In this chapter, God tells Moses to stop lollygagging around and start legging it towards the land of milk and honey so that God can start driving out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. Not my idea of fun, but hey, to each their own.

However, from now on, the Hebrews are going to have to be led by an angel rather than God himself because he’s still peeved about the whole calf thing and might just lose control and “consume” the Hebrews if he spends too much time around them (Exod. 33:3).

Everyone was so upset when they heard that God was struggling not to eat them that none of the men put on ornaments (a sign of mourning). God, apparently not seeing this, tells Moses to tell the Hebrews to take their ornaments off.

A Tale of Two Tents

Exodus33_Moses seeing GodSo Moses apparently has his own tent that he also calls the “tent of meeting.” This one is pitched “far from the camp” (Exod. 33:7), as opposed to the centrally-located tent we just finished building. Another difference is that Joshua, son of Nun, is the caretaker of this one, while the other is cared for by the priests.

Once again, I think we’re seeing evidence of two different traditions being cobbled together – one in which Aaron is a Big Man Hero, and another in which Joshua is Big Man Hero. In both traditions, the Big Man Hero is given legitimacy through his closeness to and association with Moses and, then, the tent.

Anyways, this is where Moses and God like to chill.

So Moses is in his tent chatting with God and trying to make sure that they’re still besties despite the whole calf thing, and God reassures him. As a token of his ongoing friendship, God repeats his name to Moses, and I assume that they hug, though the text suspiciously neglects to mention this.

Can you look on the face of God?

While Moses and God are chatting, we are told that they are speaking “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exod. 33:11). But just a few versus later, God tells us that Moses “cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live” (Exod. 33:20). This leads to a hilarious exchange in which God shields Moses with his hands as he passes by him, and then moves his hand away so that Moses “shall see my back” (Exod. 33:23), which sounds an awful lot like God just mooned Moses.

But back to the bit about seeing God, what’s going on there? Well, first of all, we get a very anthropomorphized God in this chapter. He has a face, he has a “back,” he has a hand. From this, we can understand that there is an actual discrete God-object that can be seen. So is seeing it deadly or not?

  • Genesis 12:7 – We’re told twice that God appeared to Abram.
  • Genesis 17:1 – God appears to Abram.
  • Genesis 18:1 – God appears to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre.
  • Genesis 26:2 – God appears to Isaac to tell him not to go to Egypt.
  • Genesis 26:24 – God appears to Isaac at Beersheba.
  • Genesis 35:9 – God appears to Jacob at Paddanaram.
  • Exodus 24:9-11 – Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and 70 elders climb up Mt. Sinai, where they “saw” and “beheld” God.

But, okay, in all  of these examples, it just says that God “appeared” to someone. It doesn’t say, necessarily, that he let them see his face. That’s why we turn to these verses:

  • Genesis 32:30 – Jacob names Peniel, saying “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
  • Exodus 33:11 – Moses and God speak “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”

I suspect that we’ll be coming back to this subject a few times in our reading. In the meantime, Jared Calaway of Antiquitopia has a nifty little meditation on the subject.