Parashat Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11-34:35
Moses is the great hero of the Exodus, the deliverer of the Jewish people. He’s also Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher, the one who received the words of Torah and taught them to us. Like every great teacher, Moshe Rabbenu teaches not just by word, but also by example. In this week’s parasha he provides an example that we might overlook if we’re not careful, but that we definitely don’t want to neglect.
Moses sets this example with a simple, but bold, request to God: “Please, show me your glory!” (Ex. 33:18). This request is especially striking when you consider the context. Moses customarily met with God in the Tent of Meeting outside the camp, where “Adonai spoke with him face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (33:11). Now, Moses is there interceding on behalf of all Israel after the incident with the Golden Calf, pleading that God’s presence would go with them even after this sin. God agrees to show mercy and accompany the Israelites, telling Moses, “I will also do what you have said, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name” (33:17).
It’s in response to all this that Moshe Rabbenu says, “Please, show me your glory!” We might respond, wait a minute, Moses, you’ve already seen the glory-cloud of God on Mount Sinai; you’ve already ascended into the cloud to receive the Torah; you regularly experience God speaking to you face to face; how much glory do you want to see?! But that’s exactly the point: In all that we might know and experience of God, whether small or great, we only get a glimpse of his glory. When it comes to the God of Israel, no matter how much we think we know, we don’t know much.
Moses is teaching us this truth by example—and there’s a second truth like it. We are never to stop learning and seeking to learn. Moshe Rabbenu is 80+ years old in this scene. He’s experienced more of God and more of life than most people can even imagine, and he’s still looking for more. He’s telling us that on the spiritual journey we never arrive. Or we arrive only in the age to come, in the time of the restoration of all the things. Since we’re not there yet, let’s keep learning, growing, and seeking more. On the spiritual journey, we don’t arrive until the age to come; and one of the great threats to the whole journey is believing we have arrived. But of course, Moses isn’t just providing an example of lifelong learning—it’s the glory of God we’re talking about here. So we remain humble, thirsty for knowledge of God, and we continue to learn more of him our whole lives.
The Lord tells Moses that no one can see his face and live (which is odd because we just heard that God spoke to Moses face to face; but we’re on mysterious terrain here). The Lord will, however, cause his glory to “pass by” (33:22; 34:6). In this highest degree of revelation, then, we don’t see anything at all, but we hear God’s words:
Adonai Adonai God, merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, full of grace and truth; showing grace to the thousandth generation, forgiving offenses, crimes and sins; yet not exonerating the guilty. (Ex. 34:6–7).
Jewish tradition has identified thirteen attributes of God within these words, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.[*] Moses discovers, and teaches us, that God in his fullest self-disclosure is, above all, about compassion and kindness.
In his account of the life of Yeshua, Yochanan provides a midrash on this passage in Exodus:
And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. . . . For the Torah was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Yeshua the Messiah. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known. (John 1:14, 17–18)
Moses asks to see God’s glory; Yochanan says that we have seen the glory of the Word-made-flesh, which, like God in Exodus, is “full of grace and truth.” Yochanan agrees that “no one has ever seen God,” but adds that One in the Father’s bosom has made him known. Yochanan says that the Torah was given through Moses. He is our teacher, imparting Torah not just through words, but through example as well. And as our teacher he has discovered the reality toward which Torah points: grace and truth embodied in Yeshua the Messiah.
Notice that Yochanan doesn’t say, “The Torah was given through Moshe, but grace and truth came through Yeshua.” Some translations supply a “but” there, as do lots of commentaries and sermons—creating a sharp contrast between Moses and Jesus, between Law and Grace, between the Old Testament and the New. What’s really going on, though, isn’t contrast but continuity. Moses gives us Torah, which describes grace and truth; Yeshua comes to embody that very grace and truth. Moses hears and teaches us God’s self-description; Yeshua is that very self-description making himself known in human form.
Now, grace and truth are just two of the Thirteen Attributes. Why does Yochanan highlight those two in his midrash? Perhaps because Exodus 34 says that Adonai is “full of” these two attributes. In addition, these two attributes, chesed v’emet in the Hebrew, are paired. They complement each other: Kindness, compassion, and understanding, balanced with a clear sense of God as Creator and Ruler of all things. Our compassion is never to violate the reality of God’s righteousness and order; and our sense of that order is never to violate compassion. It’s a delicate balance and Messiah Yeshua arrives on the scene to embody it within himself.
One of our traditional prayers asks God to “Unite our hearts to love and fear your name.” Chesed speaks of the love of God; Emet speaks of the fear of God, that is, healthy respect and awe, never taking God for granted or neglecting his priority. Chesed and Emet are united in Messiah Yeshua, and we want them to be united in our hearts as well. We’re to pursue lives of grace and truth, not just once in a dramatic experience of turning to God, and not just now and then in dramatic moments of crisis, but from now on as a way of life. In the midst of a fractious, confused, and divisive age, we’re to have hearts that are balanced and whole.
Yeshua-followers haven’t always been good at embracing grace and truth simultaneously. We sign up for the truth brigade and forget to love our neighbors, and the stranger, and especially our enemies. Or we sign up for the compassion club and water down the clear standards of morality and truth. In recent years we’ve bought into the either-or, zero-sum, partisan atmosphere of our times. Moses teaches a both-and way of life, the grace-and-truth way, and a lifelong process of humbly learning it. Our master Yeshua embodies that way and makes it known, so that we can pursue it, live it out, and play a small part in making it known as well.
[*] Here’s how Jewish tradition enumerates 13 attributes within this passage: Adonai (1), Adonai (2) is God (3), merciful (4) and compassionate (5), slow to anger (6), rich in grace (7) and truth (8); showing grace to the thousandth generation (9), forgiving offenses (10), crimes (11) and sins (12); yet not exonerating the guilty (13). This last phrase is interpreted as “and who cleanses.” God doesn’t exonerate the guilty, but cleanses them of their guilt when they repent, so this phrase is taken as a reference to his ultimate mercy. (The Chumash, Stone Edition. [Brooklyn, Mesorah Publications, 1994], 509.)