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28. The Presence of God With His People (Exodus 33:12-17)


Several times I have considered keeping a spiritual journal, as some of the saints of the past have done. The biggest problem I have with doing this, in addition to the discipline it requires, is that I hate to have my thoughts in print. Imagine, for a moment, the possibility of having all of your prayers recorded, and then published for all to read. I can tell you that the mere thought of such a thing makes me break out in a cold sweat.

I am realistic enough to know that all of the prayers of Moses weren’t worthy of being published either, but the prayer which we find in our passage surely is a worthy one, both for our study in this message, and for our imitation in our own prayer life. It is one of the most noble prayers of the Old Testament. There was an urgency to this prayer of Moses, due to the great sin which Israel has just committed in Moses’ absence.

The Israelites, less than 40 days after having pledged to keep the Law which God gave to them from Mt. Sinai, have already broken it by their worship of the golden calf, which Aaron made at their urging (Exod. 32:1-6). God was so angered by their reveling and immorality that He threatened to wipe the entire nation out, replacing it with a new nation from the offspring of Moses (Exod. 32:7-10). Moses petitioned God to spare this people, so that He might fulfill His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and thus God allowed the people to live (32:11-14).

Going down the mountain, Moses broke the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, signifying that Israel had broken her covenant with God. He also smashed the idol, burned it, and then ground it into fine powder, which he made the people drink (32:15-20). Aaron was then rebuked and the faithful Levites struck down 3,000 of their fellow-Israelites, who had refused to pledge their allegiance to God (32:21-29). Moses interceded with God for the people, but God warned that a future day of judgment would come for this generation (32:30-35). Nevertheless, God would fulfill His promise to give Israel the land. He would send His angel to lead the people to Canaan.

In chapter 33, God clarifies the brief statement of 32:34, instructing Moses to leave the mountain and to take Israel on toward Canaan. He further explains that He will remain at a distance, rather than to dwell in the midst of the camp (33:1-3). At this word, the Israelites repented, putting off their gold ornaments as God had instructed them through Moses (vss. 4-6). Verses 7-11 then describe the “tent of meeting,” that tent which was set up “outside the camp” at some distance (33:7), where the Israelites could go to seek God, and where Moses went to commune with Him. When Moses went out, the people stood in respect and then worshipped at the doorway of their tent. When Moses entered the tent, the presence of God was manifested at the doorway of the tent.

The mediation of Moses has thus far “persuaded” God to relent from His threatened extermination of the entire population of the Israelites. Further, it has resulted in God’s commitment to bring Israel into the promised land of Canaan. It has even resulted in minimizing the remoteness of God, to the point that God is now manifesting Himself to the nation outside the camp. But Moses will not be content until God is intimately present, in his own life, and in the lives of the people whom God has called him to lead. That intimacy will be assured Moses in the text we are considering in this lesson. Our text will describe one of the intercessory prayers of Moses, which I believe took place in the “tent of meeting.” This prayer is a model prayer for Christians today, as well as a divinely provided means for the recovery of the nation Israel. Let us listen well to these majestic words of Moses, the mediator.

The structure of the remainder of Exodus chapter 33 is interesting and informative. There are basically three sections: verses 12-14, 15-17, and 18-23. Each section begins with a petition of Moses in which he requests something from God. The section then ends with God’s response. God’s response then becomes the basis for a further petition of Moses, until Moses is assured of the presence of God in the midst of His people. Once this is done, Moses makes a personal request to see the glory of God. I have arranged the text of the NASB to illustrate the structure of the passage:

Then Moses said to the LORD, “See,96 Thou dost say to me, ‘Bring up this people!’ But Thou Thyself hast not let me know whom Thou wilt send with me. Moreover, Thou hast said, ‘I have known you by name, and you have also found favor in My sight.’ Now therefore, I pray Thee, if I have found favor in Thy sight, let me know Thy ways, that I may know Thee, so that I may find favor in Thy sight. Consider too, that this nation is Thy people.”

And He said, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.”

Then he said to Him, “If Thy presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here. For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Thy sight, I and Thy people? Is it not by Thy going with us, so that we, I and Thy people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?”

And the LORD said to Moses, “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.”

Then Moses said, “I pray Thee, show me Thy glory!”

And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” Then the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.”

