So, we need to find better ways of understanding who God is and what God is about. The best place to begin, it seems to me, is to consult the source. What does God have to say about himself? Exodus 34:1-8 and its context will serve as our jumping off point for this discussion. It is a particularly appropriate text for us to consider for at least two reasons. First, it comes at a pivotal point in the life of Moses and his community. Second, it comes as a direct response to Moses’ desire to know God in a more concrete way.
God Is Real
The first thing that we need to say is that God is real. Long before Moses led Israel out of Egypt, God introduced himself to the patriarch as “the Lord” (Exodus 3:14-15). It is a moniker that God again uses in Exodus 34, and it seems to emphasize that God exists (an impression that is reinforced by the linguistic similarities between “the Lord” and another name that God applies to himself in Exodus 3, “I am“). Unlike the idols that Israel had left behind in Egypt and would encounter again in Canaan, God is imminently real.
Perhaps you are thinking that this ought to be a fact that is patently obvious to anyone who has ever stepped foot in a church (or a synagogue, for that matter), but I am not convinced that it is. In my experience, people often find it difficult to grasp the realness of God. They cannot see Him. They cannot touch Him. In most cases, they do not hear Him speak with an audible voice. And, yet, they are told that God is real—more real, in fact, than anything else they know.
Whether or not people are able to come to terms with the realness of God has everything to do with who they will become and how they will choose to live. I recently heard Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland say that teenagers are not going to give up having sex (a tangible and ethereal experience whose reality cannot be denied) for something that might turn out not to be true, and he is absolutely right. But all of us, at some point in our lives, will have to decide whether God is real enough for us to base our lives upon His existence. Desire, grief, and a host of other phenomena compete for our attention and our allegiance. We will not deny them first place in our lives unless we are convinced that God is even more real than the episodes and emotions that form the fabric of our experience.
God is Qualitatively Different Than anything in Creation
The second point that we need to make about God is that God is qualitatively different than anything in creation. Typically, we use the word “holy” to describe this aspect of God’s character, and yet this word does not always convey the breadth and depth of the difference between God and the world that God has made.
Notice how this aspect of God’s nature is presented in Exodus. Moses cannot view God as God really is because Moses is human. God’s being is so different than anything we know as humans that its full presence would destroy even a man as great as Moses. Sure, some of the difference is ethical, but it is more than that. God is infinite; we are finite. God is transcendent; we are rooted in a single time, place, and culture. And there are differences that we do not have the ability to describe in language, even with our advanced knowledge of the physical world and three millennia of reflection on what may lie behind that world.
Why is it so important for us to remember that God is ontologically different than us? I think it boils down to perspective. If we recognize God’s place in the hierarchy of being, then we are more likely to recognize our own place in that same hierarchy. Recognizing that there is a God—and that God is qualitatively different from us—should inspire in us a genuine curiosity about God and a desire to know God.
God’s Goodness Is More Important Than God’s Glory
One of the aspects of God’s person that is talked about rather often in the Bible is His glory. It is a physical manifestation of a social reality. God has in His very nature a brilliance that we do not possess. In turn, that brilliance symbolizes the majesty and splendor that accompany God’s place as creator and ruler of all that is.
It is precisely God’s glory that Moses asks to see in Exodus 33:18. But that is not what God promises to show him. Instead, God promises to make all of His “goodness” pass before Moses (Exodus 33:19). Obviously, Moses could not see God in all His glory and live (Exodus 33:20), but it is also possible, perhaps even likely, that God was far more interested in Moses knowing His goodness than His glory.
But what exactly does God have in mind when He talks about His “goodness”? It is possible that God has in mind His commitment to provide material blessings to Israel, and it is even more possible that God has in mind His forgiving nature. But the question is left somewhat open-ended, and I think that this is a fortuitous turn of events. God is good—whatever that means. And it will mean something different, in practical terms, for each person or group as they grapple with the unique quality of their own history.
Why is God’s goodness so important? If God exists, if God is as magnificently different as He claims to be, and if God is good above all else, then God can be trusted. God can be trusted when we do not understand the things that He does or the choices that He makes. God can be trusted when tragedy strikes and pain threatens to swallow us whole. God can be trusted when he asks us to do things that seem to run counter to all that is logical and pleasant. Why? Because if God is good, then so are His choices, His actions, and His plans for us.
God Is Complex
A fourth thing that we need to note about God is that God is complex. We see it in our passage in terms of the apposition of God’s forgiving nature and punishing work, but there are many aspects of God’s identity that are characterized by similar tensions. Such complexity should not surprise us, for it is the hallmark of all genuinely personal beings.
It is all too common for people to try and boil God down to one particular aspect of His nature or character. We often do this in ways that will benefit us or bolster our preferred ideology. People sometimes say that God is love because they want to head off any assertions of divine judgement on their behavior at the pass. People sometimes say that God is righteous because they want His wrath to be poured out on their enemies—or because they want divine justification for their own acts of vengeance.
God, however, will not be a pawn in such petty and selfish games. God is a person, and like any other person, He cannot be reduced to a single quality. And, like any other person, God does not like being used.
God Is Involved in History
Finally, we want to note that God is involved in history. The story of Exodus presumes a God who cares deeply about the people of Israel and who is committed to acting on their behalf. It is certainly true that God chooses to act through people; God still does that today. But there is no doubt that God is at work!
It is easy to forget this aspect of God’s identity, especially when we find ourselves overwhelmed by the circumstances of life and wondering where God is in it all. God’s involvement in history does not always conform to our expectations, and, like Job, we may wonder sometimes whether God is, in fact, acting benevolently towards us. That is why we need to return again and again to what God says about himself and to how God has acted in the past.
Reflecting on What God Reveals About Himself
It is interesting that this information comes from Israel’s foundational texts. We do not have to wait for the New Testament for this picture of God to emerge. God has always been the very definition of existence and personhood. God has always been good. God has always been qualitatively different from us, and yet God has also always been involved in our lives.
As you reflect on what God reveals about himself in Exodus 33-34, consider sharing below why they are important to you. What do they mean to you personally, and how do they inform your ministry, your efforts at discipleship, and your involvement in public life?