Ki Tissa 5780


My presence will go [with you] and I will give you rest. Shemot/Exodus 33:14

We find ourselves, in this week’s text, in the middle of Moshe’s intercession for Israel in the aftermath of the Golden Calf. At the beginning of the chapter, HaShem has told the people to set off on their journey to the Land, but told them that “I will send an angel before you … but I will not go in your midst” (Shemot 33:2-3, NJPS) lest He destroy them because they are so stubborn. He will make sure that the promise of the Land is fulfilled, but will not be there to do it Himself. After a short interlude explaining about the tent that Moshe pitched outside the camp and how HaShem would meet with him there – “The L-RD would speak to Moshe face to face, as one man speaks to another” (v.11, NJPS) – the narrative restarts with Moshe praying to ask HaShem to change His mind and relent form His decision not to dwell in the midst of the people as He had originally promised.

HaShem’s first reply to Moshe’s prayer is short, just four words in two phrases. The first means literally “My faces will go”. The bracketed words in our translation, “with you”, are implied but are not present in the Hebrew text and, as we shall see, this allows the commentators some room for interpretation. The second – “and I will give you rest” – conspicuously uses the singular form of the personal pronoun ‘you’, not the plural, suggesting that the response is being given to Moshe alone, not the people. This also provides grist for the commentators’ mill.

Targum Onkelos changes the first phrase to the Aramaic, “My Shekinah shall go”. This is a noun Onkelos uses to portray the divine presence among people; he also makes the verb ‘go’ singular to match the (now singular) noun. In either case, the verb leaves some ambiguity: is HaShem’s presence to go with the people, or is His face going away from the Israelites? Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Yose, “The Holy One, Blessed is He, said to Moshe, ‘Wait until My countenance of anger passes, then I shall give you rest'” (b. Berachot 7a). He sees HaShem telling Moshe to wait for a while until His anger at the sin of the Calf has cooled down, His angry face has turned or gone away, so that He is then able to look with more equanimity upon Moshe’s request.  Rashi cites the phrase “and you yourself march into battle” (2 Sam 17:11 – part of the advice given by Hushai to David’s son Absalom when he is rebelling against the king, where the same metaphor of “faces going” is used – to suggest that HaShem is saying, “I shall no longer send an angel; I Myself will go.”

The Rashbam combines both phrases together and expands them to say, “I will go with you to conquer the land until I give you rest from your enemies roundabout” – clearly a “going with” – while the Bekhor Shor similarly paraphrases, “I will go in the lead – you will be better off that way”. Casting a slightly less optimistic note, Ovadiah Sforno suggests, “As you journey to Eretz Yisrael, My presence shall go before you but not in your midst.” Perhaps the most fulsome rendition is Umberto Cassuto, who chimes in with, “I Myself shall go with the children of Israel, and I shall cause my Presence to dwell in their midst in all their wanderings.”[1]

The second phrase – and I will give you rest – can also be interpreted in two different ways. Nahum Sarna points out, with an impressive list of references, that it is “a phrase overwhelmingly found in a context of giving relief from national enemies, especially in relation to the occupation of the land.” Peter Enns agrees, commenting rather sharply that, “‘rest’ should not be understood psychologically, as if G-d is promising that Moshe’s mind will be put to ease. It is an expression used in the Pentateuch for entering the land and receiving rest for engaging enemies in war.”[2]  Cassuto, on the other hand, goes the other way, paraphrasing the text to, “I shall give peace to your spirit and let your mind be at ease.”[3]  Neither is he alone; many other translators and commentators follow this line. Rabbi Hirsch offers a third option by proposing that it could mean simply, “I accede to you; I comply with your request.”