Moses’ First Petition

For a while, it looked as though Israel’s history would abruptly end with a period. Her almost year-long encampment at Mt. Sinai almost ended in total destruction of the nation, due to their worship of the golden calf. Now, due to the mediation of Moses, this sojourn has proven to be but a comma in the saga of Israel’s journey to Canaan. Due to the intervention of Moses and God’s faithfulness to His covenant with Abraham, there is still a future for the nation. Thus, God commands Moses to ready himself and the people to move out and to lead the nation toward Canaan.

In one sense, this command is not new at all. This is implied by the wording of verse 12, which is well rendered by the NIV: “Moses said to the LORD, ‘You have been telling me, “Lead these people,” but you have not let me know whom you will send with me’” (emphasis mine). The participle (rendered “have been telling”) suggests that God has been giving Moses the command to lead Israel up to Canaan over a period of time. Such has been the case. It was first given in Exodus chapter 3, where God told Moses, “Therefore, come now, and I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring My people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt” (Exod. 3:10). The same command has been reiterated as recently as chapter 32, verse 34: “But go now, lead the people where I told you.”

Unlike the first call of Moses, in chapters 3 and 4, Moses is not as troubled by what he has been told as by what he has not. God has clearly commanded Moses to lead the Israelites on toward Canaan. He has not, however, told Moses whom He is sending with him.

Now this would have been a very serious matter for Moses. If Moses had good reason to be concerned about facing Pharaoh and the Israelites alone at his initial call (chapters 3 and 4), he had even more to be concerned about now. Moses no longer needed to fear about facing an angry and powerful Pharaoh, but he did have to think about all of the Canaanites whom he must face and fight. He has already had a taste of this in the war with the Amalekites in chapter 17, a war only won be prevailing prayer. Moses now is even more aware of the rebelliousness and waywardness of the Israelites. And Aaron, who was such a comfort to him initially has so far proven to be a liability, for he served only to facilitate the idolatry of the Israelites in his absence. And the Mosaic Covenant, which gave such hope initially, is now known to pronounce only a curse, and not to promise blessing, due to the sinfulness of the people.

No wonder Moses is concerned about setting out for Canaan. And no wonder Moses would like to know just who it is who is going with him, as God has promised: “… But Thou Thyself hast not let me know whom Thou wilt send with me” (Exod. 33:12).

The term “angel,” as one of our body reminded me last week, is a generic term, meaning “messenger.” Thus, when we read the term “angel” we should not allow ourselves to think in a stereotyped fashion, of a female appearing creature in a gleaming white robe and having wings. Sensing the vagueness which the term allows, Moses would very much like a little more precise identification of this “messenger” whom God is sending along with Moses to lead the Israelites. After the disappointments Moses has experienced with Aaron, who can blame him for being apprehensive about his fellow-laborer, this “messenger”?

Moses has not yet asked for anything specific. This he will do in verse 13. But first he will lay a more substantial foundation for his request. He reminds God that He has said to him, “I have known you by name, and you have also found favor in My sight” (v. 12).97

These two statements are not recorded before this. Obviously God said things to Moses which he did not record for all to read. Essentially, these two statements assure Moses of his standing in favor with God. It is only on the basis of God’s favor that one dares to make a petition of Him. Thus, since Moses has been divinely chosen (“I have known you by name”) to be the object of His favor (“you have also found favor in My sight”), Moses felt free (in fact was bold) to make this petition: “Now, therefore, I pray Thee, if I have found favor in Thy sight, let me know Thy ways, that I may know Thee, so that I may find favor in Thy sight. Consider too, that this nation is Thy people” (v. 13).

Our understanding of Moses’ petition here will be enhanced by making several observations concerning the text.

(1) There is a boldness to Moses’ petition.

(2) Moses’ petition is based on God’s word. Moses argues from the known to the unknown, from, “Bring this people up …” to “Thou hast not let me know whom Thou wilt send with me.” From what God has said to a request, based on what God has said. Thus, Moses reminds God that He has said, “I have known you by name,” and “you have also found favor,” and then asks God to let him know God’s ways.

(3) The basis for Moses’ petition and for his boldness was his privileged status with God.

(4) Moses’ petition had, both as its basis and as its goal, God’s favor. Moses petitioned God to know His ways because he was chosen to be favored of God, and because he desired to continue in His favor.

(5) Moses’ petition was two-fold: First, that God would make known His ways to Moses, and second, that God would view Israel as His people. The first request was more personal, the second, more public or collective in nature. We will consider both petitions.

