One of the things Christians often ask God is to understand his will or his plan for us. We know the ultimate destination, which is union with God for all eternity. But we don't know the in-between steps, so to speak, about what will go on between now and then.
This conversation between God and Moses demonstrates we are not the first ones to face this issue.
Moses knows that God's ultimate plan is that his people Israel will live in the land he promised to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. When he first called Moses to lead the people for him, he told Moses that they would come to this mountain -- the very same one where God was now talking to him in the burning bush -- and receive God's teaching and law. So now they're there, and Moses understandably would like to know what's next. Obviously they have to travel to the promised land, and Moses knows that since the Hebrew people left more than 400 years earlier, some new folks have moved in. Some kind of arrangement will have to be made with them. Preparations have to be made for these and probably at least a dozen other matters, so Moses asks God what will come next when he says, "Show me your ways."
God gives Moses the answer he has given to many of Moses' questions going back to that first meeting: He will be with them, they can depend on him. His exact words, of course, are "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest." He does not outline his specific plans for the Israelites or the things that will have to happen to get them to the promised land or anything about the future steps they will take. But he does promise to be with the people and to take care of their needs.
We can see how much Moses has grown since the first meeting. Of course, he says! You have to go with us, or we won't get anywhere. We won't survive the first obstacle! Anything I achieve or anything the people achieve will be the direct result if you going with us! I kind of get the impression Moses asked already knowing the answer but wanted to hear God confirm it, drawing reassurance from the statement.
The conversation continues: Moses asks to see God's glory. Here we get into some deeper weeds because of the Hebrew words involved. "Glory" translates kabod, which comes from a Hebrew root word often used to describe weight. Not just physical weight, but impact, as in, "Her words carry a lot of weight for me." Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko used to talk about how someone who interceded for you with, say, police interested in your financial dealings with an alderman was "clouting" for you. They could do this because they had weight. Although kabod calls to mind images of light and shining glory, it would also make the ancient Hebrews think of weight and impact. Moses wants to see who God really is, not just have these encounters with him. God promises his presence, so Moses wants to see that presence.
God tells Moses that's impossible. No one can see his face and live. "Face" translates panim, and implies the real person represented by the physical face they wear. When you hear one friend tell another "I miss your face," it carries the same meaning. God's direct presence, his real self manifested in his full glory, power and impact would destroy Moses.
So he tells Moses he will tuck him in a cleft in the rocks and hold his hand over as he passes by, so Moses can get a hint of God's glory. Think of what a flashlight looks like when it shines through a covering hand. And then after God has passed by, Moses can see his back. This is a metaphor, of course. God does not mean he will manifest some gigantic physical body with an actual hand and back Moses could see. He means that he will reveal as much of his true self to Moses as Moses can stand to encounter, and then show him the impact of that presence.
It's an interesting parallel with Moses' first request. Show me the way we're going, Moses asks, but God doesn't. Show me your glory, Moses says to God, but God won't because Moses couldn't survive it. When you consider all of the things that actually happen to the Israelites and Moses before they get to the promised land, you could make a good case that Moses' leadership wouldn't survive the knowledge. He's just dealt with the griping people at Meribeh, what would he do if he learned that griping Israelites are going to be the norm rather than the exception? I'd quit, myself.
What would he do if he knew what the people were going to need in order to become people who could actually govern themselves and handle their own affairs to any degree? They've been slaves for twenty generations -- it will take at least another whole one to mature them into a free people. They outnumbered the Egyptian chariots by tens or hundreds to one and they panicked -- what will it take to make them into folks who can settle a new land?
I'm speculating, but I think that knowledge would have destroyed at least Moses' ability to lead if not wrecked him completely. When we look back at some of the hard choices and hard things we have had to handle after we decided we would follow Jesus, don't we wonder a little if we would have done it if we'd known about them beforehand? I do. I trusted God would be present when I was going through them and I look back now and see how he helped me, but would my faith in that presence have been strong enough if I had known before all of those things happened? I would like to think so, but I'm not sure.
So maybe it is better not to know all things before they happen. Maybe it is better to be in the dark a little about the next chapters or next pages. Perhaps not, but I think it is. And I think either way, it'll just be one big mess if we don't know the Author helping us write the words.