The story in our reading today follows on from the passage we looked at last week which described the making and worship of the golden calf, in that it continues to deal with the consequences of that event. In worshipping the golden calf, the Israelites broke the covenant that had been made by God as a gift of grace.
The story in our reading today follows on from the passage we looked at last week which described the making and worship of the golden calf, in that it continues to deal with the consequences of that event. In worshipping the golden calf, the Israelites broke the covenant that had been made by God as a gift of grace. In one of the most dramatic parts of the story, Moses breaks the tablets of the covenant which he had brought down from the mountain (Exodus 32:19), clearly symbolising the shattered union between Yahweh and the people, and a number of punishments are carried out within the camp. The passage we’re looking at today is connected to what has happened previously, as Moses, the mediator, continues to try and represent the people in front of Yahweh. Moses knows that the people deserve to be judged harshly, and he argues with God that if God abandons Israel and withdraws God’s merciful presence then Israel is no nation and has no hope. It is also strongly tied to the passage that follows, as in the verses that come directly our passage for today the covenant is restored - an action that is symbolised in the engraving of new tablets. So this passage today is important because it shows the movement by which Israel is forgiven and restored. The people go from a state of alienation from God into a position where the relationship, the covenant, is made right again.
At the beginning of Exodus 33, before our passage begins, God has ordered the people to leave Sinai and continue their journey to the promised land. They will be protected by an angel, and eventually they will come into a land flowing with milk and honey. But God will not come with the people, because their disobedience would end up in their destruction. In verse 5 Yahweh says, “You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you.” Moses however continues to meet with God in the tent outside the camp - “the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses” (verse 9). So this brings us to the drama of the passage we have today.
As I’ve already said, we see Moses once again here in the role of go-between or mediator. Verses 12-17 read in quite a clunky manner, and commentators have noted that this passage seems to have a long and complex literary history. There have been issues with the authors of this text, and with the way different bits have been put together. So if you read this bit and think it sounds a bit strange, you’re right! The gist of these verses seems to be that Moses is saying that seeing as Yahweh has promised to be the God of Israel, and seeing as God has also promised Moses that he still stands in divine favour, there is no valid reason for God to abandon the nation now. Moses’ bold statement to God in verse 13 (“show me your ways”) seems to be saying, “Come on then God, open up! Explain yourself and your actions!” Yahweh seems to respond positively to this - Yahweh agrees to go with Israel towards the promised land (verse 14). It’s not really clear what the phrase in this verse, “I will give you rest”, means, but it’s thought it may refer to taking possession of the land, as a similar phrase occurs in this context in Deuteronomy 3:20.
Moses still seems to be a bit uncertain about Yahweh’s intentions and wants to pin things down fully, so he insists that if Yahweh is not prepared to go with the people then they shouldn’t be sent forward at all. Yahweh’s presence is the only thing that gives Israel any claim to distinctiveness from the other nations (verse 16). In verse 17 God agrees, and so once again Moses has persuaded God to change God’s mind.
The second part of the passage, from verses 17 to 23, brings us back to the passage in Exodus 3 where Moses first encounters God in the bush that burns but is not consumed. The focus here is on the name of God which will be proclaimed (verse 19), and it is connected to God’s nature - “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” In the language and phrasing this is very similar to God’s declaration in Exodus 3:14: “I AM WHO I AM”
But there is also a parallel in what Moses is saying here. In verse 13 he has demanded, “Show me your ways,” and now in verse 18 he similarly demands, “Show me your glory.” His first demand results in God’s promise that the divine presence would continue in the life of the people. His second demand seeks personal confirmation that God is now who Moses has seen God to be in the past, and Moses seeks assurance that he is God’s agent. The strange ritual that follows has some familiar elements, like the impossibility of gazing upon Yahweh which has already been mentioned in Exodus 19:21. The divine revelation, which we might call a theophany, seals the promise that Yahweh has made to be with Israel.
So Moses continues to act as the mediator who remains loyal to the wellbeing of the people even though they are far from loyal to him, and he is seen to be both bold and courageous in doing so. And Yahweh is ultimately seen to be merciful. There is quite a lot of justification in God’s determination that although the people will live, the covenant cannot be maintained, and therefore God must separate from them for their own good and to avoid their destruction. But God’s mercy is seen in response to the pleas of Moses the mediator. God changes God’s mind, and in verses 14 and 19 God’s mercy is emphasised. So, just like last week, we see that when justice and compassion clash within the heart of God, compassion prevails. Justice is always tempered with mercy - in fact justice is not justice unless it is administered in love.
In no small part thanks to the efforts of Moses, the act of shattering the tablets of the law as a consequence of the incident with the golden calf is wiped out. Through the courage and perhaps impertinence of Moses, the covenant is renewed, and the new tablets that will be created at the start of the next chapter are a visual representation of this.
For us as we follow the Lectionary, the dramatic and miraculous story of Moses is nearly at an end.
For further reflection…