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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Moses asked to see the glory of God, but was only able to see His back (Ex. 33:18-23). What does that mean? What did Moses see?
The narrative is indeed intriguing but not necessarily difficult to understand. It combines human capacities to see and hear with God’s willingness to be heard and seen. It is about the certainty of God’s presence with Moses and, by extension, with us. We’ll examine the context, then comment on what is heard and seen.
1. Context: The background of the story is the worship of the golden calf by the Israelites at Mount Sinai, a serious violation of their covenant with God. As a result of this sin the Lord is ready to abandon His people in the wilderness. Through Moses’ intercession God promises to take them to the Promised Land through the presence and leading of His angel. Moses insists that the Lord Himself accompany them. The Lord finally accedes to the request. What follows in the narrative is what appears to be Moses’ desire to make sure that the Lord will indeed accompany them.
2. The Request to See: The emphasis on Moses’ part is on seeing. In the Bible reality or creation is apprehended through the eye. Humans are aware of the concreteness of reality and that they can access and understand it through sight. God’s vast creation is open to the human eye to enjoy and to fathom its mysteries. Biblical wisdom literature is, to some extent, based on this conviction that includes observation, analysis, and drawing conclusions from what is observed. But what about seeing that which is not part of creation, namely, the Creator? By not being part of creation, He is not, by nature, apprehensible to the naked eye.
Moses is aware of the otherness of God and phrases his request carefully: “Please, show me [ har’eni, “cause me to see,”“cause to let me see”] Your glory” (Ex. 33:18). The human eye can see God only when he makes Himself accessible to it. What Moses specifically wants to see is God’s “glory” (kabod, “weight,” “glory”), and God denies the request, because “no man shall see Me, and live” (verse 20). We know that Moses and the Israelites had previously seen the glory of the Lord and did not die. This suggests that Moses wants an experience that goes beyond those manifestations of God’s glory hidden in the cloud of His presence. He wants to see God’s glory unmediated; to see Him in the majesty, power, and brilliance of His being. Moses seems to be asking the Lord to break into the world as He is in Himself because this will assure him that God will indeed accompany the people in their journey to Canaan. But finite creatures cannot observe the fullness of the Infinite One and survive the experience.
3. Seeing Through Hearing: Moses will see the “goodness” of God, not through his eyes but through his ears. Yes, the Lord will descend in the glory of His majesty to speak to Moses, giving him what he needs, i.e., a proclamation of His name, of His character, as Yahweh/the Lord. The problem of the sin of the people would not be solved though an overpowering display of God’s glory but through the revelation of His character. He is a merciful and compassionate God (verse 19) who is always ready to forgive “iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex. 34:7). This is who He is! This is what Moses will “see.”
The narrative becomes intimate as God asks Moses to stand on the rock, probably Mount Sinai, to wait. At the right moment God will protect Him from the majesty of His glory by hiding him “in the cleft of the rock,” covering him with His hand. Moses will experience the reality of God’s presence but will see only “My back” (Ex. 33:12, 23), not God’s face. Moses saw only the afterglow of God’s dazzling presence after His unseeable glory passed by. The message seems clear: We can better see the presence of God after His saving action on our behalf. For now we can see only His back.