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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Exodus 33

Introduction

God had already granted Moses' prayer for the nation of Israel to be spared, but the final issue of whether or not the broken covenant would be renewed was at this point unresolved, and also, if to be renewed, under what conditions. God's threatened withdrawal of his sacred presence from the apostate nation is announced (Exodus 33:1-6), and it became clear at once that Israel would be required to demonstrate genuine repentance for their shameful rebellion in which the covenant had indeed been forfeited. Israel's line of communication with God had been broken. Plans for construction of the Tabernacle were temporarily canceled, and the consecration of the priesthood and initiation of the Tabernacle system of worship were dropped until the matter of the broken covenant could be resolved and the covenant renewed. This emergency situation left Moses as the only hope of Israel, for, if it had not been for Moses, there can be little doubt that God would have destroyed Israel or left them to wander forever in the wilderness of Sinai, but Moses was equal to the Gargantuan task that confronted him. First, he improvised a temporary tabernacle to provide a provisional means of communication with God. This he did by moving his own tent to an eminence overlooking the whole camp of Israel, where God communicated with him, and then he took up a substitute residence for himself within the camp. We may be sure that Moses acted upon direct instructions from God in making these arrangements (Exodus 33:7-11). Moses' continued, and fervent intercession for Israel resulted in the complete restoration and healing of the broken covenant. Seeking still further assurance of the continued blessing and presence of God, Moses requested the favor of seeing God face to face in all of his glory (Exodus 33:18-23), a favor which Moses received in principle with the necessary limitations.

A few words about the critical assault upon this chapter will demonstrate the weakness and futility of such attacks. Martin Noth considered the first paragraph to have been taken "mostly from `D,'"[1] allegedly a "sixth century B.C." source; and the second paragraph was supposed by him to belong to some "unknown" pre-`D' or pre-`P' source "taken up" by `J.' (in the tenth century)! Honeycutt, however, attributed the second paragraph to `E,' (long after `J'), and the third paragraph to `J' (allegedly in the tenth century B.C.).[2] Any number of leading critics would scramble these alleged "sources" differently, but it is perfectly obvious that none of these "experts" knows anything about any of these alleged "sources," which have never been seen by any man, which, in fact, have no existence whatever, their substance in each case being exactly that of a fevered imagination or A FANTASTIC DREAM. Only those persons who are predisposed to disbelieve the Bible and are of a gullible disposition are capable of being deceived in such a manner.

The King James Version failed to distinguish between the temporary Tent, which was evidently Moses' private dwelling until pressed into special service as a "tent of meeting," and that set off a whole library of speculation regarding "two contradictory traditions" melded into the Exodus narrative by "redactors," but as Philip C. Johnson observed:

"Critics have gratuitously introduced here a confusion which is not at all in the narrative. This Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33:7-11) is obviously not the Tabernacle which had been described to Moses but was not yet built ... What is stated here is that Moses set up a Tent outside the camp, a temporary sanctuary, where he might meet with Jehovah. This enforced and illustrated God's judgment that He would not dwell in the midst of Israel. The lesson was firmly driven home and awakened a longing in the hearts of the people that made a full restoration possible."[3]

Verses 1-6

GOD'S THREAT OF WITHDRAWAL OF HIS PRESENCE

"And Jehovah spake unto Moses, Depart, go up hence, thou and the people that thou hast brought up out of the land of Egypt, unto the land of which I sware unto Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, Unto thy seed will I give it; and I will send an angel before thee; and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite: unto a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiffnecked people; lest I consume thee in the way. And when the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned: and no man did put on his ornaments. And Jehovah said unto Moses, Say unto the children of Israel, Ye are a stiffnecked people; if I go up into the midst of thee, I shall consume thee: therefore now put off thy ornaments from thee, that I may know what to do unto thee. And the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments from mount Horeb onward."

Clements, and others, seeking a way to link this chapter with their imaginary "source `D,' take note of certain phrases indicating, they say, a time subsequent to the days of Moses, but the real connection here is with the action of Jacob at Bethel who required his family to bury all of their personal "gods" under the oak tree; and that was not later than Moses, but centuries earlier! That there was indeed a connection between these incidents is seen in the finding of Clements who wrote: "We should remember that ornaments often took the form of amulets, designed to ward off evil spirits, and so could possess a decidedly pagan character."[4] See Genesis 35:4.

