Exodus 33.1, 3-23
33.1YHWH said to Moses, “Go, leave this place, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, and go to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give it.’
3Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” 4When the people heard these harsh words, they mourned, and no one put on ornaments. 5For YHWH had said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, and I will decide what to do to you.’“ 6Therefore the Israelites stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb onward.
7Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp; he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought YHWH would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. 8Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise and stand, each of them, at the entrance of their tents and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. 9When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and YHWH would speak with Moses. 10When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and bow down, all of them, at the entrance of their tent. 11Thus YHWH used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then he would return to the camp; but his young assistant, Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the tent.
12Moses said to YHWH, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.” 17YHWH said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘YHWH’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21And YHWH continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
Today’s text from Exodus 33 struggles with how to perceive the presence of God. It strives to make compatible to our minds a God who is very knowable and present to the people and yet who is also characterized by the ineffability and other-worldliness of the divine.
For the skeptic, this paradox is considered a contradiction, and a reason for rejecting faith. But for the faithful, this tension between the immanent and transcendent dimensions of divinity makes faith all the more beautiful – keeping us from committing idolatry, while also giving us a sense of the wonder that is the divine.
In verse 11, it says God (YHWH) spoke to Moses “face to face,” and later in verses 20 & 23 it says that no one will ever see the face of YHWH. This incongruity is the result of the limits of human language and human perception. In speaking of the divine, that which is infinite, eternal, and ineffable, all of our words must be seen as metaphors, analogies, and suggestive language rather than descriptive and discursive language. It is “mytho-poetic” language – language that tries to reveal the reality of that which is not corporeal and yet is more powerfully real and meaningful to us than any empirical objects that may be perceived with our five senses.
“YHWH,” one of the Hebrew names for God, can be translated as, “I Am Who I Am,” “I Am What I Am,” or “I Will Be What I Will Be.” It is intentionally non-descriptive. It is also devoid of consonants, symbolizing that we cannot fully know who God is. God, as much as we try to speak of God, remains mysterious and beyond our comprehension. To try to attribute to God any form, including a name, is itself idolatrous for doing so limits the enormity and infinite nature of God. Indeed, Jews still today, when using English, write “G-d” without the “o” in between the “G” and the “d” so as acknowledge that we cannot name God or know God fully, and to avoid committing idolatry, since words can be graven images just like statues of golden calves, etc.
YHWH is present to Moses and the people, though not in a corporeal sense. When YHWH speaks ‘face to face’ with Moses, it is as a ‘pillar of cloud.’ It is hard to get much more ethereal and non-substantive than a cloud and still have human beings able to ‘see’ a presence. It is not surprising given the Hebrew conception of God that YHWH is perceived as a pillar of cloud. Anything more corporeal would be idolatry – making, or perceiving, God to be something tangible and substantive, and thus not infinite and eternal. But even a cloud is something that can be perceived with one’s eyes, and so it too is not reflective of the true reality of God.
There is a tension in this passage between God’s presence or reality to Moses and the people, and God’s mysteriousness. The people, and particularly Moses, want to see God for who God is. In seeing “the face” of anyone, including God, it was thought that you could know someone. Moses wants to know God so as to know how to please God. What is God’s character and way of being in the world, he wanted to know?
To know this is to make God more predictable, and to know how to stay on God’s good side – which is especially desirous after the “golden calf” incident in which God threatened to extinguish them all. God is perceived as still very upset by this idolatry of the Hebrews making a golden calf to worship instead of worshiping YHWH – which is why God says he will not go with the people to the Promised Land, since being with them as angry as God is may result in their harm. God knows God’s own anger, and tries to protect the people God has made promises to by not being around them. God is taking “a divine time-out!”
Moses has come to the people’s defense on several occasions (even though he himself led a war against 3000 of those who turned to worship the calf) and in trying to eventuate a reconciliation between God and the people, Moses wants to better understand who God is to give him some leverage in advocating on behalf of the people.
But Moses is also concerned that God will not lead them and be present with them during their journey to the Promised Land. Moses, in effect, tells God to get God’s act together and lead the people rather than taking time to sulk. God has been described as slow to anger, but now that God has indeed gotten angry Moses prods God to quickly get over that anger. God gets Moses’ point. It is hard to lead a people if you are angry with them and unwilling to be present with them.
