How Much Can You Know About God? Reflections on Exodus 33:12-23

Again, I can only hear this as emotional blackmail. The angel is just not enough! We must have the face, the presence of YHWH, if we are to know our favored and unique status in the world. And in response, YHWH finally says, "Okay! This thing that you have spoken I will do, because you have found favor in my eyes and I know you by name" (Ex. 33:17). Note, however, that YHWH has still not acceded to Moses' demand to see YHWH's ways.

And now Moses truly goes too far with his God. "Show me now your glory" (Ex. 33:18). The word "glory" is not easy to translate. It comes from the word "to be heavy, substantial." It can only mean in this context something like the very essence of YHWH. And once again, YHWH is having none of that. "I will make all my goodness pass by your face, and I will declare the name YHWH before you" (Ex. 33:19). Just as at the bush, YHWH is denying Moses and us access to the divine name and essence. We may see YHWH's "goodness," but again the word is very general and vague, like the word "ways" above. Moses has demanded God's "ways" and received instead the promise of God's face; he has demanded God's "glory" and received instead God's goodness. God offers to Moses God's good presence, but does not reveal either God's name or glory. And then even God's face is denied to Moses who is allowed only to see YHWH's "back," YHWH's "after" (Ex. 33:23). Perhaps "wake" is not an unfair reading, but the emphasis appears again to be hiding rather than full revelation.

And in 34:6-7, God's good presence is made more plain with the amazing, though tantalizing, revelation of the YHWH who is "merciful" (a Hebrew word based on the word for a woman's womb), "gracious" (the word from the earlier "favor" in the story), "slow to anger," and "filled with chesed (a word very hard to translate, but 'unbreakable love' might do) and faithfulness." In the light of this revelation with its thorny difficulties of full understanding, Moses "quickly bowed his head to the earth"; he now knows that he just cannot see God in the face and that he has no final access to the very being of God.

And of course neither do we. We might see God's "wake" if we are awake enough to see. We could see God's "goodness" if our eyes are open. We can experience God's compassion and grace and love and faithfulness, but of God's name and glory and essence and face we can know nothing. What we can know will have to do. And it will do. It just must do. It is all we have.

12/2/2022 9:10:34 PM
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    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.