Moses & God

Together they brought up a family: the children of Israel. It wasn't an easy task.

Exodus 33:12-20
as told by Deborah

Moses said to God, “Look, You told me, ‘Bring up these people; but You haven’t said who will go with me.

“You’ve told me, ‘I know all about you: I knew you before you were born; your innermost thoughts and your deepest longings — and I care for you.’

So if You’re all that fond of me, then show me what You plan to do, so that I can be sure that Your intentions are good. Remember, too, that these are Your people.”

God said, “My presence will go with you, and I will provide backup for you.”

But Moses persisted, “If You aren’t serious, don’t even start this. How else will we know that You really do care for us — me and the rest of the people — if You aren’t there? You have to come along so that we can be distinct from all of the other people of the earth.”

“All right, already,” God said, “I’ll do it — because I care for you, and I know the kind of person you are.”

“Show Yourself,” Moses pleaded, “So I can see who You really are.”

God said, “I will make My goodness pass before you, and I will reveal My essence. Understand that I will be gracious to whomever I choose, and will show mercy to whomever I choose.

“And,” God warned, “realize that you cannot see all that I Am, because no mortal can withstand the sight of Me in all of My fullness.”

Photo of a flower

Reflection by Deborah Beach Giordano
October 23, 2017

An Old Married Couple

Moses talking to GodA friend of mine used to say that Moses and God were like an old married couple; they squabbled, and argued, and both of them could get very angry and lose their tempers. But in the end, they always made up; because, above all else, they loved one another.

In this passage these two seem to behave like the parents of disobedient offspring, accusing one another of the problem. Each one says to the other: “Your children…” “Those kids of yours….” Nearly all of us who have passed adolescence heard our parents use that phrase when we messed up (we may even have said such things ourselves as parents): “That daughter of yours…” “Your son…” It’s tempting to want to ignore our own responsibility when things aren’t going so well.

And things weren’t going so well with the children of Israel. They had messed up, big time. Yet who could blame them?

There was still no sight of the “Promised Land,” after all this time. What began as an exciting adventure had turned into an exhausting ordeal. What seemed like a solution to their problems had brought a whole new set of troubles. They were tired, cranky, and bored.

They had tried worshiping a different god as a way to get out of their fix, but that had ended badly. So now here they were, stuck out in the middle of nowhere with this guy Moses. And he was stuck with them.

And neither party was happy with the other.

And God was really unhappy.

Ungrateful Children

God was steamed, in fact: Is this the thanks I get after all I’ve done for them? I work all day, bringing them out of Egypt, putting food on the table, giving them a place to live — and what do they do? Late night parties with drinking and misbehaving, using and abusing the freedom I gave to them! I want them out of My house; let them see how they like living on their own. I’m tired of dealing with your children.

the children of Israel whooping it up

And Moses, nurturer and advocate for the people, immediately reminds God, “Remember, these are Your people.” You can’t lay the whole responsibility on me. This was Your idea. You wanted a family; and You said You loved Me — and the children. Are You going to abandon us now?

Moses knew how to get his way with God: he went right for the heart. At that moment you can almost feel the peace and calm begin to descend. The divine rage subsides. When love enters in, anger departs. God sighs: Oh, all right. Of course I’ll be there; you know I love you. And those kids … of ours.

Who Are You, Really?

But Moses needed further assurance; just a few moments ago God had warned him that the divine wrath was so great that if the people strayed yet again, it could destroy them. And Moses well understood the extent and ferocity of God’s power.


He did not want to risk the lives of the children of Israel: those utterly human beings, inevitably prone to mischief and mess ups, invariably tempted by glib phrases and glittery ornaments. Don’t start something You don’t want to finish; don’t do harm instead of good; don’t hurt the ones You love.

Beyond God’s promise to continue to be with the people; supporting and guiding them, Moses needed to know if God could be trusted with this precious community — this troublesome, frustrating, stubborn, but ultimately lovable collection of individuals. Who was this “I Am,” deeply and truly? What was the essential, ultimate reality of God?

Moses pleaded to God: Show me who you really are; reveal Your True Self. I’ve got to know if I can trust You.

Divine Freedom

God agreed to the Big Reveal with two understandings: first, God insisted upon divine freedom; no limits, no conditions, no restraint: “I will be gracious to whomever I choose, and will show mercy to whomever I choose.” Secondly, God warned against any presumption that a Part could convey the Whole: “No mortal can see My fullness and survive.” It would blow your mind. The reality of God is beyond human comprehension, That Which Is is greater than all we know and all we can imagine.

Then God allowed Moses to see God’s back — just a hint of aspects of divine character. This glorious revelation was beyond description; the writer tells us only that it was “God’s goodness.” We do not know for certain, but it seems likely that this was the holy tenderness that comforts and encourages, the grace that gives life and hope and courage; the wisdom that teaches kindness and humility.

After going past Moses, God proclaimed the Name: “The Lord, a merciful and gracious God, patient, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness forever, abundantly forgiving.”
    ~ Exodus 34:6-7

And so God and Moses — together again — continued along the Way with the children of Israel. Their story doesn’t end with “happily ever after”; there would be misunderstandings and arguments, stubbornness and anger, and occasional estrangements; but in the end — as in the beginning, and ever and always — love prevailed.

The Story of God and God’s People

love and lightDid it really happen in just this way: did Moses and God speak together like an old married couple? Did they squabble and disagree? Perhaps. It may have felt that way to Moses, it may have seemed that way to those who witnessed it and to those who shared the stories over the years. We cannot know for certain. We cannot know what Moses knew of the divine nature — and even he, the greatest of all the prophets of Israel — knew only in part.

We can only understand the reality of God in terms of our limited human experience; the divine fullness is beyond our comprehension. If it were to be revealed to us, such knowledge would overwhelm us, destroy us, blow our minds. God’s grace and goodness is beyond our ability to know or imagine.

The history of God and God’s people comes to us through stories; stories of human relationships, human desires, human joys, human failings. We know God only through our humanness, and in spite of our humanness. Any name we use for God is necessarily limited and limiting; Father, Mother, Friend, Savior, Lord, Comforter: all are mere metaphors, anemic symbols, revealing, at best, only an infinitesimal part of the Whole. Now we know in part; but one day we shall know even as we are known.

God is greater than we can imagine, more glorious than our most extravagant dreams, merciful and gracious, patient, abundantly forgiving, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness forever. Hallelujah!

Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,


Suggested Spiritual Exercise

What is the story between you and God?

Illustration credits:
Moses Praying on the Mountain, 1922, J.H. Hartley
The Adoration of the Golden Calf, 1633, Nicolas Poussin