After forty days of fasting in his tent of meeting, Moses began to negotiate with God. Ever since the sin of the golden calf, the LORD had not referred to Israel as His people. Rather, they were Moses’ people: “Your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:7).
Moses, on the other hand, remained in God’s favor. As he negotiated for forgiveness and atonement, he banked heavily on God’s favor for him. He complained that, although he remained in God’s favor, he felt disfavored because he was told to lead the people without God’s presence.
The Hebrew word translated as “favor (chen, חן)” can also be translated as “grace.” Thus Moses argued for mercy and forgiveness on the basis of God’s grace toward him.
You have said, “I have known you by name, and you have also found favor in My sight.” If I have found favor in Your sight, let me know Your ways that I may know You, so that I may find favor in Your sight. Consider too, that this nation is Your people. (Exodus 33:12-13)
On the basis of Moses’ complaint, the LORD relented ever so slightly. Whereas previously He had declared that He would not go with Israel as they went up from Sinai, now He conceded that He would go with Moses. He said to Moses, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14). Note that the pronoun “you” appears is in the singular form. The LORD only promised to go with Moses and give Moses rest. He did not say so regarding Israel, nor did He acknowledge them as His people.
Moses rejected the offer. Speaking in the first-person plural form, he said, “If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here” (Exodus 33:15). It was not adequate for God to accompany Moses, He needed to accompany the whole people. Moses deliberately identified himself with the people. It was as if Moses said, “If you want to show me favor and go with me, you need to show us all favor and go with all of us, because I am with the people.” Moses would accept nothing less than grace for the whole nation. He knew that he enjoyed the favor of the LORD; he sought to include the nation in the merit of God’s favor for him:
For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not by Your going with us, so that we, I and Your people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth? (Exodus 33:16)
Moses deliberately identified himself with the people, saying “us,” “we,” and, “I and Your people.” He no longer appealed to the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He no longer appealed to the “what-will-the-Egyptians-think” argument. He appealed merely to God’s expressed favor for him. On his own merit in God’s eyes, Moses hoped to atone for the entire nation. It was the only thing he had left with which to negotiate.
The LORD conceded again and responded, “I will also do this thing of which you have spoken; for you have found favor in My sight and I have known you by name” (Exodus 33:17). God agreed to forgive the nation, go with them, and acknowledge them as His people on the basis of His favor for Moses.
This story illustrates the Chasidic concept of tzaddikism where the merit and favor of a single righteous person can be extended to others. On the basis of God’s gracious favor for one man, the entire nation received the forgiveness of sin and a restoration of relationship with the Almighty. On the merit of one righteous man’s standing with God, all Israel is granted standing with God. These are the mechanics of the gospel. The ultimate redeemer is like the first redeemer, making atonement for the entire nation on the basis of His merit alone.
The story also illustrates the meaning of the word grace. Christian teachers sometimes define “grace” as God’s unmerited favor. On the contrary, grace (chen, חן) implies merited favor. Someone did merit it. Our righteous Messiah merited God’s favor, and He identified Himself with us so that we might share in that favor.