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Exodus 33:12-23

Exodus 33:12-23

Background to the Book of Exodus:
Historical Situation: (History within the text)
The Book of Exodus tells how God took pity on the Israelites, the means chosen to liberate them from the Egyptians, and their consequent journeys in the wilderness. The story begins after the Israelites have been in Egypt for several generations and a new Pharaoh comes to the throne who is threatened by the number of foreigners (Israelites) in the land and takes hard measures to subdue them and stop them multiplying. We read of the call of Moses by God, the confrontations with the Pharaoh and his wise men, the subsequent release and flight of the Israelites. The pivotal event was revelation of God to Moses and God giving the Law to the people via Moses. (Put picture in here with link). The covenant set up here is conditional on the people keeping their promises (Exodus 19:5-8) - note the word "if" they do ... "then" you shall be my people.

After the initial laws in Exodus 20-23 we read the story of the wooden ark in which the tablets of stone (which have the Law written on them) are to be housed and carried. Great detail is given about this Ark in Exodus 25-27 before going into further detail about the priests who will serve and the manner of the sacrifices. We read of the people's rebellion and Aaron's role in building a golden calf to worship. Moses returns once more from one of his mountain trips and castigates the people for their unfaithfulness. The Book of Exodus finishes with a further account of the building of the ark which sounds rather repetitious of the first one. Within the Book we are given the origins of such Festivals as Passover and Unleavened Bread.

Some people have tried to find evidence within the Egyptian chronicles that the Israelites were present in Egypt in this period but the lack of written material from that era limits any discoveries. What has been found in general terms is that foreigners did serve in Egyptian households, there were building programmes using 'apiru' and foreigners did attain high service in important households (Johnstone:17-27). Rather than trying to prove historical fact as in the old Western idea of 'facts', it is better to understand the Book of Exodus as 'historiography', that is, the remembered history of the Israelite people which is crucial to their identity as the people of God.
Literary Comments
The Book of Exodus is a mixture of very early oral material which has come from different traditions and been joined together in the one book. The events are pivotal to their faith and as we have four gospels telling us about Jesus Christ so the Jews have different memories of the same events. We have four different gospels, but in Exodus the traditions are all mixed in the same book which makes it difficult reading sometimes. For example, in Exodus 19 Moses goes up and down the mountain several times and one isn't sure if he is up or down.

Some people have tried to identify some of the traditions within the Book: a tradition that uses the name of Yahweh called 'J', another called 'E', the tradition written by the Priests called 'P' and the very easily identified "D' tradition mainly found in the Book of Deuteronomy. It makes sense that different communities as in the NT had different memories and emphases which had become important to them and so when the Scriptures are committed to writing there is a desire to incorporate the diverse memories of people and their experience of God within their lives.
PURPOSE of the Book of Exodus:
To tell the story of how God raised up a leader, Moses, to release the Israelites from Egypt who lead them through the wilderness where they received the Law from God via Moses. This Law showed them how to stay in relationship with God and with each other. It gives detailed instructions for building the Ark in which the Tablets will be housed. In the Book of Exodus we have demonstrated the unfaithful behaviours of the people and God's willingness to renew the covenant. The actions of the people's apostasy and God's willingness to renew the covenant is repeated many times in the history of the people.

Context of Exodus 33:12-23
After Moses has come down from the mountain he confronts Aaron who basically says it was the people's fault and the calf came out of the fire (Exod 32:21-24). Moses calls all those who are loyal to God to stand with him and those who respond are the sons of Levi (Moses' own tribe). Moses instructed them to slay all the men in the camp, after which Moses went back up the mountain to atone with God over their sin of apostasy (worshipping the image of the golden calf). God forgives them, but also forecasts that when a divine visitation occurs, they will suffer their sin upon them (Exod 32:34). Exod 32:35 then reports a plague that the Lord sent on them. This seems to contradict the message of forgiveness in v.33. After this Moses is told to lead the people to the promised land, but God will not be with them (Exod 33:1-3). The threat of God consuming them is repeated and again they are instructed to strip off all their ornaments. There is an interlude in the text in which we we are told about the tent of the meeting which is the earliest tradition related to the presence of God with the people. It was the tent which could be carried while they were wandering in the wilderness and later was paraded around the walls of Jericho. The lectionary reading is a dialogue between Moses and the Lord before Moses is told to cut two tablets of stone on which the Lord will write the words he wrote on the first tablets of stone (Exod 34:1-9). Moses again intercedes for the people asking that God will forgive them and the the Lord makes another covenant with the people with some commandments to follow.

