Shemot Thirty-Three: The Face of God

The people have sinned, and God is angry. However, thanks to Moses interceding on behalf of the people, God is willing to forgive them for their transgression. God reiterates His promise to the people, telling them to go to the Promised Land. However, there is a change. “I will send an angel before you; and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite – unto a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in the midst of you; for you are a stiff-necked people; lest I consume you in the way (Exodus 33:2-3).” Here, we see that while God hasn’t given up on the people, He will no longer be with them in the personal and intimate way that existed up until this point. Instead of the relationship being like that of the Exodus, where God Himself takes the people out of Egypt, the guide will now be an angel. The people are saddened by this development, but now God’s presence dwells in the tent of meeting, outside of the camp, rather than inside.

Moses goes into the tent, and the people see that the presence of God is at the tent with him. “And the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend (Exodus 33:11).” Moses and God clearly had an intimate relationship, and a deeply personal one. However, only a few verses later, we are told, that Moses asked to see the glory of God, and was told that he couldn’t see God’s face, but rather only His back. Is this a contradiction in the text?

Personally, I read the first verse as referring to the spirit in which God and Moses communicate, rather than to the means. God and Moses speak together intimately and personally, the way that individuals who care about each other do. This a unique relationship for a man to have with God, and clearly Moses is the person to become the most intimate with God throughout our history. However, even for Moses, there is a separation. As a man, Moses cannot withstand the power of God’s face, and must content himself with only an approximation of the true presence of God. How much of God are each of us exposed to? Are our relationships with God meant to be friendships, or something else?

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