Moses does not give up until he exacts a promise from God.
As I noted in my last blog posting, the infidelity of Israel in worshipping the golden calf poses an existential danger to Israel. God wants to destroy the nation and begin all over again. Moses challenges God not to do so, arguing that God must be true to God’s character. God changes his mind.
This sets Moses free to descend the mountain and deal with the crisis himself. There is a confrontation with Aaron, followed by a purging from the nation of those who constitute an unruly mob (said to be running wild). This work done, Moses again ascends the mountain, where God still seethes with anger over what Israel has done.
Moses shows unbelievable solidarity and loyalty to the people despite their sin.
Then the text (Exodus 32:30-33:23) carries us back to the dialogue between Moses and God. When they broke off their conversation on the mountain, God had determined not to destroy Israel. But will he forgive Israel? That is not yet certain. This sets the stage for Part 2 of Moses’ audacious challenge of God.
Moses asks God to forgive Israel. And if he will not, then Moses asks that God blot him Moses out of the book of life. Moses shows unbelievable solidarity and loyalty to the people despite their sin.
So when we come to chapter 33, we find God responding that Moses may lead the people to the land God has promised to them. God will honor at least that part of his promise. But ominously, God says he will not go with them. Israel is a stiff-necked people. They are not docile and obedient. As a result, God in his anger might just consume them if they sin again. So instead God will send an angel to take God’s place. This is an assurance of something less than God’s full presence.
This word of God devastates the people. It means that their future is precarious. They may survive for the moment, but they can have no confidence for the future. They will live with constant anxiety that they may just trigger God’s destructive anger once again.
I often think that describes well the spiritual situation of many Christians who live in constant fear that they will do something so heinous that it will trigger God’s anger. God will bring upon them something truly evil, like a serious illness, a tragic death, or some other terrible misfortune. It is not a way to live with a sense of spiritual peace, because we can never truly trust that when the pinch comes, God will truly be there for us.
Moses in the Breach
This leads to further negotiation between Moses and God. Moses is not willing to settle for an angel to lead them. It must be God himself. Will God’s own presence go with them or not? If not, then Moses says, Let’s call a halt to this project immediately. Will you go with us with your full presence, God, or not?
What this question does is ask the question: Will you, God, fully forgive your people, or will you hold back on forgiveness? If you are going to hold back, then there is no reason why this whole exodus event should go forward. Only full forgiveness will satisfy Moses and meet the needs of Israel. No half-way forgiveness will do the trick.
God continually shows favor and partiality to Moses, but Moses does not use that favor to his own aggrandizement. Instead he plays that partiality as the final card in his effort to get God to fully forgive the people.
Only full forgiveness will satisfy Moses and meet the needs of Israel. No half-way forgiveness will do the trick.
We come to the climax in verse 33:17. God promises to Moses to do what Moses asks. He will forgive the people and go with them with his full presence. He does so as a special favor to Moses who has stood by his people. Moses has won in his negotiation with God.
Then God grants Moses a special blessing. He permits Moses the special favor of a partial vision of God’s glory. Not a full vision. Moses is allowed only to glimpse the backside of God as he passes by in glory. But it is something no one else has been granted.
God will revive the covenant with Israel. As a sign of that restoration, God presents Moses with new stone tablets. Israel’s relationship with God is secure.
As I read through this extended session of negotiations between God and Moses, I feel utter astonishment at what I have called the audacity of Moses and Moses’ solid spiritual backbone. Moses could easily have been cowed into unquestioned submission to whatever God proposed to do. Afterall, God was the far superior power. But Moses does not cave. He stands up to God and stands up for his people.
…Moses holds God accountable. God is not allowed to be an arbitrary and irresponsible authority.
Moses also steers his way through what for most people would be irresistible temptations. God proposes to make Moses patriarch of his own nation. Moses turns downs that proposition.
Instead Moses holds God accountable. God is not allowed to be an arbitrary and irresponsible authority. God must honor God’s character and exercise his power in accordance with that character. Moses will settle for nothing less.*
In this part of the Book of Exodus, we see Moses rise to his true majesty. He remains humble in his ambitions. And we see the immense love that he has developed for his own people. Over and over again the people will try his patience and treat him with some disrespect. But Moses will never waver in his commitment to them and their welfare. He will become a living icon of God. No wonder he is the prophet without compare for the Jewish tradition.
* One is reminded of the famous aphorism of Lord Acton that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Moses will not allow God to fall for the potential temptation to corruption posed by God’s own absolute power.