First, Moses’ requested that God make “His ways” known to him (v. 13). Our understanding of this petition hinges on our definition of the term “ways.” What “ways” does Moses wish to know here? Some have suggested that Moses wishes to know the “way” to Canaan.98 That is, Moses wants to know not only the person God is sending with him, but also the plan God has for the people. This hardly squares with the way the term “ways” is used with reference to Moses and Israel, however. Consider the following texts:

Make me know Thy ways, O LORD; Teach me Thy paths. Lead me in Thy truth and teach me, For Thou art the God of my salvation; For Thee I wait all the day. Remember, o LORD, Thy compassion and Thy lovingkindnesses, For they have been from of old (Ps. 25:4-6).

All the paths of the LORD are lovingkindness and truth To those who keep His covenant and His testimonies (Ps. 25:10).

“For forty years I loathed that generation, And said they are a people who err in their heart, And they do not know My ways. Therefore I swore in My anger, Truly they shall not enter into My rest” (Ps. 95:10-11).

The LORD performs righteous deeds, And judgments for all who are oppressed. He made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the sons of Israel. The LORD is compassionate and gracious, Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness (Ps. 103:6-7).

And many nations will come and say, “Come and let us go up to the fountain of the Lord And to the house of the God of Jacob, That He may teach us about His ways And that we may walk in His paths.” For from Zion will go forth the Law, Even the word of the LORD from Jerusalem (Micah 4:2; cf. Isa. 2:3).

I understand that Moses is seeking to know God even more intimately than he already knew Him. That he desires to know God’s character, as reflected in His way of doing things. To know God’s ways is thus to know God, and to better understand how one should live in a way that pleases God.99

Second, Moses petitioned God to consider the Israelites as His people. Ever since the Israelites chose to worship a golden calf rather than God, God has referred to this people as Moses’ people: “Then the LORD spoke to Moses, ‘Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves’” (Exod. 32:7). Moses wants to reverse this. Moses wants God to view the Israelites as His chosen people. Thus, he makes this petition. God’s response to Moses’ petition is recorded in verse 14: “And He said, ‘My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest’” (Exod. 33:14).

There is tremendous encouragement here. God assured Moses that He would be personally present with him as he led the Israelites to Canaan. The messenger whom God promised to send was therefore the “angel of God’s presence” (cf. Isa. 63:9). God promised Moses the means to getting the Israelites to Canaan. Furthermore, He promised Moses that the end, the Israelites living safely in Canaan, would be realized. This is indicated by the term “rest” as it is used here and elsewhere in the Old Testament:

“When you cross the Jordan and live in the land which the LORD your God is giving you to inherit, and He gives you rest from all your enemies around you so that you live in security, then it shall come about that the place in which the LORD your God shall choose for His name to dwell, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution of your hand, and all your choice votive offerings which you will vow to the LORD” (Deut. 12:10-11).

“And now the LORD your God has given rest to your brothers, as He spoke to them; therefore turn now and go to your tents, to the land of your possession, which Moses the servant of the LORD gave you beyond the Jordan” (Josh. 22:4).

Now it came about after many days, when the LORD had given rest to Israel from all their enemies on every side, and Joshua was old, advanced in years (Josh. 23:1).

Almost always in the Bible, “rest” conveys the concept of putting an end to an evil, an enemy, hostility, or adversity. When God promised Moses “rest” He assured him that those things which Moses must have feared most would be overcome, and that the task which God has given him to do will be completed.

Moses Second Petition

God’s words would have been a great encouragement to Moses, but they fell short of what Moses was seeking for the Israelites. God’s assurance of His presence and of “rest” were only specified for Moses, and not for the nation. When God assured Moses, “My presence shall go with you” (v. 14), the words “with you” are supplied by the translators. Whether this “you” is singular or plural thus cannot be determined. The second “you” (“I will give you rest”) is singular, however. Thus, the assurance of God’s presence and of “rest” is only guaranteed Moses, not the nation Israel as a whole. In Moses’ petition in verses 15 and 16, he sought for this assurance for the nation.

Moses began by asking God not to lead the nation up from Sinai if His presence did not accompany them (v. 15).100 Moses then argues the necessity of God’s presence with Israel. He reasons that the one thing which distinguishes God’s people from all other peoples of the earth is His presence in their midst: “For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Thy sight, I and Thy people? Is it not by Thy going with us so that we, I and Thy people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?” (v. 16).

