by Hugh Farquhar
The Revised Common Lectionary Reading from the Hebrew Scripture on Sunday is Exodus 33:12-23. The concluding verse is striking: “You shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”
Years ago, when the older two of our four children were small, we were living in Halifax during one of the Queen’s visits. She was to pass along a known route on her way from the Airport to Government House. We decided to join the crowds along the route to see her as she passed by. We found a space that we thought provided a good view and primed the children to look in the right direction. She was late in arriving, so all the scheduling for the day was off. The children grew restless, and while we were attending to them the Queen’s open convertible sped by. By the time we had reorganized, all the children were able to see was the back of her head, and only a glimpse of that!
My memory of that moment was triggered when I read this week’s Scripture. The language may be strange to our ears, but I enjoy digging into these old stories to figure out their significance.
The Hebrews were a poetic people, and the literature describes profound spiritual experiences in pictorial ways. This chapter of Exodus is about Moses’ deepening relationship with God during the period between his people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt and their entry into the promised land of Canaan.
In Chapter 33 Moses comes before God. He is weary of the responsibility of leadership, insecure about what the future holds, and needing reassurance that God will stand by him through it. He offers a plaintive prayer, “Show me your glory, I pray.”
I understand that prayer. In the Canadian short story by Morten Parker, “The Red Kite,” the main character is traveling home from a hectic day at the office laced with boredom. He is on a commuter train that passes a large cemetery, provoking thoughts about what this fleeting life is about. It’s obvious that this man is beginning to do some deep thinking about life, and it culminates in a remark to his wife that evening, “I long for some great manifestation.” That is Moses’ prayer in contemporary form.
I have prayed it in my own form. When I’m confused, hurting, and lonely, I want to know. I want to see. I want to be certain. God, show me your glory. I too long for some great manifestation.
God is understanding and gentle in responding to Moses – “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.”
What on earth does that mean? I think it means that you and I get glimpses of the glory of God but never God’s full visage. It would be too much for us now and would rob us of the enriching journey of faith. For where there is knowledge there is no need for faith. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “Now we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face.”
I do have moments when I catch a fleeting glimpse of that mysterious power which is part of me and yet is above and beyond me. I experience a passing manifestation of the light in which I live the ongoing challenge of my daily life. But, to employ the poetic words of the text, it’s God’s ‘back’ I see, God’s retreating figure, just enough of God to prompt me to want to walk by faith.
We often sing a communion hymn in my church with the words, “Here, O my Lord, I see You face to face.” But we don’t really mean it. We could not bear it. What we mean is that, blessed by just a glimpse of God’s glory, we are helped to go forward with faith and courage. A glimpse of glory turned out to be enough for Moses, and it is has to be enough for me.
Hugh Farquhar is Minister Emeritus at St. Paul’s United Church, Riverview, NB. For the past twenty-eight years he has been Sessional Instructor in Biblical Studies at Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax, NS.