What is the significance of Exodus 33:1–3, 14?

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go, leave this place, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, and go to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites…Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people…’” Moses then pleads with the Lord to stay with the Israelites [vs. 12–13] and the Lord responds, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

For several centuries God had planned on leading the Israelites out of Egypt and into the land of Canaan. Now, however, he was so disgruntled with his people that he was considering a “Plan B,” as it were. He wouldn’t destroy them, as he previously threatened. Nor would he cancel his promise to give them the land flowing with milk and honey. Indeed, by sending his angel to lead them he would continue to help them in acquiring this land. But he was now considering withdrawing his presence from them. They would continue on without him, and he would help them do this! Only Moses’ pleading (once again) caused God to change his mind and remain with the Israelites.

I do not see how the classical view can account for a straightforward reading of this fascinating passage. Very clearly we find the Lord offering Moses a rather elaborate “Plan B” in light of the remarkable obstinacy of his people. If the future is eternally settled in God’s mind, however, there really can never be a “Plan B,” however things may appear. That is, if God eternally knew he would never do what he told Moses he was planning on doing, then he wasn’t really planning on doing what he told Moses he was planning on doing. So far as I can see, the entire episode is thereby reduced to a rather elaborate charade. Why go to the bother of distinguishing between his presence and the angel as well as mentioning all the various people he would help drive out (33:2) if it was certain all along that he will never carry out such a plan?

A straightforward reading of this text would rather suggest that God in fact seriously considered this “Plan B” until Moses moved him to do otherwise. And the only way this divine consideration could be serious was if the future was open to the possibility of what God was considering.

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