Yet another objection is that God in Exodus 33:5 commanded Israel to do something they had already done in Exodus 33:4. This is easily understood by the discernment that Exodus 33:5 may be parenthetical to show why Israel had put off their ornaments. Also, it is even more likely that God in Exodus 33:5-6 commanded the people not to "strip" but to "remain stripped" of their ornaments. The true rendition of the text here, according to Orlinsky, is "remained stripped," instead of "stripped."[5] Thus, we read in what the people actually did the nature of the commandment they obeyed. Keil discerned this and so rendered Exodus 33:5 as, "Throw thine ornament away from thee, and I shall know by that what to do to thee."[6] Thus, where the people had merely taken off their ornaments in Exodus 33:4, God commanded them to get rid of them altogether in Exodus 33:5-6.

The sorrow of Israel was profound when the full import of their shameful apostasy began to be fully realized by them. Indeed, God had spared the nation upon the intercession of Moses, but here he proposed that he would not accompany them to Canaan. "God's purpose was made plain. The people had shown themselves unfit for his near presence, and he would withdraw himself."[7] Instead of being with them personally and actually talking with the elders of the people, as in their ratification of the covenant, God proposed that henceforth an angel would accompany the people, something of far less desirability. No wonder the people were full of grief and mourning. Their response in stripping themselves of their ornaments and returning to them no more was a mark of genuine repentance (Exodus 33:6), and this was part of the basis upon which God consented, upon the insistent intercession of Moses, to renew in full the broken covenant.

However, Exodus 33:5 showed that God's final decision on whether or not to renew the Covenant was still held in abeyance. "That I may know what to do unto thee" shows that the matter was not yet decided. There was thus, at the end of this paragraph a whole new situation with Israel. Construction of the Tabernacle so elaborately planned and shown to Moses was cancelled for the time then being. No priests would be consecrated until the matter was resolved. Furthermore, God would not be "in the midst of the people" at all, but would appear only to Moses, and even that was not to be while Moses was in the midst of the people, but it would happen "outside the camp," in a place especially prepared as a provisional means of communication during the period when the covenant was abrogated. Despite there being no mention of it, it is axiomatic that God instructed Moses specifically as to these temporary and provisional arrangements.

Verses 7-11

THE TEMPORARY TABERNACLE

"Now Moses used to take the tent and to pitch it without the camp, afar off from the camp; and he called it The tent of meeting. And it came to pass that every one that sought Jehovah went out unto the tent of meeting, which was without the camp. And it came to pass that when Moses went out unto the Tent, that all the people rose up and stood, every man at his tent door, and looked after Moses until he was gone into the Tent. And it came to pass, when Moses entered into the Tent, the pillar of cloud descended, and stood at the door of the Tent: and Jehovah spake with Moses. And all the people saw the pillar of cloud stand at the door of the Tent: and all the people rose up and worshipped, every man at his tent door. And Jehovah spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend. And he turned again into the camp: but his minister Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, departed not out of the Tent."

"Moses used to take the Tent ..." The Septuagint (LXX) here has, "And Moses took his tabernacle, etc," From this it appears that the temporary Tent was Moses own private dwelling, probably the best available in all Israel. Note also that Moses provided for himself other quarters and that the tent which had formerly been his was devoted exclusively for interim service as the Tabernacle which at that time had not yet been constructed. Moses continued to live in the midst of the people.

That distinctive word in the O.T., which alone should be rendered "tabernacle" does not even appear in this chapter; and thus there is no excuse for confusing Moses' Tent with the Mosaic Tabernacle.[8] "What is here meant is a tent appointed for this temporary purpose by Moses, possibly that in which he was accustomed to dwell."[9]

This withdrawal of the presence of God from the polluted camp of Israel was discerned with a great deal of apprehension and consternation on Israel's part. "It was regarded by them as the first step in the total abandonment with which God had threatened them."[10] Of course, this created intense alarm in Israel.

"Every man ... looked after Moses until he was gone into the Tent ..." True to their purpose of objecting to everything, Gressman denied that this Tent was outside the camp of Israel, "Only if the Tent, like the Tabernacle, were in the center of the camp," he says, "could it be seen by all."[11] "But Numbers 11:24-30 speaks strongly against this view. Since the Tent in all probability was pitched on a high place above the camp, the objection Beer makes is unnecessary."[12] Indeed, are not all objections to God's Word unnecessary?

This whole paragraph deals with that period of rebellion on Israel's part, before the tabernacle was constructed, as indicated by the totally different situation.

  1. No sacrifices were offered.

  2. There was no High Priest, nor even any lesser priests.

  3. This Tent was "without" (outside the polluted camp of Israel, not in the midst of it.

  4. When Moses needed someone to watch the Tent, he gave the commission to Joshua, not to Aaron, perhaps because Joshua was the ONLY ONE in Israel who had not danced around the golden calf.

