Exploring God's Word : Old Testament

Sometimes God doesn't want to change our circumstances, but bring a fresh revelation of himself through them.

Exodus 33 is one of those well known passages that has been talked about and written about for generations – for good reason. In the text the Israelites find themselves at Mount Horeb (probably Mount Sinai but it could equally be one of six or seven peaks surrounding the valley where the Israelites camped). Moses has just returned from Sinai, where he’d been for forty days, and in his absence things had started to descend into moral and spiritual chaos. Verse 7 reads that Moses had set up a tent outside of the camp, and that he called it the “tent of meeting” (lit. “tabernacle of meeting”) - it was here that the people would enquire of the LORD and where Moses would enter and speak with God ‘face to face’ (verse 11). After establishing some context, and in light of the behaviour of the Israelites, the passage proceeds to describe one of these “face to face” encounters with God.

The conversation with God begins with Moses expressing his anxiety about the task of leading the Israelites to Canaan.; ‘Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me”’ (verse 12) Moses, it seems, was expecting God to send someone like Aaron to help him lead, and he is quick to remind God ‘“Remember that this nation is your people.”’ (verse 13). God responds to Moses’ insecurity, in a surprising way, with the words ‘“My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”’ (verse 14). It is interesting to note how the translators have chosen to interpret and translate פָּנַ֥י (panay) as ‘My Presence’ when in fact, more literally it would read ‘My face’ from the Hebrew word פָּנִ֔ים (panim) with means ‘face’! In fact, this is the very word used back in verse 11 to describe Moses’ “face to face” encounter with God – the Hebrew reads פָּנִ֣ים פָּנִ֔ים אֶל־ (panim el-panim). And so, if the words of God are translated with the full Hebrew idiom in place, it would read ‘My face will go with you and I will give you rest’! Of course, whilst it might sound strange to us this sort of linguistic device is not unusual in biblical Hebrew – for instance, God’s “arm” is often spoken about, being representative of God’s power – in this case the panim of God is representative of God’s person and knowability (which explains how it is normally translated). Once we understand this the passage comes alive; Moses is clearly concerned about leaving his place of intimacy with God, the place where he could talk with God panim el-panim as a friend. However, God meets Moses’ concern with the promise that his panim will go with him – put simply, God is reassuring Moses that the friendship he had enjoyed would not be lost despite moving from the place of rest they had found in the wilderness of Sinai. In short, rest and relationship with God would go with Moses. 

What Moses does next is equally surprising. Despite securing the promise of a “face to face” friendship with God, Moses is not satisfied and asks, ‘“Now show me your glory.”’! Moses recognised that there was more to God than what he already knew and had experienced. God does not respond, however, with visions of thrones or flashes of lightening and loud rumblings, but rather with the revelation of one aspect of his nature, his goodness; ‘“I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence.”’ What God does here is demonstrate an important reality, whilst his presence is often felt, it is equally encountered as he reveals his nature to the world – through his goodness, his kindness, his provision and so forth. Whilst Moses wanted to ‘see’ God’s glory, God had other ideas and responds by giving him a glimpse of his person. A similar truth emerges in the gospel of John, where John writes; ‘We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ (John 1:14) – God chose to reveal his glory to the world in the person of his Son!

Moses’ encounter also illustrates another truth, one that can be missed if the passage is taken out of context. God’s promise to Moses, and the revelation of divine goodness, was in response to the place Moses found himself in – a place of vulnerability and insecurity. Reading between the lines it is clear that he was completely daunted by the task of leading the Israelites, and perhaps he even felt like giving up. In truth, what Moses needed more than anything else, was reassurance, encouragement and strength to move forward in his journey with God, and God’s people. Indeed, it is in those moments when we feel like giving up, or when we feel anxious and vulnerable, that we so often look to God to change our circumstances – however, the passage perhaps teaches us that, out of a place of knowing him, our prayer should be different and encompass a request for a greater revelation of his nature – and I’m believing, that just as he did for Moses, God will have a bespoke revelation of his knowable character that will enable us to find both rest, and also press into all of God’s purposes for our lives.

Final note: The elephant in the room – if you were wondering why, in the final verse of the passage, God says ‘but my face (panim) must not be seen’… whilst everything that’s been said above indicates that Moses saw God’s face… you’ll have to wait until part two!

Photograph : Mount Sinai By Mohammed Moussa - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28338950

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