God and a stiff-necked people: Reflections on Exodus 33-34

God shows himself to Moses and to the people of Israel in incredible ways throughout the story of the Exodus. He protects Moses and raises him up to be a leader in Israel. God come to Moses and speaks to him in a burning bush and reveals his name. In ushering them out of captivity in Egypt, God shows his might pouring out 10 plagues on the land and he shows his mercy in sparing the children of Israel during the 10th plague. God provides a way for them in the Passover by the blood of a lamb. God then leads Israel out of Egypt, guiding them by the cloud of his presence. And if these acts weren’t enough, God then parts the Red Sea as pharaoh’s army advanced behind them. Truly this is a God with control over all things. He has great power and has used it to save his people and to be with them.

Unfortunately the chosen people of God cannot match his faithfulness and so quickly they are turning to those things which are not god. They reject God and turn to idols. This is sin and it offends God to the point that he says his presence can no longer be with the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”

Exodus 33:1–3

Why can’t God be with the Israelites? It is because of their sin. It is because they are sinful and God fears that he will destroy them because of it. He describes their issue by describing them as a “stiff-necked people.”

The idea that God’s presence will no longer be among the people is devastating to Moses. This has been a hope that the God who revealed himself as, I AM, would remain with Israel and guide her. Moses has enjoyed the immense blessing of being in the presence of God and wants this blessing for others.

So Moses intercedes with God. If your presence will not go with us, why did you bring us out of Egypt? How can we be your people if you are not with us? We don’t want your angel–we want you.

Moses then asks to see the glory of God and God passes before him. He hides Moses in the cleft of a rock and God’s goodness goes in front of him and God says in chapter 34:

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.

Moses’ response is to bow in worship. And then he makes his final plea. He wants for the people what he just experienced himself, the presence of God. What argument can Moses make to get God to remain there among the people? What reason can he put forth for why God should make his dwelling in the midst of a sinful people? What does Moses say? In verse nine he says, "If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”

What sort of argument is this? Why had God already said he couldn’t be with the people, lest he consume them? Because they were stiff-necked. Now Moses is asking God to stay with them because they are stiff-necked. Does this make sense?

Let’s say there were two roommates, one of whom was moving out. Jack says to Jill, “Why are you leaving?” and Jill responds, “Because you’re filthy.” So Jack thinks this over and comes back and says, “Jill, I think you should reconsider.” “Why?” she replies. And his thoughtful argument is this, “Because I’m filthy.”

Would that make sense? His filthiness is why she’s leaving. So why would use that as a reason to stay? Do they have an unhealthy codependent relationship? Is Jack too dependent on Jill relying on her alone for his cleanliness, needing her to stay so he won’t be filthy?

While inappropriate for Jack to put that responsibility on another, it is entirely right for Moses to realize that only God can provide for Israel. Because they are stiff-necked they are sinful and that separates them from God. But in their sin, who can save? Could they ever save themselves? No. Therefore, Moses realizes that because they are stiff-necked they need God all the more. It is the problem and cause of separation, but it is also the cause of their great need. Israel is desperate for God to be with them because they know they are lost without him.

Graciously God says yes. He will remain with them, but we see throughout scripture what he does to make a way for our holy God to be with a sinful people. The end of Exodus tells us about the tabernacle and how that provides a way. We sometimes can read about it (or the temple) and see it as a barrier to being with God. Instead we should see in it how our God desires to be with us and for us and that is the way it could be accomplished.

It was the way for generations. The presence of God was seen as located among Israel. But now because of the work of Jesus Christ, the world is different. Read what Paul writes in Ephesians 2:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

Those provisions of the old are fulfilled and nullified in him because on the cross Jesus took the sin that separated. He removed the barriers and brought us together with God. Now in Jesus Christ, we who are a stiff-necked people are blessed with his Spirit and the very presence of God is not confined to a tabernacle or a temple and it is not limited to the few priests. We who are in Christ all have the presence of God by his Spirit and we all are made into temples of the Holy Spirit.

Where once the world went to Jerusalem to seek the presence of God in the temple, now the temples go out from Jerusalem to the world.

A Closer Look at the Israelite Camp and How it Looks Ahead to the Work of Christ

Here is a video that both describes and shows what the encampment of Israel may have looked like. It continues on into more detail about the tabernacle and the inner rooms. Then it jumps ahead to Jesus day and the temple. We read this week in Luke 23 that at the death of Jesus the great curtain that divides the holy of holies from the rest of the temple was torn in two, exposing that sacred space. This signifies the work of Jesus on the cross as removing such a barrier. We now have access because our sin has been paid for by Christ and we all can enter the presence of God’s holiness.

Unlikely Sermon Title: Please, Stop Giving an Offering

Throughout the latter half of Exodus, God is describing for Moses and the people what is required for the tabernacle. There needs to be fine cloth, gold and silver, jewels, and other materials for the craftsmen to assemble this dwelling place of God among the Israelites.

In chapter 35 Moses says to all the congregations of the people of Israel, “This is the thing that the Lord has commanded. Take from among you a contribution to the Lord. Whoever is of a generous heart, let him bring the Lord’s contribution: gold, silver, and bonze; blue and purple and scarlet yarns…”

Moses goes on listing valuable items that were surely precious to the people. The people hear this message and Scripture says they came back to Moses, “everyone whose heart stirred him, and everyone whose spirit moved him,” and they brought a contribution for God’s tabernacle and for its service. These items came in the form of brooches and armlets, and other personal possessions. It was not as though the people went out to the bank and withdrew some spare gold bullion. They took what was being used in one way for themselves and sacrificed it to God, to be used for his purposes. They also gave of their time, such as the women who spun fine yarns and linens. The people brought their treasure, and in doing so revealed what truly should be our treasure–God.

What really amazed me in reading is in chapter 36. Bezalel and Oholiab, along with the other craftsmen God had gifted skill and artistry to, all had to stop their work and come to Moses with a message. The people had continued to bring contributions for God, a free will offering, every morning to such an extent that the workers had far too much. So they tell Moses, “Let no man or woman do anything more for the contribution of the sanctuary.” People gave their treasures over to God to such an extent that it says they had to be restrained from bringing more. They gave what was sufficient and then some.

What a wonderful problem for the craftsmen to have, and what a wonderful testimony to God of how the Israelites were here being joyful givers, gladly treasuring God and his will above whatever earthly treasures they had previously cherished.

Picture It: The Tabernacle

Soon after the flight from Egypt, the book of Exodus describes in great detail the size, shape, material, color, and number of the parts of God’s sanctuary among the people. It can be easy to skim through these chapters and miss their significance. I found that having a visual can help piece it all together.

This is an illustration that was made by Tim Challies, who has done a number of visuals for passages of Scripture or doctrines of theology. Click on the image to see it full-sized and I’d encourage you to click here to see more from him on his site (you’ll see other links to other posts near the bottom).