There is some amazing stuff in this short chapter all revolving around the presence of the Lord to Moses and his people. Initially God is disgusted with this “stiff-necked people” and says that Moses should get on with it and take the people to the land God promised, the land flowing with milk and honey, but that he will not go with them lest he destroy them on the way. Though he says he will send an angel before them to drive out the other peoples, but he himself, he’s done. But Moses won’t let him.
We learn here something Moses called a “tent of meeting,” set up outside the camp where he meets with God. Actually in this chapter it doesn’t use the word God, but rather Lord. Could this be the second person of the Trinity that is meeting with Moses? When he goes into the tent the pillar of cloud comes and stays at the entrance, and as the people see this they stand at the entrance of their tents and worship. It is impressive that God shows himself in some way, he gives them something visual to hold on to, some evidence that this is not just some head trip of a guy named Moses.
Then it says something shocking and seemingly contradictory too later in the chapter:
11 The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.
But later when Moses asks to see the Lord’s glory, we read this:
18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
19 And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
21 Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock.22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
So which is it? How could this make sense apart from the Trinity? Unless face to face in the tent of meeting doesn’t actually mean face to face; that’s the conclusion you would have to come to if you think God is a monism, but he’s not. We also see here a declaration of God’s sovereignty, as Paul discusses in Romans 9. It is the Lord’s will that is supreme, that takes precedence, that determines whom he will save.
Moses started out as a rash hothead, and spent 40 years of his life seemingly doing nothing but domestic work, then messes up again as God calls him to lead his people, but by chapter 33 we can see how much he’s grown and learned, that without God, without the presence of the Lord there is no difference between Israel and any other people:
12 Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ 13 If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”
14 The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
15 Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 16 How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”
17 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.”
Moses isn’t afraid to ask God because he knows the story, he knows what God promised long ago, and this his covenant must be upheld. And we can see the heart of Moses, what is important to him, that he wants to know and please God. Something I need to pray daily as well. Because of Moses, the great intercessor, prefiguring one who will come with eternal rather than temporal purposes, God does not abandon his “stiff-necked” people. Nor does he today, praise be to God!