Glimpsing God’s Back – 10/19/08 – Exodus 33:12-23

There’s a spiritual practice called the daily consciousness examen that comes out of the Jesuit tradition.  It’s a fairly simple practice and may be something that each of us already do in some form already from time to time.  The examen is typically done at the end of the day and involves looking back over the events of  the day.  The first thing to call to mind is that God has been present with you throughout all that has happened, whether the presence has been felt or not.  You then go on to express gratitude for the gifts that the day has brought.  There is a chance to go more in depth and consider some of the specific attitudes that you carried throughout the day, how you acted out of love or out of fear, how you accepted or denied an opportunity to take stand on a principle, ways that you were present to God’s love and ways that you were blind to it.  The examen ends with a prayer of gratitude and desire to be attentive to the Spirit the following day.  The purpose is to find the movement of the Spirit in one’s life throughout the day and to pay attention to the ways one is being shaped and led by one’s experiences.  A simplified version of this involves reflecting on one item of the day that has been a blessing and giving thanks.  And one item from the day that has presented a challenge or a grief and acknowledging it as such. 

This question of how to detect God’s presence in a day is not one with any kind of straightforward answer.  We rarely, if ever, experience God in the form of a distinct Presence, like we may experience a person.  The actor and writer Woody Allen has made a number of observations about this.  ““If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.”  He also said, “God is silent.  Now if we could only get people to shut up.” (

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel takes a slightly different route.  He said this: “In our own lives the voice of God speaks slowly, a syllable at a time.  Reaching the peak of years, dispelling some of our intimate illusions and learning how to spell the meaning of life-experiences backwards, some of us discover how the scattered syllables form a single phrase.”  (Heschel, God in Search of Man,  p. 174)        

Moses’ encounter with God in the cleft of the rock speaks a similar message.  The context for this story in the book of Exodus is the time when Moses and the Israelites are camped out around Mt. Sinai.  They have only recently left Egypt and are in the desert between their old home of slavery and their new home of promise.  At Sinai they are in the process of receiving the set of commandments that will shape who they will be as a liberated people.  The particular question hanging around the chapters before and after this story is “How will we be led?”  Or, more specifically, “Who, or what is it that is leading us?”  This is the time when the Israelites were waiting for Moses up on top of the mountain and decided to ask his brother Aaron to help them make a calf out of gold that would be their stand-in leader for this guy who disappeared up onto a mountain and this God who didn’t have any concrete form.  This story becomes sort of the archetypal picture of the meaning of idolatry and speaks to the deep need within the human psyche to have a visible, knowable object toward which to direct our trust and faith.   We need something solid.   When Moses comes down he asks Aaron for an explanation of what has happened.  I love Aaron’s response:  “(The people) said to me, ‘make us a god to lead us; for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him.’  So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold take it off.’  They gave it to me and I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf.”  (Exodus 32:23-24) I don’t know how it got here, it just sort of appeared!  And so it’s always been with the human tendency toward grasping onto things, or institutions, or ideas that give us a sense of security and sureness about where we are headed.  The nation-state, the market, just appear on the scene and fulfill our needs to know that our lives are being guided by a powerful hand.

After Moses grinds the calf up into powder, throws it in the water, and makes the Israelites drink it, he confronts his own need to know just what or who it is that is leading them in their journey.  This brings us right up to chapter 33, verses 12-23.  I’m going to look at certain parts of that and you’re free to turn there if you’d like to look around in it yourself.        

There are some key words that keep recurring in this passage that help give it shape.  One of the first words is “to know.”  Moses begins by saying to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me.  Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’  Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I know you and find favor in your sight.”  Moses finds himself in the position of being known by one who is unknown to him.  He does not comprehend that which has comprehended him and put a calling on his life.  He had received a strong calling with his earlier experience of the encounter with the burning bush, but is again seeking to know just what is this one that had taken ahold of his life.  His longing for knowledge is made explicit in verse 18.  “Moses said, ‘Show me your presence, I pray.’”

Another key word that keeps recurring throughout is “face.”  The word doesn’t show up in the English translation as much as it does in the Hebrew.  Where the NRSV translates verse 14 as the Lord saying, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest,” a literal translation would read, “My face will go ahead of you and I will give you rest.”  Moses then answers, “Unless your face goes with us, do not carry us from here.”  So Moses wants God’s face to go with them and also wants to see God’s presence.  The crux comes in verse 20 after the Lord agrees to go with them, but says, “But you cannot see my face.  For no one shall see me and live.”  So this is the Lord’s solution: “See, there is a place with me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” 

The metaphors here give God very human like characteristics.  Not only does God have a face, but God has a hand and a back.  We can almost picture Moses down in the rock with a big hand covering him and then being removed to get a glimpse of what has just passed over him.  This anthropomorphic language about God helps illustrate something that we may not be able to imagine otherwise.  The face, the part or aspect that defines one’s personality and reveals who one truly is, that part is not something that we get to see of God.  The irony of God’s face going in the lead in front of Moses and the people is that the only part of God they ever to see is God’s back.  It’s as if God is saying, “you’ll never see me in the moment I’m actually there, you’ll only see where I’ve been after I’m already gone.  While you’re still living out that moment I’m already creating the next one, and when you step into that space, I’m out in front of you again.  You’ll never see my leading edge, only my back.”        

