CDPCKL · The Death of Moses (Exodus 33:7-34:9)

The Death of Moses (Exodus 33:7-34:9)

So last week we ended on a major cliffhanger: the people of Israel have re-chosen God, but they are not certain at all that God will re-choose them. 

Here is a brief review of how we got to this point: 

Some time ago, after they arrived at the foot of Mount Sinai, God signed a covenant with Israel, a contract promising to marry them. And the weeks following their engagement were full of plans for a house that the bride and groom were going to build together. This was a tabernacle, a sacred tent. God was going to leave Mount Sinai, and travel with his new fianceé across the wilderness to a land that he has been preparing for them for hundreds of years! 

But all those plans are gone. Israel broke the covenant; they cheated on God; they committed adultery with a golden idol of their own design. 

And God’s first response was to just wipe them out and begin again with Moses. After all, both God and Israel had signed a contract that said death would be the penalty for unfaithfulness. But Moses begged God to give the people a chance to repent. God relented; most of the people did repent. 

However, this did not undo the damage: the covenant is still broken, the relationship unrestored. God said that he will let the people live, but they are going to live apart from him; he will no longer have anything to do with their future. 

So Moses again climbed to the top of Mount Sinai to see if he could make atonement for their sin. He begged God to forgive the people completely, and sign a new marriage contract, renew the covenant. But God said no; it would not be right for him to simply overlook sin or pretend it did not happen. 

Still, in his mercy, God made up his mind to divorce Israel quietly. He will send her off, across the wilderness with Moses, and let her have the land he was planning to give her. He will even send an angel, an official from his heavenly court, to lead them and clear the land ahead of them. He will generously support his ex for the rest of her natural life. But he will not marry her. He will not live with her. And when the time comes for the nation to be punished with death, he will not lift their spirits up into his heavenly presence — instead, they will descend to the place of the dead and be lost forever. 

Moses failed to atone for Israel’s sin; he simply lacks the ability to restore things back to the way they were. Moses lacks the power to say, “I personally guarantee that, under my leadership, this will never happen again.” 

As a result, God has basically said, “My relationship with Israel is over!” 

But then, at the very last moment, he also said, “…give a minute to decide what to do with you.” 

And that is the cliffhanger we ended on last week: with the people waiting to hear God’s final decision. 

[7] Now, we find out that, during this time of waiting, Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.” Anyone inquiring of the Lord would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp. 

So…this feels like an abrupt change of mood! What is going on here? 

Well, if you recall, the plan had been for Israel to build a sacred tent so God could come and live in the midst of his people: with them but also carefully separated from them so they would not be destroyed by the fire of his glory, his perfection. 

Those plans have been scrapped. But God has not yet completely broken off his relationship with the people. He is still deciding what to do with them. 

So Moses puts together this alternative tent, at a safe distance outside the camp, so he can still meet with God. But by placing this tent outside the camp, he is reminding Israel that their relationship with God is balanced on a knife’s-edge. God is no longer moving toward them, to live in their midst; he is moving away, he is on his way out of the relationship; he has only paused at this point outside the camp to decide what to do next. 

Which means, if any of the people want to seek God’s advice on some matter, they now have to go to him outside the camp. And this is a kind of test for the people, actually. 

Last week, the whole nation turned aside to wild pagan worship. That was essentially a mob action. And it takes no courage at all to join a mob. In a mob there are no individuals, there is only the collective spirit of rebellion and destruction; and later on people can pretend they weren’t there, or claim that “oh, the devil made me do it” or “I didn’t have a choice” or something like that. 

So at this point, if someone wants to restore their relationship with the true God, they have to walk out as an individual in the sight of everyone, they have to cross over that empty space between Israel’s camp and the Tent of Meeting with God. By doing so they are publically declaring their allegiance to the God of Moses. 

Which takes courage! It takes courage to stand up and say, “I am with him. Even if it means leaving my people and my father’s household behind.” It takes courage to say, “I would rather follow God into the wilderness alone than stay back in the safety of the mob.” 

And this must have taken a special courage for those who went out to seek the Lord at this time, because there is no guarantee yet that God will allow them to restore their relationship with him! 

But, as we read on, we find out that this is not just the “tent of meeting”, it is also — really — the “tent of negotiation”: 

Because [8] whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. [9] As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses. [10] Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshiped, each at the entrance to their tent. [11] The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent. 

