To fully appreciate Exodus 33:7-14, you must read all of Chapter 33, and before that, Chapter 32. This is easily, drama in the desert, complete with lies, half-truths, seduction, idolatry, threats, relents, forgiveness, revenge, disclaimers and death. There are three main characters – God, Moses, and the Israelites, with Aaron and Joshua playing minor roles. Let the show begin. It’s curtain time!
“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” (Exodus 32:1)
Aaron, brother of Moses, and the man appointed to be Moses’ mouthpiece, switches his loyalties, and probably afraid for his life, follows the instruction of the Israelites, leads them into idolatry, and then lies about it. (Exodus 32:4 & 22-24)
While this is happening, the all-seeing God interrupts His Mountain-top meeting with Moses with some Breaking News. “Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf…” (Exodus 32:7-8).
Moses descends the Mountain; sees for himself the tragedy that God had described; breaks the two tablets of stone with the Laws of God written by God Himself; demands accountability from Aaron; gets none; grinds the Golden calf into powder, scatters it on the water then forced the people to drink it; and authorizes the punitive murder of 3000 randomly selected Israelites. All this Moses did, after selflessly and recklessly throwing himself between God’s wrath and the Israelites, as he used himself as a bargaining chip to avert God completely wiping out the Israelites. (Exodus 32:9-14)
But it is in the behind-the-scenes Mountain mediation that we find the high-point of this tragic drama. It is here we get more than a glimpse of the Divine model for man’s humanity as Moses and God converse intimately. Not unlike a mother, who in a moment of frustration with a child, refers to him as “your father’s child”, God styles the Israelites as “belonging” to Moses (Exodus 32:7). But Moses immediately counters, repeatedly challenging God’s disclaimer, and reminding Him that the Israelites are His people. (Exodus 32:11 & 33:13)
Moses had earned the friendship of God (Exodus 33:13). In one of the greatest oxymoronic stresses between the literal and the figurative, God spoke to Moses “face to face” (Exodus 33:11), and yet denied Moses’ request to see his face (Exodus 33:18-20).
Moses’ freeing the Israelites and crossing the Red Sea pales into insignificance as he negotiates with God on behalf of the Israelites, and prevails (Exodus 33:17). He effectively employs reverse psychology on God, in what could be respectfully viewed as a civilized high-stake domestic quarrel, and succeeds in getting the eternal God to display what resembles the human act of changing his mind (Exodus 32:11-14).
But here is the super-gem that shines bright above the intrigue, and that offers itself both as a touchstone and a lodestone on our Christian journey. God tells Moses, take my Angel to fight for you; take the land I promised you; take my milk and honey and my “money”… but I will not go with you (Exodus 33:1-3). Moses then leverages his friendship with God and secures a personal promise – “The LORD replied, “My Presence will go with you [Moses], and I will give you rest. Exodus 33:14)” Without skipping a step, Moses implicitly rejects God’s offer as being not enough. “Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us [Israelites], do not send us up from here… (Exodus 33:15-16).
Then comes the grand finale! “And the LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name (Exodus 33:17).”
The privilege of His perpetual presence, for which Moses negotiated in the Wilderness, God has now given His born again people as an entitlement. May we remember that His presence is no less holy today than it was in Moses’ day. This privilege comes at a price which He will help us pay.
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