From where we stand, we have a partial vision of how God’s presence is leading us.  This is where I come back to the line from Heschel.  “In our own lives the voice of God speaks slowly, a syllable at a time.  Reaching the peak of years, dispelling some of our intimate illusions and learning how to spell the meaning of life-experiences backwards, some of us discover how the scattered syllables form a single phrase.”  If all we get is a syllable from time to time, then the best way to start making sense of what we may be seeing or hearing is look back over where we’ve been.  To see the ways that God has been present to us even when we weren’t aware of it at the time.     

Recently I’ve been rereading a novel by Marilynne Robinson called Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago.  The whole story is a reflection by an aged pastor from Gilead, Iowa, writing a long letter to his young son.  The Reverend John Ames’ health is failing and he anticipates dying in the next number of months.  He had his son late in life and his purpose in writing is “to tell you things I would have told you if you had grown up with me, things I believe it becomes me as a father to teach you” (p. 133).  The writing is full of his memory of his father, also a pastor, who was a pacifist, and his grandfather, also a pastor, who had fought in the Civil War, and also his own mostly solitary life as a pastor in the small Midwest town where he grew up.  At one point he had been referring to his obstinate grandfather who would often have conversations with the Lord as if they were right there in the room together.  A young John Ames had been in the room once when his grandfather and father were in one of their many arguments and the older Reverend accusing the younger Reverend of never having been truly visited by the Lord, of never having the seraphim touch a coal to your lips.  After describing this, John Ames writes this to his son.  “I believe that the old man did indeed have far too narrow an idea of what a vision might be.  He may, so to speak, have been too dazzled by the great light of his experiences to realize that an impressive sun shines on us all.  Perhaps that is the one thing I wish to tell you.  Sometimes the visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time.  For example, whenever I take a child into my arms to be baptized, I am, so to speak, comprehended in the experience more fully, having seen more of life, knowing better what it means to affirm the sacredness of the human creature.  I believe there are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect.  That’s the pulpit speaking, but it’s telling the truth” (p. 91).

We read these stories in Exodus that talk about God said this and God did that and The Lord told Moses to do this and that and it’s fairly easy to feel a big gap from that kind of world.  It seems like God was constantly having conversations with people as if God were right there beside them.  We might wonder if we’re somehow missing the boat if we’re not having a similar kind of experience.  Why can’t we see as clearly?  Why can’t we hear the way they heard?  But this story being told in Exodus and throughout the Bible isn’t like listening to a live broadcast, as if we’re experiencing it at the same time that those in the story are.  This story is being told by a people who are looking back on their own experience and seeing that they have indeed been led and taught and spoken to by this guiding Spirit.  Not that there were never any moments of that when it was actually happening, but it wasn’t always so clear to them.  That’s what this story about Moses in the cleft of the rock seems to be illustrating.  Moses wants to see God’s face and he realizes he is going to have to be content to only see God’s back.  That’s what things look like in the present moment.  It’s only in looking back over the broad scope of the experience that they are able to recognize that God had been with them the whole time, and that things fit together in a meaningful way, and that’s what we get in the way these stories are told alongside each other.   

Another image that all this calls to mind is one of those computer generated images of all the small pictures of faces that actually make up one big face together.  When you stand close enough you can see the individual faces, but you can’t see how they have any meaningful relationship to each other.  As you move away from it the individual faces start to fade away and a bigger picture starts to take shape.  If you stand far enough back you can see is a single image clearly. 

This could be something like our experience of God’s presence.  Even if we do the consciousness examen each day, reflecting on the ways that we experienced grace and peace, we’re still only getting a small picture of what is really going on.  Even if the day was one of those rare days when everything in the world seemed to make sense, we still don’t know where to place it in the broader picture of days that we experience.  It’s a sliver, a tiny part of the big picture, just a syllable of speech.  The syllables that we have don’t form any coherent thought.  But if we are fortunate to have enough days alongside each other, accumulated together, there are times when we can step back far enough to see that there is a bigger picture that is being formed.  Something that holds together all the fragments to form a single image.   Learning to spell the meaning of life backwards.  Something that brings together and arranges all the syllables to form a single phrase.  This might be the closest we get in this lifetime to seeing the face of God.