This chapter contains a wonderful exchange between Moses and God after the events of the golden calf. We will see that God, despite His anger, still has the capacity for great compassion, blessings, forgiveness and grace. Man, for his part, must demonstrate repentance.
Starting the chapter, the Lord is still angry at His “stiff-necked” people for their idol worship and clear lack of faith. God will keep His promises however, and He tells Moses to lead the people out of the land of Egypt to “the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” The native peoples of the promised land will be driven out. But there is also a dark message for the people from God: He will no longer be in their presence as they travel. They are greatly saddened at this and demonstrated repentance when they took off their ornaments, which were associated with worship of the golden calf. But even with this demonstration of repentance, they would still be making the journey alone. The price for their disobedience is steep and pervasive, for now.
In verses 7-11, Moses communes with God within the tabernacle. This exchange occurs in such a way (with the pilar of cloud – indicating it occurred during the day) that the people are able to observe it. This inspired the people to worship God and “the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”
The latter part of this chapter in verses 12-23 is mysterious, yet also comforting. We get the details of Moses’ conversation with God. As Moses did on top of the mountain when God wanted to destroy the people for their idol worship, he intercedes on their behalf. Moses, although humble and in fear of God, is aware that God extends grace to him. Because of this fact, and because of his compassion and love for the Israelite people, Moses asks that God “consider that this nation is Your people.” Moses also asks for the proof of God’s grace be exhibited in the action of God accompanying them, so that they shall be separate “from all the people who are upon the face of the earth.”
Between Moses’s pleas God says in verses 14 and 17 that He will go with the people and that He will comfort them. God attributes this change to Moses, “for you have found grace in my sight, and I know you by name.”
Verses 12-23 are an open discussion between God and Moses that display for us God’s paradigm for forgiveness, repentance, and the grace and blessings that follow. Moses has an understanding of God that the people do not have, and Moses also has an understanding of the people that is such that compels him to advocate for them. God understands everything about the people, but His anger at their blatant disobedience removes the possibility for compassion and grace. Moses, however, having received God’s grace, dares to approach God and arrange for such forgiveness on behalf of this stubborn, people. Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, it works. We might have had little expectation for how God would treat His people at this very early stage of their relationship, and the appearance of His grace is comforting. Likely the fact that Moses enacted punishment on the people in chapter 32 helped grease the wheels of divine grace. It also seems likely that Moses’ anger at the peoples’ sin pleased God and further confirmed Moses’ stature as His divine representative.
Looking deeper into this interchange between Moses and God, we also cannot help but notice Moses as a Christ-figure. The impression is stronger in the previous chapter when Moses offered that he be blotted out of God’s holy book to make atonement for their sin. But here, we see a different dimension to Moses’ plea. He wants for the glory of God to be seen in His people, and that this will be strongest when God is with them. So where the plea in Exodus 32 was to stop the punishment, the plea in this chapter asks yet more of God, that He accompany them, even after God had said that He would not.
What do these interchanges between Moses and God tell us?
- God’s anger is justified and real, culminating in harsh and deadly consequences
- Despite His anger and desire to punish, God’s ear is open to hearing pleas for forgiveness and expressions of repentance
- God is multi-dimensional in His perspective and His grace is near at hand despite the immediate threat of punishment
- When a righteous man that is favored in His sight makes a request, God is more likely to grant and bless (James 5:16)
- It is seemingly never too late to petition for God’s forgiveness through prayer, request, and true repentance
- Goodwill, goodness, and blessings from God follow the condition of a forgiven soul
The conclusion of the chapter quickly ends an era where God spoke to man in a familiar and regular circumstance. There is not a specific reason for why God spoke to Moses “face to face,” then changes to “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.” We could presume that it is due to the peoples’ having so blatantly worshipped the idol, prompting new relationship parameters, or something else. But the most reasonable conclusion to come to is that we should be satisfied to revel in the mystery of God:
God, being spirit, can manifest as flesh, or however He wishes in the world He created. It is difficult for us to comprehend the details of Moses’ and God’s relationship, its physicality, and the implications. Human language fails at expressing such things and we are left with our faith and our imagination. Whatever Moses “saw” of God surely must have been the merest glimpse of what awaits the faithful in heaven.