Moses wants to know who will help him in leading the people. But more importantly, he wants to get to know God even better. Just as we really don’t know someone until we see them angry, Moses is unsure who God really is. What are God’s limits? What will and won’t God do if angered yet again?
Moses wants to know the essence of God. In knowing God’s essence, he knows who he is dealing with. In his human interactions, Moses has learned that you get to know someone better when you see their face while talking with them. We understand the same desire to see someone’s face when we are talking on the phone. The face gives us clues even beyond voice tone and inflections. And so he wants to see God’s “face” – which he hopes will show him God’s essence.
God refuses to take corporeal form just to appease Moses. Nonetheless, it is said that Moses could see God’s back, but not God’s face. Seeing God’s “back” may have been an ancient euphemism that has lost its meaning to our ears. However, there is something strange going on with saying that Moses could not see God’s face here when earlier it was said Moses regularly talked with God “face to face” and even as a friend.
To speak with another face to face is to see another’s expressions, and helps one to see the genuine character and spirit of the one with whom one is speaking. This is likely what verse 11 implies during Moses’ conversations with YHWH. But in verse 20 & 23, it seems as if the word face is taken more literally. Moses will not literally see God’s face, and this is a reminder to Moses and the Hebrews not to even try to give God a face – not to limit God by imagining God like a human being or any corporeal substance.
Isn’t this what we as humans often yearn for: to give God a face – to “see” God as we would go outside and see a tree, a flower, or any other object we can see with our eyes? It would take our doubt away if we could see God as a material being. However, it would also take our faith away.
Faith is “seeing” the invisible. It is projecting an image onto that which has no substance. It is creating a reality where one is uncertain whether there is anything there that corporeally exists. Faith in God is like faith in love. We can’t see, feel, smell, hear, or taste love, and yet we trust that love is real nonetheless – just like God. We experience love, and we experience God – and yet we have no scientific experiments that can prove or disprove either.
God is love. And love is God. This is basically what is being said in this story of God’s presence. God is revealed to the people through God’s “goodness,” and that goodness is characterized by love and mercy. The divine cannot be depicted by that which is material, which is why the golden calf was idolatrous. The divine is far more real to our soul and spirit, other realities which also have no corporeal substance, than anything material could ever be.
By YHWH not revealing the divine in any sensible form, but rather in goodness, the divine reality is both affirmed and preserved. The people are not allowed to think of God as less than God is. They are forbidden, even in their minds, to create God into a being, into an existent thing. God is much too real to exist as simple matter. We need to keep this in mind as we seek for God in our own lives. We need to look for God’s goodness rather than God’s substance, for God’s reality rather than God’s existence, for God’s love rather than some idol.
In allowing Moses to see YHWH’s “goodness pass before you” (vs. 19), which is YHWH’s “glory” (vs. 22), Moses is given more insight than he even asked for. YHWH’s “goodness” is YHWH’s essence. Goodness is who YHWH really is, the text suggests.
Later in Exodus 34.6-7 YHWH’s goodness, glory, or essence is: “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin….” Once again, the ancient texts point toward who God is by describing God’s character traits and virtues. These are not things that can be empirically tested and for which there can be any material evidence to prove they exist. They don’t exist like anything else we can sense. But they are the realities which give our life purpose and meaning. They are the same image of the divine by which we ourselves are endowed. We, too, can be merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. We, too, can forgive transgressions and strive to quickly overcome our anger on the way to reconciliation.
In the end, when Moses requests to see who YHWH (i.e., God) really is, God responds in letting Moses perceive that which is God’s essence – viz., ‘goodness.’ Goodness, of course, is even less substantive and corporeal than a pillar of cloud; and yet, its reality is much more pervasive. God’s ‘goodness’ may be seen wherever we look. By seeing God’s goodness in the world, we are made aware of God’s presence in our lives.
This passage reminds us that is not for us to anthropomorphize God into a material being like ourselves, but to be content with the perception of God’s goodness as a pervasive reality in our lives. While the scripture writers use the limitations of human language to mytho-poetically express the reality of God in our lives, they are also well aware that literally attributing a ‘face’ or ‘back’ to God is idolatrous. We, as readers, need to avoid the same literalism of giving God a face, back, or human image in order to avoid bibliolatry. They are words used to suggest God’s reality to us and make God seem closer and more personable to us when we yearn to touch and see that which our skin cannot feel and our eyes cannot view.
When and where do you see the ‘face’ or the ‘back’ of YHWH – the reality of goodness in the world?