Insights/Message of Exodus 33:12-23
Exod 32:1 -34:35 is placed quite deliberately in this position in the Book of Exodus. The three chapters disrupt the commands to Moses on how to build the tabernacle and it is only after we go through the trauma of the people's apostasy, punishment and final forgiveness by Yahweh that they begin to build the tabernacle. This tabernacle takes up seven chapters for the instructions and six chapters to actually build it. It is no wonder that so much of the Book of Exodus appears repetitious. The tabernacle is a very different affair to the tent of the meeting which was the very primitive dwelling for God's presence in the wilderness. This tabernacle is very ornate and clearly reflects a time when the Israelites were a settled people. It would be almost impossible to carry it around in a wilderness and there was unlikely to be the means by which it could be built. Exod 33 continues the ongoing dialogue between Yahweh and Moses which takes place many times in these three chapters. The three chapters could be labeled: Exod 32 = pattern of sin; Exod 33 = dialogue and negotiation; Exod 34 = a new covenant ( Brueggemann: 927). The question of God's presence has been raised at the end of Exod 32 in a positive and negative way: the angel of the Lord will go before Moses, but when God visits a plague will accompany the visit. Exod 33:1-6 has the same positive and negative pattern in the verses. However, Exod 33:7-11 is a very positive description of the way God is present to the people and to Moses. Moses raises the whole issue of God's presence and what it means in vv.12-23. The description of how the Tent of the Meeting functions is a break between the dialogue of Moses and Yahweh which continues in v.12-23. Vv.12-16 contain two speeches by Moses and vv.17-23 is Yahweh's reply.

Message: Moses wants assurance on who will accompany the people on their journey. The repetition of the verb "to know" emphasises his request to the Lord that he wants to know. Moses doesn't pull any punches when he talks with God. Basically God has to be with them to demonstrate that Moses is God's chosen leader and they are the chosen people. In the middle of vv.12-16 the Lord reassures Moses of his presence, but Moses continues as though the Lord had never spoken. The second speech (vv.15-16) could either, be further insistence by Moses, or reaffirming the statement of Yahweh in V.14. The words imply the former. In vv.17-23, God responds very clearly to Moses assuring him that the divine presence will be there, and again Moses want more from God. Again God complies and shields Moses' face as the glory/presence of the Lord passes by. We have quite contradictory messages about Moses seeing the face of God: at times he does (v.11) and other times he is not allowed to (vv.22-23). Moses asks for and is given reassure in four different ways - he has found favour, he will be given rest, he has seen God face to face and has seen his glory (Brueggemann:940). The last three modes are all manifestations of God's presence. God continues to relate to Moses even after the sin of the people and Aaron's role in leading the people in their apostasy. Moses seems to needs lots of reassurance from the very start of his relationship with God. God provided him with a speaker because he wasn't confident he could speak to Pharaoh (Exod 3). On the other hand, Moses is able to continue to intercede on behalf of the people - he has no hesitation at that point. As a thread running through these chapters is the crucial need for God's presence. This issue of the positive and negative of God's presence made me think about how this affects my life. The presence of the Holy Spirit gives me comfort and assurance of God's love, however, it is that presence that would bring discomfort when I do wrong. Indeed, that presence can keep niggling until one does something to right what ever wrong has occurred. For Christians, God's presence gives some identity which is observed by people and makes a Christian community apparent to the world around them. The way that Moses continues to pray to God on behalf of the people is a model for us. Israel's disobedience in Exod 32 has shattered the covenant, but we know in Exod 34 that God is willing to renew the covenant (Childs: 599). This is quite an extraordinary relationship which Moses has with God, and it is very reassuring that we humans can keep on asking for reassurance and praying for those whom we love. Exod 34 completes this block of material in which Moses now ascends the mountian once more with the blocks of stone and again the request that God travel with them in his forgiveness and mercy. God's response is to make another covenant with a number of commandments tied to it (Exod 34: 11-26). Moses descends the mountain with his face shining and prepares to take up the issue of building the tabernacle. This leads us to the end of the Book of Exodus with the asurance that God's presence went with the people as they continued their journey to the promised land.

OT images/motifs used in the New Testament reading: Mth 22:15-22: there are no direct allusions or quotes in these sections from the Old Testament.

Resources/Worship for Exodus 33:12-23
Worship:I hope it is possible to give the context of the lectionary reading and use different voices to emphasises the dialogue between Moses and Yahweh. x for


The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the Book of Exodus (Johnstone).

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.

*Brueggemann, Walter. "The Book of Exodus: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections". In The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 1. Nashville: Abingdon, 1994.
Childs, Brevard S. The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary. OTL. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, [1974].
Coats, George W. The Moses Tradition. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993.
Durham, John I. Exodus. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1987.
*Fretheim, Terrence E. Exodus. Int. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1991.
Gowan, Donald E. Theology in Exodus: Biblical Theology in the Form of a Commentary. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
*Johnstone, W. Exodus. OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990.
Moberly, R. W. L. At the Mountain of God: Story and Theology in Exodus 32-34. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1982.
Sarna, Nahum M. Exploring Exodus: The Heritage of Biblical Israel. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: 

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