The Tricks of Talking with God
The episode of the Golden Calf in this week’s reading is hard to justify. God had just finished telling the Israelites in the Ten Commandments not to make any statues or idols for worship, and here they go and do exactly that! Well, people sometimes do the worst things—and, in this case, the Israelites paid dearly for their misdeed (Exod 32:35). But there is a follow up conversation to this episode that is often missed.
God tells Moses to “depart from here,” that is, from Sinai, along with the Israelites, and go up to the land that He had promised to Israel’s ancestors, adding “I will send an angel in front of you,” apparently to guide Moses and the people on their journey and dispose of their enemies (Exod 33:1-3). But then God informs the Israelites that “I will not be going with you, since you are a stiff-necked people, and I might have to wipe you out along the way” if there is any further demonstration of disobedience.
The people are understandably upset at this news, and it is at this point that Moses, whose unique standing allows him to speak to God “face to face” (Exod 33:11), goes into action. What does he do? He pretends he didn’t hear what God had just said.
Moses said to the Lord, “Look, You’re telling me to lead this people up [to Canaan], but You haven’t told me who [or what] You’re going to send along with me.” (Exod 33:12)
What? He just said He was going to send an angel! But Moses acts as if he somehow didn’t hear, and without waiting for an answer, he goes on to remind God of a few apparently irrelevant matters: “You did, after all, say that You know me by name”—a sign of special intimacy—“and that I have found favor with You. So now, if I have indeed found favor with You, let me know Your ways, so that I will know how to [continue to] find favor with You. And consider: This nation is indeed Your people.”
This last little sentence doesn’t have any connection to what precedes it. It’s as if Moses, having reminded God of how much he himself has found favor with God, now tries to connect those same warm feelings to the people whom Moses is leading. Israel is in fact Your people, Moses says, the same people whom God had described as his own special treasure in Exod 19:5.
God does not react specifically to this assertion. Instead, He goes back to Moses’ request to know who or what God will be sending with them. God’s answer is often mistranslated: “My Face [apparently a specific angel or divine manifestation] will be going, but I am leaving you here.” This is merely a restatement of what He had said earlier: He will send His angel but God Himself will remain at Sinai.
To this Moses answers: “If Your Face is not going, don’t make us depart from here.” In other words, sending this angel, God’s “Face,” is the minimum that God can be expected to do, but it is certainly not all that God could do. “But how can it be shown that I have found favor with You—I and Your people, that is—if not by Your going with us, so that we may be singled out, I and Your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”
This is another rhetorical trick. It was Moses alone who had found favor with God—nothing was said about the people of Israel! How could they be said to have found favor after having just committed the sin of the Golden Calf and suffered God’s punishment? But Moses slips the Israelites in (twice in fact) with the phrase “I and Your people,” as if his own, personal favor with God had somehow passed over to the stiff-necked Israelites. And surprisingly, God goes along with this rhetorical craftiness. He agrees; now He Himself will be going up to Canaan with the Israelites.
Any reasonable person might happily have left things at that. But Moses presses on. He has a further request: “Show me Your kavod” (this word, sometimes translated as God’s glory, refers to His physical being or presence). Moses’ request to see God’s kavod is intended as a follow-up to God’s agreement to go up to Canaan with the Israelites: “Show me Your kavod” would be a demonstration of God’s sealing the deal. But God cannot allow Moses to see His kavod, so He responds with a kind of compromise solution: “I can make all My goodness pass in front of you” (as He goes on to do in Exod 34:6-7, reciting His merciful traits to Moses out loud) “and I can proclaim the name ‘the Lord’ in front of you” (as He also does there). Both of these ought to be enough to seal the deal for Moses and make it clear that God will indeed “go in our midst” (Exod 34:9). But then God adds that He will not go any further than that: “I will be gracious and merciful to whomever I wish”—in other words, even you, Moses, cannot know everything about Me. Fair enough.
But it is at this point that Moses takes advantage of another feature of biblical rhetoric. Normally, when two people are conversing in the Bible, A says this and B answers that. Strikingly, the names of A and B are usually dropped: “And he said” refers what A says, followed by a second “And he said” that refers to B’s response. But sometimes, B doesn’t answer A. For some reason, B is dissatisfied with what A has just said, but—perhaps because B is A’s inferior—he can’t really argue with A, so he just maintains a stony silence. In those cases, A usually follows up on B’s silence by saying something else. So it’s the same series that is used in normal conversation, except that here “And he said” and “And he said” are both spoken by A.
That’s exactly what happens in this exchange. Moses first says “Show me Your kavod,” and God explains why this is impossible. Then Moses says absolutely nothing. This leads God to add a further explanation of why it’s impossible: “You cannot see My face; no one can see Me and keep on living.” To this Moses again responds with silence. So powerful is his silence that God at last offers another compromise: You can’t exactly see My face, but I will hide you behind this rock and cover you with My hand to protect you, and then you can see Me from behind as I pass by.” Which He does. Once again, Moses’ skill at speaking, or in this case not speaking, has gotten him almost everything he wanted. Truly, he knew how to talk with God.