The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


The Backside of God’s Glory

What does it mean to see God’s back?

by Russell Rathbun

Old Testament Reading:  Exodus 33:12-23

For Sunday, Oct.16 , 2011: Year A—Ordinary 29

It seems like God and Moses have realized their grand experiment has not worked out that great. The whole thing is kind of a mess.


After the golden calf debacle and the smashing of the stone tablets, God begins to rethink his involvement.

God clearly feels some obligation, having brought these people out of Egypt and into the dessert, having promised them a land of their own, but God is not really sure God even likes these people.


Maybe it was the rejection.  Like, they don’t really seem that satisfied with the Lord either. As Debbie Blue described in last week’s post, God is kind of scary and distant. God’s not nearly as fun as the golden calf party.

So, God decides that God will not be going with them on the rest of the journey; God will send an angel instead. Moses pleads with God, saying that was not the deal—These are Your people; an angel is not the same; the whole thing won’t work if you don’t come; the people want your Presence. I want your Presence.


God gives in, although it seems a little cryptic. My presence will go, God tells Moses. Having gained some ground Moses pushes farther. Moses pleads again—Show me your glory. It is as if he is saying to God—Look, we’ve been through a lot and we are going to go through a lot more together and I don’t really even know you that well. I don’t even know what you look like. You are asking a lot of me, of the people, couldn’t you just show me your face?

God’s well-known reply is—No human can see my face and live. God offers another cryptic response, an alternative to face-to-face. God will put Moses in the crag in the rock, cover his face with God’s hand, pass before him in all God’s glory, and then remove God’s hand in time for Moses to see God’s back—the backside of God’s glory.

The Hardest Question

What exactly is the message God is sending to Moses? God is not ready for that kind of face-to-face intimacy? Is it an insult because God still is a little hurt about the rejection and not quite ready to make up completely? Or is their some truth to the, no one can see my face and live, thing?

What Moses sees might be something like the wake of God’s glory, the residual effect of God’s full frontal passing-by.  It’s as if Moses (and all of humanity) has no ability to comprehend the fullness of God, but only the resulting impact of God’s presence in the world, in history, in the lives of God’s people.

How do you read?

What does it mean to see God’s back? 


Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Glyn says:

    Stare at the sun and you go blind. But if you turn around and look in the light of the sun you can see everything. To look God straight in the face is the exact opposite of union with the divine. It is opposition. To see God’s back is not to oppose Him but to follow Him. It is to look in the same direction as God and to have proof, a sign, that you are facing the same way because look, that’s where He’s headed.

    Proximity to God is a very tricky situation because if something goes wrong here it tends to be catastrophic. The fall is that much greater. To maintain that proximity requires being guided to God through Christ or, for the Jewish believer, holding on to the guide-line of the Law which Moses is about to receive.

  2. Rev. Russell says:

    Well said, Glyn. But I wonder what kind of an intimate relationship you can have with someone who always has their back to you?

  3. Kurt Lammi says:

    I like the comment in the last full paragraph about how the only thing we humans can handle is seeing the effects of God passing by in the world. We catch glimpses, traces, signs of God acting in the world – but we never see God in all of God’s glory (literally and metaphorically). I think there is truth to the idea that we can’t see God’s face and live. That’s a scary idea. As the first poster said, it’s sort of like trying to look straight at the sun and going blind because of it (although death is even more severe than blindness). Not being able to see the face of God directly shows us how little we are compared to God. However, thanks to God’s mercy and grace, we CAN look upon the face of God in Jesus – God incarnate among us. Not only will we still live when we see his face, but we are also brought to life too! Even if the glory of God the creator is too much for us little humans to comprehend and fathom, the grace of God the redeemer comes into our world so that we can be in relationship with this God in Jesus Christ. So, in light of the second comment posted here, God doesn’t have God’s back turned to us. God is with us in Jesus – and calls us to follow. So, as the first comment said, when we follow, we see the back – we see the effects, and we share those effects with others. (By the way, this God is pretty cool to be so transcendent and yet so imminent at the same time!)

  4. Dummermuth says:

    How about if we tweak this “no one can see my face and live” thing a little bit into: the “being than which no greater can be conceived” cannot be seen as long as you still live, as long as you still further develop, grow, make experiences…?

  5. While I cannot disagree with the concept of ‘following’ is why we see God’s backside (if we are even ‘that’ fortunate), the relationship issue is essential. For some spiritual experiences, like Moses’, are what draw them closer to God, but even those dramatic experiences do not last – or at least are not ‘on demand’ as much as we would like. Seeing God’s backside is more than many ever know. I think a huge question is how do we continue to follow, or how do we live as truly spiritual people even when we feel as if we’re chasing God?

    On a separate note – the pairing of Exodus with the Matthew Gospel (pay taxes to Caesar or not) is interesting. The ‘face’ can be seen and held onto on the coin, whereas the fleeting backside is what ultimately matters.

  6. Phil+ says:

    Love the approach! Your take on the “backside”, is hugely influential. Thanks for that. Here are my two sermon approaches for the passage. I may concentrate only on one, or tie both together. There’s also a nice link with the Transfiguration and seeing God face-to-face in Jesus, his glory in the resurrection. This is a potential third point.

    But here are my two sermon takes:

    The backside issue. This is our experience with God. We want to see God’s glory, but the best we get is safety we don’t understand, glory we can’t see and recognize, and yet, in retrospect the knowledge of God’s having passed by, clear as day, and effects of glory surrounding.

    In this, note that Moses was JUST said to have seen and talked to God face to face (vs 11). So there is definitely a deeper meaning here.

    That deeper meaning is likely referring to God’s glory in the present. That extraordinary glory of God that stitches together time, space, life, laws of physics, circumstances, weather, people, perception to create reality.

    To see that — to fully perceive the glory of God. That is impossible. It would kill. Indeed, as in 1 John 3:2 we will have to be dead to see God as he is. Yet, he is seen in our reflecting.

    This should strengthen us, awaken us to see that safety, perceive that hand of God shielding, celebrate the glory that is revealed.

    The prayer. Moses is so hearty, so full of passion in his relationship with God. This is not a hesitant relationship. It is, as in vs. 11, one like that among brothers. That relationship, along with the concern and faithfulness of the people (suddenly), matters to God. God who is like the pretty girl in school who, when you walk past the fountain wants you to be confident and courageous enough to lift her up and toss her in. Not a relationship among breakable, distant admirers, but one among entangled lovers. That is real spirituality.

How do you read?