A view towards Bishopsteignton in mist. As the mist clears, everything becomes clearer

Exodus 33:1-23, 34:1-35

Moses pleads with God.
Tent of meeting, God’s name, Ten Commandments.

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This study is quite long; you may want to split it.

Chapter 33

This chapter neatly falls into three sections, with separate but related themes. So first read verses 1-6

Now let’s look closely at the first verse:

1 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt, and go up to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, “I will give it to your descendants.”

God was still angry about the way the people had just turned their backs on him and had worshipped an idol. Now he does not call them ‘My people’ but rather ‘the people you brought up out of Egypt’.

How many of ‘you and the people you brought up out of Egypt ’ would actually eventually cross the Jordan?

Not Moses! Only Caleb and Joshua, and those who were children when they left Egypt (Numbers 14:30,31).

So Abraham’s descendants would not be Moses and those with him, but rather their children.

2 I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 3 Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.’

First the good news: I will send an angel.

Then the bad news: But I will not go with you.

That wasn’t just bad news – that was devastating news.

God had promised the angel before (Exodus 23:20-33) and he had specifically said that ‘my Name is in him’ everyone had naturally assumed that it meant that God himself would lead them. God now says that that will not be so. They had broken the covenant and must take the consequences.

4 When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments. 5 For the Lord had said to Moses, ‘Tell the Israelites, “You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you. Now take off your ornaments and I will decide what to do with you.”’ 6 So the Israelites stripped off their ornaments at Mount Horeb.

The people had lost their special relationship, their ‘favoured nation’ status and were shocked and distressed. Effectively they entered a period of mourning.

Now the second section: verses 7-11. The following passage does not refer to the Tabernacle – it had not yet been constructed:

7 Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the ‘tent of meeting’. Anyone enquiring of the Lord would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp. 8 And whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. 9 As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses. 10 Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshipped, each at the entrance to their tent. 11 The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young assistant Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent.

Well that raises some questions! How did Moses speak face to face with God when in verse 20 we will read ‘you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.’ ? The best suggestion perhaps is that God would meet with Moses in a special way, but not with a face or mouth that could literally be seen.

God was not permanently present, but it was ‘As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance.’ It was obviously an awesome spectacle, producing the response in verse 10.

And the ‘young assistant Joshua’ was not that young – he had commanded a detachment that fought against the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-16). But he was a Godly young man, choosing to stay in the tent of meeting rather than returning to his own family.

Returning to the ‘Golden Calf’ narrative, Moses urgently needed to speak to God, so rather than returning up the mountain, he went to the tent.

For the final section we will need to split up the following verses, ignoring verse numbers:

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.

Moses had his elder brother Aaron – but after the Golden Calf episode he probably felt he could no longer be trusted as a leader of the people. He also had Joshua, but he lacked maturity. Moses obviously felt it was all too much for him alone. We will have to wait a moment for God’s answer.

You have said, “I know you by name and you have found favour with me.” 13 If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favour with you.

A very personal request; Moses knew in his heart that he had been chosen by God, but he still felt inadequate for the task. To lead the people in God’s ways he needed to know those for himself. Only then would he feel that he could remain in God’s favour.

Remember that this nation is your people.’

How bold! We saw in verse 1 that God referred to the Israelites as ‘the people you brought up out of Egypt’ Moses was having none of that – these were God’s people, and he needed God’s help with them!

14 The Lord replied, ‘My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’

That was an immediate comfort. To personally know the presence of God in our lives is the greatest comfort that the Lord still gives to his people today. But Moses needed more than personal assurance. He needed to know that God would continue to be with his people. Note the phrase ‘your people’ in the next couple of verses:

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?’

‘Here’ was a safe place, with easy access to God. The prospect of attempting to take over a strange land without his help was too much to contemplate. But more than that, how will anyone be able to tell that they have been chosen by God to be his people if he is not with them?

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.’

How close do you have to be to someone to be able to speak to them using their Christian name? Are you that close to God, to Jesus?

18 Then Moses said, ‘Now show me your glory.’

What had he seen of God when he met with him in the cloud on the mountain top (Exodus 24:18)?

Was God hidden within the cloud when he met with Moses in the tent?

As Christians we have the privilege of knowing Christ and having his Holy Spirit living in our hearts. Moses too wanted more: his spirit longed to see God, to know him better.

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.’

Sinful people could not survive in the presence of such Holiness. What would cause our death is a fruitless question – seeing God like that will never happen! It is recorded here to reinforce the fact that God is so far beyond anything we can imagine.

But for Moses, God was prepared to grant him some exclusive insights:

‘I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you’ Can anyone describe what that would mean? What is the goodness of God?

(Give time for people to think – but don’t be surprised if there are no volunteers!)

In the Bible, names are very important. When we say that someone or a business has a ‘good name’ we refer to its reputation; to have your name ‘blackened’ means your reputation has been damaged or destroyed. If a company with a ‘good name’ is sold it is vital that the right to use that name is sold as well.

It is this sense that is attached to names in Jewish thought so when Moses asked God ‘what is your name?’ (Exodus 3:13-15) he was also asking about his qualities, his history and reputation.

So in verse 19 where God said ‘I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence’ – can someone describe what that might mean?

Somehow God would have revealed something of his nature: his Glory, Power, Wisdom, Sovereignty, Holiness, Justice, Goodness, Love, etc.

It is not surprising therefore that we have as the third commandment: ‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.’ (Exodus 20:7)

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.’

No-one else would witness this, it would happen when Moses again met with God on the mountain.

