Exodus 33 Study Notes


33:1-5 The instruction to set out for the land promised to Israel, in terms similar to those used before the golden calf incident (13:21-22; 14:19), might suggest that all was well. The Lord even said that he would drive out the land’s current inhabitants. He added, however, that he would not go among the Israelites. This amounted to saying that there would be no use for the tabernacle to be built, since it was intended as the dwelling of the Lord among his people (29:45-46). Earlier the Israelites had questioned whether the Lord was among them (17:7), and now he assured them that he would not be.

33:6 The verb translated stripped recalls 3:22 and 12:36, which use a form of the same Hebrew verb to speak of the Egyptians being “plundered” when they gave gold and silver items to the Israelites. The disobedience of the Israelites made them like the Egyptians in worship and now in the loss of their ornaments.


Hebrew pronunciation [kah SHEH]
CSB translation harsh, stiff, hard
Uses in Exodus 7
Uses in the OT 36
Focus passage Exodus 33:3,5

Qasheh describes difficult or hard labor (Ex 1:14; 6:9), fierce battles (2Sm 2:17), harsh masters (Is 19:4), and severe storms (Is 27:8). Eight times it indicates “stiff-necked” (Dt 9:6). Qasheh suggests unrelenting love (Sg 8:6), troubling visions (Is 21:2), obstinate ways (Jdg 2:19), and broken hearts (1Sm 1:15). Adverbially, it connotes harshly (Gn 42:30). Nominally, it is hardship or bad news (1Kg 14:6). Qasheh derives from qashah (30x), be severe (1Sm 5:7), harsh (2Sm 19:43), difficult (Dt 1:17), cruel (Gn 49:7), or a hardship (Dt 15:18). The passive participle connotes dejected (Is 8:21). Causative and intensive forms imply harden (Ex 7:3). The causative is treat harshly (Jb 39:16), oppose (Jb 9:4), make stubborn (Dt 2:30), or stubbornly refuse (Ex 13:15). To “stiffen the neck” (Neh 9:29) appears as be stiff-necked (Dt 10:16) or become obstinate (Jr 7:26). Qeshiy signifies stubbornness (Dt 9:27).

33:7-11 The tent outside the camp contrasts with the splendid tabernacle that had been intended for the middle of the camp. At the same time, the tent’s location kept open the possibility of further consideration on all sides without immediate danger to the Israelites. The description of the close access that Moses enjoyed provides a background for his further requests. Moses, more than anyone else, knew what the Israelites were in danger of losing. Joshua was already demonstrating responsibility and loyalty as a custodian of the tent.

33:12 Moses’s polite objection, you have not let me know whom you will send with me, returns to issues that the Lord and Moses discussed at the beginning of Moses’s mission. The Lord had assured Moses that he would go with him (3:12; 4:12,15; cp. 10:10). Now rather than asking the Lord to send whomever he wished, so long as it was someone else (4:13), Moses insisted that the Lord should go with him and with the Israelites as his people.

33:13 Throughout the conflict with Pharaoh, the events in the wilderness, and the explanation of the tabernacle, the Lord spoke of actions designed to make himself known by revealing who he is. In addition, Moses’s desire to know the Lord contrasts with Pharaoh’s boast about not knowing the Lord and not listening to him (5:2).

33:14 The phrase I will give you rest may be short for “rest from your enemies.” It probably refers to security for the Israelites in their new land (Dt 3:20; 12:9-10; 25:19; Jos 1:13,15; 21:44; 22:4; 23:1; 2Sm 7:1,11). This continues the presentation of the Lord as the one who gave his people rest, both from danger and from labor (Ex 16:21-30; 20:8-11; 23:10-12), by his presence and provision (Mt 11:28-29; 28:20; Heb 13:5).

33:15-16 Moses knew that the Israelites’ entering and possessing the land of Canaan would not by itself set them apart from other nations. All the nations had land (Dt 2:5,9,19-22), but they did not have the covenant relationship with the Lord that he had initiated with the Israelites (Ex 3:9-10; 4:22-23; 19:4-6). Only if the Lord went with them would the Israelites have a distinct identity as his special people. The word for distinguished or “make a distinction” is the relatively rare word the Lord had used earlier when he spoke about the identity of his people (8:22; 9:4; 11:7; cp. Ps 4:3).

33:17 The agreement—I will do this very thing you have asked—was a display of the Lord’s favor, or grace, already extended to Moses, who was interceding for the Israelites on that basis rather than on the basis of their merits (vv. 12-13,16; cp. Dt 7:7; 9:4-6).

33:18-19 With these words regarding his grace and compassion, the Lord tied the continued existence of Israel and of any individual within the nation to God’s capacity for and right to show favor even to those who deserved disfavor. Moses himself had provoked the Lord’s anger and had been in danger of dying, though not for the same reason (4:14,24-26; cp. 32:10-11); but Moses had also been shown the Lord’s favor (33:12-13,17). The Lord’s words about grace and compassion would have been encouraging in view of his earlier words, “On the day I settle accounts, I will hold them accountable for their sin” (32:34).

33:20-23 Scripture often speaks of the potential danger of an encounter with God (3:6; 24:9-11; Gn 28:12-17; 32:30; Nm 17:12-13; Jdg 6:22-24; 13:22; 2Sm 6:6-7; 1Kg 19:11-13; Ps 76:7; 103:3; Is 2:10; 6:1-7; cp. Jn 1:18; 14:8-9; 1Tm 6:16). If a person survived the contact, it was because of the Lord’s restraint, often in the form of a specific provision. The description of the Lord’s provision for Moses presents Moses as so small and the Lord as so great that protecting Moses would be like the action of a man who could cover a little opening with his hand while walking past it. Of the Hebrew words for hand, the one used here refers to the palm of the hand (Ex 3:20; 5:21).

The contrast between seeing God’s face and his back is figurative for full and partial revelation. “Face” is used as a way of referring to a person himself (vv. 14-15; Dt 4:37, “presence” = “face”; 2Sm 17:11, “personally” = “your face”), since the face displayed the attitudes of a person (Ps 102:2; Pr 16:15; 21:29).