"Then the LORD said to Moses, 'Depart and go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, 'To your descendants I will give it.' And I will send My Angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanite and the Amorite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in your midst, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.' And when the people heard the bad news, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments. For the LORD had said to Moses, 'Say to the children of Israel, 'You are a stiff-necked people. I could come up into your midst in one moment and consume you. Now therefore, take off your ornaments, that I may know what to do to you. So the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments by Mount Horeb" (Exo. 33:1-6).
God's presence has been withdrawn from the midst of Israel. He tells Moses to depart Sinai and take the people to Canaan, but the LORD would not go with them in their midst. He proceeds to tell Moses the reason why: Because He would kill them! Sin is not trivial in God's eyes (and it must not be in ours). God will not tolerate murmuring and stubbornness. Israel mourns over this news; they don't like their punishment. They show their repentance visibly by not putting on their fine articles of jewelry, clothing, etc., though they do not go to the extreme of sackcloth and ashes. Many of these "ornaments" would soon be given for the tabernacle construction, no doubt.
"Moses took his tent and pitched it outside the camp, far from the camp, and called it the tabernacle of meeting. And it came to pass that everyone who sought the LORD went out to the tabernacle of meeting which was outside the camp. So it was, whenever Moses went out to the tabernacle, that all the people rose, and each man stood at his tent door and watched Moses until he had gone into the tabernacle. And it came to pass, when Moses entered the tabernacle, that the pillar of cloud descended and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and the LORD talked with Moses. All the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the tabernacle door, and all the people rose and worshiped, each man in his tent door. So the LORD spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. And he would return to the camp, but his servant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, did not depart from the tabernacle" (33:7-11).
If Moses is going to continue speaking with God, he must move his own tent outside the camp of Israel. Joshua continues to serve Moses and is clearly being groomed for future leadership.
"Then Moses said to the LORD, 'See, You say to me, "Bring up this people." But You have not let me know whom You will send with me. Yet You have said, "I know you by name, and you have also found grace in My sight." Now therefore, I pray, if I have found favor in Your sight, show me now Your way, that I may know You and that I may find grace in Your sight. And consider that this nation is Your people'" (33:12,13). Moses the mediator prays to God here. He is asking forgiveness and pleading for help. Moses is seeking a restoration of the covenant between God and Israel.
In Exodus 33:14-18, God proceeds to promise Moses that His Presence would go with him and He would give Moses rest. But Moses is still concerned and states that he does not want to go unless God leads them. Jehovah again expresses His favor for Moses and His willingness to show Moses His glory, which He is willing to do (it seems) in order to give Moses confidence.
"Then He said, 'I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.' But He said, 'You cannot see My face; for no man can see Me, and live.' And the LORD said, 'Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen'" (33:19-23).
This is one of the most intriguing passages in Exodus. It was not humanly possible for Moses to see God in His true form and live (cf. John 1:18). God's glory would kill him physically! God's words and actions here show that He is granting Moses a special mercy or concession. It is impossible to put into words precisely what Moses saw, but some have likened it to a reflection of what God really looks like. Rest assured it was awesome and had the intended effect of strengthening Moses.