We do not know how long God took to decide what to do with the people. It could have been days, or even weeks. And this passage is describing what took place during those days or weeks: how Moses went out to discuss terms with God, while the nation stood by watching, worshiping, praying, hoping against hope that Moses will succeed in restoring the broken covenant. 

And this is a definite change in the people’s attitude from last week. 

Last week, when Moses was gone for what they thought was too long, they decided they did not need him as a mediator anymore — they figured they would just go ahead and interact with God directly by trapping his essence in an idol they could carry around. 

Now that they are faced with the reality that only Moses gets to talk with God directly, and that apart from Moses they will have no contact with God ever again…they have learned to pay very close attention to every move Moses makes. 

And as I said, we do not know how long this whole negotiation period lasted, how many times Moses went out and returned. But, beginning in verse 12 here, we do finally receive a summary of how those conversations went: 

Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ Well, [13] If you really are pleased with me, then prove it by continuing to teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you.” 

So this is the first major discussion point Moses emphasised during these days or weeks of negotiations: 

Last week, God told Moses to go ahead and lead his ex to their promised land. He will even lend them an angel to help. But no more personal contact. 

Now Moses is responding to that proposal with this counter-proposal: “Okay. Fine. I could do that. But listen: I really want more than just some random angel to help me. Really, I am hoping that you are going to travel with me. For two main reasons: first, your presence with me will really strengthen my credibility as a leader; second, your continued counsel will actually help me be a better leader.” 

And, by the way, there is an echo here of Moses’ very first negotiation with God, way back in Chapter 3, when God appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. 

Back then, when God said, “Go, I am sending you to bring my people out of Egypt,” Moses responded by saying, “Okay. But what is your name? Which god are you?” 

Basically, Moses’ first step in negotiation is to ask God to travel with him across the wilderness. Not with the people! God does not have to interact with the people if he does not want to; just Moses. 

But of course the people will benefit indirectly from God’s presence through Moses. Which is good, right? And that is the point Moses makes here when he says, “Remember that this nation is your people!” meaning: “If these people are left without your guidance and they screw up again in some very publically embarrassing way, that will reflect badly on you. But if you come with me we might get some better results.” 

[14] The Lord replied, “…okay. My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 

The Lord has graciously agreed to Moses’ first proposal! So he really must be pleased with Moses. 

So now Moses presses for a further concession: 

[15] Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. [16] How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” 

Moses is suggesting that — in terms of effort — there is really not much difference between travelling with just Moses and travelling with the people. But — he is suggesting — in terms of effect there is potentially a huge difference: because if God visibly and publically associates himself with Israel again as they go to conquer the promised land, then the surrounding nations will really sit up and take notice, and God will get all the credit. 

Moses is appealing to God’s desire to reveal his glory to the nations, God’s evangelistic desire to bless all nations on earth with his presence. Moses knows that the best way bring about that blessing is through a nation. So, a minute ago, Moses asked God to prove that he is pleased with Moses by coming with him, but now Moses is asking God to prove that he is also pleased with the people by coming with them. 

[17] And the Lord said to Moses, “Ha ha, okay kid, cool your jets! I will do the very thing you have asked, but only because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” 

So God graciously agrees to Moses’ second proposal: he will travel with the people. But he is careful to say that he is agreeing only because he is pleased with Moses, not necessarily pleased with the people. 

But this does not mean God has agreed to renew the covenant. He will travel with the people, yes; he will give them the land, yes; he will glorify himself through all this, yes. But this is not a blanket amnesty; this is not a promise of forgiveness. As God said during his negotiation with Moses last week, “When the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.” 

But still: Moses has made an amazing amount of progress here! So amazing that, in the next verse, he actually says this amazing sentence: 

[18] “Now show me your glory!” 

Which sounds a bit rude and demanding the way it is translated here. But it is not meant to be. Really the tone here is supposed to sound like Moses’ bursting out with relief, saying, “Really?! You are pleased with me? Oh, uh, great! In that case, please, prove it! Be present with me now!” 

Remember, at the beginning of these negotiations, Moses wanted to know who would be going with him…he still wants to know this. He has already said, “If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you.” He wants to know God better and better, he especially wants to be reassured about God’s kind qualities, now that he has caught a glimpse of what it looks like when God gets angry. 

[19] And the Lord said, “Okay. I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. [20] But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” In other words: you cannot see everything that I am, unveiled, in my totality, because your physical body would explode if you tried. 

