Exodus 32:34-33:6 – The Angel Will Go Out Before Israel




“‘But go now, lead the people where I told you. Behold, My angel shall go before you; nevertheless in the day when I punish, I will punish them for their sin.’ Then the LORD smote the people, because of what they did with the calf which Aaron had made. Then the LORD spoke to Moses, ‘Depart, go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up from the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, “To your descendants I will give it.” I will send an angel before you and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in your midst, because you are an obstinate people, and I might destroy you on the way.’ When the people heard this sad word, they went into mourning, and none of them put on his ornaments. For the LORD had said to Moses, ‘Say to the sons of Israel, “You are an obstinate people; should I go up in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you. Now therefore, put off your ornaments from you, that I may know what I shall do with you.”’ So the sons of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb onward.”

reproduced from Salvation on the Line, Volume I

Exodus 32:34-33:6 narrates some of the immediate aftermath of the incident with the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-33), and the continued charge of the Lord for Moses to follow Him and lead the people, as He will be the One who will blot sinners out of His book (Exodus 32:32-33). Moses is informed hinneih malakhi yeileikh l’fnekha, “Look, My messenger shall go before you” (Exodus 32:34a, Alter), an affirmation that there will be supernatural protection as they prepare to enter into the Promised Land. Following this is the assertion, “But when I make an accounting, I will bring them to account for their sins” (Exodus 32:34b, NJPS). Based on what Exodus 32:34 says exclusively, one could assume that the malakh or messenger/angel in view, is just a supernatural agent of God, a created being, intended to guard Ancient Israel during their wilderness sojourn and activities.

Further on, however, the Lord directs Moses to lead the people into the Promised Land (Exodus 33:1-3), and He says, v’shalachti l’fnekha malakh, “And I shall send a messenger before you” (Exodus 33:2a, Alter). If this malakh or messenger/angel, were just a normal supernatural intermediary, then the immediate actions which follow would normally be expected to be detailed in the third person: “and he will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite” (Exodus 33:2b, NASU modified). Instead, we see God proper speaking in the first person: “and I will drive out the Keana’ani, the Emori, and the Hivvi, and the Yevusi: into a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 33:2b, Jerusalem Bible-Koren). Recognizing how this figure, a messenger/angel, will go before Israel to defeat Israel’s enemies—but God proper is detailing how He will be the One who defeats Israel’s enemies—at the very least serves as an indication of how Bible readers need to pay attention to the identity and descriptions of this elusive entity when encountered.

While the activity of the messenger/angel is described in terms of God proper, in the first person “I,” driving out the enemies of Israel (Exodus 32:2), God in the first person “I” also says how “I will not go up in your midst” (Exodus 33:3). How is this to be approached? While God will obviously be present with His people throughout the wilderness sojourn, that a closer interaction between God and His people will not be present, because of their sin, is to be deduced: “for I will not go up in your midst[1], because you are an obstinate people, and I might destroy you on the way” (Exodus 33:3). At best, many of the people at large would encounter God in their interactions with and knowledge of the malakh or messenger/angel—a messenger/angel which performs actions as God proper in the first person. Questions are certainly raised about how this representative of God, who in various ways is treated as God, prefigures for sure later actions of Yeshua the Messiah.

Kaiser is an evangelical Christian theologian, who forthrightly concludes here in his Exodus commentary, that the malkah or messenger/angel, was actually a Christophany:

“The Lord issued a command to move on (v. 1), promising to ‘send an angel’ before them (v. 2; cf. 23:20, 23; 32:34)…God declared that his ‘Name is in him’ (23:21). Thus this angel was a christophany, an appearance of Christ in the OT. Although the Lord promised to send his personal representative, he himself would ‘not go with [them]’ (v. 3). This withdrawal of the divine presence assured in 23:20-23 was because of the presence of sin.”[2]


[1] Heb. ki lo e’eleh b’qirbekha; “because I shall not ascend among you” (ATS).

[2] Walter C. Kaiser, “Exodus,” in Frank E. Gaebelein, ed. et. al., Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 2:482.