Exodus: The Forever Presence

The portable tabernacle bears witness to a God on the move.

The incident with the golden calf is a close call for Israel. God’s first instinct is to divorce Israel, to invalidate the covenant God has made with Israel, and to start all over creating a new chosen people for himself from the descendants of Moses. It looks as if the story of Israel will end in a tragedy. Because of its folly, Israel will be discarded in the midst of the arid Sinai desert, an image of death.

But no one, possibly even God, had counted on Moses. Moses steps in on behalf of Israel and argues with God–all in an effort to get God to forgive Israel and to continue to travel with Israel. At the end of his herculean negotiation with God, Moses says to God:

If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance. (Exodus 34:9)

Moses will accept from God nothing less than full forgiveness. And amazement upon amazement, Moses succeeds. God grants his request, saying:

I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform marvels, such as have not been performed in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you live shall see the work of the LORD; for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you. (Exodus 34:10)

This story astonishes me every time I read it. It offers a message of hope to everyone who seriously flubs the spiritual challenges of our own lives. That includes every one of us. As the apostle Paul says: …all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… (Romans 3:23). Yet the apostle will go on to assert confidently:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

The apostle has absorbed deep into his spirit the hopeful message of Exodus. It forms the substratum of the New Testament.

Focal Point for Faith

Now that God’s forgiveness is firmly established, work can begin on constructing the tabernacle following the directions God has given Moses on the mountain top. The story of the construction follows in chapters 35-39. These chapters make a repeated point that Israel follows God’s instructions completely, down to the very letter. Because of that, these chapters strike many readers as a tedious repeat of chapters 25-31. Many commentators skip lightly over the construction process. I will do so also. 

With chapter 40, we come to the assembling of the finished tabernacle, under Moses’ watchful eye. In no way will the omnipresent God be confined to the tabernacle. Israel will never domesticate God, as temples in the ancient world tried to do. But it will provide a focal point for Israel’s confidence.*

Once the tabernacle is completed and assembled, the text tells us a cloud, symbolizing the presence of the Lord, comes to settle upon the tabernacle. The glory of the Lord fills the sanctuary. And that cloud continues to proceed with the people throughout their journey. Whenever it picks up and moves out, the people move out. When it settles down, they settle down.

The event of the exodus does not come to an end with the ending of the Book of Exodus. The Book of Exodus only covers the first year of what will be a 40-year-long journey. That journey continues on through the books of Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua. But the ending of the Book of Exodus tells us something very important about this continuing journey. 

A God on the Move

Moses has received what he had so ardently prayed for. The full presence of the Lord is with Israel in its continuing journey. And the presence of the Lord will remain with them forever. 

This God, however, is not a settled God. He is a God on the move, and because of that his people will also be a people on the move. Biblical faith will affirm the goodness of creation and the goodness of daily life. But it will never settle simply for an affirmation of the status quo. 

As God speaks through the prophet to Israel in another time of crisis: 

Do not remember the former things,

            or consider the things of old.

I am about to do a new thing;

            now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

            and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:18-20)

So it will always be in the life of faith. Life with God will always be full of challenges and calls to change.

I want to end with one more jump to the New Testament. The image of the tabernacle as the locus of God’s continuing presence with his people comes up in the New Testament in one surprising, but important passage. 

In the prologue of the Gospel of John, we find the famous statement that we hear read every Christmas eve at the climax of our service of lessons and carols. It goes in the traditional King James Version:

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth. [John 1:14]

The word that the translators have translated as dwelt is literally in the Greek the word tabernacled. What this text says is that for Christians, Jesus is our tabernacle. In him we experience the presence of God fully dwelling with us and moving with us through the many vicissitudes of life. The story of exodus has become gospel.


* I want to note one interesting but easily over-looked detail about the construction of the tabernacle and all its furnishings. God through Moses places supervision over the construction in the hands of Bezalel the son of Uri and of Oholiab. Both men are said to be superb craftsmen and designers (Exodus 35:30-36:1). But of Bezalel, the text says (Exodus 35:31) that Bezalel will be filled with the Spirit of God as he pursues his work. In effect, Bezalel will be one more of the anointed ones in Israel, taking his place alongside the anointed priests, kings, and prophets. All are anointed with the Spirit as a sign of their being set apart for their specific mission. What this says to me is that we ought to recognize that artists–painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians, poets, weavers–may all receive a special empowerment from God for service to God’s people on a par with the service of priests, ordained ministers, and teachers. 

