Maimonides (Moreh N’vuchim 1:54) prefers to understand “ways” as “attributes” or “qualities”, but we are still not certain why the question is raised at this particular point in the history of the Exodus.
It does not help us very much to re-affirm that the Biblical stories are not necessarily in chronological order – Ein muk’dam um’uchar baTorah (Pes. 6b etc.) and hence the historical context may be somewhat irrelevant. Most readers would rather see the Torah as a connected story. Think only of the Akedah (Gen. 22), which specifically says, “And it happened after these things” (the events related in chapter 21).
Bearing this in mind, it is likely that in our chapter the leader, embarking upon a long relationship with the led, is anxious to know how to govern the people. Since Moses has been appointed by the Almighty, he needs to know which qualities the Divine Master utilises in managing His world so that the earthly appointee can exercise his own responsibility according to God’s wish and policy.
This explanation fits in with God’s promise, “All My goodness shall pass before you” (Ex. 33:19). The view of Maimonides is that God is about to give Moses a bird’s-eye view of the whole world, about which the Book of B’reshit says, “God saw everything He had made, and behold it was very good” (Gen.1:31). Seeing the world would allow Moses to get a glimmering of where Israelite history – and his own career – fitted into the Divine picture.
It is also possible that “goodness” can be taken literally and that God was about to show Moses the moral principles that had to be followed on earth in order to make the world worthy of its Creator.
The text goes on to say that God has a place where Moses can stand and see, not God Himself, but the traces He leaves in history. If that place is Sinai, it once again suggests Moses getting a picture of the world as God wants it. If “place” is metaphorical, as Maimonides believes can be the case, it refers to God Himself. One of the rabbinic names for the Almighty is HaMakom, “(He who is in every) place”. In this light we can understand the text to be another reference to God’s nature and qualities.
One further problem, though the issues we have discussed are far from exhausting the content and message of the parashah. In verse 20, God says, “No man can see My face and live”. Yes, we know that God has no bodily form or physical characteristics, and words like “see My face” cannot be taken literally. But “face” can be applied to God in a spiritual sense, as the priestly blessing (Num. 6) makes clear. God’s “face” = His favour. No man can “see” His “face”? The idea is that no human can fully perceive God’s ways; our human intellect is limited.
It also means that no man can fathom how God runs His world and on what basis He makes His decisions. Thus the text says, “I will be gracious to whomever I will (choose to) be gracious”. We can yearn to know and understand all the details of the Divine mind, but we are asking too much.