3.17 The Treasure of Israel
The dispute continued into chapter 33, and led to one of the most profound insights in the Old Testament. God relented from destroying these miserable human beings, and promised to fulfill His Word to Abraham. He would send an angel before Israel to drive out the Canaanites.
"Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way" (Ex 33:3).
God said He would fulfill His Word and give Canaan to the Israelites, but He would not lead them, He would withhold Himself from them. This would probably have satisfied most of the Israelites -- all they wanted was "the land of milk and honey." But Moses' reply showed that he understood what God's deeper purpose was. He went right to the heart of God's intent, not just His plan to bring Israel to the Promised Land, but the entire master plan of God for the larger scope of biblical and world history.
Then Moses said to him, "If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?" (Ex 33:15-16).
Moses got it! -- the Covenant was not about circumcision, burnt offerings or 10 commandments. God's Presence alone made them a nation apart. He was not just giving them a country or descendants or a destiny, He was giving them Himself, and this set them apart from all the rest of humanity. Without His Presence, what value were all the material blessings? This is the fundamental inequality that is at the root of biblical religion: God was exalting one people above all the rest of mankind as the vessel of His Presence. Israel was God's candle in the world, and He was the flame that burned upon her. The Golden Calf episode highlights the fact that it was not due to any superiority of race or morality that God chose Israel to be His candle.