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Exodus 33:18-34:9: Say That Name Again

Steve Rodeheaver

Exodus 33:18-34:9 is one of the most important texts in all of Scripture. It is so huge in importance because in it God talks about God; that is, Yahweh further reveals the meaning of His Name, the character of who God is. I can hear Reuben Welch's comment about this passage: "Now it's something that a person can talk to God, and it's something when God talks to a person about that person’s life, but when God talks to a person about God, now THAT'S really something!" This is a "really something" text.

As you recall, Yahweh had brought Israel to Himself on Mount Sinai to make them into His covenant people, so that they might be made a holy nation and a kingdom of priests, with the goal of mediating Yahweh's Presence to all creation. Israel agreed to enter into this covenant. Yet while Moses was receiving instructions for Yahweh's tabernacle dwelling place among them, Israel grew weary of waiting for Moses to return from the mountain. Aaron solved the problem of "no Moses" by making a golden calf, thereby providing a "Moses-free" means of connecting with and hopefully controlling/harnessing Yahweh's power. This not only amounted to a rejection of Moses, but also a reduction of Yahweh to a means to their ends. In effect they had attempted to change Yahweh's Name from Yahweh (I Am) to "You-will."

Upon seeing Israel's gross sin Yahweh was determined to destroy Israel, but Moses was able to buy some time. When Moses finally saw Israel's sin for himself, his nose turned hot with anger. The covenant, both in terms of the stone tablets and the relationship, was shattered beyond repair. Moses attempted to atone for Israel's sin, but he cannot. Yahweh, desiring to keep His promise to Abraham but still burning with anger towards Israel, decided to send Moses and the people to the promised land without His Presence. He would send his messenger ahead of them, but He would not go with them, lest He utterly destroy them on the way. Yahweh just wanted them out of His face and off His holy mountain while He decided what to do with them.

Moses knew that a messenger of God was not an adequate replacement for Yahweh, and that without Yahweh's Presence there was no hope for the future. Moses also knew that he had found grace in Yahweh's eyes, for "Yahweh would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend." So Moses began to probe the heart of Yahweh, seeking to discover what Yahweh was going to do and hoping to persuade Yahweh to go with them. Moses reminded Yahweh that no one can take His place; he implored Yahweh, given their friendship, not to withhold His heart from him; he confronted Yahweh with the stark reality that Yahweh's people was Israel.

Yahweh, inexplicably, changed His mind. "My Presence will go with you (singular), and I will give you rest." Moses, hardly able to believe his ears, probed a little more, wanting to make sure that Yahweh's Presence would go "with us (Israel)" and not just "with me (Moses)." Yahweh assured Moses, "I will do the very thing you have asked, because you have found grace in my eyes and I know you by name." Moses still could hardly believe his ears - and we can hardly believe what we've read. Yahweh, so intent on not going with Israel even for a single moment lest He exterminate them from the face of the earth, was now promising to go with both Moses and Israel and, of all things, to give rest.

This change of heart was just too much for Moses, so he probed some more, looking for proof that the change was real. This brings us to 33:18, the beginning of our text. "Then Moses said, 'Now show me your glory.'" This request is very similar to Moses' request back in chapter 3, to know the Name of this God who spoke to him from the burning bush and told him to go deliver Israel from the hand of Pharaoh. There it was not a question about which God was speaking to him but about the power and ability of that God to keep His word and actually deliver Israel from the hand of Pharaoh. The request to see Yahweh's glory was a request for assurance and proof that Yahweh would indeed go with them, that Yahweh's Presence would be Present. Moses wasn't requesting to see fireworks. He wanted to behold the depths of the heart of God. He wanted to see who God really is.

Yahweh heard the request, but Moses had asked for too much. "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, Yahweh, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live."

Notice that Yahweh equated Moses' request to see His glory as a request to see His face. Again, Moses wasn't asking for a display of heavenly fireworks. He wanted to behold, in completeness, the face of God. He wanted to comprehend God. And notice also that Yahweh informed Moses that he could not see Yahweh's face/glory, for "no one may see me and live."

This is a little confusing, for in 33:11 we read that Yahweh would speak to Moses face to face. I think we are dealing with a matter of degrees of intimacy rather than a flat contradiction. There are levels of "face." In requesting to see Yahweh's glory, Moses was requesting a deeper, entirely comprehensive view of Yahweh's face. He wanted to see all of Yahweh, the face behind the face(s). Yahweh's answer was a protective no. It would be too much for Moses; he would die.

