Mt. Sinai as a Thin Place

Mt. Sinai as a Thin Place March 8, 2012

If a thin place is defined as a place where God’s presence is known with particular immediacy, then there are several stunning thin places in Exodus . . . sort of. As we’ll see, they don’t exactly seem to fit the definition, though they certainly are thin.

Moses and the Burning Bush at the Mountain of God

In Exodus 3, Moses was tending his father-in-law’s flock when he came to “Horeb, the mountain of God” (3:1; Mt. Horeb is more commonly known as Mt. Sinai). “There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed” (v. 3). When Moses started to investigate, the LORD himself called to him and told him not to approach, but to take off his sandals “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (v. 5). As Moses stood there, God revealed his purpose (to free the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt) and his name (I AM WHO I AM; I AM; Yahweh; all versions of the Hebrew verb “to be”) (3:7-14).

It’s hard to imagine a thinner thin place than the burning bush. But Exodus does not lead us to believe that the burning bush remained burning after Moses left. The place itself had no particular thinness, apart from God’s decision to make his presence known there in a particular way.

The Covenant and the Law at the Mountain of God

After the Israelites were delivered from Egypt, they journeyed into the same wilderness where Moses once encountered God in the burning bush. They camped in front of the mountain of God in what is called “the wilderness of Sinai” (19:2). Moses ascended the mountain, where God spoke to him, initiating the covenant with Israel (19:3-6). On the third day after this encounter, the Lord descended upon the mountain with fire, thunder, lightening, and smoke (19:16-19). Once again, he spoke to Moses, though this time “in thunder” (19:19). The Lord warned the people, through Moses, not to approach the mountain because it was holy (19:23-25). Then, in this context, God spoke the Ten Commandments (20:2-17). The people were afraid of the natural phenomena on the mountain and kept their distance. Only Moses drew near to God (20:18-21) to receive God’s laws.

St. Catherine’s Monastery, with part of Mt. Sinai in the background.

One of God’s first instructions to the Israelites was to build for him “an altar of earth” so they might present their offerings upon it (20:24). Then the Lord adds, “in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you” (20:24). At this point, the Israelites are not to build only one altar, whether at Mt. Sinai or any other place. Rather, they are to build altars in various places. Moreover, God promises to come to them in these places.

Reflections on Mt. Sinai as a Thin Place

If ever there were a thin place, it would have to be Mt. Sinai. After all, there the Lord revealed his purpose and name to Moses, a unique, watershed moment in the history of human interaction with God. Moreover, at Sinai, God revealed his awesome power to the Israelites, and, through Moses, established his covenant and law.

Yet in his instructions to the Israelites concerning altars, the Lord did not have them build a single altar at Sinai, as if this were some uniquely holy place. Rather, he commanded them to build altars “in every place” where he caused his name to be remembered (20:24). And the Lord promised to come and bless the Israelites in those places (20:24).

So Mt. Sinai was, on the one hand, one of the thinnest of thin places. Yet, on the other hand, it was not hallowed as a place that was somehow essentially or uniquely thin. After the law was given at this location, we have no indication (to my knowledge) that Mt. Sinai continued to be a place of special prayer and pilgrimage for Jews. In time, of course, Jerusalem played that role. But, given what happened at Mt. Sinai, it is indeed striking that the place itself wasn’t regarded with awe as a unique place where one might encounter God. It wasn’t until several centuries after Christ that some Christians established St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai.

The sense we get from Exodus, at least to this point in the story, is that there can be thin places, but they don’t have to do with particular locations so much as God’s choice to make himself known there. After the time of revelation has passed, the former thin place appears to retain none of its miraculous thinness. Moreover, God instructs his people to make altars in every place they will dwell. This instruction appears to discourage the Israelites from turning certain special places into shrines where they can expect to encounter God in an unusual way.

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