“How will others be able to distinguish that we are God’s people if you do not go with us?” (Exodus 33:16).
Sometimes we do not realize what a long journey it was from the beginning of the rescue effort from slavery in Egypt to arrival in the not-yet-but future promised homeland. They had to pass through the wilderness of pain and suffering. At one point, God told Moses that if he went one step further with “those people,” he would consume them in anger.
Let that sink in. That is how bad things got in their relationship. What they had done to provoke God is for another story. And what are we to make of God’s threat?
In any case, Moses rose to the occasion in his assigned ‘mediator’ role between God and the people. Moses replied that if God were not to go with them, “please do not send us.” And then he added a spectacular God-given insight, akin to Peter’s when he first acknowledged Jesus as “the Christ.” Moses argued: “How will others be able to distinguish that we are God’s people if you do not go with us?” (Exodus 33:16).
The word Moses uses here for ‘distinguish’ is little used (6x). The normal Hebrew word (badal) carries the connotation of ‘mark off’. It is used in Creation for God marking off/distinquishing between Light and Darkness, atmosphere and space, land and water. It is the distinguishing mark for God’s chosen people, summarized in the term halakh. Since Moses, Israel has many halakhic laws to distinguish clean and unclean, who are priests and who are not, between them and all other peoples, and so on.
But the word Moses used in the aforementioned episode was palakh. It is derived from the word (pala) ‘to be made wonderous’, ‘marvelous’. Moses was saying that their only distinguishing characteristic, the only thing that really made them different from everybody else, was not anything they were or did, but God’s marvelous/wonderous presence with them. Which made them somewhat marvelous by reflection. That is what distinguished them.
So it continues for God’s people today. Our single distinguishing characteristic is ours only by association. From Pentecost onwards (Acts 2), our single distinguishing characteristic is God’s presence, his Holy Spirit in us. And, as Jesus further inferred: “By this all people will know you are my disciples, because you love one another” (John 13:35).