12 Moses said to the Lord, “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13 Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14 And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”
17 And the Lord said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18 Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” 21 And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” – Exodus 33:12-23 ESV
Moses was perplexed and personally concerned about God’s decision to remove His presence from the people of Israel. As the one commissioned to lead these “stiff-necked people” (Exodus 33:3) to the promised land, Moses knew that, without God’s presence, his mission was doomed. God had declared His intention to vacate the premises because He knew the Israelites were going to continue their stiff-necked ways. Thousands of them had died as a result of their recent act of rebellion, so God told them, “You are a stubborn and rebellious people. If I were to travel with you for even a moment, I would destroy you” (Exodus 33:5 NLT).
Yet, He had ordered Moses to fulfill his original commission by leading the remaining Israelites to their final destination: “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 33:3 ESV). Moses was expected to take this ragtag remnant of fickle Yahweh followers the rest of the way to Canaan but without the benefit of God’s presence. But the thought of trying to complete his task without God’s presence proved to be too much for Moses. So, he took his concerns to the Lord.
This time, rather than ascending back to the top of Mount Sinai, Moses entered the Tent of Meeting, “which was outside the camp” (Exodus 33:5 ESV). The text introduces this special meeting place just before Moses begins his conversation with God.
Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise up, and each would stand at his tent door, and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. – Exodus 33:8-9 ESV
This tent had served as a temporary “tabernacle” or sanctuary in which Moses would meet with God. It was located outside the camp and used as a kind of divine “phone booth” where Moses could communicate directly with God. Once the Tabernacle was constructed, this temporary tent of meeting would no longer be needed. But at this moment, with the Tabernacle yet to be built, Moses entered went outside the camp and entered the tent of meeting.
Moses had taken God’s announcement that He was removing His presence quite personally. From the moment God had commissioned him for this job, Moses had expressed his lack of qualifications.
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” – Exodus 3:11 ESV
Yet God had assured Moses, “I will be with you” (Exodus 33:12 ESV). And even when Moses had continued to express his strong doubts, God had told him, “Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak” (Exodus 4:12 ESV). But now, Moses was afraid that God was reneging on His promise. He had known all along that he was not up to the task, so the thought of leading the people of Israel on his own was more than he could stand. This led him to express his concern and consternation to Yahweh.
“See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me.” – Exodus 33:12 ESV
Moses begins his debate with a less-than-accurate statement. He claims that God has failed to identify the one who will be accompanying him to Canaan. God had clearly stated, “I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” (Exodus 33:2 ESV). But Moses wasn’t satisfied; he wanted more information. In a way, Moses was expressing his dissatisfaction with God’s alternative plan. He wasn’t content to have an angel serve as God’s proxy or stand-in. He wanted God Himself.
This led Moses to pull out his trump card. He appealed to the special relationship he enjoyed with Yahweh.
“…you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’” – Exodus 33:12 ESV
In a way, Moses was saying, “You say you love me, now prove it.” He was appealing to God’s lovingkindness and faithfulness. Moses had grown to appreciate the nature of God and was counting on Yahweh’s unwavering commitment to protecting His own reputation.
“…if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” – Exodus 33:13 ESV
Moses was pulling on God’s heartstrings. In a rather transparent attempt to “guilt” God, Moses appealed to His sense of righteousness. Didn’t God want to do the right thing? If Moses had found favor with God, wouldn’t God want to be favorable to Moses? Moses was trying to capitalize on his unique relationship with Yahweh, in the hopes of getting Him to reconsider His earlier decision.
Having heard Moses’ plea, God gave the answer Moses wanted to hear: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14 ESV). Yet even that positive affirmation was not quite enough for Moses. He wanted God to know just how important His presence was for this mission to be successful.
