Exodus 33:1-17: Arguing Forgiveness
And now to Mount Sinai. Again. In our last couple of visits to the mountain we observed Israel rejecting Moses and replacing him with a golden calf. In doing so they were also rejecting Yahweh in that they reduced Yahweh to a power to be harnessed. We saw Yahweh get burning-nose angry at Israel, so angry that He was ready to torch everyone except Moses. Somehow Moses calmed Yahweh for a moment, but then when Moses went down and saw what Israel had done, his own nose turned hot. Moses called Aaron to account and ordered the party to be brought to a bloody halt. The following day Moses re-entered Yahweh's Presence and attempted to cover for the sin of the people, but he could not. Neither could he leverage Yahweh into forgiveness. The Yahweh-Israel covenant was as shattered and irreparable as the two tablets that Moses smashed against the rocks at the foot of the mountain. Israel was not very good at promise-keeping. Would Yahweh be any better at forgiving promise-breakers?
Before getting into our text, Exodus 33:1-17, it might be helpful to take another look at Israel's sin. Think of Yahweh in terms of lightening bolts. Incredibly powerful. Completely uncontrollable. Raw electricity. Pure voltage. Straight juice. Israel's sin was that they attempted to reduce Yahweh to a battery. Powerful but controllable. Manageable, diluted juice. Bottled electricity. Safe, usable, disposable voltage. Rather than serve Yahweh and submit to the "Bolt of Bolts," they wanted to harness Yahweh and place this His power into their own service. But Yahweh cannot be wired. Yahweh blows all circuits, even when those circuits are put in place by Aaronic priests.
To this point in the narrative Yahweh had not forgiven Israel. In 33:1-6 we find that there still was no forgiveness. Instead there was divorce. Yahweh told Moses to take the people and leave this place. Yahweh wanted them off of His holy mountain and out of His Presence. He determined to keep His promise of giving Israel the land of Canaan and He would even send an angel ahead of Israel to guide them. But Yahweh Himself would not go with Israel. Yahweh asserted that, "I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way." And again, "You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for one moment, I might destroy you."
The picture is clear. Yahweh would keep His promise to Abraham, but He would have nothing to do with Israel. His anger burned so deeply that He knew the only way He could keep the promise was not to go near Israel lest He exterminate them. Rather than risk a promise-breaking, Israel-ending explosion, Yahweh would stay at Sinai and send the people out of His Presence. This Yahweh-Israel marriage was basically over. It was a time for tears. Israel removed their festive clothing and began the work of grieving. It was over.
Or is it? Yahweh makes a peculiar statement at the end of 33:5, "I will decide what to do with you." What more could Yahweh do than send Israel out of His Presence? What is Yahweh going to do with promise-breaking Israel?
We have to wait a paragraph to find out, for the focus shifts from the present crisis to the memory of how Moses used to go outside the camp and meet with Yahweh in a tent known as "the tent of meeting." As Moses approached this tent to inquire of Yahweh on behalf of Israel, Yahweh's Presence would descend upon the tent in the form of a cloud. Everyone recognized Yahweh's Presence and bowed down towards the cloud-covered tent. "Yahweh would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend."
No doubt this remembering was part of Israel's grief work. Here they were, casting aside Moses and making an effort to harness Yahweh, and they ended up with nothing. In their efforts to squeeze lightening into a battery, they ended up with no battery and no lightening. If only they had waited for Moses. What good days they had left behind them. By attempting to replace Moses and reduce Yahweh to a manageable power they lost the very connection that they were trying to guarantee. If only they had listened instead of schemed.
But there is more than grief work taking place in this interrupting memory. Moses is being exonerated. Yahweh used to talk with Moses face to face, like a man with his friend. Israel may have rejected Moses, but Yahweh has not. Moses is Yahweh's friend and confidant. And that leads us to a thread of hope. While Moses could not cover Israel's sin nor leverage Yahweh into forgiveness, Moses still had a close relationship with Yahweh. Moses still had access to Yahweh's heart. And as we observed, Yahweh was still trying to decide what finally to do with Israel. Yahweh's heart was not finally made up. There was something yet to be done.
We are snapped out of the memory of Moses and right back into this covenant crisis. Verses 12-13 are incredible. Moses made a short speech to Yahweh to which our English translations just do not do justice. My NIV simply does not capture the boldness of Moses and it also obscures his argument. Here Moses probes the heart of Yahweh like few ever have.
