Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 22, 2023

Exodus 33:12-23 Commentary

In military and government work, informal clearance is often withheld with a simple phrase, “that is need to know,” meaning that you don’t. You can complete your assignment or your project without the answer to that particular question. It seems as though, in this text, Moses is not satisfied with the information God has been withholding. His opening line, with the multiple use of the word “know,” tells us how strongly he feels he does need to know.  He needs to know how this trek through the wilderness is going to go. What God means by God’s promise to send “God’s presence” to guide the people. What does that even mean?!

And Moses does not just need to know what God is planning to do, Moses wants — and needs — to know WHO God is in order to be in right relationship with God. As Robert Alter writes, this whole section of text “turns on Moses’s urgent need to know both the nature of the guidance God will provide Israel through the wilderness and God’s intrinsic nature.”

It is quite clear to Moses that he is, in fact, on the list of those with a need to know. He presses his case, as he did in the Hebrew Scripture’s lectionary reading from last week, by appealing to God’s covenant: “this nation is Your people.” In other words, Moses says, “if You care about Your people — and You say You do — then I need to know more than what I know right now.”  God responds to Moses’ request. In the Hebrew, the phrase is only 4 words long, an assurance of God’s presence that is sufficient to the task if not overly-informative.  God promises, “My presence will go.” And Moses’ response is still rough, almost desperate: “It better. I need it to. Your people need it to. Your reputation depends on it. Let me see your glory.”

God counter-offers: I will show you my goodness (tov).

God explains: No human could look at God’s glory (kavod) and survive to tell it.

God lays out the plan: I will hide you in my palm. It is too great a thing to see me coming but you might catch a glimpse of me going.

Two observations on this section of the exchange:

  • It goes too far to say that ancient Hebrews conceptualized God as a person with a face and, well, a backside. Rather, the Hebrew authors use anthropomorphic analogy to disclose theological truth: the concrete goodness of God — God’s ways in relationship to humankind — may be all we can tolerate to see and know of God in this life. And it will be sufficient.
  • Notice that, after several verses of back and forth, filled with all of Moses’ anxious demands, in this exchange, he has gone silent. Robert Alter explains, “Moses, having asked to see God face-to-face, is in a daunting situation where it is God Who will do all the talking and explain the limits of the revelation to be vouchsafed Moses.”

There is a deep tenderness in the way that God replies to Moses throughout this encounter. God does not smite a stubborn and anxious Moses. God doesn’t unload more information or more glory than Moses could handle but offers relationship according to the confines of human capacity.  God holds Moses tenderly in the palm of God’s hand — some translators prefer an image of Moses sheltered beneath God’s wing or wrapped in the corner of God’s garment.  Each of these images evoke tenderness of God toward Moses, fulfilling these words: “I shall grant grace to whom I grant grace and have compassion for whom I have compassion.”

Textual clarification: In the verse directly preceding this Sunday’s text, the narrator recounts “the Lord would speak to Moses face-to-face, as a man speaks to his fellow.”  This, of course, presents a textual problem with the verses in this Sunday’s reading in which God says no one can see God’s face and live. While the Hebrew idiom in 33:11 leans toward hyperbole, it reflects what the Israelites see as they observe Moses standing in the doorway of the Tent of Meeting, knowing this is where the glory of God resides, talking familiarly with … someone. It would look to all the world to them like a couple of neighbors chatting over the back fence or a brief, chat at the front door. So the verse in the preceding text teaches us something beautiful about the nearness, the everyday-ness of Moses’ talking to and hearing from God.  It intends to set up an admiration and a longing for such nearness to God.

Illustration Idea

The Hebrew word for glory is kavod. Like many of the best Hebrew words — shalom, hesed — it evades translation into just one English word. It is translated at times as glory, honor and presence.  However, its literal meaning is “weightiness.”  I wonder if you can think of an experience that felt weighty in your life?  All of mine seem attached to audacious promises: my wedding, my ordination, the adoption of our son.  As a pastor, I felt it at baptisms, around the communion table, at graveside services. Each of these bears weight though, strangely, I would not say it is burdensome.

In the final scene of Gary Schmidt’s young adult book, The Wednesday Wars, the main character, Holling, attends his best friend’s Bar Mitzvah. He describes the way Danny put on his great-uncle’s prayer shawl, winding the tefillin on his arm and forehead, stepping up to the scroll, bringing it to the pulpit and then Danny began to chant.  Holling describes it like this:

“Right there in front of us, Danny Hupfer was no longer Danny who stuck wads of gum under his desk. Or Danny who screamed out of his skull at soccer games. Or Danny who ran cross-country on bloody knees and waved sweaty T-shirts.

He was more than all of those things. He sang the words, and he was everyone who had sung them before him, like he was taking up his place in this huge choir…God Himself leading the music. You saw Danny covered with weight.

Then the canon and Danny’s father stood over him and blessed him. More weight.

And Danny chanted again, this time from the Prophets. More weight.

And then he reached into his back pocket and took out his speech, his Dear Torah. ‘Today,’ he said, ‘I am become a man,’

And he had.


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