By Walter Brueggemann
Exodus 19-24 enacts an agreement of mutual fidelity between YHWH and Israel. That covenant consists in two major parts: YHWH’s commands set the requirement of covenant in the form of the Ten Commandments (20:1-17), and Israel pledges allegiance to the covenant through obedience to YHWH’s commandments (24:3, 7). This enactment creates a relationship in which the defining dynamic is one of “command-obey,” with the understanding that Israel’s obedience will result in abundant covenantal blessing.
That dynamic of “command-obey” creates an opportunity for much interpretive mischief. Religious zealots of various kinds can extrapolate many other requirements beyond those God sets forth, leading to an acute moralism that is laden with ideological passion. But others reject the biblical “command-obey” structure as an authoritarian form of social control. The covenant, cast according to commandments, has given Judaism (and derivatively Christianity and Islam) a weighty moral shape.
The question emerges, then, what kind of God meets Moses on this mountain? Is this the God who prescribes commands, one who sets an agenda for people to follow? Is this a comforting God, one who enfolds Moses in the arms of divine love? A strong part of us yearns to know God intimately and to trust God. Very few people earn our trust. Even fewer political or social causes merit our allegiance. We long for a God we can trust: sometimes we want a God to tell us what to do and believe, and sometimes we need a God who softly breathes words of assurance in our ears.
People talk about the importance of trust in their lives
At the heart of our passage, Exodus 24:12-18, lies Moses’ direct encounter with Israel’s God. The story reinforces and interrupts the model of covenant as commandment. The reinforcement simply reiterates that the commandments have been given, now on “two tablets of stone” (vv. 12-14). Our interest here involves the interruption of this dynamic in verses 15-18. Moses enters the inscrutable zone of divine presence at the top of the mountain where, according to poetic imagination, heaven touches earth and God engages humanity.
Three stunning markers of Moses’ encounter are to be noted. First, it is “the glory of YHWH” that settles on the mountain. The term “glory” is a way in which the Bible speaks of the luminous, inscrutable, inaccessible power and presence of God. Second, the appearance of the glory is like (not “is” but “is like”!) “a devouring fire,” powerful and dangerous. Third, the glory is hidden in a cloud into which Moses must enter in order to engage the presence of God, an entry that is surely risky.
This convergence of features concerning divine presence attests that the genre of literature we have in verses 15-18 is a “theophany,” that is, an “appearing” (or “showing”) of God. The Bible features multiple such theophanies. They attempt to narrate inscrutable encounters with the divine presence that in fact defy description. There is of course no easy or obvious match between religious encounter and the literary articulation of that encounter, but the genre of theophany represents the Bible’s best effort. This genre makes clear that there was a real encounter with the real divine presence, but that that presence resists all of our explanatory categories.
The book of Exodus is variously preoccupied with that divine “glory.” In Exodus 14:4, 17 YHWH resolves to “get glory” over Pharaoh and does so by defeating Pharaoh. This glory is the residue of divine majesty and sovereignty when a mighty victory has been won. In Exodus 33:18-23, moreover, Moses wants to see God’s glory, but his request is not granted. Even though present to Moses, YHWH will remain hidden. Moses may see God’s “back side,” but not the fullness of glory. In Exodus 40:34-38 God’s glory comes finally to rest in the tabernacle, a dedicated space in the presence of all of Israel—but YHWH’s glory is extended only to Moses. Even in the tabernacle, YHWH’s glory remains hidden in a cloud.
It strikes one that in this encounter of Moses with YHWH nothing happens. YHWH does not speak and does not engage Moses, issues no command. YHWH is simply “there” in YHWH’s unutterable otherness. The theophany, in its description and characterization, moves beyond “command-obey,” thus resituating the commandments of covenant. The effect of YHWH’s unutterable otherness is that it precludes taking lesser matters, even commandments, as ultimate.
This divine otherness, hidden in a cloud, summons us to recognize that all else is penultimate, less than ultimate, and should not be invested with ultimacy:
- Thus there is between YHWH and Moses, no direct frontal engagement. Very much “religion” among us imagines that people contact God immediately, whether in direct mystical experience or in chatty prayer. Such immediacy is precluded here.
- This is a warning against religious intimacy and the notion that God can be a “best friend” or a “good buddy” who is endlessly attentive to us. Here YHWH dwells in dangerous holiness that will not be transgressed casually. Thus in the earlier theophany of the burning bush, Moses must remove his sandals because this is “holy ground” (3:5). And in the run-up to the revelation on Sinai, Israel must make careful preparation for an encounter with the God who is beyond all gods (19:10-11).
- This ultimacy makes all of our ideological passions penultimate. This includes our churchly passions concerning liturgy, doctrine, piety, and morality. It also pertains to all of our socio-economic, political ideologies that we too readily invest with absolutism. The glory of God, hidden in majesty, de-absolutizes all of our best investments, liberal and conservative. The God who meets Moses is like a devouring fire hidden in a cloud, a holy presence who will fit in none of our boxes or ally easily or permanently with any of our crusades. Beyond the “command-obey” model, matters are not so easily controlled.
There is no doubt that the gospel presentation of Jesus on the “Mount of Transfiguration” alludes to this Sinai text. The church confesses that all of the glory of God shown to Moses is now embodied in Jesus of Nazareth. The glory of God exhibited at Sinai is now exhibited in his person. It is no wonder that the disciples “fell to the ground and were overcome by fear” (Matthew 17:6). They readily discerned that all of the glory of God was in play in his person!
Questions for Reflection:
1. In what ways might we think about the “unutterable otherness” of God?
2. What notions of intimacy with God do you think might be problematic?
3. What that is “less than God’ do we sometimes invest with ultimacy?
Samuel Terrien, The Elusive Presence: Toward a New Biblical Theology. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978.
Consider the Christmas carol, with its refrain about glory, “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
Dr. Walter Brueggemann is Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. He is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and a past president of the Society of Biblical Literature. He has recently authored Disruptive Grace (Fortress Press).
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