Moses' speech to Yahweh was framed by two imperatives. He began by telling Yahweh to "Look!" or "Consider!" He closed with the same imperative, "Look!" "Consider!" Moses knew Yahweh like a man knows his friend. The relationship was solid. He could be bold, even bold enough to command attention.
"Look! You (Yahweh) have been telling me, 'Lead these people,' but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me." Moses' complaint drove at the question of who is going to go with him. It was a critical question, for the question about "who" was not so much a question about identity as a question about power and adequacy. Are You going to send someone powerful enough and adequate enough to really deliver the land to us? The underlying question is, who can take Your place Yahweh? Who can take the place of You going with me?
"You (Yahweh) have said, 'I know you (Moses) by name,' and 'You (Moses) have found favor/grace in My eyes.' Now if indeed I (Moses) have found favor/grace in Your eyes, make known to me, I pray, Your way/intention so that I (Moses) may know You (Yahweh) and continue to find favor/grace in Your eyes."
Moses was reminding Yahweh of their intimate, heart giving friendship. He then challenged Yahweh to act in accordance with this friendship. "Don't hold Your heart back from me now, Yahweh. Let me in on what You are deciding to do. How can our relationship continue to be one of grace and favor if You do not make known to me Your way, the path You are going to take with Israel."
"Look! For Your people is this nation!" Whatever Yahweh had in mind to do, Moses called His attention to the marriage truth that Israel was Yahweh's people and Yahweh's people was Israel. The bond of covenant is not done away with so easily.
Moses had momentarily finished his speech. Yahweh responded, "My Presence will go with you (Moses) and I will give you rest." The answer was so shocking that I'm not sure Moses really heard it, for he went on trying to convince Yahweh to go with him and the people. But there it was. "My Presence will go with you and I will give you rest." That is gospel, good news, if ever there was gospel. "My Presence will go with you and I will give you rest."
Moses argued on, "If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that I and your people have found favor/grace in your eyes if You do not go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other peoples on the face of the earth?" Notice how Moses expanded the issue from "Your Presence with me" to "Your Presence with us." Moses believed that if Yahweh's heart remained open to him, it was yet possible for Yahweh's heart to be open to Israel.
Yahweh responded, "I will do the very thing you have spoken, because you have found favor/grace in My eyes and I know you by name."
Moses had found the heart of Yahweh, and it was a heart of forgiveness and grace, a heart that was faithful, that could not turn its back on one who is known.
This is an amazing passage, for it has to do with amazing grace. Yahweh was determined not to go with Israel, lest He utterly destroy them on the way. Absence and Divorce appeared to be the words that would end the matter. Yet Yahweh was still wrestling with what to do with Israel. Moses started probing the heart of Yahweh, and Yahweh came to a decision, perhaps out of reflection on His friendship with Moses. Yahweh determined to continue to be Present to Moses and Israel. To me, that spells forgiveness and grace. And it came from the free, uncontrollable heart of Yahweh.
We tend to think of God in Western or Greek thought categories, that is, God is unchanging and all-knowing. But the Biblical view of God is much more relational. In this text we have seen God trying to make up God's mind, which does not square real well with our concept of all-knowing. If God is all-knowing God surely ought to know what God is going to do. We have also seen God change God's mind, from "not going with you lest I destroy you" to "My Presence will go with you (and Israel) and I will give you rest." (see God’s Foreknowledge, Predestination, and Human Freedom).
While there is something to be said for an unchanging God, there is also something to be said for a changing God. The relational God of the Bible understands that forgiveness does indeed require a change of heart. If no change of heart is required, then either there is no relationship to be damaged by sin, or sin is a very minor matter. Scripture testifies that indeed there is a relationship, one that is extremely important to God, and that sin is a grossly significant matter, for it threatens to destroy the relationship and the beloved. The Gospel of Mount Sinai as well as of Mount Calvary is that God finds it within God’s self to undergo a change of heart, to offer grace, forgiveness, and Presence (see Relational Holiness).
I like the thought of putting both concepts together: God is eternally undergoing a change of heart from "Get off my holy mountain" to "My Presence will go with you and I will give you rest." We see this move to forgiveness at Sinai. It comes to full and ultimate expression in the cross of Jesus. May we know it in our own lives as well.