…and: wow. It seems like, at this point in the negotiation process, Moses is finally getting everything he asks for. 

Which is pretty amazing. Last week, Moses was hearing a lot of “Cannot!” When he tried to leverage his own relationship with God by saying, “It’s all or nothing: accept them along with me, or get rid of me along with them!” God said, “Nope. Sorry. No deal. You are special, but you are not that special!” 

But it has become clear here that Moses really is very valued by God. Somehow he has gained ”Favoured Son“ status. God is happy to give Moses anything he asks for, as long as that request does not violate God’s character. As long as Moses does not ask God to do something…ungodly — like ignore sin — God is happy to agree. 

So this might be a good point for us to pause and ask: why? How did Moses gain this status with God? Was he especially righteous or something? 

…no. He is a murderer who argued with God the first time he met him, then almost fell under God’s judgment because he had refused to circumcise his sons as he should have. Not a great track record! 

So: why has God said, “I know you by name and you have found favor with me”? What is so special about this guy? 

Nothing. There is nothing special about this guy. Except that God chose him. 

And that is what God is explaining to Moses here when he says, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” We learned last week that Moses is not valuable enough to atone for Israel’s sin and win God’s favour for them. But the reason for that is because Moses is not even valuable enough to atone for his own sins or win God’s favor for himself. No one on earth can earn God’s favour! 

The only way a fallen human being can receive God’s favor is if God decides to give it to that person as a free gift. Moses did not make himself valuable to God; God decided, “I will have mercy and compassion on this guy.” 

The closest analogy we have in our experience is probably with our children. They are not born going, “Oh, mom, dad, I live to please you and earn your blessings!” At least, my children were not born that way. But as a father, I decided, “I am going to take care of these kids, no matter how dirty or smelly or annoying they get.” So: 

God’s favor upon Moses is something God has given out of his own free will; it is not something that Moses earned through his own free will. 

However, there is the added benefit, in this moment, of the fact that Moses alone of all the people — except for Joshua — has not broken the covenant. While God was planning the wedding with Moses on the mountain, the fianceé went away and cheated on them both. So between God and Moses right now there is also that added intimacy that comes from suffering through a crisis together. 

But that does not mean Moses earned God’s blessing through his covenant faithfulness. God had already chosen him to act as a messiah to the people, he had already blessed Moses by calling him up into his presence at the top of the mountain. The fact that Moses was faithful to God’s covenant while he was in God’s presence was not the cause of God’s blessing, it was the result of God’s blessing. 

So now God prepares to bless Moses again in the same way, by calling him up into God’s presence at the top of the mountain: 

[21] Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me — on the top of Mount Sinai — where you may stand on a rock. [22] When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. [23] Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” 

And then [1] the Lord said to Moses, “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. [2] Be ready in the morning, and then come up on Mount Sinai. Present yourself to me there on top of the mountain. [3] No one is to come with you or be seen anywhere on the mountain; not even the flocks and herds may graze in front of the mountain.” 

[4] So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the Lord had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands. 

So the stone tablets have suddenly been mentioned three times in just a few sentences here. Why? 

Because God’s instructions here are meant to be encouraging — for Moses, anyway. 

So far in these negotiations today, Moses has not asked God to renew the covenant. He asked for that last week, and got turned down, and he has not asked again since then. 

But the fact that God has told Moses to bring some blank writing materials with him, and the fact that God has said he is willing to rewrite the previous contract on those materials, and the fact that nothing and no one is allowed to touch the mountain while Moses goes up, just like back in Chapter 19 when God was about to begin his covenant ceremony with Israel…these are all signs that God might actually be thinking about restarting a covenant ceremony. 

But will this covenant be with Israel again, or just with Moses? That is an open question. So far God has said he is willing to begin again with Moses; he has not said he is willing to begin again with Israel. 

Now, no doubt the people understood the significance of all these things. So we can imagine that, as Moses left the camp for that last time, with the stone tablets in his hands, the people stood watching with hope against hope that those tablets might mean a renewed covenant for them. 

[5] Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. [6] And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, [7] maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” 

And none of this is new. 

God told Moses and the Israelites, right after they crossed the Red Sea, “I am the Lord who heals you.” Well, these are the necessary qualities of a healing Lord. Obviously he cannot be hard-hearted or impatient. Obviously he cannot be ungenerous or unfaithful. And obviously, if someone decides to walk away from his healing covenant, they are choosing to retraumatise themselves and their families, and God must protect the rest of the people from that source of re-infection. 

