Israel has one direct encounter with God and does not want to repeat it.
Chapters 19-24 of Exodus recount the process of establishing the covenant* between God and Israel. That process begins with a direct encounter between God and the people centered upon Mount Sinai. It is recounted in 19:16-25.
The encounter is preceded by preparations. The people are to wash their clothes. They are to refrain from sex. And Moses gives them strict instructions on respecting boundaries. No one is to climb the mountain or even touch it. These preparations suggest the solemnity of what is about to happen.
On the third day, God descends upon the mountain. No one actually sees God, but dramatic natural phenomena indicate his presence. Thunder and lightning occur. Fire and smoke enwrap the mountain. And a loud, blaring trumpet sound pierces the air.
It is not possible to scientifically identify just what natural phenomenon are happening on the mountain. The language uses powerful forces of nature to suggest something of the awesomeness of God’s direct presence upon the mountain. The people are meant to be impressed that they are in the presence of the divine.
Why is this so important? What’s at stake in this experience?
I think the answer is that God wants to make unmistakably clear that this covenant is a true pact between God and the people. The covenant is not a pious fraud. It has not been foisted upon them out of the fertile imagination of Moses or of his drive for power. Nor is it the product of some mass hysterical delusion that sweeps through the people. The covenant is a true initiative of the true God with this people Israel.
It also does two other things. First, we notice that in the appearance of God on the mountain, God speaks. But he speaks not directly to the people but to Moses. The text suggests that the people overhear the voices, but the voice of God is not addressed to them.
The words God speaks are the Ten Commandments. This theophany (a technical theological word meaning a visible appearance of God) is meant to give great authority to those words. They are the direct words of God. Instead of seeing the face of God, the people receive the words of God.
Moses as Mediator
And second, the theophany underscores the role of Moses as leader of the people and as the mediator or go-between between God and the people. The laws of the Torah will be communicated to Moses and Moses will them communicate them to the people. Likewise Moses will be the vehicle for communicating the people’s concerns and requests to God.
Important as this role is, it will not make Moses’ life comfortable and placid. When God is angry at the people, he will vent his anger on Moses. Moses then will have to communicate that divine displeasure to the people or try to persuade God to change his course. Likewise when the people grumble and complain about their experiences, they will voice their complaints about God to Moses. He will have to either deflect them or carry them to God.
One has to sympathize with Moses. Like the CEOs of many companies, he will become the target for complaints from many directions.
One has to sympathize with Moses. Like the CEOs of many companies, he will become the target for complaints from many directions. He will have to come to practice the virtues of patience and forbearance. No wonder Torah will come to laud Moses as the humblest of all men (Numbers 12:3).
God may be intending the theophany to underscore the true reality of the covenant and Moses’ role in it, but it has an unintended consequence. The theophany scares the people of Israel to death. In verse 20:18, the text tells us:
When all the people witnessed the thunder and the lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’
The people do not seem to be able to tolerate such a direct encounter with God. They need a protective shield, and ask Moses to become that shield. Moses’ role as mediator is one laid upon him not only by God, but by the people, too.
Behind the people’s reaction lies the old Hebrew conviction that no one can see God directly and live. We see it expressed in Exodus 33:20, where Moses asks to see the face of God, and God responds: …you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.
People sometimes express the wish that they could see or perceive God directly in a way that would banish all doubt. But maybe it is a blessing that we cannot.
People sometimes express the wish that they could see or perceive God directly in a way that would banish all doubt. But maybe it is a blessing that we cannot. For one thing, it would so overwhelm us that we would be coerced into believing. That would destroy any relationship between God and human beings from being a free relationship based on love.
The other is, I think, that if we were to experience an undiluted perception of God’s presence—what we mean when we say we want to see—we would experience it as a light so intense that it would feel like fire. I often wonder if that is not the experience of judgment after death. We come face to face with God in his full purity and so see ourselves too in that experience in the fullness of our reality, both good and evil. That will be the final purifying experience before entering the kingdom of God. That we do not have that experience in this life may be an act of compassion on God’s part.**
Jesus as Compassionate Mediator
Because of the compromised lives we live as human beings, we need the mediator that can serve as the go-between between God and us. In the Israelite covenant, that role is given to Moses. In the Christian tradition, that role is given to Jesus. He is the mediator of the new covenant, which he fulfills through his incarnation.
As son of God, he comes to us from the realms of heaven, uniquely authorized to speak the word of God to us. But because of his human nature, he is a mediator who has experienced the challenges of life as a human being and therefore can be the compassionate intercessor before God on behalf of suffering humanity.
This is a theme deeply embedded in the New Testament (especially in the gospel stories of Jesus’ healing and exorcisms). There we encounter a Jesus who is deeply touched by the sufferings of human beings, touched because he too is human. He knows our trials and tribulations and our sufferings because he has experienced them, too. This makes him a deeply compassionate man, one who reaches out to heal and release suffering people from their bonds.
Unfortunately I think the Christian church lost touch with this Jesus as it came over time to see Jesus more as the all-righteous judge at the Last Judgment. Jesus became the stern one who divides the saved from the damned. He becomes a more fearful figure, one whom we need to stay on his good side.
This understanding of Jesus was visually presented to each Christian who entered a medieval cathedral above whose main door would be sculptured an image of the Last Judgment. (A good example is the tympanum sculpture above the west door of the Autun Cathedral.) On the right of Jesus would be the saints entering heaven; on his left the sinners driven into hell.
That must have been a deeply disturbing image of Jesus to many a worshipper. If they could not find compassion and benevolence in Jesus, where would they find it? In his mother. And so in medieval religion, Mary became the locus of compassion and loving care. Under her cloak sinners could find the protection and reassurance they craved.
To me one of the most hopeful developments in contemporary Christianity is the recovery of Jesus as the compassionate and loving shepherd. This is a correction that has been long needed if we are to be true to the New Testament.
* A covenant is the word that the Bible uses to describe the solemn and formal agreement that God and Israel establish at Sinai. It is a form of pact or treaty that governs the two sides of their relationship.
** I want to assert that this paragraph is pure speculation on my part. It is not stated explicitly in the Bible, apart from some suggestive words the apostle Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. There the apostle warns the Corinthian believers about their behavior in treating one another, saying that the quality of behavior towards one another will one day be tested by fire, with eternal consequences.