At First Baptist Church of Arlington, where my wife and I are members, we have been wrestling with the meaning and importance of Exodus 33:14-34:7 for several years. I am ashamed to admit it, but I had not really considered the vital role this text plays in shaping Israel’s perception of her God until our pastor brought it up. But now I realize this passage, and especially 33:18-19 and 34:6-7, is indispensable to a proper understanding of who God is.
Basically, here is what happens. Moses asks God to show him His “glory,” but God promises to show him His “goodness” instead. And when the event finally takes place, we read nothing about the appearance of God. Rather, we are simply told what God said about himself.
What is it that God wanted Moses to understand? What is it that God wants us to understand? Above all else, it is that God is good.
Setting the Context
It may not be immediately apparent to us, but Moses likely understood how radical it was for God to make a claim like this. According to John Oswalt, religion in the ancient Near East was about one thing–“manipulating the forces of this world to satisfy my needs.” The gods of these religions were identified with the natural phenomena and human activities that dominated human experience (the sun, the moon, war, sex, etc.), and these gods had created humans for no other purpose than gratifying their own needs. But, as John Walton has often pointed out, the gods could be capricious and vengeful, so the best way to thrive as a human was to keep the gods happy.
Israel’s God, by contrast, was claiming to be something quite different from anything that Israel had ever known. God claimed to be “good.” One wonders whether Moses knew what to make of such a description. We certainly struggle with it today. Whatever else it meant, it seemed to include being “gracious and compassionate.” God cared about His people. It also included a promise to forgive all kinds of transgressions (the NIV renders the three Hebrew words involved as “wickedness, rebellion, and sin”) and a warning of punishment for the guilty. Indeed, the threat of punishment is overwhelming, but the offer of forgiveness is exponentially more extravagant.
These are startling claims, but they do not simply come to Moses out of the blue. As Oswalt points out, God spent the first fifteen chapters of Exodus delivering Israel from bondage, and then God spent the next three chapters providing for Israel’s physical needs. Only after these practical demonstrations of God’s goodness did He lay before the people the terms of the covenant. In other words, no commands were given until God’s own character had been put on display.
One would expect this revelation of God’s nature and character to be a relief to His people. It turned out, however, to be a challenge to their faith. If we put ourselves in their shoes, it will not be hard for us to understand why. Idolatry dominated the ancient Near East precisely because it made sense. Men, and especially women, found their natural and social environment to be hostile in the extreme. Humans have an innate need to have some control over their lives; it is the only way for them to have any kind of hope. So, they adopted a viewpoint that presented the gods as hostile but that also gave them a way to regain some control over their lives.
Israel, too, would be tempted to throw their lot in with this ancient Near Eastern consensus. They would be tempted to care less about grace, compassion, faithfulness, justice, and love than about putting food on their tables and babies in their wombs. They would be tempted to throw aside the yoke of wrestling with what it really meant for God to be “holy” and for them to reflect that holiness for the comparatively easier yoke of a set of gods who cared nothing for their well-being but who could be manipulated via sacrifice.
In other words, God was offering them a relationship with an authentic, sentient being who had a mind, a heart, and a plan of His own. But they would, again and again, be tempted to opt instead for gods that they could understand and control. They would be tempted to choose their own experience and their own prosperity over friendship with God. And they repeatedly failed the test–as is exemplified in the golden calf incident (Exodus 32-33). It takes a lot of faith to believe God is good, and Israel often struggled to have that kind of faith.
Israel’s struggle is our struggle, too. It is to this part of the story that we must turn our attention in our next blog post.