Artwork by Aurelia Sullivan
Readings: Exodus 33:12-23, Secrets of Heaven #10579:9
So, I need to be completely honest with you this week. I’m feeling conflicted about this text. I’m owning it, it’s my own stuff. Because, I’d always remembered this text out of context, just the final section about seeing God’s glory, about Moses being put in a cleft of the rock and seeing God’s back as God passes by. And I had always interpreted in kind warm, safe, protective way, like when for a little child the whole world is just their parent’s legs and their face is so far away, and that it was more about Moses safety than anything else.
But, it takes on a different cast when seen in the context of the whole story. It seems a little more withholding, a bit more about God enacting a boundary, and that’s different than I remembered. So, we find ourselves in chapter 33 today, very close to where we left off last week. The children of Israel had made and worshiped the golden calf. Moses then comes down from the mountain enraged, and throws down the tablets on which the ten commandments were written and they break into pieces, a heartbreaking picture of a covenant in shambles. There are excuses made and punishments enacted. When Moses returns to the Lord, the Lord says that Moses and the Israelites are to continue the journey but that God will send an angel as God’s proxy to lead them. This feels like a blow, and the people mourn God’s actual presence with them. They are now starting to truly understand how they have damaged the covenant.
So Moses once again tries to advocate for the children of Israel. He petitions God with an insistence that God’s presence remain with the people, and God eventually acquiesces. But Moses goes even further, and desires to see God’s glory. He is intent that things should return to as they were before the golden calf. God even agrees to this and says: I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. This is in a sense, a complete reset, recalling the other time, the first time, that the Lord proclaimed God’s name, I AM, in Moses’ presence, all the way back at the burning bush. But, God also adds this final word: “But you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
Turning now to our Swedenborgian interpretation, we are brought, as always, to a recognition that these interactions are a picture of our own internal processes. Swedenborg speaks of a rock being our faith, and a cleft in that rock being our experience of obscurity. That God’s face represents Divine Truth, but in those obscure and uncertain times when we are focused on external things, when we are unwilling to ground ourselves in the practice of goodness and love, when we are unwilling to open ourselves up to the divine goodness constantly flowing into us from God, wherever we cannot assist Divine Goodness to rise up to meet Divine Truth, this is when we cannot see God’s face, because God’s essential nature will always be Divine Truth given soul and life by Divine Good. (1) And if we can’t connect with that, we can’t see it.
And so that doesn’t make me feel any better about the way I used to understand this text either. It is still a picture of not being in connection with God, and less so a picture of God’s protection and care.
Or is it?
Because the very next thing that God says is: “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets that you broke.” The very next things that God does is to re-establish the covenant. Once Moses does this, he bows to the ground and says: Lord, if I have found favor in your eyes, then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sins and take us as your inheritance.” And God replies: I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people, I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you.” (Exodus 34:1-10)
Well, that certainly is enthusiastic on the part of God! I don’t know about you, and it’s not a good look, I admit, but I know I personally tend to be a little more tentative when repairing a relationship. I’m maybe not going to proclaim how amazing it is going to be when it is already failed before. But God is all in. And I’m realizing of course, that God is always all in, but that it is us that need to learn how to be ready for that.
Because, I hadn’t realized until I ventured well past our lectionary reading for today, that until Moses said “forgive our wickedness” there had actually been no apology, well at least not one that didn’t seem mired in excuses, and triangulation, and defensiveness. Restoration is a process, and God showed up to that process in a way that inspired the children of Israel to repent, that little by little inspired them to do the self-examination that was required for them to be able to re-enter the covenant.
Sometimes when we have done something wrong, knowingly or unknowingly, it does feel like we are thrown into a cleft of a rock. It feels uncomfortable and pokey. And repentance and self-examination isn’t easy. God knows this. If seeing God’s back is all we can manage at that time, that is all we will see, if we need a hand covering over the intensity of God’s glory and God’s call, it will be there for us. But the trajectory is always to get to the renewal of the covenant. We are not supposed to get cozy in the cleft. The cleft and God’s hand is protecting us in the moment, modulating whatever of Divine Truth we can understand, accept and absorb, but ultimately the goal is to stand up on the rock of our faith. To stand up on our own two feet so that we can then choose to bow down with a full knowledge of our shortcomings and a real desire to make restitution.
Knowing as we do, that the literal sense of the bible tells the story of God from a human point of view, when we wish to show up half-heartedly and tentatively to the covenant, then it may seem that God does so as well. We receive what we make space for, and God won’t force us to accept God’s presence unwillingly. But God is patient. There are times we need a holding pattern, and so God holds us. Which I guess does seem like protection and nurture after all. We just can’t see God’s face because God leading us out of the cleft and into the covenant. And thank goodness someone can see what is coming.
In the words of Father Thomas Keating: God is not just with us, not just beside us, not just under us, not just over us, but within us, at the deepest level, and in our inmost being, a step beyond the true self.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #10579 and #10582
12 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.’ 13 If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.” 14 The LORD replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 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?” 17 And the LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” 18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” 19 And the LORD said, “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.” 21 Then the LORD said, “There is a place near me 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.”
Secrets of Heaven #10579:9
Anyone can understand what 'Jehovah's face' serves to mean in these places, namely the Divine and everything which is an attribute of the Divine. Thus His 'face' serves to mean mercy, peace, and every kind of good, but in the universal sense Divine Truth since Divine Truth encompasses every kind of good. Both among people in the world and among angels in heaven Divine Good is embodied within Divine Truth; without it Divine Good does not exist, for truth is the receiver of good, thus also of mercy and peace. From this it now follows that where Divine Good does not exist within Divine Truth, neither does Jehovah's face. It also follows that where evil exists within falsity the Divine is not seen. This is what Jehovah's hiding His face and turning it away is used to mean…