Reflection: Exodus 32 – 33:23
A casual reading of the initial events in this fragment of Exodus cannot be more contrasting: led by Aaron the high priest, the Israelites surrounded the Golden Calf, worshipping it at the foot of Mount Sinai, while Moses was bounded by God’s holiness as the Ten Commandments were being promulgated, at the top of the mountain. Quite out of the blue, Yahweh alerted Moses to the peoples’ infidelity to Him and spoke of His intentions to obliterate them, and starting over again with him (32:10). He possibly did not realize the gravity of the situation, but he knew the potential severity of Yahweh’s judgment from His words and tone. The ensuing perplexing conversation was heart wrenching for Moses, as there was no extenuating circumstances that he could have used to plead for mercy, after all He has been through with them in and out of Egypt. Still, he implored with the Almighty using (1) His purposeful miraculous deliverance of His people from Egypt, (2) His reputation among the Egyptians if he destroyed the Israelites, and (3) His earlier promises to his ancestors (32:11-13). Astonishingly, God changed His mind and tempered His judgment (32:14), but certainly not on the basis of these plausible yet vulnerable arguments!
God’s sovereignty informs us that His decisions are irrevocable. So, on what basis would Yahweh change His mind? And can man change His mind, as Moses did twice? (32:14; 33:17). Was He testing Moses? The grim narrative over the Israelites’ judgment curiously portrayed God, almost casually bantering with Moses over who owned these stubborn people: Moses claimed they belonged to God (‘your or this people:’ 32:7, 9; 33:1, 13, 16), while Yahweh counterclaimed that they were Moses’ (‘Your or the people:’ 32:11-12; 33:1). However, once Moses discovered the full extent of the people’s sin, he carried out the punishment himself (32:25-28), rededicated the people, and went straight back to God the next day to plead for mercy by putting his own life on the line (32:30-33). As chastisement, God withdrew His promise to journey with them further and ignored Moses’ offer of his own life. His angel would take His place (32:34); guilt is never swept under the carpet by God.
What took place regularly in the Tent of Meeting gave us a hint of the depth of relationship Moses had with his God: “where the Lord used to speak with Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend” (33:7-11). In one such session soon after, Moses took God to task on what He had said earlier (that His angel will journey with them), and used his singular rapport with Him to argue for His personal commitment to accompany His people (33:12-13). His rationale was astounding, ‘if I have Your approval, then I would like to know Your intention concerning Israel’s fate, so that I get to know You better, and therefore be further approved by You…so that Your people are distinguished from everyone else on earth (33:13, 16). The implication is that without God’s presence to guide him, Moses will soon incur His disfavor, and the existence of Israel as a nation would be jeopardized; His angel could never make up for God’s personal presence and fellowship. Yahweh relented, and voiced one of the most poignant nuances of His sovereignty and the depth of their friendship, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest… I will also do this thing of which you have spoken; for you have found favour in My sight, and I have known you by name” (33:14, 17). All the second person pronouns (viz., you) are in the singular – God would be present with the people for the rest of their journey for Moses’ sake.
The flipside to God’s sovereignty is His condescension over human affairs, and this is His prerogative when he pronounced, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion” (33:19). Neither Moses’ claims throughout these interchanges nor his godliness were the elements that changed God’s decisions. Yahweh’s self- explanation is clear and simple – because He likes him and personally knows him. Conceivably Moses’ faithfulness to the charge that God had given him in the oversight of the Israelites from the beginning, and his love for them, demonstrated by his persistent intercession on their behalf despite their unfaithfulness, was a reflection of God Himself (cf. Heb 7:25). Today, our accessibility to the Throne of Grace remains unhindered, facilitating a level of engagement in our friendship with our Lord that would be the envy of anyone outside the Kingdom (John 15:14). If we are to be a people that bring God’s presence to others in our community and this world, then the degree of Jesus’ friendship with us is significant and priceless.