“Then they climbed the mountain—Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel—and saw the God of Israel. He was standing on a pavement of something like sapphires—pure, clear sky-blue. He didn’t hurt these pillar-leaders of the Israelites: They saw God; and they ate and drank.” Exodus 24:9-11, The Message
“In one of the most amazing texts in the Bible, these men saw God.” Walter Kaiser, Jr
|They trembled too...but it was just acting|
In the Bible, to “see” God is no small thing. In fact, the few that had such a numinous experience with glory wrote afterward about it as if they had a brush with death but lived to tell of it: Gideon, Manoah, Isaiah, Ezekiel. All of them describe being whelmed by a wave of terror. Think Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tinman and the Cowardly Lion (and Toto, too) approaching dreadfully into the throne room of the “great and terrible Oz” except in this case it's not fiction and there is no friendly little man over in the corner behind a curtain working the levers. On the mountain when Jesus is transfigured before a few of his closest disciples, just the sound of God's voice is enough to cause them to hug the ground as if being caught in a barrage of artillery. All that to say it is no light thing to stumble across glory.
After a little more than three months of sojourning from Egypt, the people of Israel had finally arrived at the mountain, “the mountain of God” as it is referred to a couple of times in Exodus. Author Bruce Feiler notes in his own tracking of his ancient ancestors' footsteps,
The Israelites, who for centuries were enslaved in the flatlands of Egypt, had not encountered mountains as high as the Sinai for at least six hundred years. The Bible says they “trembled,” and seeing the red granite mountains in the southern Sinai, one of the leading possibilities for the site, one can understand why.
Rising 7,455 feet above the plain Jebel Musa (the traditional site of Mount Sinai) is not a particularly tall mountain as those things go but “its barren face is dramatic...As the American visitor John Lloyd Stephens wrote in 1835, 'Among all the stupendous works of Nature, not a place can be selected more fitting for the exhibition of Almighty power.'” (Walking the Bible: A Photographic Journey). Add to it thunder, lightning, thick billowing smoke, fire and the very mountain – mountain! - “trembling violently” (Exodus 19:18-19) no wonder the people pleaded with Moses to go on their behalf. They were certain their lives hung in the balance before such Power.
|His invitation to Scrooge is an echo of the one offered to them|
Over the next few weeks, Moses will make that trip up and down that mountain several times during which time he will receive the foundational Ten Commandments (20) and the complimentary Book of the Covenant (21-24) as well as the design plan of what was to be his dwelling place among them in their travels through the wilderness (25-31). After the people heard the terms of the Covenant and agreed wholeheartedly to them, Moses records that he then solemnized the moment with sacrifice, sprinkling the blood upon the them (24:8). And then God extends his remarkable invitation to Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and the seventy elders to join him upon the mountain for a meal. I think of the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol who beckons Scrooge in his bedroom to “come in here and know me better, man” as this kind of moment. But instead of a jocular giant cajoling a frightened Scrooge to make his acquaintance it is the King of all the earth whose very presence has made the mountain shake all the way down to its roots. “Scared” is so inadequate a word to describe their frame of mind at that moment but do they dare decline an invitation from the Deity?
All that is preserved for posterity from that awe-ful moment, however, is a sparse two sentences that state the main facts: that they went up and saw God; that the most they could or bothered to describe was the color of the pavement he stood upon, a blue like a clear, blue sky; and that they sat down and ate and drank in his presence (24:9-11). No one bothered to record what was on the menu. Not one thing that was said – if anything was said at all – was written down later. Clearly the most astonishing thing about this episode as far as they were concerned is that they did not die.
|Something like this|
When our kids were little, we used to have a tank with seven gold fish in the boys' room. As God's creatures go, the gold fish is a pretty simple creation: they swim, they eat and they poop. If I remember right, we didn't have a filter or an air pump. It was just a tank full of tap water with some pretty rocks and underwater decorations. After awhile, the water got murkier and murkier and the onus to clean the tank and change the water became increasingly greater with each passing day. Soon, the water was so green all you could see was a fin or a tail or a faint glitter of gold now and then. The time had come and an intervention was at hand. Linda and I didn't draw straws or rock-scizzor-paper-it; I was simply the first to cave.
I set to work. First with a little net I gently gathered up the small school of fish in a large plastic bag full of tepid water and set them aside. Then I got cleaning: I scrubbed the sides of several weeks' worth of algae, I rinsed the little rocks of gravel and made sure every sign of filth and muck had been washed away. Then I filled the tank afresh with clean, lukewarm water and gently reintroduced them to their former habitat. And instantly six of them bellied up and died. Just like that.
Maybe after weeks of living in dirty, low-oxygenated water to suddenly breathe rarefied air was too much for their nervous system? Or (as someone who heard me tell this story recently suggested) it was the Windex I used to clean the glass? Whatever the reason, instantly six were translated to gold fish heaven. And the seventh? He lived and seemed happily content to be back in his old surroundings (later that spring we brought him out to some friends of ours' goldfish pond where “Freddie” - as they came to call him – happily lived on for several more years).
Of this moment, theologian John Mackay says that these “representatives of Israel are given a foretaste of what heaven is like when they are permitted this audience with the King” (Exodus: A Mentor Commentary). Nearly a millennium later at the occasion of another sacred meal, Philip asks his rabbi and teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” To wit Jesus will astoundingly reply, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8,9). Many years later, John, who was at that dinner, will write those words that will be read at most Christmas Eve services tonight,
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth...No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only...has made him known” (John 1:14, 18)
|Um, sorta like this|
A thousand or more years before seventy or more guys sat down to a meal and lived to tell of it. Perhaps that they could has to do with the fact that prior to that moment they had been sprinkled with blood and their sins had been covered. Without that, they would have been melted just like those two Nazis were in Raiders of the Lost Ark when they dared to open the Ark of the Covenant. Poet Annie Dillard once reflected how pedestrian we can become in worship, reciting the liturgy by rote without pausing to think about what we are intoning:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god (sic) may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god (sic) may draw us out to where we can never return.’” (Teaching a Stone to Talk)
And yet this same God who shook the mountain and caused it to tremble and quake before Him is the one who has come close to us in Jesus allowing us to enter his presence, sit down and enjoy his friendship.