21 November 2014

Exodus 33:12-23

“And he said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But’, he said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’” (vv. 19-20)


St Augustine of Hippo wrote: "You have formed us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in you." We can see that restlessness throughout the history of humanity and in this passage we see it very powerfully in Moses, whose longing to be close to God causes him to ask to see God's glory. God explains to Moses, however, that no human could endure to see God as God really is; God is the ultimate reality, and as T S Eliot says, "Humankind can only bear so much reality". Therefore God has to protect Moses, and all humans, from experiencing the fullness of his reality.

Instead, humans can only see where God has passed by, and thus perceive God by God's past actions (verse 23). This is why it is so important for Israel to continue to recall God rescuing her from Egypt. Nonetheless, God agrees reveal signs of God's own nature to Moses, which are described here as "goodness" and "graciousness" (v. 19). And despite their arrogance, God focuses this loving-kindness on the people of Israel.

For Moses pleads not only for a revelation for himself, but also for God's continuing merciful presence with the people. As he says, there is no point in Israel reaching the promised land if God will not be there with them (verse 15). He also reminds God that Israel has been called to be distinctive amongst the nations, and asks that that distinctiveness comes from the presence of God amongst them (verse 16).

God hears Moses and agrees that God's own presence will indeed go with Israel and that, ultimately, God he will give them the rest of living in God's own presence (verse 14).

To Ponder

  • Is your heart restless for God?
  • How can the reality of God's presence be both restful and unbearable? Both in general terms and for you in particular?
  • We can see the fullness of God in the person of Jesus Christ. What does Jesus show us about the nature of God?

Bible notes author

The Revd Anna Bishop

Anna Bishop is a wife, mother and Methodist presbyter. She is currently without appointment while her two small children teach her a spirituality of interruption! She is living in the Salisbury circuit, where she leads Baby-interrupted Bible Study and Little Blessings, a service of worship for babies, toddlers, pre-school children and their carers.