Notice how Moses twice links himself with Israel. He is not willing to enjoy God’s favor alone, while Israel’s destiny hangs in the balance. God’s presence, he petitions, must not only be with him, but with them also. God’s answer this time assures Moses that He will be present with Israel, as well as with him: “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” (v. 17). While God grants Moses’ request, it is only due to his standing in favor with Him, not due to any good on the part of Israel. Israel’s future is totally dependent upon Moses, and his standing with God.


There are many applications of this passage,101 but since this is Easter Sunday, I want to focus on the presence of God as it relates to the coming, life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. It is only in Christ that the presence of God in the midst of men is provided.

The promise which God has just given Moses is a wonderful one. God has assured Moses that He will not only be present with him personally, but He will also be with His people, Israel. This poses a problem, however, based upon God’s words in this chapter: “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, lest I destroy you on the way” (Exod. 33:3).

The problem is this: HOW CAN A HOLY GOD BE PRESENT WITH A SINFUL PEOPLE, AND NOT DESTROY THEM? What God said in verse 3 still holds true. The presence of a holy God in the midst of a sinful people is exceedingly dangerous for the people. There must be some solution for the sins of the people, lest God destroy them.

In the Old Testament, the Tabernacle and the sacrificial system was God’s temporary provision for the sins of the people. The sins of the people were not taken away, but they were put off, until the time when sin could once and for all be remedied and removed in Christ (cf. Rom. 3:25). With this temporary provision for sin, the Israelite’s highest privilege and blessing was recognized as the presence of God, which was especially comforting in times of adversity and affliction:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear not evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me. Thou dost prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; Thou has anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows. Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever (Psalm 23).

When my heart was embittered, And I was pierced within, Then I was senseless and ignorant; I was like a beast before Thee. Nevertheless I am continually with Thee; Thou has taken hold of my right hand. With Thy counsel Thou wilt guide me, And afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For, behold, those who are far from Thee will perish; Thou hast destroyed all those who are unfaithful to Thee. But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, That I may tell of all Thy works (Psalm 73:21-28).

Both psalmists, David (Ps. 23) and Asaph (Ps. 73), have found great comfort and consolation in the assurance of God’s presence in the present, especially in adversity. Beyond this, however, both anticipate being with God, in His presence in eternity, after death. This is the height of Israel’s hope in the Old Testament. It is also the pinnacle of New Testament hope as well.

At the very beginning of the New Testament, in the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we read the words of an angel of the Lord, spoken to Joseph, when he learned that Mary, his wife to be, was pregnant, and he was considering whether or not to “put her away” (that is, to break their engagement):

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins.” Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us” (Matt. 1:20-23, emphasis mine).

God with us! That was the name of the Christ child. The presence of God with His people was no more real, no more intimate than it was at the time of His incarnation. Thus, the apostle John could write,

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3).

God was physically present in the person of Jesus Christ, John wrote, and thus fellowship with God was possible through Him. God was truly present in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ.

Through His teaching and miracles, many recognized that God was present in the person of Christ. But, as time went on, it became apparent that many did not want God present with them. As opposition increased and the time of His departure drew near, the Lord began to speak of His “going away,” and of the coming of the “Comforter” (cf. John 14:25-31; 16:7ff.). These words were not comforting at the time, however. Nor would they be until after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

When the Lord Jesus was crucified and placed in the tomb, the disciples were devastated. Their hopes of God’s presence abiding forever in their midst were momentarily dashed. As one of them said to Jesus, not knowing it was He, “But we were hoping that it was he who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, it is the third day since these things have happened” (Luke 24:21). The depths of the despair of the disciples can only be conjectured. The One in whom God was present was gone.

The sight of the resurrected Lord was indeed a great joy to those who loved Him. But it was apparent that things were not going to be as they had been those three (or so) years of His public ministry. This was evident in His words to Mary, who sought to cling to Him when He appeared to her near the tomb: “Stop clinging to Me; for I have not yet ascended to the Father …” (John 20:17).