We are not told exactly why Moses would die, or anyone else for that matter, but I suspect Isaiah 6:5 offers a pretty solid clue, "Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh Almighty." Yahweh is so pure, so holy, so incomprehensible, so overwhelmingly irreducible, that such an intimate encounter with His Presence would be the end of us. So Yahweh, out of mercy, withheld His face from Moses.

But Yahweh yet granted Moses' need. Yahweh would tell Moses who Yahweh is, or at least what Moses needed to know about who Yahweh is. Yahweh's goodness would pass in front of him and he would hear Yahweh proclaim His Name. "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion."

In this "pre-proclamation" of the Name Moses learns two things: (1) that mercy and compassion do arise out of Yahweh's heart and (2) that they arise out of Yahweh's own initiative. It is Yahweh's choice to show compassion and mercy. Yahweh cannot be manipulated or leveraged into mercy. His compassion cannot be brokered or franchised. His mercy and compassion are rooted in His will to give.

Yahweh further instructed Moses about His passing. Yahweh would put Moses in a cleft in the Sinai rocks and cover him with the palm of His hand while His glory passed by. Once passed, Yahweh would remove His hand so that Moses only sees the backside of Yahweh. Again, Yahweh emphasized that His face must not be seen.

Yahweh also directed Moses not to come empty handed, but to bring two more stone tablets with him. Yahweh obviously had more in mind than just a display of glory. As all along, Yahweh had covenant on His mind.

Moses chiseled out his tablets and climbed up Mount Sinai early the next morning, tablets in hand, as Yahweh commanded him. Yahweh descended to the top of the mountain in a cloud and stood with Moses, proclaiming His Name, "Yahweh. Yahweh. The compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."

Moses heard the Name proclaimed and fell down in worship. He humbly requested the Lord (Adonai) to go with them and to forgive their sins. He need probe no longer. Now he could only worship, confess, seek, and rely upon Yahweh's grace. He had learned who Yahweh is.

Three times in Exodus Moses profoundly questioned and probed the character of God. Each time God responded in terms of God's Name, Yahweh. We've already alluded to the burning bush question of God's name, which was a question of God's power in the light of Pharaoh's power. God's answer: Yahweh. I Am. Pharaoh is not. I Am.

The second probing episode occurred at the close of chapter 5. Moses' first trip before Pharaoh had been a disaster - the Israelites had not been freed but rather forced into harsher labor. "Moses returned to Yahweh and said, 'O Lord (Adonai), why have you brought trouble upon this people? Is this why you sent me?'" Moses' question was now not only about the power of Yahweh but also about the purpose of Yahweh. Once again Yahweh responded in terms of His Name, bracketing the proclamation of His purpose with the two word declaration "I (am) Yahweh" (Exodus 6:6-8). In between the "I Yahweh" statements we discovered that Yahweh's purpose was (1) to liberate Israel to (2) be His covenant people who (3) know Him personally/experientially and whom (4) He will bless by bringing them into the promised land.

Moses had asked about the power and purpose of this God. Both times God answered "Yahweh." Each time Yahweh revealed through His Name what Moses needed to know. And now the question was no longer about power or purpose, but about presence. Could this God really be counted upon to be present, even when Israel is stiff-necked, rebellious, and guilty? Could this God be counted upon to remain present even when Israel is utterly unworthy of God's presence? Who is this God? Could this God be counted upon to stand by His covenant word even when Israel falters on its covenant word? Would sin ultimately drive this God away or would this God prevail over sin and remain graciously present? Moses was on the mountain waiting for an answer.

Is God's goodness good enough to overcome Israel's wickedness?

"Yahweh. Yahweh. The compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, maintaining steadfast love to thousands, forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."

Is God's goodness good enough to overcome Israel's rebellion?

"Yahweh. Yahweh. The compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, maintaining steadfast love to thousands, forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."

Is God's goodness good enough to overcome Israel's sin?

We know the answer: Yahweh. Yahweh.

The answer is YES!!! This God Yahweh will remain present! This God Yahweh is a God of forgiveness and justice. The guilty suffer consequences but they are not abandoned. Instead there is forgiveness and reconciliation, much as a caring parent punishes a child but also continues to embrace and love that child, continues to be present to the needs, pains, and joys of that child. Yahweh. The compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, the God Moses could count on to practice forgiveness and to remain present.

