After the people commit a “great sin,” Moses offers to go back up Mt. Sinai. His hope? “Perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (Ex 32:30). This work of atonement began with begging God’s forgiveness (Ex 32:31-32), but that clearly wasn’t enough (Ex 32:33-35). Full atonement requires something more.
Observation of Exodus 33
Most repeated words: people (14 times), Moses (12x), said (11), tent (11), Lord (9), up (9), go (8), not (8), face (5), favor (5), know (5), sight (5)
- As Moses is trying to bring the Lord and the people back together, I’m not surprised to see repeated mention of these characters
- But what role do the tent, and the favor of God’s face, play…?
In the first section (Ex 33:1-6), Yahweh assesses the situation as it stands.
- Yahweh speaks to Moses
- He will keep his oath to give them the land
- But Moses must lead them (Ex 33:1)
- Yahweh will send an angel to clear out the inhabitants (Ex 33:2)
- But he himself will not go with them, lest he consume them on the way (Ex 33:3)
- The people mourn at this “disastrous word” (Ex 33:4)
- Yahweh’s speech is repeated (Ex 33:5)
- There is real danger for these people if Yahweh were to be with them!
- The people strip their ornaments (Ex 33:6)
In the second section (Ex 33:7-11), Yahweh speaks to Moses at the tent of meeting face-to-face.
In the third section (Ex 33:12-23), Moses pleads with Yahweh to alter this course of events.
- Moses leverages the favor he’s already got with Yahweh (Ex 33:12).
- He pleads for even more favor (Ex 33:13).
- Yahweh then promises to go with them (Ex 33:14).
- But Moses is not assured. He wants to make sure Yahweh will be with them (Ex 33:15-16).
- Yahweh agrees to this very thing (Ex 33:17).
- But Moses is still not assured. He requests proof that Yahweh will be with them. And the requested proof is that Yahweh will show Moses his glory (Ex 33:18).
- Yahweh agrees, but with conditions to preserve Moses’ life (Ex 33:19-23).
Interpretation of Exodus 33
Some possible questions:
- If Yahweh has agreed to forgive their sin (and not wipe them all out to start over with Moses), why all this fuss? Why won’t he just go with them?
- What is going on with the tent of meeting in Ex 33:7-11? Why is this little anecdote stuck right here? Wouldn’t the story make more sense without it (if we read Ex 33:1-6 and then jumped to Ex 33:12-23)?
- Why won’t Moses take God at his word? Why does he request proof that God will be with them?
My answers (numbers correspond to the questions):
- Though Yahweh has forgiven (most of) the people and chosen not to destroy them for their sin, this passage shows us vividly that forgiveness alone is not enough to accomplish full atonement. Though the legal transaction of forgiveness has taken place, there is still the relational damage between Yahweh and the people that must be dealt with. Yahweh will keep his word to give these people the land of Canaan (Ex 33:1-2). But the relationship has been so damaged that, if Yahweh was with them, there could be more explosions (Ex 33:3).
- We must not read Ex 33:7-11 in a vacuum, divorced from the context. This has everything to do with the flow of the chapter! I’m honestly not sure why the ESV (along with NASB, NIV, and NRSV) add the “used to” to Ex 33:7, as an interpretation of the Hebrew’s shift in tense. But the CSB, NET, NKJV, and LEB all translate with a straightforward, “Now Moses took the tent and pitched it outside the camp,” which makes more sense in the context. Of course, the tabernacle hasn’t been pitched yet, but Moses set up a proto-tabernacle, a mini-mountain, where the glory cloud could descend and Yahweh could speak to Moses (Ex 33:9). But from God’s speech in Ex 33:1-3, Moses knows that God can no longer live with his people. The relationship is too damaged. So this tent must go outside the camp. When Moses goes to speak with Yahweh, all the people wait breathlessly at the doors of their own tents, hoping beyond hope that their God will move back into camp with them. Yahweh speaks to Moses as to a friend (Ex 33:11), but that is not good enough for Moses. Moses wants God to have this relationship with all his people. This causes Moses to plead for a change and to request proof that it will happen.
- Moses knows how high the stakes are. God has placed his favor on Moses in a special way, but Moses won’t back down until Yahweh sets such favor on all the people. According to Ex 33:15-16, “me” and “us” are a package deal. “You can’t take me up, Yahweh, without taking all of us!” So Moses asks God to put his money where his mouth is; he wants to see the ring on Israel’s finger to know the wedding is still on. “Please show me your glory!” And he gets more than he bargained for. Yahweh will make all his goodness pass by, and he will become a witness to Yahweh’s lavish grace and mercy (Ex 33:19) when he repairs the relationship between his people and himself.
Train of thought:
- Forgiveness, on its own, clearly wasn’t enough to provide full atonement.
- The relationship has broken to the point that Yahweh must move out.
- The grace of true reconciliation is astoundingly glorious (and life-threatening).
Main point: Full atonement = forgiveness + reconciliation
Connection to Christ: When God, before the world began, set his affection on his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, he got us as a package deal. Jesus came to die for his people, that he might bring us to God. And God loves us, not because we are lovable or particularly noble, but because Jesus claimed us as his own. When Jesus worked to provide atonement, to cover our sins, he did what had to be done so we could be forgiven. But he didn’t stop there. He also brought us close to God, as an intimate part of his family.
My Application of Exodus 33
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