There was something different about our Lord’s relationship to His disciples, for He did not live among them, as He had formerly done, but He only appeared to them, from time to time, during those days between His resurrection and His ascension. Thus, there was a lingering disappointment and bewilderment among the disciples, as can be seen by Peter’s decision to “go fishing” (John 21:3ff.). Not until Pentecost, did the joy of the disciples return, in fact a greater joy was experienced, for now, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, God dwelt not only among His people, but within them. The Holy Spirit thus mediates the presence of God in this age, so that our intimacy with God is even greater than that of the disciples. It is J. I. Packer who has stated this perhaps more clearly than any other writer since the New Testament was written:

What is the essence, heart, and core of the Spirit’s work today? What is the central, focal element in his many-sided ministry? Is there one basic activity to which his work of empowering, enabling, purifying, and presenting must be related in order to be fully understood? Is there a single divine strategy that unites all these facets of his life-giving action as means to one end?

I think there is, and now I offer my view of it—a view that I focus … in terms of the idea of presence. By this I mean the Spirit makes known the personal presence in and with the Christian and the church of the risen, reigning Saviour, the Jesus of history, who is the Christ of faith.102

Thus, the presence of God can be more intimately ours than it has ever been before. There is, however, a day when the presence of God will be even more intimate and precious. It will commence with the coming of our Lord for His own:

For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thes. 4:16-17).

In the second epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians, the word “coming” (cf. 2 Thes. 2:8, 9) is literally the term “presence,” as can be seen from the marginal note in the NASB. When He comes again, it is to manifest an even more intimate presence, a presence that will surpass any that man has ever known, even Moses. While Moses was not allowed to see the “face of God” (Exod. 33:23), all who know God through Christ will see His face in heaven: “And there shall no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and the Lamb shall be in it, and His bond-servants shall serve Him; and they shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:3-4).

What a privilege is ours now, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit! What a privilege it will be some day, when we are with God around His throne, and we shall see His face. That privilege is not for all, however, but only for those whose faith is in Jesus Christ. The Law provided a temporary provision for man’s sin, so that God could dwell among them in their midst, in the Tabernacle. Jesus Christ has come to the earth, to perfectly fulfill the requirements of the Law, and to die in accordance with the Law to bear the penalty for the sins of all who trust in Him. Thus, a permanent provision for sin has been accomplished, and men may dwell forever in God’s presence.

For those who do not trust in Him, there awaits the dreaded certainty of an eternity spent banished from the bliss of His presence: “And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thes. 1:9).

My prayer is that on this Easter Sunday, each of us will determine, like Moses, not to go another step until we have the assurance of God’s presence with us, forever. That is possible by simply trusting in Jesus Christ as God’s solution for your sins, and God’s means of making His presence a permanent part of your life.

96 I am puzzled and somewhat disappointed by the way the NIV and the NASB render the term translated “see” in verse 12. The NIV ignores it altogether, and then translates the same Hebrew word “remember” in verse 13. The NASB strangely renders the same term differently (“See” in verse 12, and “consider” in verse 13). I fear that this may obscure what might be a structural clue to the text.

97 Of the first expression, “I have known you by name,” Gispen writes, “… the meaning is ‘to know well or intimately,’ as in the case of a king who knew only his closest servants, and also ‘to know on the basis of election.’” W. H. Gispen, Exodus trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 307.

Of the second, he writes, “‘Favor’ is derived from a verb that indicates the showing of unmerited kindness; the word thus indicates condescending, free, and gracious kindness, goodness not based on obligation.” Ibid.

98 Ibid, p. 308.

99 “… Driver, referring to Deuteronomy 32:4 and Exodus 34:6f., interprets ‘ways’ to mean ‘the Lord’s ways of dealing with men,’ and ‘so I may know you and continue to find favor with you’ to mean ‘to understand what your nature and character is, and shape my petitions accordingly, that so I may find favor with you, and my future prayers may be answered.’” Quoted, by Gispen, p. 308.

100 The translators, in a way similar to that found in verse 14, have supplied the words “with us” in verse 15. When he went on to say, “Do not lead us up from here,” the “us” here is plural, thus verifying the “with us” supplied earlier.

101 Let me suggest just a few avenues of application which the reader can pursue. First, there is the role of Moses as the mediator of the people. This can be compared and contrasted with the mediatorial role of Jesus Christ, especially as played out in the Book of Hebrews. Secondly, there is the whole area of Moses’ motivation. What was it that was important to Moses? Especially important is his servant-like attitude (cf. Philippians chapter 2). Third, there is the application of this text to the subject of prayer. We can learn a great deal about prayer from the prayer of Moses in this chapter.

102 J. I. Packer, Keep in Step With the Spirit (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1984), p. 47.

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