“If you don’t personally go with us, don’t make us leave this place. How will anyone know that you look favorably on me—on me and on your people—if you don’t go with us? For your presence among us sets your people and me apart from all other people on the earth.” – Exodus 33:15-16 NLT
Essentially, Moses was threatening to stay right where he was. If he had to stay the rest of his life in the wilderness of Sinai, where he was confident of God’s presence, he was willing to do so. Moses was willing to give up the promised land for the promise of God’s presence, power, and provision. Occupying the land of Canaan would be pointless because it was the presence of God that set the people of Israel apart from all the other nations on earth. Real estate or a relocation to a different spot on the map would not differentiate God’s people. Moses understood that it was God alone who made the people of Israel a holy nation. And God provided Moses with the further assurance he needed.
“I will indeed do what you have asked, for I look favorably on you, and I know you by name.” – Exodus 33:17 NLT
God would go with them. His presence would continue to dwell among them. But, almost pushing his luck, Moses made one more bold and daring request.
“Then show me your glorious presence.” – Exodus 33:18 NLT
Moses was asking for more. We know that when Moses entered the tent of meeting, “the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent” (Exodus 33:9 ESV). This tangible and visible sign of God’s presence hovered over the tent as Moses spoke with God, but Moses wanted a greater demonstration of God’s presence. He wanted to see God Himself – in all His glory.
And as proof of Moses’ favorable status, Yahweh agreed to give His servant a glimpse of His glory.
“I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will call out my name, Yahweh, before you. For I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose. But you may not look directly at my face, for no one may see me and live.” – Exodus 33:19-20 NLT
What makes this concession so important is that God had already revealed Himself to Moses on more than one occasion. The first had taken place years earlier at the very same location in Sinai. Somewhere near Mount Sinai, Moses heard the voice of God speaking to him from the midst of a burning bush, which caused him to draw near. But “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6 ESV).
For more than a year, Moses had also witnessed the presence of God in the form of the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. Then there was the more recent occasion when he, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel shared a meal with God.
…they beheld God, and ate and drank. – Exodus 24:11 ESV
So, why was Moses requesting to see God’s glory? Notice that he did not ask for permission to see God’s face. He seems to have known better. The Hebrew word for “glory” is כָּבוֹד (kāḇôḏ), and it refers to God’s honor, splendor, or majesty. In a sense, Moses was asking to see more of God. Having feared the possible loss of God’s presence, Moses longed to see another manifestation of His glory and majesty. It is as if Moses was saying, “Show me more of Yourself!” And God’s response to Moses’ request was succinct.
“I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’” – Exodus 33:19 ESV
It is unclear what Moses was hoping to see. But God is quite clear and highly specific when He describes what aspect of His glory that He will allow His servant to observe. It will be the fulness of His goodness.
“In this instance, at least, God’s glory is his goodness. It is not his power, his majesty, or his awesomeness that will pass by Moses, but his goodness. And Moses has already seen a lot of that. God has mercifully sustained his people in Egypt. That’s his goodness. God has dramatically delivered his people from their captors. That’s his goodness. God has graciously provided for his people in the wilderness and protected them. That’s his goodness. God has graciously entered into a covenant with his people at Sinai. That’s his goodness.” – Victor P. Hamilton, Exodus
God agreed to let Moses get a glimpse of His goodness, and He summarizes exactly what His goodness entails.
“I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” – Exodus 33:19 ESV
To “see” God is to glimpse His goodness in the form of His grace and mercy. Moses, Aaron, and the rest of the people of Israel had seen God’s goodness repeatedly. Most recently, it had shown up in God mercifully sparing them from judgment. Despite what had happened at Sinai, they were alive and still able to worship and obey God. And God demonstrated His grace and mercy in how He revealed His goodness to Moses.
“…while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” – Exodus 33:22-23 ESV
God spared Moses” life by answering his request in this way. Had Moses seen the face of God, his life would have ended in death. But that day, Moses got a glimpse of God’s goodness and lived to tell about it. As the glory of God “passed by,” Moses was covered by the protective power of God’s goodness. The all-powerful and holy God of the universe placed His hand over His servant to protect him from certain death. Moses got to see the “back” of God, but the good news was that God was not leaving. Not only would He not abandon them., but He would renew His covenant commitment to them.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.