the name, YHWH; I will be gracious to whomever I wish and will show compassion on whomever I choose. But you are not able to see my face; no one shall see me and survive” (Ex.33:19-20). YHWH’s face is in effect YHWH’s glory, and Moses can have no access to that, nor can anyone. He and we may see something of God’s way and a slice of God’s goodness, but beyond that we must remain ignorant.
The scene ends with Moses standing in a cleft of rock on the mountain, while YHWH’s “glory”’ passes by. Moses’s face is covered by YHWH’s hand while the glory slides by, but then the divine hand is removed, and YHWH promises that Moses will see God’s “after” (Ex.33:23). This is a wonderfully mysterious portrait of a God who reveals and conceals at the same time. Precisely what God’s “after” (NRSV “back” may be too physically precise) may be is left obscure. But that appears to be the point. Note the peculiar set of words used in the scene to list God’s attributes: way, goodness, glory, after. These words are the stuff of complex theological debate, hardly a simple set of easily graspable definitions of just who God may be. In short, YHWH here plays peek-a-boo with Moses and with us, because that is always the game we must play as we approach our mysterious God. If your God does not remain at least partially obscure and unknowable, then surely this cannot be the God of the universe that we love and worship. There must always be for us a part of God that we simply can never know or grasp. And that is exactly what our relationship with this God must be, as the ancient author of Exodus knew well.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)