3.10 Mt Sinai
Ex 19-20 may be considered the end of the Deliverance phase, and its culmination. Here, after suitable purification and the setting up of boundaries (Ex 19:10-5), the people of Israel met the God who brought them out of bondage. The purpose of deliverance was theophany. Till now God had been known through acts of judgment on Egyptians, the words of Moses, the drying up of the Red Sea, and the pillars of cloud and fire. At Sinai, the people knew Him directly, without an intermediary.
This was a crucial moment, and it set the tone of the entire Old Testament concept of God. In Genesis, to the patriarchs, God revealed Himself as holy, close, present, and a blessor. He would show up in dreams and visions, and occasionally as an angel or even as men. That was not the face God revealed on the mountain. Here the dominant attributes were "otherness" and "overpowering." There were contrasting movements at play: the God who came down on the mountain to reveal Himself hid Himself in cloud and smoke. The people who were invited to come to the foot of the mountain were prohibited on pain of death from passing the boundaries. Nor did they want to come closer:
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance (Ex 20:18).
"The fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning" (Ex 20:20).
In Ex 24:1-2, Ex 24:9-11, God summoned Aaron and his sons and 70 elders of Israel to pass the boundaries around the foot of the mountain, and ascend to meet God. These were the men Moses appointed at the suggestion of his father-in-law Jethro (Ex 18). As representatives of the people, they were permitted to come closer to God, and even see Him. Apparently, they saw only His feet, because the only detail recorded is the pavement of sapphire. They had a covenant meal in God's presence. God was inviting man to know Him beyond the curtain of cloud and smoke, and to have fellowship despite the barriers and inequalities that prevented communion.
This is a God of holy dread (Isa 8:13). The emotions inspired were awe, fear, and distance, not love and closeness. These are "primitive" and "Oriental" modes of worship, very far removed from modern Western religious attitudes, Christian or not. Like the Israelites, we recoil from this revelation -- it is too harsh a self-portrait of God, we feel. There are numerous flavors of both Judaism and Christianity (Marcionism) which apologize for, ameliorate, or repudiate the offense of Ex 19-20, yet the consequence tends to be a sappy religion of moral platitudes. It becomes "rational" religion, even aestheticism, stripped of all violent and negative elements (awe, judgment, holiness).
Yet Exodus is the foundation of Israelite worship and of later Christian orthodoxy. Can we just dismiss the foundation in our haste to accommodate a more refined piety? God wants man to face his innate disobedience very seriously, so much so that he fears to sin against God. This is the first lesson in the newly constituted Israelite community. It is not the complete revelation of who God is, but it was the essential first step for them. And it is also an essential component of any spirituality that calls itself Biblical:
God is not like us, He is above us. Even as He comes close to us, He must veil Himself. We cannot approach Him casually. To encounter Him is to be challenged, threatened, broken. There are two barriers between Him and us -- one of finiteness, the other of sin. It is a problem for Him to handle us across these barriers without consuming us. Hence arise the paradoxes of Exodus: the God who comes close hides Himself in clouds and smoke, the God who accepts Israel as His special people pushes them away "lest He break out against them" (Ex 19:24), the God who shows steadfast love "to a thousand generations of those who love Me" causes the people to fear and tremble before Him. Paradox is not denial of either proposition. It is the true situation of feeble sinful humans facing an omnipotent and holy God.
A true Exodus epiphany blows our circuits. To read about it is a pallid substitute for experiencing it. The only way to "understand" Mt Sinai is not to exegete the passage, but to encounter God. Throughout the Old Testament, those individuals who had a primary revelational experience reported afterwards, "Have I seen God and lived?" (Ex 32:30, Ex 33:20, Judg 13:22, Deut 5:24-6, Deut 18:16, Isa 6:5). The heart of Biblical religion is not dogma or ritual, nor doctrine about revelation, but revelation itself. To quote a modern person who had such an encounter with God -- "it is a self-authenticating experience." Let those of us who lack such an experience not be hasty in revising the accounts of those who have had one. The meeting at Sinai was an anchor for personal and corporate faith, something that generation never forgot as long as they lived -- they could recall the mountain shaking, the smell of the smoke, the trembling of their limbs, their children crying in their arms, the pounding of their own hearts. True revelation is visceral.