Now I know some are disturbed by the children being punished for the sins of their fathers. I don't have an answer for that, except to say that this is how life works, whether we like it or not. Given our cultural emphasis on individualism as compared to their cultural emphasis on group identity, it probably bothers us more than it bothered them. Nonetheless, life still works this way even in our individualized culture.

Think for a moment about who pays the price when the parents are alcoholics? Decide to divorce? Model dishonesty? Are driven by anger, bitterness, or jealousy? Throw fits of rage? You know and I know that the children do indeed suffer the sins of their fathers (and mothers). The fathers eat sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge. The consequences for sin do not end with the sinner, but flow outward like ripples on a pond and affect everyone within range. And those consequences often fall hardest on those who are closest to the sinner.

But to focus on the children suffering the punishment and consequences of their parents' sin is to miss the gospel, the good news, of Yahweh's Name. The gospel is that while Yahweh punishes, Yahweh yet remains present and even practices forgiveness. Yahweh abounds in steadfast love and faithfulness. This is who Yahweh is. This is why Moses could count on Yahweh remaining present.

We need to know a little Hebrew in order to feel the weight of "steadfast love and faithfulness." The Hebrew words are hesed and 'emet. Hesed is not captured by any single English word, so it is translated as mercy, goodness, loving kindness, love, steadfast love, or unfailing love depending upon what translation you might be using. It connotes a love, a loyalty, a graciousness that arises out of the lover and which cannot be shaken.

In this case Yahweh's hesed is so strong, His character is so abounding in hesed, that even the beloved Israel's sin cannot dissuade Yahweh from yet remaining committed to Israel. In other words, Yahweh's love for Israel is not rooted in Israel's loveableness or even in Israel's reciprocal love. Rather, Yahweh's love for Israel is rooted in Yahweh's own character. Yahweh will have compassion and mercy upon whom He will have compassion and mercy. It comes out of the initiative of His own heart.

I hope you hear that as good news. That God loves us because of who God is rather than because of who we are means that we can count on God to continue to love us and persevere with us even when we are not so loveable.

'Emet is usually translated as truth or faithfulness. It is used of a spring that is reliable, that can always be depended upon to flow fresh water. Its connotation is that one remains true to one's word, not because it is advantageous, but because the word has been given. Yahweh abounds in faithfulness. Yahweh will keep Yahweh's covenant commitment because that is who Yahweh is. Again, the faithfulness resides in the character of Yahweh, not in the benefits Israel can offer. Thus, Yahweh would remain faithful even when Israel failed to reciprocate, even when there were no benefits but only pain.

I hope you hear that as good news too. God remains true to us, true to His commitment to us, because that is who God is. God's trueness is not based upon our trueness to God, nor is it nullified by our untrueness to God.

In this third revelation of the Name, Moses once again heard what he needed to hear. Yahweh would indeed be Present. His abiding Presence was not rooted in Israel, and thus could not be shaken or uprooted by Israel. Rather, Yahweh abounded in hesed love and 'emet faithfulness, and therefore would forgive and persevere with Israel. Moses had not gotten to see the face of Yahweh, but Yahweh had revealed His gracious heart to Moses, and that was more than enough to convince Moses that Yahweh would indeed remain Present.

As I have worked with this text, John 1:14-18 has taken on new and more profound life. "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory of the Only Begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. . . the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the Only Begotten, who is at the Father's side, has made Him known."

A strong case can be made that grace and truth is John's translation of hesed and 'emet, steadfast love and faithfulness. And notice that what Moses could not see, God's glory, has now been visibly manifested in the incarnation of the Word. And while neither Moses nor anyone else has yet seen God, the Only Begotten has made the Father known. When this is coupled with the numerous "I am" sayings of Jesus throughout the gospel of John, it hits home afresh that John's testimony is that Jesus is the embodiment of Yahweh (see "I am" in John's Gospel). In Jesus Yahweh has become present in yet a more profound way than ever humanly imaginable back there on Sinai. Why? Because Yahweh abounds in hesed and 'emet, in grace and truth. Yahweh will prevail over the sins of humanity.

The Name became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory of Yahweh, full of grace and truth. Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. No other name. . ..

-Steve Rodeheaver, Copyright 2011, Steve Rhodeheaver and CRI/Voice, Institute
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