As part of the story of the golden calf (after the making of the calf), Moses makes two requests of God – “make known to me Your way, that I may know You” (Exodus 33, 13), and “show me Your glory” (Exodus 33, 18). These are actually two separate requests. The glory of God relates to the internal nature of God; while the way of God relates to external actions of God from which we may only infer the internal nature of God. The first request of Moses to know the way of God is granted to him when God responds by saying “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you, and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and merciful to whom I will be merciful” (Exodus 33, 19); and, this is the way of the Lord that in the Biblical conception we are to imitate – “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you but…to walk in all His ways” (Deuteronomy 10, 12).
By the way, the Talmudic rabbi Abba Saul makes a famous statement – “just as He is merciful and compassionate, so you be merciful and compassionate” (Shabbat 133b). Strikingly, Abba Saul speaks only of God’s side of compassion and mercy, and not God’s side of judgment (of truth and strict justice). He does not say just as God is judgmental, so you be judgmental; or, just as God is strict and stern, so you be strict and stern. I want to suggest that the reason that Abba Saul does not speak of imitating God’s side of judgment (of truth and strict justice) is due to the fundamental difference between God, as a source of absolute truth and justice, and human beings who are limited in their subjective interpretation of truth and justice, as reflected in the saying – “we do not see things as they are; we see things as we are”. We as human beings can only imitate God’s side of compassion, and not God’s side of judgment and truth – and, in the Jewish tradition, it is only in a court of law that judges imitate God’s side of judgment. In the Jewish tradition, judges are referred to as Elohim, which has a secular meaning (judge) and a sacred meaning (God conceived as Judge or King) – as judges in a court of law do indeed imitate God who is conceived as Elohim, the Judge of all the earth.
Two things are important regarding the response of God to the request of Moses to know the way of God – “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you, and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and merciful to whom I will be merciful” (Exodus 33, 19). First, God had previously told Moses that the name of God, YHVH, signifies mercy or compassion, and that God is a God of goodness and mercy. The name, YHVH, had already been revealed to Moses at the burning bush as signifying goodness and mercy (Exodus 3, 13-17) – “thus shall you say to the children of Israel, the Lord (YHVH) God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is My name for ever…I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt” (Exodus 3, 15-18). YHVH, in the verse here in the story of the burning bush, is depicted as having seen the oppression and persecution that the people Israel have suffered in Egypt, and the mentioning that YHVH is the name of God in the verse signifies God’s moral opposition to such oppression and persecution as well as God’s compassion for the people Israel. Second, God tells Moses in response to his request to know the way of God that God “will proclaim the name of the Lord” to Moses, in the future tense. The declaration that the name of God will be proclaimed (in the future tense) in the story of the golden calf (Exodus 33, 19) therefore must involve something more than the previous revelation of the name (at the burning bush). The future tense, in my view, indicates that at this point the full significance of the name of God has not yet been proclaimed to Moses. Moses has been told to this point only that in general the way of God is one of goodness and mercy.
The second request of Moses is to be shown the very essence of the nature (glory) of God, and this request is denied. Before explaining why this request is denied I want to give background regarding the two Biblical terms for God – Elohim and YHVH.
Elohim is conceived as the transcendent and universal God of nature and power who has created the entire universe. The term Elohim is associated with judgment or law (דין), and the Hebrew term is sometimes understood as justice – but, it is better translated as judgment or law as it is a function of God’s power (implied in the terms judgment and law) rather than God’s morality (implied in the term justice). The image of Elohim, as Creator and Ruler of the world, is that of a judge (or king) who issues judgments and decrees. A judge in issuing judgments establishes justice. But, justice is imposed by the judge as a function of his or her power and authority. One may disagree with a ruling of a judge, and consider it to be immoral. The verdict, though, must be accepted (in respecting the power and authority of the judge), unless there is an option of appeal to a higher judicial authority. In the case of God, no such option exists. The term judgment (דין), as characteristic of Elohim, the God of power should be understood in a legal rather than moral sense, as a function of God’s power and authority.