Note the reference in Exodus 33:11 to the fact of Joshua's being "a young man." Moses, at this period was past 80 years of age, and Joshua might have been around 30 to 40 years old. He succeeded Moses for nearly 40 years after the events mentioned here.

Fields pointed out that, on the basis of Numbers 11:26; 12:4, "The Tent where Moses met with God outside the camp was preserved even after the tabernacle was constructed."[13] Upon those occasions of Israel's murmuring, rebellion, or unbelief, the pillar of cloud, indicating God's presence, would appear over this Tent instead of over the tabernacle. At this point, however, "This Tent of meeting was a simple substitute tiding Israel over till the Levitical Tabernacle could be erected."[14]

Verses 12-17

GOD REVOKES THE THREAT OF WITHDRAWAL

"And Moses said unto Jehovah, See, thou sayest unto me, Bring up this people: and thou hast not let me know whom thou wilt send with me. Yet thou hast said, I know thee by name, and thou hast also found favor in my sight. Now therefore, I pray thee, if I have found favor in thy sight, show me now thy ways, that I may know thee, to the end that I may find favor in thy sight: and consider that this nation is thy people. And he said, My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest. And he said unto him, If thy presence go not with me, carry us not up hence. For wherein now shall it be known that I have found favor in thy sight?, I and thy people? is it not that thou goest with us, so that we are separated, I and thy people, from all the people that are upon the face of the earth? And Jehovah said unto Moses, I will do this thing also that thou hast spoken; for thou hast found favor in my sight, and I know thee by name."

Moses' bold and insistent intercession did not cease until God agreed to restore the covenant in its entirety. Through both the last chapter and this one there is a continual play upon the words "thy people," as used by both Moses and by God. God was apparently ready to write off the whole effort as a failure, and addressed Moses concerning "thy" people, that is, the people of Moses; but Moses insisted throughout that the people were not his, but God's (Exodus 33:13,16).

"If thy presence go not with us, carry us not up hence ..." In this, Moses declared that the wilderness of Sinai with God was far better than the promised land could ever be without God! So it is with all the beautiful and desirable things on earth. To possess or win them without God is far worse than doing without them. As Unger put it, "Sinai at its worst with God was better than Canaan at its best without God."[15] "The tempo of intercession is increased here. Moses had asked, and now he is seeking (Exodus 33:13), then knocking (Exodus 33:15,18)."[16] Jesus himself commanded us to "Ask ... seek ... knock ..." (Matthew 7:7,8).

"My presence shall go with thee ..." Orlinsky noted that the import of this is, "My Divine Presence (the [~shekinah]) will go, namely, I will not send again any angel; I Myself will go."[17]

"I will give thee rest ..." The true "rest" promised here was not the sabbath day, nor even their entry into Canaan, but "that God's face would lead men to that rest in which unhindered communion and wholeness will become a reality."[18] Truly to be "in Christ" provides the earnest of that rest which shall finally be fully achieved only when men have entered into that higher and better land where all the problems of earth are solved in the light and bliss of heaven. At this point, it appears that Moses had won from God all that he had requested. And yet, apparently, Moses was concerned that God had promised him (Moses) God's Presence and God's rest, but that God had not specifically included Israel in these promises. Therefore, he did not desist until that too was granted (Exodus 33:17). It is of marked significance that God gave Moses no other assurance of the certainty of these great promises, other than God's Word itself, which was all that was needed. Clements comment on this was, "The assurance of this Presence is shown to rest on God's promise to Moses, and not on any image, or representation, of God Himself. God's Word, and not His visible image, provides the guarantee that He is with Israel."[19]

All of the marvelous conversations with God "face to face," and as one converses "with a friend," did not fully satisfy Moses. In all of the previous revelations he had not been permitted to "see God," actually. Moses proceeded to request that also!

Verses 18-23

MOSES REQUESTS TO SEE GOD

"And he said, Show me, I pray thee, thy glory. And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and will proclaim the name of Jehovah before thee; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. And he said, thou canst not see my face; for man shall not see my face and live. And Jehovah said, Behold there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon the rock: and it shall come to pass, while my glory passes by, that I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand until I have passed by: and I will take away my hand, and thou shalt see my back; but my face shall not be seen."

It clearly stands forth in this passage that all other appearances of God to his servants, no matter how vivid or how they were stated to have occurred, did NOT include seeing God's face. The Lord proclaimed here that such was impossible for any man to do and live. No exception to this truth would ever be made, not even for Moses!

