To Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, YHWH had given his oath-bound promise that their “seed” or descendants would come to possess the land of Canaan. He instructed Moses to depart and to lead his people to that land, assuring him that he would send his angel before him. According to the Hebrew text, YHWH would dispossess the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, (Gergesites [LXX]), Hivites, and Jebusites who were then living in the land. The Septuagint, however, indicates that the angel would do this. Whether the action is attributed to YHWH or to his representative angel does not affect the basic thought that the Israelites would not be left on their own to drive out the inhabitants of the land of Canaan, a land “flowing with milk and honey.” The Israelites would have an abundance of milk from the cows and goats that would be feeding on lush pasturage. Besides wild honey from bees, the people would also have much honey or syrup from fruits. Whereas his representative angel would accompany the Israelites, YHWH declared that he would not be in the midst of the people because they were stiff-necked or stubborn and, therefore, the possibility existed that he would destroy them on their way to Canaan. (33:1-3)
Upon hearing YHWH’s severe words that Moses related to them, the people began to mourn and, as an outward manifestation of their mourning, stripped off their ornaments. They did this in obedience to what Moses had told them about what they should do. Apparently based on their response, YHWH determined what he should do with the people. Seemingly, from the time of their departure from Mount Horeb or Mount Sinai, the people did not wear their ornaments. A number of modern translations are more specific in conveying this significance than is the Hebrew text. “So from the time they left Mount Sinai, the Israelites wore no more jewelry or fine clothes.” (NLT) “And after leaving Mount Sinai, they stopped wearing fancy jewelry.” (CEV) “So after they left Mount Sinai, the people of Israel no longer wore jewelry.” (GNT) The Septuagint, however, could be understood to indicate that it was at Mount Horeb that the people removed their ornamentation and their robes. Another possible meaning of the Septuagint rendering is that the people did this after they left Mount Horeb. (33:4-6)
It may be, because YHWH had not as yet forgiven the people, that Moses removed his tent some distance away from the area where the Israelites were encamped. This tent came to be known as the “Tent of Meeting [Tent of Testimony (LXX)],” for it was to this tent that the Israelites went to seek YHWH to find out what his decisions and will were. They did so through Moses who had direct communication with YHWH’s representative angel. This was visible to all the people, for the pillar or column of cloud would descend and stand in front of the entrance of the tent when Moses entered. Whenever the people saw Moses going to the tent, they would rise and stand at the entrance of their respective tents, watching until he entered his tent. When the pillar or column of cloud would descend and stand at the tent entrance, the people arose and bowed low at the entrance of their own tents. Apparently this was because the column of cloud was a tangible evidence of the divine presence. In view of the direct two-way communication Moses had with YHWH’s representative angel at the times the column of cloud stood before the tent entrance, the Exodus account says that YHWH used to speak to Moses face to face as does a man when conversing with his friend. (33:7-11a)
Whenever Moses would leave his tent to go to the encampment of the Israelites, Joshua would remain at the tent. He likely did this to prevent anyone else from entering it. (33:11b)
YHWH had told Moses to lead the people to the land of Canaan and had informed him that he would have his angel go before him. Therefore, Moses raised the matter about not having been told about whom YHWH would be sending. This was even though YHWH had told him, “I know you by name and you have also found favor in my eyes” or my sight. The words “know you by name” indicate that YHWH knew Moses well or knew him like someone would know a close friend. Based on his having found favor in YHWH’s eyes or sight, Moses appealed to him to show him “his way,” revealing himself more fully to him and making it possible for him to “know” YHWH (or to have a more intimate knowledge of him as a person) and to continue experiencing his favor. At the same time, Moses interceded for the Israelites, petitioning YHWH to consider that the nation of Israel was his people. (33:12, 13)
YHWH is quoted as responding with the words, “My face [I (LXX) or my presence] will go [before you (LXX)], and I will give you rest.” For Moses, rest would signify being freed from the distressing burden that had resulted from the unfaithfulness of the Israelites and its having incurred YHWH’s wrath. Ultimately, rest would come when he arrived with the people at the place of rest, the land YHWH had promised to their forefathers (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) as the future possession of their descendants. Targum Jonathan interprets the words as a directive for Moses to wait until God’s displeasure had ceased, with rest being granted to him afterward. Both the Hebrew text and the Septuagint, however, seem to indicate that Moses and his people would experience manifestations of God’s presence during their journey to the land of Canaan. It appears that Moses desired more assurances of YHWH’s continued presence with his people and therefore asked that he not lead them away from Mount Sinai unless his “face” or presence accompanied them (if his wrath did not go away from them [Targum Jonathan]). Moses made his plea because of desiring the assurance that the Israelites again had YHWH’s favor and that they were his unique people among all the peoples of the earth. Moses seemingly felt that he could only have absolute confidence respecting this if YHWH’s presence continued to be with them, providing help, guidance, and protection. YHWH’s response to Moses was that his request would be granted, for he had gained his favor and was known to him “by name” (known well as his faithful servant or friend). (33:14-17)
In view of the repeated assurances that he had been given, Moses desired an even closer relationship with YHWH, prompting him to appeal to him to show him his “glory,” the fullness of his majestic being. In response, YHWH told Moses that he would make all his “goodness” pass before him or reveal to him the attributes that distinguished him as the source of all that is good. Moses would hear the proclamation of the unique name (YHWH) that summed up all that he is — the true God who grants favor to whom he chooses to grant favor and who shows mercy to whom he chooses to show mercy. Moses, however, would not see the face of YHWH, for no man of flesh would be able to see the face of the God who is spirit, or experience the revelation of the complete glory, and live. Even a partial revelation of this glory (represented by being able to see only the back) required that Moses initially had to be shielded “in a cleft of the rock” or crag where he would be standing and that God’s “hand” would be covering him until he passed by. (33:18-23; see the Notes section.)
After quoting God as saying that the Israelites were a “stiff-necked people,” the Septuagint in verse 5 continues, “Watch that I do not strike you with another plague and annihilate you.” Whereas the Hebrew text only refers to the directive for the people to take off their ornaments, the Septuagint adds that they should also remove the “robes of [their] glory” or their attractive garments, with the possible implication being that they should replace them with sackcloth.
In verse 19, the Hebrew text literally reads “will proclaim by name YHWH.” The Septuagint, however, says “my name,” which is the rendering found in many modern translations. Unlike the deities that other nations worshiped and which had been named by them, the true God revealed himself by his own name. Accordingly, neither the name itself nor its correct pronunciation came from a human source.
As evident from other texts in the book of Exodus (3:2-6), YHWH spoke to Moses by means of his representative angel. Therefore, through this angel, Moses received communication, including the glorious manifestation that required for him to be shielded. In this respect, Targum Jonathan is specific in its interpretation about YHWH’s glory passing by. It says, “I will make the host of angels who stand and minister before me to pass by.”