So Moses already knew all this about God, either from experience or God’s direct speech in the past. He heard God say his name — the LORD — at their very first meeting on this very same mountain way back in Chapter 3. So why did Moses ask to see God’s glory, and ask to know God even though he already knows God? 

Well, for one thing, the events of last week were extremely faith-shaking and terrifying. God has said he has found favor with Moses, but it makes sense for Moses to ask him for some demonstration of that favor. 

But it could also be that Moses wanted to hear God say all these things about himself all at once, so that he could find the courage within himself to press in once again for one last concession: one final request that God fully restore back the covenant. 

And before you ask: no, we do not know what exactly Moses saw. We are told he saw God’s back, but not God’s face, while he was covered by God’s hand — but the truth is God is a spirit, he does not have a back, a face, or a hand, especially not in the Old Testament. It is true that Moses saw some visible representation of God’s goodness, his glory. But the focus in this passage — as in every passage — is not on what God looks like, but on who he is; the focus here is on the words God speaks about himself. 

And when he heard all this, [8] Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshiped. [9] “Lord,” he said, “if I have found favor in your eyes, then let the Lord go with usAlthough this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance.” 

This is nothing less than a request for total forgiveness, total restoration of the covenant. This is the same basic request Moses made last week, on the first day after the disaster — the same request God answered by saying, “No, sorry. I cannot leave sins unpunished, that would be unjust. That would be ungodly.” 

Well, Moses still lacks the ability to atone for the past; he still lacks the power to guarantee it will not happen again in the future. So what is he doing? Is he actually asking God to overlook sin again? 

No. He is not. 

Moses has realised he made a mistake last week by trying to match his life or death to the life or death of Israel. His life or death is not enough to justify God renewing the marriage covenant. 

But, if you recall, Moses was just given blueprints for a tabernacle where God was going to live with his people. And those blueprints include plans for an altar and a priesthood. Those plans imply a system by which God’s people can have their sins forgiven through the substitutionary death of bulls and sheep and goats. 

So this time Moses has not tried to substitute his life in exchange for God renewing the covenant. However, he is not asking God to just overlook sin. He is saying, “Please, extend your mercy just a little further: bind us once again into covenant with you, and then activate the sacrificial system so our sins can be atoned for.” 

Atonement for sin can only come to people who are already in covenant with God. God cannot forgive anyone who is not in covenant with him. But how can God bring a sinful, undeserving people into his covenant so they can be forgiven? 

The answer is: by grace alone. 

Moses has figured this out. So now he is asking God to renew the covenant, not because Israel is more righteous than other nations, not because they have earned it, but simply as a gift, a decision, a choice born of God’s free will — a decision that will be paid for at some future date. 


So Moses has finally put all his faith in God’s character, God’s promise that “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” 

And now he waits for God’s answer. 

And that is where we are going to leave things, again: with another cliffhanger. So come back next week to find out if God will choose to have compassion on Israel, and sign a new marriage contract with them. 

In the meantime, however, we are now going to ask that question we like to ask every week: what does this ancient text have to do with us? Is God talking to us here, is he calling us to do something in response to this passage? How are we supposed to apply this to our lives? 

Well, last week we remembered that the pattern of Moses’ life and ministry in Exodus is really a foreshadowing of Jesus’ life and ministry in the Gospels. We realized that Israel’s great rebellion against their first messiah Moses last week was really a preview of Israel’s great rebellion against their final Messiah Jesus. The difference is that, last week when Moses said, now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin,” he went up to the Lord as a living man; Jesus, by contrast, died. 

The New Testament tells us that Jesus suffered outside the city to make the people holy through his own blood. Basically, the people had rejected God’s plan to come and live in their midst; they did not want God to come to them, so Jesus went to him outside the camp. He crossed over the space between life and death alone, in the sight of all the people. He decided he would rather follow his Heavenly Father into death than stay back in the “safety” of life among the people. And so, we are told, he was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. And so: 

It was in the Spirit that Jesus went up to his Father to make atonement. 

So Moses’ negotiation with God today, outside the camp and at the top of Mount Sinai, was also a foreshadowing of the work Jesus did during the days and nights of his death. 

But with some key differences, of course. 

First of all, Moses had Favoured Son status because God had chosen to adopt him. But Jesus had — has! — Favoured Son status because he is the Father’s Only Begotten Son. That means he is not adopted; he shares the same essence, the same substance — the same DNA, we could say — with God. 