Chapter 34

Read verses 1-11

1 The Lord said to Moses, ‘Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. 2 Be ready in the morning, and then come up on Mount Sinai. Present yourself to me there on top of the mountain. 3 No one is to come with you or be seen anywhere on the mountain; not even the flocks and herds may graze in front of the mountain.’

God was prepared to move on from the episode of the Golden Calf, to wind back the clock and return Moses to the mountain-top, and renew his covenant with the people.

4 So Moses chiselled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the Lord had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands.

What were the people doing? (Chapter 33 v4) They had entered a period of national mourning and were no doubt very concerned about what God was going to do next.

I’m sure they watched with interest as Moses chiselled out the two stone slabs and took them back up Mount Sinai.

5 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord.

As we saw earlier there was more to it than that:

6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.’

What words are used to describe what his ‘Name’ meant?

Compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love, faithfulness, forgiving wickedness.

– but also a righteous God who will not allow sin to go unpunished.

8 Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshipped. 9 ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘if I have found favour in your eyes, then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance.’

In the light of God’s revealed character, Moses again bravely pleads for his people

10 Then the Lord said: ‘I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you.

Yes, replied God, I will do what you ask; I will actually do more than you ask. Here God described a little of the amazing ways in which he will show his love for his people. But there was a ‘but’. In return God would expect something in return:

11 Obey what I command you today.

God’s people were to be distinctively different and needed new customs which celebrated their difference.

Now read verses 11-27

I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 12 Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. 13 Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles.

The religion of the people they were to dispossess would actually be a snare for many generations to come. The goddess Astarte headed a fertility cult: it is thought that in order to encourage her to bring fertility to the land, girls were required to serve for a period as temple prostitutes and the men in their turn were then expected to have sex with them at the temple. It is possible that ‘Asherah poles’ may have been carved phallic symbols.

14 Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.

If God is Almighty, all other gods must be imposters, taking the glory and worship due to Him alone. We must be careful in our Christian traditions where saints are venerated, not to turn homage and respect into adoration and worship.

15 ‘Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. 16 And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same.

God was aware that this would be precisely what the Israelites would do. After the death of Solomon, when the country was divided into Israel in the north and Judah in the south, Israel went into decline – each king was worse than the last until Ahab and Jezebel (Read 1 kings 14:6-16, then chapters 15 and 16. Or see the first study on Elijah).

17 ‘Do not make any idols.

It had always been a common practise, and still continues to this day. People like some form of ‘visual aid’ but that itself soon becomes the object of worship. Because of the nature of God, any image of him made by man can never be a true representation and must therefore be inferior. Our worship must be directed to God alone: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

18 ‘Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread. For seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Aviv, for in that month you came out of Egypt.

‘Passover’ is actually the first day of the festival of Unleavened Bread, and was to be a major act of remembrance to be observed ever since. See Easter study.

19 ‘The first offspring of every womb belongs to me, including all the firstborn males of your livestock, whether from herd or flock. 20 Redeem the firstborn donkey with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem all your firstborn sons.

The Exodus itself, when God’s people were brought out of captivity in Egypt, only came about following the death of every firstborn of the Egyptian people and animals. The blood of the sacrificial lamb on the lintel and doorposts was the sign to the angel to ‘pass over’ that house and save the Israelite occupants.

As a perpetual reminder of that, a sacrifice had to be offered in exchange for the life of every ‘Firstborn’; if it was not redeemed, it had to die.

‘No one is to appear before me empty-handed.

It is traditional, at least in my country, to take a gift if you are invited out to someone’s house for a meal. It seems appropriate then when meeting with God to take an offering as a symbol of your gratitude.

21 ‘Six days you shall labour, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the ploughing season and harvest you must rest.

In a farming community, it was often appropriate for all members of the family to take advantage of the right weather conditions to plough or harvest, working long hours, even sometimes working through the night and into the next day to get the harvest in before the rain came. It was very tempting to work on the Sabbath too!

22 ‘Celebrate the Festival of Weeks with the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Festival of Ingathering at the turn of the year. 23 Three times a year all your men are to appear before the Sovereign Lord, the God of Israel.

These were new festivals which the people were now instructed to observe. As slaves in Egypt there would have been no celebrating! (Each feast also involved giving the firstfruits as an offering):

24 I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your territory, and no one will covet your land when you go up three times each year to appear before the Lord your God.

When the Tabernacle and later the Temple were established at fixed sites, all the men were required to attend these festivals. Consequently there might be a fear that the dispossessed nations might take advantage of their absence and attempt to reclaim their property, but God had taken care of that.

The next two verses seem strangely out of context – they are a direct copy from Exodus 23:18-19 (in fact this whole section seems to be a copy from chapter 23.

25 ‘Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast, and do not let any of the sacrifice from the Passover Festival remain until morning.

26 ‘Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God.

‘Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.’

27 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.’

Moses had indeed written down these words, and he made doubly sure they were included in the books he was writing!

28 Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant – the Ten Commandments.

Forty days and nights without food and water seem to us very strange: but meeting with God in this way was very strange! If God wants to do something extraordinary with us that’s entirely up to him – questioning the hows and whys is fruitless.

The covenant that God was making with his people was conditional. They had to be a holy people and for this they needed instruction. There were many detailed rules, but for now there were ten basic commandments

29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them.

What an amazing sight! This time the people had waited patiently, constantly scouring the mountain to look for any sign of his return. But when he did appear, they backed away in fear. What was this? Had Moses turned into an Angel? This was an amazing, unique change in Moses, and one of which he was completely unaware!

32 Afterwards all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai.

This time the mood of the people had changed, now they were receptive to all that the Lord had to say to them.

33 When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. 34 But whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the Lord.

How does this compare with Stephen in Acts 16:15?

Exodus 32 Exodus 35 NIV Copyright