It is also evident that, in spite of God's denial of Moses' request to see "God's glory," he was nevertheless shown more than any other person of human history was ever shown - either before or since - with a possible exception of Paul's vision in "the third heaven" (2 Corinthians 12:1-7). Certainly, "This is one of the most mysterious and solemn scenes in the entire Bible."[20] A number of scholars have attempted to answer the question of just why Moses made such a request of God, and there does not appear to be a fully satisfactory answer. Calvin thought that Moses, "Desired to cross the chasm which had been made by the apostasy of the nation."[21] It also seems to this writer that Moses was conscious of some inferiority in his mission as a mediator between God and man and that he sought to remove it by seeing God's face. This was not to be, however, because Moses, human as he was, could NOT be the perfect Mediator, that honor belongs uniquely to the Lord Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, God sufficiently encouraged Moses by what he was allowed to see that he was thereby enabled to continue as the leader of Israel.

"I will proclaim the name of Jehovah before thee ..." Esses, a former Jewish rabbi, now a believer, has an interesting comment on this:

"The name that God is going to proclaim is JESUS. That is the true name that Moses will call upon, because all the power in the universe is tied up in that name. YHWH, the name that the German translator translated as `Jehovah' is an unpronounceable word in the Hebrew. There is no such name as Jehovah."[22]

There are a great many things in this mysterious passage that support what Esses said here. Certainly, he is correct about Jehovah, and the same goes for Yahweh. There is a justifiable resentment which we feel against both of these corrupt renditions of a word that cannot be translated. We should return to the KJV rendition, which is "the LORD." Whatever the exact nature of this experience of Moses, "No other person in the O.T., even among the later prophets, was to be so fully drawn into the inner counsels of God."[23]

"Thou canst not see my face; for man shall not see me and live ..." As Cook said, "Moses' request could not be granted in accordance with the conditions of human existence."[24] No one ever had any trouble with this passage except the critics. Note this unbelieving sneer of Canon George Harford: "Here it would seem that the sight of Yahweh's face must inevitably bring death, as if Yahweh himself could not prevent the fatal consequence."[25] Such a remark, of course, is only a variation of the old atheistic argument that God cannot be omnipotent and all-loving at the same time, because if He were, He would destroy all evil now! We have never known a person who loved the Word of God who did not also find this statement fully satisfactory. "It may well be that to actually see God while we are in the flesh would kill us."[26] In the light of this text, that is certainly the truth, a truth confirmed throughout both Testaments. See John 1:18; 6:46; 1 Timothy 1:17, and 1 John 4:12. That the omnipotence of God should be thought of as compromised by certain things known to be "impossible" to God's various creations is a ridiculous and absurd proposition.

"I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy ..." Paul's reference to this passage in Romans 9:15 is instructive. The meaning of this in the present context seems to be God's disclaimer that God in any sense whatever OWED Moses any such favor as that which he had requested. "The sovereignty permits him to bestow His favor on whomsoever He will."[27] Moses, of course, had not EARNED such a favor, nor did he, in any sense, merit it. Yet, in keeping with God's sovereign will, He gave it to Moses. Nor is it at all to be concluded that such action on God's part was capricious, or that who Moses was, his love of God, and his love of God's people, and his faithfulness as a servant "in God's house," had nothing to do with God's favor. God's blessings throughout history have always been related to and consistent with the lives and character of those whom He blessed.

"I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand until I have passed by ..." This text has entered the hymnology of the Christian faith in a remarkable manner. That it should have done so stems from the truth that, "He that hath seen me (Christ) hath seen the Father" (John 14:9), thus directly relating what occurs in the Christian's beholding God in Christ to Moses' desire of seeing God in this passage. First, there is Toplady's great hymn, "Rock of Ages":

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.[28]

Grace hath hid me safe in thee.

And then, there is Fanny J. Crosby's classic hymn, "A Wonderful Saviour":

A wonderful Saviour is Jesus my Lord,
A wonderful Saviour to me.

He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock,
And covers me there with his hand.[29]

The spiritual insight that discovers our Lord Jesus Christ in this amazing episode is altogether correct.

We shall conclude this study with the following observation from Wilbur Fields, the great Christian Church scholar of Joplin, Missouri. While admitting the correct designation of references to God's "hand," "face," etc. as anthropomorphisms, he added:

"However, we must remember that we cannot improve upon the description of the event that is given. It is easy to explain away the specific reality of the event by trying to explain it abstractly. It is better to have the child-like faith that visualizes Moses in the cleft of the rock, covered by the hand of God, than to utter abstractions that make God unreal."[30]

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Exodus 33". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/exodus-33.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.