Opening The Old Testament
Transformative Transfiguration: Reflections on Exodus 24:12-18
But then our passage suddenly opens in 24:12 with a command from God that Moses "come up to me on the mountain, and wait there..." Obviously, we have the beginning of another memory of the scene we have just witnessed. Here Moses is told that God "will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction." Note the wording of the divine demand; the stones will contain "the law (torah) and the commandment." "Torah" is derived from the Hebrew word to teach or instruct, as the final noun of the verse makes clear—the torah is "written" (literally "cut")"for their instruction" (a noun from the same root as torah). Exactly what the commandment is less clear. It may perhaps be a summary of all the instruction that YHWH will graciously give to the people through Moses.
Unlike the earlier picnic scene, Moses takes only his associate, Joshua, with him up the mountain (vs.13), commanding the elders to "wait here until we come again to you; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them." These of course are fateful words, given the nasty dispute that erupts in chapter 32 when the people demand of Aaron "gods (elohim) who will go before them." Instead of denying their idolatrous request, Aaron instead accedes to their demand and carefully shapes for them a gleaming golden calf.
Here in vss.15-18 Moses alone goes up to be with his God. The mountain is covered by a cloud. In the obscurity of the cloud "the glory of YHWH" settles on the mountain, and for six days there is silence. On day seven God calls to Moses out of the cloud. Here it is made clear that Moses does not see YHWH. Rather he sees "the glory of YHWH" which is "like a devouring fire on top of the mountain." Apparently, according to vs.17, the people below see only the fire on the mountain, while Moses alone enters the fiery cloud and remains there for 40 days and forty nights (vs.18).
What are we to make of all these pyrotechnics? Clouds and fire and voices and scrambling up and down the sacred mountain? We 21st century types have become blasé about such doings. We have seen giant rockets thundering off to the moon, vast military arsenals lay waste to cities, mushroom clouds haunting our landscapes and our dreams. Not to mention volcanoes tossing flames and clouds and stones miles into the sky. Can such ancient scenes affect us any more? Can we any longer tremble at the sight of God's awesome mystery? Are we affected any more by Jesus' chat with Moses and Elijah on a later mountain, and do we pale when we look again and see Jesus alone? I doubt it. It all seems so quaint, so unbelievable, so trivial in the face of the power we moderns can conjure.
So why all the fuss? For the ancient Hebrews, these scenes on Sinai gave them a thrill of wonder, a strange conviction that God was still the awesome, majestic one who could hide in fire, speak from clouds, and call servants to follow the torah still. But now we, who have reduced God to a tweet ("OMG"), are beyond all that, aren't we? No trembling for us, no frisson in the blood, no shock of holy awe. What have we lost? When "awesome" means a new dress or a new car, what chance has a fiery God against that? On transfiguration Sunday, can we feel once again the mystery and wonder of God when our songs are trivial, our investment small, and our expectations so low? I cannot answer that for you. But for me, I know that I want some of that, some of that wonder, some of that surprise, some of that mysterious voice who still calls from whatever cloud there may be, and urges me to hear and follow the torah still. Or to "listen to my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased," which in fact may amount to the same thing. May this transfiguration Sunday move you something like that. I will pray for that for you and for me.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.