Perhaps the most important point on the last phrase is the author’s use of a singular rather than a plural pronoun for ‘you’. Who is HaShem supposed to be addressing here? The context makes it clear that He is speaking to Moshe, but is He using the singular – as biblical Hebrew so often does – to emphasise the unity between Moshe and the people: together, as one, they will all be given rest? Or it He referring just to Moshe and, if so, what does that distinction mean? Brevard Childs’ opinion is that “the explicit use of the singular pronoun” indicates that “G-d’s promise remains focussed on Moshe personally.”[4]  Terence Fretheim agrees, confirming that “this divine reply seems focussed only on [Moshe] as an individual.”[5]  Fretheim goes on to question what sort of presence is entailed: is it a leading presence or a dwelling presence? He makes the telling point that “only in G-d’s constant, dwelling presence among them are they distinctive among the nations. Only then will they know that they are the elect people of G-d.”

Before considering how the verse applies to us as followers of Yeshua, let’s step back from the detail and see the passage so far as a whole. Moshe has started his argument by speaking in very personal terms. He mentions what HaShem has said to him as the leader of the people – “You say to me, ‘Lead this people forward’” (Shemot 33:12, NJPS); he speaks of the personal relationship he has with HaShem – “if I have truly gained Your favour, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favour” (v. 13, NJPS); and only at the end does he add, “Consider, too, that this nation is Your people” (ibid., NJPS). Enns suggests that “G-d’s response can be seen as somewhat of a veiled denial to Moshe’s pleading.” Could this be saying that Moshe alone will inherit the land? What happens next?

Almost brushing aside G-d’s promise to him, Moshe persists and pleads more explicitly for the people. He switches his pronouns from ‘I/me’ to ‘we/us’; he appeals on behalf of G-d’s own reputation and honour. It would be inconsistent, he says, not to go with us when that is the only way that we as a people will be distinct from the other nations and that Your work and presence in us will be recognised: “Your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth” (v. 16, NJPS). Even in the face of the promise made to him, that G-d will set his mind at rest and be with him, Moshe is not content – he pushes on until the whole people are included.

Now flick forward to the first century CE. Here we find another stubborn and pugnacious Jew nearly arguing with G-d: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (Romans 9:2, ESV). Why isn’t Rav Sha’ul rejoicing at the great things G-d has done in Yeshua and that he has a personal relationship with Him and knows that his place in heaven is secure? Sha’ul goes on to answer the question, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Messiah for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (v. 3, ESV). It is my people, he says, my fellow Jews, who don’t know Yeshua. I don’t want what they haven’t got because we are all part of the same people, the same family. Can we hear Moshe in the background, telling G-d that if He won’t forgive His people for
the sin of the Calf, “blot me out from Your book which You have written” (Shemot 32:32. NASB)? If the community can’t be complete, then I don’t want to receive blessing apart from everyone else. Now Sha’ul doesn’t go quite that far and goes on to argue that in the long run, G-d can graft un-Yeshua-believing Jews back into Israel, His people, alongside those from the nations who believe in and follow Yeshua so that when all is said and done, “all Israel shall be saved(Romans 11:26). We find it difficult to imagine how G-d is going to accomplish this, or even if it makes any sense to our finite minds. It has certainly baffled many theologians, clergy and sincere believers who, unable to square this with their doctrines and ideas about what the Bible says and teaches elsewhere, have tried to abandon or neglect Romans 9-11 and treat it as a parenthetic section only relevant in Rav Sha’ul’s day.

But let’s also see where it cuts for us. Are we prepared to settle for a personal relationship/blessing/salvation knowing that friends, family, our community, our work colleagues and many others do not have that assurance, or would we be prepared to hold that until all our family and community are included even if that were to risk or result in our exclusion for their sake? What would G-d make of that? Yeshua said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13, ESV). Are we prepared to lay down our eternal life for the life of our friends?

And here’s the challenge: How seriously do you take the command to love your neighbour, your brother and even your enemy? Could you consider giving up your salvation – if that were possible – so that they might know Yeshua and find salvation in Him?

[1] Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, (Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983), page 434.

[2] Peter Enns, Exodus, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), page 581.

[3] Cassuto, page 434.

[4] Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), page 594.

[5] Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 298.