YHVH is the very name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush – and, YHVH is conceived as the God who acts in the world (within history) as a God of revelation and redemption (redeeming the people Israel from slavery and giving them commandments on Sinai to guide them), and most importantly demands morality. The name YHVH is associated with compassion and love, and the image of YHVH is that of a parent whose compassion and love for his or her child is unconditional. A judge may be willing to be lenient and understanding in imposing a sentence in a trial. However, such leniency and compassion is conditional, depending upon circumstances of the case, and signs of remorse and change on the part of the accused. A parent’s love for his or her child is unconditional, regardless of the behavior of the child. Incidentally, the Hebrew word for compassion (רחמים) contains within it the word womb (רחם). The image of YHVH is that of a parent who loves his or her children unconditionally like the mother’s love for the child of her own womb. YHVH, the parent, redeems God’s children, the people Israel, from slavery not because they are deserving of such redemption (as according to the Jewish tradition our ancestors, the children of Israel, were idolaters), but due to God’s unconditional love and compassion for God’s children.
Before revealing God’s way (Exodus 33, 19), God informs Moses that the essence of the nature of God is beyond human comprehension – “you cannot see My face, for no man shall see me, and live…you shall see My back but My face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33, 20 and 23). Rabbi Hertz in his commentary (Exodus 33, 23), in my opinion, correctly interprets this passage as meaning:
No living being (including Moses) can see God’s face; that is, penetrate His eternal essence. It is only from the rearward that we can know Him. Even as a ship sails through the waters of the ocean and leaves its wake behind, so God may be known by his Divine “footprints” in human history.
The second request of Moses to be shown the very essence of the nature (glory) of God is denied – “you cannot see My face”. The essence or nature of God is not revealed even to Moses, according to Rabbi Hertz. Rabbi Hertz understands human history as the arena in which the way of God is manifested or revealed, a conception that is implied in the name of YHVH in the story of the burning bush. Thus, his interpretation fits the plain meaning of the passage here where God, in proclaiming the name YHVH, is revealed primarily as a God of history (of revelation and redemption). In the continuation, God reveals the name of the Lord (YHVH) to Moses (Exodus 34, 5) in its full significance representing the way of God – and, according to the Jewish tradition this passage is referred to as the 13 attributes of God that were revealed to Moses. It should be added that Moses is standing upon Mount Sinai. The Torah records (Exodus 34, 5-7):
And the Lord descended in the cloud, and stood with him there (on Sinai), and proclaimed the name of the Lord. And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed. The Lord (YHVH), the Lord (YHVH), God (El), merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in love and truth, keeping love to thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin but who will by no means clear the guilty, punishing the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the children’s children, to the third and to the fourth generation.
In the revelation of God’s name in its full significance to Moses, both terms YHVH and Elohim and both aspects of compassion and judgment are reflected – God is revealed as a God of love and truth, as forgiving and punishing. But, love and compassion precede truth and punishment. God is revealed first and foremost as a God of compassion, repeating the term YHVH twice – “the Lord, the Lord (YHVH, YHVH)” – prior to the mentioning of the term God (El, a derivative of Elohim) only once. Four characteristics of compassion are mentioned – “merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in love”; while “truth” is the only characteristic of judgment that is mentioned. In addition, God’s love and forgiveness extend to “thousands” while God’s punishment extends only “to the third and to the fourth generation”.
Thus, in walking in the ways of God, the balance for us between compassion and judgment is not to be one of equal balance (50\50) but tilted far more to the side of compassion (80\20). In my view, it is legitimate for us as human beings to express issue oriented criticism, which is an expression of our own judgment – however, such criticism and judgment must be expressed within a wider context of compassion, understanding, and forgiveness. Most often we express our compassion and understanding in the context of harsh judgment unwilling to forgive – “yes, you may not have intended… but you…” in which the emphasis is upon judgment and criticism. In the Biblical conception of walking in the ways of God it is to be the opposite in which our judgment is within the context of compassion and understanding – “yes, I do not like that you…but I trust that you did not intend (even when the person may declare that he or she intended, as such a declaration will be understood merely as an expression of upset and anger)…and I forgive you” in which the emphasis is upon understanding and forgiveness.
Mount Sinai then is the place of revelation in two important senses in the plain meaning of the Bible. First, Sinai is the place of the revelation to Moses and the people Israel of God’s will (Exodus 19 – 24) where the covenant between God and the people Israel was established – including the giving of the ten statements (the Biblical term is ten statements and not ten commandments) and other commandments not found in the ten statements to the people Israel. Second, Sinai is the place of the revelation to Moses of God’s way (of the 13 attributes of God revealed to Moses) as primarily a compassionate and forgiving God where God proclaimed God’s name in its full significance to Moses, in the passage just previously cited (Exodus 34, 5-7).