Exodus: What Kind of God is God?

The character of God is revealed to Moses in his mountain top experience.

When we come to chapter 34 of Exodus, we find Moses still on top of Mount Sinai. He has successfully negotiated with God, extracting from God the promise that God will go fully with the people of Israel on their journey to the promised land. The covenant has been preserved. Israel will continue to be God’s people, and God their God. One can almost imagine Moses crying out the liturgical response: Thanks be to God!

Then follows another remarkable scene. God is said to have descended onto the mountain in a cloud and to have stood with Moses there. God pronounces his sacred name–YHWH–the name he revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3). This is a sign of the intimate personal relationship that has been established between God and Moses. 

God then goes on to say:

“The LORD, the LORD,

            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,

            yet by no means clearing the guilty,

            but visiting the iniquity of the parents

            upon the children

            and the children’s children,

   to the third and the fourth generation.” [Exodus 34:6-7]

These words are momentous words in Scripture, for they are a declaration of the character of God. If Israel wants to know what kind of God is this God who has called them out of Egypt—what is his character—then they are to turn to these words given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. 

Truly and abundantly compassionate, yet also truly just. A vision of wholeness in perfect balance…This is the God Israel has come to know from its exodus experience.

Israel’s God is a God who is merciful, gracious, abounding in steadfast love, a love so expansive that it extends to thousands of generations. Israel lives, and moves, and has its being within an ocean of God’s love and mercy. That love and mercy is like a spring of overflowing water that never stops. 

Yet this God is also a just God who does not shrink from a confrontation with evil. Evil and sin will have their consequences, consequences that can reverberate down through multiple generations. 

Truly and abundantly compassionate, yet also truly just. A vision of wholeness in perfect balance. One therefore who is holy. This is the God Israel has come to know from its exodus experience.

Resonance through the Old Testament

These verses become so revealing of God that they come to serve as something close to a creed in the life of Israel. We shall find them quoted or alluded to in other parts of the Old Testament. 

One citation, for example, comes in a prayer by the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 32:16-25).  The prophet Jeremiah has just purchased a plot of land from his cousin even though the city of Jerusalem is soon to fall to the Babylonians. Through the purchase, Jeremiah expresses a word of hope for the future.

Immediately after the purchase Jeremiah launches into a prayer, whose opening words are:

Ah Lord GOD! It is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you. You show steadfast love to the thousandth generation, but repay the guilt of parents into the laps of their children after them, O great and mighty God whose name is the LORD of hosts, great in counsel and mighty in deed; whose eyes are open to all the ways of mortals, rewarding all according to their ways and according to the fruit of their doings. (Jeremiah 32:17-19)

As sanction for his prayer, Jeremiah quotes the language of Exodus 34.

An example in the Psalms comes in Psalm 103. This psalm praises God for all his blessings in sustaining his people. As part of that song of praise, the psalmist quotes Exodus 34:

He made known his ways to Moses,

            his acts to the people of Israel.

The LORD is merciful and gracious,

            slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

He will not always accuse,

            nor will he keep his anger forever.

He does not deal with us according to our sins,

            nor repay us according to our iniquities.

For as the heavens are high above the earth,

          so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him…(Psalm 103:7-11)

In quoting Exodus, however, we notice a definite shift in the psalmist’s emphasis. In Exodus God’s compassion is balanced by God’s justice. In the psalm, the emphasis has decidedly shifted in focus on God’s compassion and merciful love. The possibility of God’s anger is still there, but the overwhelming reality for the psalmist is God’s mercy.

That shift of emphasis to the side of mercy and compassion is also noticeable in another passage quoting Exodus 34. This appears in the Book of Jonah. Jonah has reluctantly preached God’s judgment on the wicked city of Nineveh. The unexpected result is not the city’s destruction, but its profound repentance. God changes his mind.

Jonah is not pleased. He is in fact incensed at God, spitting back at God these words

“O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:2-3)

Why had Jonah fled from God in the first place? He knew from Exodus 34 that the character of God was to be compassionate and merciful. Jonah did not want to extend this mercy to the wicked Ninevites.  

We see in all three of these examples how the revelation of God’s character given to Moses on Mount Sinai has sunk deep into the Israelite soul.

This revelation of the character of God describes too the character of the God of us Christians, because of our roots in the Israelite revelation. It underlies the preaching and ministry of Jesus and the apostles. For me, this statement on the character of God is the climax of the Book of Exodus.