Which explains the second key difference: Moses could not atone for the sins of God’s covenant people because he was only human. He contained God’s living breath, as all human beings do, but he was not of God’s essence. But because Jesus is fully God as well as fully human, he did — and he does — have the ability to atone for the sins of God’s covenant people. Jesus was able to die instead of God’s people, thus fulfilling the obligation of death required by the covenant contract with God. 

To say that in another way: Moses could not make any guarantees of future faithfulness. All he could do was point to the sacrifices contained in the tabernacle, and ask God to defer payment until those sacrifices could begin. 

But the sacrifices contained in the tabernacle really just pointed to the need for a true and final sacrifice that would finally atone for all for the sins of all God’s covenant people. That sacrifice was Jesus Christ. And Jesus’ sacrifice did make guarantees. He did not guarantee that God’s people would never break the covenant in the future. But he did guarantee that he would never break the covenant, and that he would apply his perfect faithfulness to God’s people. 

So what should we do in response to this? 

Well, if you are here today and you are not a Christian, this is what God is calling you to do: leave the camp of your people and cross over to be counted with Jesus, outside the camp. 

Now, you may be asking, “Why on earth would I do that? Why would I take the risk of leaving my people, my father’s people, my culture and ethnicity and nation for a new one? I already have everything I need right here!” 

Well…that is a good question. And look, if it is true that you already have everything you need where you are, then: nemind. Stay back. If that is you — if you are already content with your life — then it is likely that God is not calling you, he has not chosen you to join him in covenant. So if that is you, then go ahead and relax…while you can. 

But if you are a more self-aware kind of person, if you know that you actually do not have everything you need, then: listen to that discontent. That is the voice of your gentle Heavenly Father, waking you up to the fact that you were made for more than you have received from whatever culture you have been raised in. If you have come to realise, in your inner-most heart, that you cannot make up for the damage you have done to yourself and to the people around you; if you secretly suspect that all your efforts to earn love are going to fail; if you have come to believe that true love is not meant to be earned, that it must be either freely given or not given at all — then listen! That is the voice of God’s Holy Spirit calling you out to join him in the wilderness, to join his people in the wilderness outside this false, love-earning world. 

Friend, if that is you, then answer that call. 

Now, I know it takes courage to leave the mob, to go out and be counted. So allow me to tell you why you should make the move, what benefits will come to you: 

First, if you have anything to say to God, any question you would like to ask, and you go to Jesus outside the camp, he will meet you there. He will answer your questions, one by one, as you grow to be able to handle the answers. 

Second, if you ask God — in the name of Jesus — to forgive your wickedness and sin, and take you as his inheritance, he will. Not because you have earned any favored status, but because Jesus earned that status on your behalf. You will become God’s child, safe and protected and loved. And God will finally become the Father you have always longed for. 

Third, your life will improve. Oh, not in any simplistic, superficial way! The bible does not promise us ever-increasing wealth, ever-increasing health, the bible does not say that the Christian life is easier. Really, scripture promises the opposite: in many ways, becoming a Christian outside the camp of the world will make your physical life harder in many ways. But scripture does promise us that our Father will use those hardships to actually make your life better — to make you better. As you learn to experience the unconditional love of the Father through Jesus Christ, you will learn to love yourself and others in a way you never knew possible. 

These are Jesus’ words, spoken to you almost 2000 years ago, reserved for this moment: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” 

Now, what about the rest of us, who have already left the camp of our fathers and have been counted with Jesus, what are we called to do in response to this cliffhanger? 

Well, we have the confidence of knowing that Jesus has made guarantees on our behalf. We cannot promise our Father that we will never be unfaithful to the covenant — we are disobedient children — but our Brother and Saviour Jesus has guaranteed that he will never be unfaithful, and he has promised to credit that perfect obedience to our accounts. Thank God for that! 

But because we are truly God’s children, we are also not content with our disobedience. We want to improve. We want to grow to resemble our older brother more and more. 

So let us do this, let us make the request Moses made today in the midst of his negotiations with God — not the request that God establish his covenant with us, Jesus has already accomplished that! but this request: “Father, if you are pleased with us, teach us your ways so we may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.” 

Father, teach us your ways so we may know you. 

And let us make this request with confidence, knowing that we already have his answer, spoken 3500 years ago: “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know each of you by name. 

My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 

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